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Tourist Train Stopped Dead in its Tracks

April 3, 2013

By Destiny Brandon
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Senate on Wednesday upheld Gov. Bob McDonnell’s veto of legislation to boost efforts to establish a tourist train between Tazewell County and Bramwell, W.Va.

In February, the House and Senate both passed Senate Bill 819 to revive the Tourist Train Development Authority that had been working on the project until the state shut it down in 2011. But McDonnell vetoed the bill, stating, “There has been no investment to procure a train to make this a reality.”

Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Tazewell, had sponsored SB 891. He said he wasn’t sure what the governor meant. He said local officials in Southwest Virginia and neighboring West Virginia had been working earnestly on the project.

On Wednesday, the General Assembly convened for a one-day session to consider McDonnell’s vetoes. The Senate sustained the veto of SB 819, thus blocking the resurrection of the Tourist Train Development Authority.

The veto of the legislation disappointed Puckett.

Until it was disbanded a few years ago, he said, “The Tourist Train Authority had worked pretty hard and had worked with Mercer County (W.Va.) to try and make this happen.”

The authority was originally created in 2000 by the General Assembly to establish a tourist train between the town of Pocahontas in Tazewell County and the town of Bluefield, W.Va.

“Those are the two towns that were involved in the first mining of coal in Southwest Virginia,” Puckett said.

The authority’s goal wasn’t a piece of cake. Creating a tourist train involves dealing with various state and local governments as well as private donors. While dreams to establish a tourist train still haven’t been fulfilled, other things have been.

“We have gotten a walking trail in those two areas (Tazewell and Mercer counties) along the abandoned railroad area,” Puckett said.

He said the tourist train project was the victim of misunderstanding by McDonnell.

“A couple years ago, when Gov. McDonnell came into office, he was trying to downsize government a little bit. And he looked at a lot of commissions and authorities that didn’t seem to be needed, and the tourist train authority was one of those,” Puckett said.

“I think it was one of those issues they really didn’t have a full grasp of what we were trying to do.”

Puckett said he is disappointed that people from other parts of Virginia don’t seem to care about an issue like the Tourist Train Authority that is important to the state’s rural southwest region.

“It doesn’t matter to anyone else in the state really, doesn’t cost anyone else any money, and it only pertains to Tazewell County,” Puckett said. “And, of course, Mercer County would have benefited from it in the standpoint of working with Tazewell County to develop some form of tourism along the abandoned rail line.”

Despite the demise of SB 819, there’s still a glimmer of hope: Private organizations still are interested in establishing a tourist train and may continue to pursue the idea. In his veto message, McDonnell said he supports that alternative:

“It is my understanding the interested parties have continued to work toward this activity through private organizations. During my term as governor, we have worked to reduce the size and scope of government – especially when the private sector can achieve the same goals without government action.”