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End of the line for Roanoke Valley's trash train

End of the line for Roanoke Valley's trash train

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It’s the end of the line for the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority trash train that for 27 years transported millions of tons of garbage to Smith Gap Landfill at the county’s western border.

After its final run Friday evening, the rails will be paved over, and a fleet of tractor-trailers soon will assume the route of the trash train and its 27 old, corroded gondolas, each capable of carrying up to 65 tons. Deciding to ditch the rails took more than five years of due-diligence, said RVRA CEO Dan Miles.

“The best long-term financial solution for the authority is to transition from its current mode of using the rail system to trucking,” Miles said. “We’re building a new road, putting a road in place where the rail system is.”

From the Ironto exit on Interstate 81, contractors will pave a 4.5-mile stretch of former Norfolk Southern railroad, making it suitable for the authority’s fleet of trash trailers to traverse, at a rate of about 40-50 times daily. The work should be done this summer.

“It’s just a long driveway for our landfill, it’s a private road, going to be confined to our traffic that uses the landfill, and for emergency use,” Miles said. “Upon completion of our project, the truck traffic will not touch Bradshaw Road.”

Other conversion work is required to road-ready Tinker Creek Transfer Station, where, through Friday, trash was loaded onto the train. The landfill itself needs some facility upgrades, too, Miles said, but other efforts, like readying the Salem Transfer Station to transport trash by truck, were finished years ago.

“It’s not just the conversion, it’s facilities improvements too,” Miles said.

The local governments that fund RVRA — Salem, Vinton, Roanoke and Roanoke County — approved for the authority to borrow a final $10 million to complete this last phase of facility improvements needed for the transition from rail, adding to what debt remains from years prior.

“Collectively, when all is said and done, we will have borrowed $30 million,” Miles said. “But our operating budget is actually reduced substantially with the new methodology, in excess of $1 million per year.”

Increased efficiency will decrease those operational expenses, Miles said.

“We don’t have to truck the garbage from Salem to Tinker Creek. And we do not have to double-handle it at the landfill,” Miles said. “We can bypass that whole rotary tipper, so we don’t have the operating or the maintenance costs associated with running that at the landfill.”

The tipper is a machine that dumps the contents of the gondolas once they reach the landfill. In recent years the tipper has been prone to mechanical breakdowns, which forced the resource authority to previously use heavy trucks to transport trash to the landfill on a temporary basis.

For the long term, because expenses are expected drop so substantially by taking its operations to the streets, tipping fees for using RVRA will be less susceptible to increases.

“The decision that has been made is going to stabilize our tipping fees, and be able to allow us to provide improved services, while not increasing our rates any further,” Miles said. “Our short term, five-year projections are not showing any tipping fee increase.”

Keeping landfill traffic off the winding Bradshaw Road was a commitment RVRA made when its operation began in 1993, Miles said. During construction of the authority’s new road, some landfill and contractor activity will be required on Bradshaw Road, but only for a three- to four-month period.

“We’re looking to be a good neighbor,” before and after construction, Miles said. “We’re going to try to do everything we can to minimize noise in our operations.”

RVRA will transport waste to third-party landfills during construction. Once completed, the authority will maintain the new, private road, putting it to good use by transporting more than 210,000 tons of trash per year from Roanoke Valley curbsides, all the way to the landfill.

“It is a permanent investment, because the life of the landfill is in excess of 100 years,” Miles said. “Personally, I think technology is going to change over the course of that time period that’s going to greatly reduce our reliance on landfills, but it’s there.”

In another 25 years, there might be a whole new, yet unpredicted best method for trash disposal, but for at least that long and then some, Smith Gap Landfill will keep compiling Roanoke Valley refuse.

“Mother Nature is driving out of necessity the development of new technology, particularly in areas that do not have that luxury of having landfill space,” Miles said, mentioning Japan, France and Italy. “That technology is transitioning to the U.S., and will continue.”

Whenever some epiphany in waste disposal is achieved, RVRA will be ready to adapt at the right time.

“I can’t really specifically point to one technology other than to say technology in general ... just look at autonomous vehicles, look at electric vehicles,” Miles said. “That technology is going to continue to evolve. We would be positioned to take advantage of that.”

But for now, the trash train has served its use, and tractor-trailers will take its place.

“It’s a long-term decision, it’s not just right here and now,” Miles said. “It’s what’s going to be best for the region over the long haul, to provide service and be cost efficient.”

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