• Rutland to Burlington state rail service tied to stimulus
     | December 28,2009

    MONTPELIER – Lawmakers and administration officials are awaiting the answer to a $73 million question as they ponder the future of passenger rail service along Vermont's western corridor.

    Sometime during the early months of the 2010 legislative session, officials here will learn the results of their application for a $73 million stimulus grant submitted earlier this year. If successful, the money will fund a long-planned upgrade of western railroad tracks that would allow Amtrak to extend passenger rail service on its Ethan Allen line from Rutland to Burlington.

    "It is our belief that the funds that have been requested through this grant, once completely built out, would allow us to achieve the goal of Amtrak passenger service to Burlington," said Joe Flynn, the newly appointed head of the Agency of Transportation's rail division.

    The issue of keeping passenger rail service along the western side of the state rose in prominence last year after officials in the Douglas Administration proposed eliminating Amtrak rail service into Rutland. The ill-received proposal galvanized rail proponents, who transformed the debate from scaling back rail service to expanding it.

    More than $8 billion in competitive rail grants approved in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act offered an opportunity to realize that expansion. And while Rutland-to-Burlington passenger service remains a priority for the state regardless, according to Transportation Secretary David Dill, the pace at which Vermont achieves the goal will depend largely on the outcome of the grant.

    "I think the pace at which rail advances in Vermont is very much dependent on those grants, particularly for the western corridor, " Dill said.

    Flynn is reluctant to offer a timeline for that service should the grant come through.

    "When can I buy my ticket is a fair question," Flynn said. "But I don't have an answer I can commit to right now."

    Transportation officials have said in the past that receipt of the grant could see passenger service extended in as little as three years. Grant rules require the money be spent over two construction seasons. And Christopher Parker, head of the Vermont Rail Action Network, said there's no reason the grant-funded upgrades couldn't immediately support an extension of the Ethan Allen line.

    "The grant has a requirement that construction happen in two construction seasons, and there's no reason to think that passenger service wouldn't follow on afterwards," Parker said. "If that didn't happen, then something went wrong."

    Economic leaders from Rutland to Burlington lobbied lawmakers last year for the passenger-service extension. The new line would connect Burlington with New York City and, officials said, introduce legions of new travelers to Vermont's cities and towns.

    Without the grant, the prospect for Rutland-to-Burlington passenger service is far less rosy. With an annual rail division budget of about $20 million, it could take Vermont untold years to fund the track improvements that the grant money could address in a single biennium.

    Flynn and Parker though said even if the grant is rejected, Vermont will have other opportunities to seek high-dollar rail grants.

    The federal government over the next five years will disburse an additional $8 billion in competitive grants for inner-city passenger rail service. Failing the pending grant, Flynn said, Vermont could be a candidate for that program.

    "It isn't as though there aren't funds from which Vermont could still attempt to capture its share and continue the effort to further build out the western corridor," Flynn said.

    "If we don't get this grant, there will be more opportunities for federal funds in the future," Parker said. "So it won't be the end of the story."

    The western corridor stimulus grant is one of three rail grant requests that Vermont is waiting on. A $58 million request would fund track improvements along the eastern corridor, which would improve speeds for Amtrak's Vermonter line. The state also is awaiting the results of a $1 million planning grant that would study passenger rail options between Rutland and Bennington.

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