Grant to study light rail service requested

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo This stretch of the Winooski River that flows behind the old Grossman's lumber yard in Montpelier is the most likely location for an ice control structure to prevent downtown ice jam flooding.

MONTPELIER — The city of Montpelier has applied for a $250,000 grant to study launching a light rail service in central Vermont.

The Planning and Development Department prepared and submitted the grant application to the Federal Transit Administration Friday. Community Development Specialist Kevin Casey said it was not known when the FTA would respond. The grant application is a partnership with the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission to "identify opportunities and obstacles" for a passenger rail corridor on the existing Washington County Rail (WACR) line, a short freight line linking Barre City, Berlin and Montpelier in central Vermont. The planning process will include a feasibility study looking at the administrative and financial capacity of Green Mountain Transit as operator, an economic impact study, an infrastructure needs assessment, zoning, and land use and regulatory barriers. The study will also include a "value capture plan" that explores the creation of a linear Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District to fund rail improvements and a proposed timeline for the development of passenger commuter rail between the three communities. A report by Casey noted the grant application followed a declaration by Montpelier in 2014 of its goal to become carbon neutral by 2030. In 2016, the Montpelier Energy Action Committee partnered with NetZero Vermont on a design contest to advance the vision of a low-carbon future for the city and the region. The winning design by Team Bridges imagined Montpelier as an integral part of a five-town “Capital Corridor,” with Montpelier, Barre, Berlin, Middlesex and Waterbury linked by existing rail lines. The corridor is an area that embraces more than 26,000 residents, 23,612 jobs and 1.5 million square feet of state facilities. The train link would allow residents and workers to leave their cars at home — a prime NetZero carbon-neutral goal — and free up surface area parking space, much of it state-owned, that occupies 60 percent of downtown Montpelier. The grant application is a modified version of the Team Bridges proposal, focusing on rail service between Montpelier, Berlin and Barre. The service would operate along the "spine" of an existing rail network that already links the three towns. "The Capital Corridor’s network of State offices and related businesses and organizations creates a myriad of connections that increasingly knit the three towns closer," said Casey's report. "By initiating passenger service on the existing rail lines, we can offer residents and employees a safer, cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly way of getting to work, running errands and enjoying all the region offers." Initially, it is proposed that streetcar, rail bus or light-rail service would be established along the 7.96 miles of track from Montpelier Junction through the State Capitol Complex to the 1 Taylor Street Transit Center, stopping in Berlin along the Route 302 retail corridor, the report said. The service would continue through to downtown Barre, terminating at Spaulding High School. "The existing WACR line, which hugs the banks of the Winooski River, would provide a new spine of transportation, open space and new neighborhoods in a linear east-west corridor," the report said. "Further, circulator bus routes would be adjusted to provide secondary and transfer services from the rail line to areas north and south of the spine. In addition, the WACR line runs parallel to the cross Vermont bicycle trail and shared use path, which providing additional multimodal connectivity." The report notes that Montpelier, Berlin and Barre are the largest employment centers in central Vermont, representing 60.7 percent of the 32,949 jobs in Washington County. However, the three towns only represent 32.6 percent of the total population of the county. A lack of housing, particularly in Montpelier, which has a vacancy rate of less than 1 percent, has led to urban sprawl and development into the adjoining countryside. The report said it is hoped a rail corridor that included identifying housing and business development opportunities would help manage growth and transport networks in the region and reduce the carbon footprint of both. An assessment of infrastructure needs will consider the existing condition of the rail line and bridges as well as the cost of any needed upgrades. It will also identify potential station locations and other multi-model connections and links, the report said. In addition to the three municipalities, other key stakeholders identified in the report include the state, National Life Group and Vermont College of Fine Arts, as well as private developers, rail operators and property owners. Improvement in passenger service between Montpelier and Barre is identified in Green Mountain Transit's Next Gen Transit Plan. It calls for all-day transit services to operate every 30 to 45 minutes instead of the current service available every 75 minutes. "A fixed-rail passenger service could accomplish this goal and reduce wait times significantly," the report said. "Initial estimates are that a passenger rail line could make the trip between the two communities in under 15 minutes for express service and less than 25 minutes with stops at the major points of interest along the corridor." A timeline for completion of the study for light rail anticipates a May 2019 start and a December 2021 end date. Phases include presenting the regulatory barriers report in June 2020, the value capture plan in July 2020, the economic impact study in August 2020, the infrastructure needs assessment in December 2020 and a comprehensive plan by December 2021. An outline budget said the total study cost would be $300,000. The grant request is for FTA funding of $238,000, with a city of Montpelier and project partners' match of $62,000.

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