MONTPELIER — A legislative panel approved a request Thursday by the Agency of Transportation to begin spending an $8.9 million grant to upgrade a 20-mile stretch of railroad track north of Rutland.
The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant will upgrade the track between Rutland and Leicester.
The Joint Transportation Oversight Committee voted Thursday to recommend spending the Federal Rail Administration grant ahead of adjustments to the 2014 fiscal year budget.
A special committee comprising the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee and the heads of the House and Senate transportation committees approved the agency’s request just minutes later.
The approval will allow the agency to spend money out of its current budget, rather than wait for funding through the annual budget adjustment that lawmakers will take up in January, or the 2015 fiscal year budget.
Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, sought information on how much state funding the agency expects to use, and whether other projects would be impacted.
Leonard LeBlanc, the agency’s director of finance, said no more than $200,000 in state funding would be used.
“This would not affect the progress on any other rail projects,” he said.
The grant, awarded in September to help boost freight rail, is being combined with other grants and some state funding to complete enhancements to bridges, crossings and welding of rail segments. The total project will cost about $18.5 million.
AOT Secretary Brian Searles told the committee that moving quickly could position the state well in the next round of grants that would help complete the 75-mile stretch of track between Rutland and Burlington.
“We have benefited in the process by having work underway as quickly as possible,” Searles said. “We’d like to have that same set of circumstances when we apply in the next round, which could be as early as January 2014.”
The work will bring the state significantly closer to its goal of bringing passenger rail service back to what is known as the Western Corridor. The state’s long-term plan is to run passenger rail service from Albany, N.Y., to Burlington through Bennington, Manchester and Rutland.
Amtrak’s Ethan Allen service from New York currently ends in Rutland and does not continue north.
The work is expected to create 122 short-term jobs during construction and 22 long-term jobs, according to Searles.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is that just 11 miles of track will need to be improved on the 75 miles of track between Rutland and Burlington after the work covered by the grant is completed.
“There’s a lot of work going on on the line, a lot of work that’s been completed,” Searles said. “The speeds are up. This piece that’s coming under this grant is a big one,” he said. “I’m not going to say any specific time period but the end is in sight here.”
Costa Pappas, who heads the agency’s rail program, said the grant will continue investments in the Western Corridor, which is expected to cost about $150 million when completed. Major chunks of funding are unlikely, so the state will continue to seek federal grants in smaller pieces, he said.
“We’re looking at a very hefty price tag and absent a major, discretionary program like we had with the high-speed rail program, TIGER is really the only federal funding source we have that can accomplish that,” Pappas said.
The state will turn its attention south when the northern stretch is finished, according to Pappas.
“The idea is to work on the whole corridor and after we’re done with this last segment on the northern subdivision to keep working south of Rutland until we get past Bennington,” he said.
The rail upgrades will allow trains to travel at speeds up to 60 mph.
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