MIDDLEBURY — Vermont will proceed with sufficient rail improvements to re-establish passenger train traffic along its western corridor from Rutland through Middlebury to Burlington by 2017, and the state will proceed on that track regardless of the prospects for federal funding.
That was the message on Tuesday from Chris Cole, the Policy, Planning and Intermodal Development director for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, known as VTrans. Speaking at the Vermont Rail Action Network (VRAN) annual meeting held at Middlebury College’s Kirk Alumni Center, Cole also confirmed an impending agreement with the town of Middlebury to manage the replacement of two deteriorating railroad overpasses within its downtown. The replacement of those overpasses, on Main Street and Merchants Row, are a key component of an overall improvement plan to enable the western corridor rail line to accommodate Amtrak passenger rail and heavier freight loads.
The cost of upgrading the rail line from Rutland to Burlington has been placed at $35 million to $45 million, according to Cole, an amount he said will probably “have to be knocked off in chunks.”
“We will keep plugging away at it,” Cole said, acknowledging the uncertainty of federal funding. “A lot of the projects we do are state-funded projects only.”
Cole’s comments were received warmly by the veritable “who’s who” in Vermont railroad present at VRAN’s annual meeting, conspicuously held in Middlebury to underscore the membership’s collective support for the resurrection of passenger rail along the western part of the state.
Expansion of rail facilities and service continues to be a priority of Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration, Cole said. He noted the population of the United States is likely to grow by 100 million by the year 2050. He said air transportation is not likely going to be able to keep up with the greater demand.
“For our mobility as a country and as a state, it is our governor’s belief — and it is the current president’s belief — that in order for our state and our country to succeed economically and to be competitive in the global marketplace, rail is the next significant investment in our country,” Cole said.
He outlined specific goals in Shumlin’s energy plan that call for quadrupling the number of Vermont-based passenger rail trips to 400,000 by 2030; and doubling the amount of freight tonnage transported in-state from 2011 levels by 2030. In order to do this, the administration is pledging to support high-speed rail throughout New England, which includes extending the Vermonter passenger rail service to Montreal and “developing service in western Vermont by linking Burlington, Rutland and Bennington with new, or additional connections to Albany, New York and New York City.”
Work has already been mapped out on the western corridor, according to Cole. He cited 12 rail projects slated for next year’s construction season, including six miles of continuously welded rail, which also includes three gated/lighted crossings.
“We are going to be load rating all of the bridges on the western corridor next year between Rutland and Burlington,” Cole said. “We anticipate having western corridor projects in the budget next year as well that will obviously need legislative approval.”
He reiterated the state will proceed with its 2017 goal regardless of any federal funding obstacles.
“We are developing a plan irrespective of what’s going on at the federal level,” Cole said. “We need to make investments in the rail line, we need to make investments in the bridges and we are focusing on Rutland to Burlington.
“Everyone in this room knows that extending (rail service) to Burlington is a no-brainer,” he added. “You have the state’s largest concentration of population — 150,000 in the Chittenden County area. That’s a quarter of the state’s population that isn’t directly served by rail.”
Cole noted that linking Middlebury College and the Middlebury population to Rutland would be “Great. That would be a success.”
Other key rail officials and supporters echoed Cole’s views on the western corridor and its importance in the state’s transportation network.
Among them was Vermont Rail System President David Wulfson.
“It’s time to work on the western corridor,” Wulfson said, voicing some frustration with years of applying for grants and seeking action without gaining a lot of traction.
“We support Amtrak and we will do everything we can to help get it to Burlington,” Wulfson said. “We do feel we have the right team in place to do that.”
Wulfson estimated another 68 miles of rail need to be improved along the western corridor. He also expressed hope that the two deficient Middlebury rail overpasses can be replaced in short order.
Plans call for replacement of those two Middlebury overpasses to be accomplished through the Federal Highway Administration’s Every Day Counts program, which provides a more rapid construction schedule for innovative infrastructure projects in communities with a proven track record. Middlebury, Cole said, has proven itself with the recent construction of the Cross Street Bridge, a $16 million undertaking completed in less than two years with a creative financing plan that included a local option tax and a substantial contribution from Middlebury College.
“We have asked the town of Middlebury whether they would like to manage the project, and they have agreed,” Cole said. “We are entirely confident that the town of Middlebury has the expertise to manage this project. We are very excited to be working with the town of Middlebury on this.”
Cole said he is not yet sure of the cost nor the specific timetable for the replacement of the two Middlebury rail overpasses. He anticipates VTrans will apply federal highway money to the costs. The latest project concept calls for constructing a concrete tunnel extending through both bridges, then replacing the decks. The plan will also require more clearance for Amtrak trains, which will likely mean deepening the current rail bed under the two spans.
Middlebury will be able to proceed with the project once it is designed and approved, according to Cole.
“We have the money. We are going to fund it. How fast the project proceeds is up to the town of Middlebury, once we get the agreements in place,” Cole said.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said VTrans is working on a draft agreement for a project that could be ready to sign by around Thanksgiving.
Other people speaking in favor of western corridor improvements at Tuesday’s VRAN meeting included Jack Byrne, director of Middlebury College’s Sustainability and Integration Office; Tom Donahue, CEO of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce; Sarah Simonds of the Vermont Community Foundation; and Tom Torti director of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Byrne noted Middlebury College has a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2016. It has moved toward that goal by investing in renewable and sustainable energy sources (such as its biomass plant) and purchasing carbon offsets. But he acknowledged the college community does a lot of traveling by airplane and automobiles, which generate a lot of greenhouse gases.
“I know a lot of (faculty and students) would prefer to take the train,” Byrne said. “I think that’s where we have a lot of common interests to see you be successful in your mission and we will certainly be willing and interested to work with you to see what we might do to help you make train travel for passengers as well as freight more convenient and more frequent in Middlebury and Addison County.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.