The Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke draws tens of thousands of rail fans each year. Photo courtesy Virginia Museum of Transportation

RICHMOND – The best times of Roanoke’s 59-year old Virginia Transportation Museum might not be behind it, if legislation pending in the General Assembly makes it to Gov. Glen Youngkin’s desk. A Senate panel on Monday approved a measure sponsored by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, that would designate the museum a full-fledged state agency, which would make it eligible to receive state funds. 

Edwards told members of the Senate Education and Health Higher Education subcommittee that additional funding would increase tourism for the Roanoke Valley from $14 million to $21 million in net additional income. “It’s a great museum, it does a lot of things, and kids especially love going to the Transportation Museum. If we can get some additional funding, there is a lot more that we could do,” Edwards said. 

About the museum

For background on the museum and a photo gallery, see our previous story by Ralph Berrier Jr.

The state agency designation means that the currently privately owned museum, which is housed in the nearly 104-year-old, brick-walled former N&W freight station in downtown Roanoke, would became a state entity similar to other state museums, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond and the Virginia Museum of Natural History. But the latter institutions receive far more tax dollars than the annual $2 million that Edwards is pushing for in a separate budget amendment.  

Among the museum’s attractions is a 67-foot-tall Jupiter class ballistic missile standing outside that makes it visible from several street blocks away and a refurbished Class J locomotive bearing the engine number 611, designated as the official steam locomotive of Virginia, that has been used for excursion train trips popular among tourists, plus a wide array of vintage cars to small planes and railroad cars. 

“It’s a museum that encompasses all of Virginia, we have things there that are not just Roanoke based,” museum board president Will Harris told the panel Monday. In pre-pandemic times, the museum had about 50,000 visitors per year, with about 40% of those from out of state, Harris said. “We run about a $1.3 million budget right now, and we’re asking the state to help us with that so we can expand further. History is one of the greatest tools to teach with, and we have a variety of historical objects there that involve transportation throughout the state,” he said.

Its former executive director Bill Fitzpatrick called the museum “one of the most unique things that Roanoke has ever had,” because the Star City is known as one of the top 10 places in the United States that built and ran steam locomotives. (Fitzpatrick is a member of Cardinal’s community advisory committee but committee members have no role in news decisions.)

“The locomotives we have in the collection today rank us in the top 10 rail museums in the country, and engine 611 is the most modern steam locomotive in the world,” Fitzpatrick said. He also said that the museum used to receive about $750,000 in state funding every year until a decision that non-state agencies can no longer receive funds from the commonwealth. 

Fitzpatrick said that as a state agency, the museum could go from where it plateaued before COVID-19 to “a significantly different opportunity” for the commonwealth of Virginia. 

“This museum is far larger than what you might think, we are already putting money in the Roanoke coffers and of the state,” Fitzpatrick said. “We wouldn’t be asking you for funding if we didn’t think we would return more to you. We’ve been wanting to do this for about 12 years but we have been holding off because of the human service needs that you have been dealing with.”

Jenna Lawrence, a lifelong resident of Roanoke Valley, told committee members that the museum provides exceptional education opportunities. “There are roughly 65 public school systems within a two-hour drive of the Virginia Museum of Transportation,” she said.

Lawrence added that by becoming a state agency, the museum would be able to leverage a lot of resources through the Department of Education and other state agencies to create programming and to reach out to these local school systems to provide educational experiences. “We could probably triple the out-of-state visitors, not only does that benefit the Roanoke region but the entire I-81 corridor,” she said.

The committee passed Edwards’ proposal with an amendment striking a line giving the museum the power of eminent domain.   

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.