Advocacy group promotes the ‘Steel Interstate’

Hank Hayes • Feb 22, 2016 at 8:30 AM

KINGSPORT — An advocacy group is out there trying to keep the idea alive that rail can be an economic game changer if it is capitalized.

The group is Rail Solution, which in particular has a vision for the Interstate 81/​Interstate 40 corridor — that it could become a so-called “Steel Interstate” pilot project ferrying truck loads and featuring high-speed passenger trains.

The Salem, Va.-based group points out Norfolk Southern (NS) has about 1,000 miles of rail line between Harrisburg, Pa., and Memphis.

“NS is key to getting this done ... Upgrading, double-tracking, grade separating, and electrifying this line would provide an excellent demonstration of the Steel Interstate concept,” says a Rail Solution talking points document.

Former Kingsport Alderman Ken Marsh is a Rail Solution board member trying to keep rail investment on government’s and the public’s radar screen.

“We’ve tried very hard to work with Norfolk Southern Railroad, and sat down with their strategic planning people ... They are not willing to reach out, invest the capital, take the risk of (building) a Steel Interstate type situation,” Marsh pointed out.

Rail Solution observes the railroads have been investing billions of dollars in improved infrastructure, but admits they are limited in what they can do with internally generated funds from earnings.

The Steel Interstate concept, the advocacy group insists, could be funded though a government-private partnership to create a network of high-capacity privately owned rail freight corridors in the 21st Century — up to 45,000 route miles.

“This same system can be used for passenger rail for medium to short range distances and as a feeder to high speed passenger rail,” the group says.

The initial demonstration project, according to the group, could be conducted on NS’ so-called “Crescent Corridor” running close by the Interstate 81-Interstate 40 route. Rail Solution believes that route would be “an important economic driver” for the Appalachian Region.

Still, public investment in rail in recent years has been inconsistent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

In January 2010, 31 states were awarded a portion of the $8 billion made available for high-speed rail through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also known as the federal government stimulus), NCSL said.

Congress approved $2.5 billion more for high-speed rail in fiscal year 2010 appropriations, but zeroed out the funding for 2011 and 2012.

Then, in the months following the 2010 elections, NCSL said three states — Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin — voluntarily forfeited some or all federal high-speed rail funds they had previously been awarded.

“In recent years, federal policy concerning passenger rail in particular has increasingly focused on state-federal partnerships — similar to those already in place for highways, transit and aviation — with an enhanced state role in rail planning and funding,” NCSL said in talking points about rail transportation.

Rail Solution, meanwhile, says more than 50 local governments in Tennessee and Virginia support the Steel Interstate concept. The group has also tried to build support in Pennsylvania.

Tri-Cities governments, in their 2016 joint legislative policy submitted to Northeast Tennessee lawmakers, continue to support freight and passenger rail service from Bristol to Memphis.

“We encourange (the Tennessee Department of Transportation) to coordinate with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to incorporate the extension of rail service along the Interstate 81 and Interstate 75 corridors,” the policy says.

Rail Solution believes that diverting 60 percent of the truck traffic to rail would reduce congestion and help highway maintenance efforts.

The group warns the U.S. transportation system is virtually 100 percent dependent on oil, but adds railroads can readily be electrified and powered with renewable fuels.

Rail Solution has bought billboard space on Interstate 81 in Colonial Heights to promote a website — www.trucksontrains.org — with the slogan “Trucks on Trains, Everybody Gains.”

As for the future of passenger rail service, Marsh pointed to the success of Amtrak’s Lynchburg-to-Washington, D.C. route begun in 2009.

“The first year Virginia put no money in it and they made $2.6 million,” Marsh said of the service’s first-year profit.

Rail Solution wants to extend the Lynchburg route to Roanoke and eventually to Bristol.

“That’s far away in the future,” Marsh noted. “The problem we’ve got there is Bristol is not a destination. It’s an intermediate point to a regional destination like Chattanooga or Atlanta.”

For more about Rail Solution go to www.railsolution.org.

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