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Despite two years of study, planning and millions spent in preparation for hauling the region’s trash to the landfill via truck, the board of the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority adopted a budget Wednesday based on continuing to transport trash from the Tinker Creek Transfer Station in Roanoke to the Smith Gap Landfill via train.
After months of negotiations with Norfolk Southern Railway to develop a new contract failed to produce an economically viable option, the resource authority board decided unanimously a year ago to haul its trash via trucks. The option would be less expensive, the authority’s staff determined.
But in February, months before the authority was set to let its contract with the railroad expire, members of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors questioned whether the trucking option would truly be less expensive.
Some supervisors specifically questioned whether the authority would really spend only $3 million to haul trash to other landfills during three months of construction work at the landfill. They also raised environmental concerns over using many trucks per day versus one train.
That discord, coupled with the realization that the change to trucks could trigger a time-consuming amendment to a Roanoke County land-use permit for the landfill, left the authority with too many questions and obstacles and too little time to resolve them.
The authority is required to send its budget for approval to its four member localities — Roanoke, Salem, Vinton and Roanoke County — annually by April 1. The budget had to reflect costs and revenues specific to the mode of transportation. In addition, if the authority wanted to cease rail operations, it had to inform NS by May 30 that it did not want to renew its contract.
With those two deadlines looming, the RVRA board chose to allow the NS contract to renew automatically for another five years.
“Clearly, these differences of opinions and approaches need to be resolved amicably for the benefit of the region,” the authority board said in a statement that also acknowledged the events and disagreements that led to Wednesday’s vote.
The statement also said the board is forming a working group to continue to study transportation methods and “navigate through any and all issues necessary to move forward.”
But reverting to the status quo after two years of work to develop a better system left many involved disappointed.
Transporting trash via the “Waste Line Express,” as the trash train was called, was hailed as an innovation when the operation began about 25 years ago.
But in recent years, according to RVRA CEO Dan Miles, relations between the authority and the railroad soured somewhat over what Miles characterized as the railroad’s failure to live up to all facets of its contract.
In looking for a more efficient way to get trash to the Smith Gap landfill 30 miles away in Roanoke County, Miles first looked to the railroad to continue to carry it via train, but with cargo containers on flatcars that would make dumping it on arrival easier and more efficient.
But as it became clear that pricing the railroad wanted for a new contract was more than the authority wanted to pay, Miles and his staff explored the trucking option and found it to be less expensive.
Beginning in April 2017, the RVRA took a series of votes and began spending what was ultimately more than $18 million to convert its transportation system to trucking.
The moves included converting the transfer station in Salem, which became part of the authority in 2016, to load trucks; buying trailers to haul the trash; buying land and building a connector road to the landfill; and making plans to remove the railroad tracks on the landfill property so trucks could take the same path.
Miles, as well as the board in its statement Wednesday, said that work and money are not wasted because they continue to provide the authority with transportation alternatives going forward.
However, as a result of sticking with the rail transport system, the budget approved Wednesday includes a $2 per ton increase in the authority’s tipping fees, including for local governments.
The new fee, which will be the subject of a public hearing in June, would be $51.50 per ton.
Roanoke’s trash disposal costs will go up an estimated $74,000 as a result, while Roanoke County’s will go up $72,000, Salem’s $31,400 and Vinton’s $6,400.
The board approved other budget adjustments and operating changes as well, in part because of additional costs related to a rate increase from the railroad and costs to the authority to truck trash from the Salem transfer station to the Tinker station so it can be unloaded and reloaded into train cars.
This article first appeared on www.roanoke.com
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