Officials press new city train station

Published 10:31 pm Thursday, January 6, 2011

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a four-part series about the move to bring passenger rail service to Southeast Virginia.

Passenger rail service from Hampton Roads to Richmond looks to be moving full steam ahead, and Suffolk officials are hoping to carve out a niche on the tracks running through their city.

City Council and top city administrators already have begun capitalizing on the city’s uniquely well-positioned geography to petition the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s consideration for a stop in Suffolk.

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“I think the most important step was when the council unanimously passed a resolution asking that the Department of Rail and Public Transportation consider Suffolk for what they consider to be a Western Tidewater stop,” Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts said.

The state’s passenger rail project, which could come to fruition within the next three years, relies on tracks that pass through Suffolk. The line would begin near Harbor Park in Norfolk and pass through Chesapeake and Suffolk on its way to Petersburg and farther to Richmond.

The state is considering a “western stop,” which would allow people who don’t live in Norfolk to board the train before it leaves Hampton Roads, while avoiding tunnel traffic.

“The thinking of the state is that they’ve got a Petersburg location that’s planned,” Roberts said. “They believe there’s going to be a market for an interim location here in what they consider Western Tidewater. They’re looking at Suffolk as the center of that.”

The city’s involvement with the rail project is purely conceptual at this point, Roberts said. City officials have not yet had any intense discussions with state officials, he added.

At a September City Council retreat, Roberts presented the idea of putting a Suffolk stop at the site of the Golden Peanut Company, in between Saratoga and Wellons streets south of the downtown core. The proposal would knock down the abandoned buildings, swallow up Peanut Park and eliminate several homes and businesses in favor of a combined rail stop and bus station. Nearby retail spaces also are on the table, Roberts said.

However, getting a stop in Suffolk is not as easy as building one — though that, in itself, would be a huge task. The state Department of Rail and Public Transportation also must be convinced it’s a good idea.

“We have not had any discussions with the state about construction funding or operating funding,” Roberts said. “There are some things that we’ll be interested in learning more about.”

Roberts added the city would like to see more concrete plans for the types of service, the number of trains per day, and destination points.

“If I can get from Suffolk to D.C. and come back the same day, that would make it very attractive,” he said.

Roberts believes a stop in Suffolk would be good for the city.

“We see it helping us in at least a couple of ways,” he said. Additional traffic into downtown would be a boon to existing businesses, he said, and could even bring new ones to the area.

“We really look to get a lot more information in the next few months from the DRPT,” Roberts said. “As they identify the timetable for when the service will come to South Hampton Roads and what that service will be, that’s when we’ll know if it’s something the people here in the region are interested in seeing as a service.”