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Bristol is making steps to bring passenger rails back to the city

Hannah Swayze • Dec 12, 2018 at 11:55 PM

BRISTOL — The city’s mission to bring passenger rail service back to the city appears to be right on track.

The last passenger train left the station in downtown Bristol, Virginia, in the 1970s, and for the past 20 years, there has been talk of bringing it back.

Recently, that talk has been turned into action.

Stakeholders, government officials and interested community members filled a meeting room in the recently opened The Bristol Hotel on Wednesday to hear the results of a study of the economic impact of rail service’s return.

Tony Horst presented consulting firm AECOM’s study of how an extension of Amtrak service from Roanoke, Virginia, would impact the economy in Bristol.

The study found that despite the presence of multiple other modes of transportation, rail service is needed because of unpredictable travel on Interstate 81 and limited direct flights from local airports. Surveys also showed not only strong stakeholder support, but that the service would have riders and there is enough community infrastructure to maximize the value of the investment.

Also, while subsidies are usually needed to provide operating costs, in some scenarios, this operation would break even.

The study projected the return on investment, in terms of economic development, is positive over a 20-year span — using, Horst said, conservative numbers.

“Just going through this, it’s hopeful. It again says it’s a project worth pursuing,” said Horst.

The total cost of the project was estimated to be between $45.2 million and $40.9 million. Overall, it is estimated that over a 20-year span the extension would return anywhere from $5.3 million to $7.1 million in state and local taxes.

“This is a big step forward for us,” said Ellen Tolton, project lead of the move to extend passenger service from Roanoke.

Despite all the research, the ultimate decision on returning service to Bristol is in the hands of Amtrak and Norfolk Southern Railway. This is just one step in making their case for the rail to present to the companies.

Ultimately, most in the room seemed to be in favor of the project, especially city officials.

“I can’t think of a more exciting time in Bristol than right now,” said Randy Eads, Bristol, Virginia, city manager. “We have this gorgeous new hotel that just opened, within just the past few months. We’ve got another new hotel on the horizon, a resort and casino project is in the works. We have things going on in Bristol that I think 18 months ago people would have thought was impossible.”

The official study still needs to be reviewed, but Tolton said it will be made available to the public in a few days.

The study did not take into consideration the current casino project, considering they did not have the information when the research began.

For more information, or to get involved, email bristol@firerobin.net.

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