El Dorado News – April 10, 2023
The wheels of progress turn slowly, it is said, especially train wheels on a track to Bristol. For many years, a return of passenger rail service from Amtrak’s station at Roanoke to Bristol has been imagined locally and statewide, but why stop there? Tennessee also has an interest in passenger service to Knoxville in support of major attractions at Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Dollywood.
Slowly, momentum has changed. A primary mover is the half-billion-dollar Hard Rock Casino Bristol, which is set to open next year featuring slot machines, table games, a hotel, concert theater and an outdoor entertainment center. It’s expected to draw 4 million tourists annually.
That’s around 11,000 visitors a day, and while a boon for Tri-Cities Airport, it will put a significant strain on the region’s highways.
Last year, a study by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation found that extending Amtrak passenger service to Bristol would cost up to $1.5 billion while attracting only 15,500 passengers annually. Somehow, the study ignored the impact of the casino project, making it useless.
It also did not consider traffic load to Bristol for passengers with Tennessee destinations should service continue to Knoxville.
Even as rail service from Roanoke through Bristol and to Knoxville has been on the table, it was left out of President Joe Biden’s $80 billion infrastructure plan when he took office, which included significant Amtrak service extensions elsewhere. But as Ted Kennedy said in his “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech to the 1980 Democratic Convention, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
The Federal Rail Administration has just approved Virginia’s statewide rail plan, which includes an effort to secure federal funding to expand passenger rail service to Bristol. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, especially anytime soon. But clearly, the tide has turned.
Virginia State Sen. Todd Pillion, whose district includes Bristol, said the General Assembly has approved expansion of passenger rail service, funding a new corridor between Roanoke and the New River Valley.
Other routes are expanding south to the North Carolina border and west, connecting Richmond to Charlottesville and Clifton Forge near the West Virginia line in the Alleghany Highlands.
“These recent expansions share at least one commonality — an emergence of passenger rail service in rural communities,” Pillion said.
It’s become clear, he said, “that the most successful approach to putting Southwest Virginia on the rail map would be pursuing a route to and through Bristol, working jointly with our state colleagues in Tennessee as well as congressional delegations from both states. To date, this collaborative effort has been very productive.”
Last November, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin voiced his support to bring passenger rail back to Bristol. Another needed piece to accomplish the goal, Youngkin said, is to garner support from neighboring Tennessee.
“We are committed to being a big part of bringing rail back to Bristol,” Youngkin said. “It does take three parties — it takes Virginia interests, Tennessee interests, and it takes the federal government. I have an open dialogue with Governor Bill Lee. I am working hard with federal rail authorities in order to bring this to life.”
“Think about that future where we can have rail access, both passenger rail and cargo commercial rail access that stretches from Nashville all the way up from Bristol, all the way up to the East Coast, and connects everyone to where they need to go,” Youngkin said.
That’s precisely what local leaders have been thinking for decades.