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Rutland Herald: Vermont gets final $10M for Western rail corridor

October 27, 2015
In The News

By Gordon Dritschilo

Passenger rail service to Burlington is four years away, state and federal officials said Monday.

Vermont’s congressional delegation announced they had secured a $10 million grant for the Western rail corridor.

“It’ll allow us to install the remaining track that needs to be installed to have continuously welded rail from Rutland to Burlington,” Vermont Secretary of Transportation Chris Cole said. “This is wonderful news. I couldn’t be happier.”

The money takes the form of a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant issued through the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“I am so proud and so excited at Rutland’s persistence paying off,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said Monday after jointly announcing the grant with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. “Lots of people have reason to be proud of this grant.”

Welch recalled a meeting at Howe Center in 2011, after two failed attempts to get federal stimulus money for the project, when he brought the deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration to meet with local business and political leaders. The meeting was heavily attended, and support for the project was broad and bipartisan.

“It was that demonstration of broad support and cooperation that made the difference, ultimately,” Welch said. “The cohesion of the advocacy, that cut across political parties, and the entire business community made a very compelling case for Patrick, Bernie and I to make.”

The hoped-for grant covering the full project never materialized, so the state began doing the project a bit at a time, securing whatever federal money was available.

“People hung in and didn’t relent,” Welch said. “Disappointment didn’t turn into reducing energy for the effort. Rutland would not take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Cole said the state will still need to budget for gates for 13 crossings, a switch in Rutland, and side tracks for freight cars at the Omya plant in Florence. He said there is some federal money the state Agency of Transportation will be able to access for that, as well.
“We need to build a Y somewhere in Burlington so we can turn the train around once it gets to Burlington,” he said. “Middlebury ... they have some time to locate a site and build a station.”

Cole said the state will have four years to complete the work from the time the grant is formally awarded, which is expected to be in the spring. He said they hope to have all the construction done faster than that, and that passenger service should commence as soon as construction concludes.

“It’s an accomplishment for Vermont,” said Thomas Donahue, executive vice president of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce. “There’s only so many things available, I think, for us to accomplish that’ll make a difference. This is one of them.”
Donahue said the improved track needed to accommodate passenger rail will also benefit freight.

“The cars traveling on this corridor are not running fully loaded,” he said. “This will present a great advantage to, for instance, Omya, who can now put more on rail than they’ve been putting.”

Donahue has said that extending the line to Burlington would guarantee the future of the passenger rail to Rutland and also open up a new market for the city.

“I think residents in Burlington will take the train down to Rutland,” he said.

Local political officials were also celebrating.

“This is a good day for Rutland,” said Rep. Herb Russell, D-Rutland, one of the project’s more vocal champions. “It’s the infrastructure we’ve been needing for a long time. We have good old Route 7, but this really is going to be the backbone of economic activity.”

Russell said while there were no formal proposals, there is the potential for the line to go on from Burlington to Montpelier, hooking into the line to Montreal. He noted the number of buses carrying state employees between Burlington and Montpelier.

“When you get to a certain point, and we aren’t too far away from that, it would support itself in terms of light rail,” he said. “I think that’s coming. I don’t think that’s very far down the road.”