BURLINGTON — Vermont’s long-term goal of improving railroad service on the western side of the state got a big boost Thursday when officials announced an $8.9 million federal grant to improve rail infrastructure between Rutland and Leicester.
The grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will help pay for an $18.5 million project to replace 9 miles of track, upgrade 11-grade crossings and make other improvements in the 20-mile stretch north of Rutland.
Once the upgrade is completed within two years, all-but 12 miles of the 75-mile stretch of state-owned rail between Rutland and Burlington will have been upgraded. That’s a big step toward the state’s goal of running extending Amtrak rail service from Rutland north to Burlington, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Joseph Szabo, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said at a news conference at Burlington’s Union Station, once the city’s railroad depot.
“For cargo, for passenger rail, for our climate change footprint, for jobs, for economic opportunity, mostly for the western side of the state, this is a huge deal for the state of Vermont,” Shumlin said.
The Vermont grant is one of 52 transportation projects in 37 states that were announced Thursday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
“These are projects above all that really make a difference in peoples’ lives,” Szabo said. “This rail project moving forward now is a perfect example.”
Vermont officials have worked for years to improve rail service in the 120-mile stretch between Bennington and Burlington. Many officials in western Vermont feel the area’s economic development has been hobbled over the decades by the lack of an interstate highway.
Improving rail infrastructure is one way of overcoming that, Shumlin said.
Officials have also hoped for years that Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express could one-day be extended to Burlington from Rutland.
But even before passenger service is restored, the upgrade announced Thursday will ease speed restrictions on freight trains in the region that now carry a variety of cargos along the route such as grain, lumber and petroleum products.
In addition to the grant that is part of the federal government’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, the rail project will be funded with $6 million in additional federal money, a $3.2 million state match and a $200,000 in-kind contribution from the Vermont Railway.
Vermont officials say improving rail infrastructure will create jobs and increase the use of the railroads to move freight, getting trucks off the highways and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.MORE IN Vermont News
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