Planes, trains, automobiles, and bicycles and drones, says Chamber panel

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is not just a movie, but a part of the economic reality in the New River Valley. Transportation was the topic of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce August Eggs and Issues last week.

The Chamber assembled a panel of transportation experts to discuss progress towards improvements and expansions of regional transportation options.

Dr. Ray Smoot was appointed to the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board by Governor Ralph Northam. The board oversees transportation projects and initiatives for the state as well as selects the right projects to generate the most benefit for the tax dollars invested.

Smoot offered an update on the Interstate 81.

The $2 billion victory secured at the end of the 2019 legislative session will help address the safety, congestion and dependability of the major thoroughfare. It will take 8 to 10 years to complete with focus on creating three lanes from Cloverdale to Christiansburg.

Smoot said, “This will create some unhappiness with all the expected delays with construction.”

The Transportation Board and the state legislation endorse getting passenger rail service to Christiansburg. However, this project is stalled because Norfolk and Southern own the railroad tracks. As a corporation, Norfolk and Southern considers passenger rail service a nuisance because of liability issues and no enhanced revenue.

Smoot thanked the Chamber for working with other chambers of commerce along the passenger rail service lines for engaging with Norfolk and Southern.

Smoot said, “This needs more political action to make this happen.”

Tim Bradshaw is the Executive Director of the Roanoke – Blacksburg Regional Airport. While a public entity, the Airport Commission is for-profit to market the airport, attract additional airline services and further upgrade the facilities. This airport must compete with other localities, locals often travel to other airports for outgoing flights.

Airline company decisions are based on the market and not on tax incentives.

The airport has a master plan for the next twenty years as the air flight is rapidly changing. Currently, the airport has released plans for a new rental car facility with no tax dollars being used. The airport is also working to increase air cargo to generate more revenue.

Bradshaw said, “Boxes do not complain if flights are late.”

Emily Stock is the manager of Rail Planning at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). This agency’s mission is to facilitate and improve the mobility of the citizens of Virginia and to promote the efficient transport of goods and people in a safe, reliable, and cost-effective manner.  Stock works to manage alternatives to the highway.

Stock said, “We can be considered a sister agency to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).”

Stock concurred with Smoot’s comments on the passenger rail situation but considers freight rail is also important. More freight goes in and out of the Virginia ports than anywhere else on the east coast. Of that freight, thirty-three percent is carried away by rail.

DRPT is helping improve rail routes. For example, the Long Bridge over the Potomac River has only two tracks, which causes a bottleneck with the three or four tracks at either end.  With the link economic development to rail, DRPT wants to develop sites where rail can be served by businesses. Of course, DRPT wants to improve passenger rail service with increasing ridership and on-time performance along with more services.

Michael Grey is the Salem District Planner of VDOT. The I-81 corridor improvement projects were based on many years of assessments.  Thirteen projects are slated for the interstate from Exit 150 and south with widening and safety improvements.  There is a good deal of work needed to educate people on the construction progress.

Grey is proud of VDOT helping connect the trail systems in the New River and Roanoke Valleys.

Linking the trails will offer some challenges in certain areas, but VDOT is helping localities with state resources, Grey said.

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