Guest Column (8/6/09)

Let’s get back on track

Aug. 6, 2009

By Mike Coates

As a member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council and chairman of the Rail Infrastructure Subcommittee, I am concerned that available rail funds are not being used expeditiously during a time of critical need for economic stimulus in the state.

Through a visionary investment by Sen. James Jeffords in 2005, a $30 million federal transportation earmark for the Western Rail Corridor of Vermont was secured. This critical rail corridor stretches from the Canadian border to the southern border of Vermont in Bennington County. The intent of the funding was to upgrade the rail transportation infrastructure within the Corridor to enhance opportunities for freight and passenger rail service.

To date, $3.5 million has been obligated from the fund, with only $1.5 million having actually been spent. The investments to date have included $1 million to upgrade the Burlington Tunnel, with the remaining funds having been spent on various studies and engineering analysis.

To date, the rail investment strategy for the state of Vermont, using the Jefford’s earmark funding, has been to upgrade sections of the system between Burlington and Bennington, leaving out the most heavily utilized freight corridor from Burlington north. Slated investments include bridge repairs, relocation of the Rutland Railyard and upgrades to the “Middlebury Spur” to assist in developing a transload facility for the Omya bulk earth resources plant.

Overall, these projects will cost approximately $100 million. Securing a 20 percent state match and private investment dollars to make these projects happen remains a challenge. The federal stimulus grant programs for rail may aid in extending project activities along the Corridor. But with about $102 billion in nationwide requests for passenger rail aid vying for $8 billion of available award funds, Vermont’s current $121 million project application will be facing stiff competition.

At a time when we find ourselves waiting four years for the permitting processes required for the Middlebury Spur project to complete, we have New England Central Railroad standing at the ready with the 20 percent match of $1 million necessary to access $4.2 million of the Jeffords earmark funds. That provides for a $5.2 million project to upgrade the track from Burlington to the Canadian border to the 286,000-pound national rail standard for fully loaded freight cars. It also handles the largest freight tonnage of any section of rail in the state.

Currently, the track does not meet national standards. This means rail cars that bring salt, grain, cement, fuel oil and other heavy commodities to the region cannot be filled. This has a negative impact on the prices of these goods and services.

The Vermont brand that brings businesses and visitors from around the world to our state would be enhanced by moving this project forward. Improving and utilizing our underused rail resources can take heavy freight trucks off our roads, reduce congestion and decrease air pollution. This international project can have positive impacts beyond reducing the cost to deliver goods and services. We already have important cultural and business ties with Canada; the upgrade will also make the track ready for passenger rail service from Montreal to Burlington.

There is broad based support for moving this project forward from municipalities along the rail line: Burlington, Colchester, Essex Junction, Essex Town, St. Albans and Winooski have all provided letters of support. The Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Northwest Regional Planning Commission back this proposal. The Vermont Rail Advisory Council voted to endorse the project.

I urge individuals and businesses interested in reducing costs of goods and services delivered by rail, reducing pollution, supporting Vermont businesses and tourism, improving the cleanliness of our environment and saving the state $1 million at a time of economic constriction and dwindling state budgets to join in supporting this project.

Williston resident C. J. “Mike” Coates belongs to the Vermont Rail Advisory Council and serves as chairman of the Rail Infrastructure Subcommittee.