With beaches, historical sites and theme parks, Hampton Roads often draws visitors from the western part of the state. In turn, mountain lovers and football fans here frequently trek west for outdoor excursions or to cheer on Virginia Tech.
A potential new train route could help Virginians from either side get back and forth faster than other rail options.
The route under consideration by the state — the Commonwealth Corridor — would speed rail travel from western Virginia to Hampton Roads, making it a roughly seven-hour trip from the Blacksburg area to Newport News. It would offer a handful of other stops, including Roanoke, Charlottesville, Richmond and Williamsburg.
“I think any additional mode of transportation to get people to the peninsula would be an awesome idea,” said Liz Parker, president of the Newport News Hospitality Association.
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Parker said she expects it would have a positive impact on tourism, which creates jobs and brings in tax revenue.
“That’s what’s so important about tourism; there is such a ripple effect,” she said. “We are always excited by anything that will help keep the tourism machine well-oiled and greased.”
The route was proposed in a 2018 report from several agencies, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Hampton Roads Regional Chambers of Commerce. The report concluded the new route would have other benefits, including reducing traffic and connecting dozens of colleges and universities.
Additional train routes are always appreciated by business travelers, said Gretchen Heal, senior vice president for governmental affairs with the HRRCC. Traveling by train can be more productive because riders can work along the way, she said, while avoiding airport delays.
Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the SELC, said the organization also estimates it would cut carbon pollution — which exacerbates climate change — by about 15 million pounds per year.
Hampton Roads is at an above-average risk for experiencing the affects of climate change. The region is among the most vulnerable in the nation in terms of sea level rise, and has experienced a nearly two-fold increase in hot days since 1950.
“Rail uses far less fuel and produces less energy than passenger vehicles do so every car that we get off the road would help,” Pollard said. “I think we need to make (the route) a reality.”
But Pollard said many other steps are needed before the project would get rolling. It would likely need further studies and a green light from the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
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Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, said many of his constituents have voiced a desire for more statewide rail options. With potential new routes on the way, and a new transportation center under construction in Newport News, Mullin believes train travel will become increasingly popular in Hampton Roads.
The new transportation center will serve as a hub for trains, taxis, and buses, and will offer more accessible options for travelers with disabilities.
“I think both of those together are really going to light a fire under passenger rail in the Peninsula,” he said.
Although the new route could have benefits, Jennifer DeBruhl, director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said it won’t be a quick undertaking. Nearly 50 miles of track would need to be reconstructed, she said, and the project would cost about $400 million.
But DeBruhl said a recent feasibility study from the department estimated that about 175,000 passengers would use the route annually.
“It definitely has potential but it would require a lot of infrastructure investment,” she said. “We would probably be looking at a 2040 timeframe.”
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