BARRE — City councilors have narrowly endorsed an application for federal funds that, if awarded, would finance the analysis of re-establishing passenger rail service between Barre and Montpelier.
“All aboard” it wasn’t Tuesday night — Mayor Lucas Herring had to cast the decisive fourth vote.
Herring told councilors the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission is poised to apply for a BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation on behalf of Barre and Montpelier. The council’s support, he said, would strengthen that application.
Councilor John Steinman questioned the wisdom investing any money in “ancient technology” to serve two communities that are separated by 7 miles and already have public transportation provided by Green Mountain Transit.
Steinman argued buses trump trains — especially the self-propelled ones he believes will likely be used if passenger rail service between Barre and Montpelier is restored after being explored at the behest of the Legislature.
Lawmakers have given the state Agency of Transportation until December to deliver a written report estimating the cost of upgrading the state-owned rail line that runs between Barre and Montpelier to meet commuter rail standards, as well as a construction timeline. While the recently passed legislation specifically states that report should be “neutral” regarding the type of passenger rail car, Steinman said the likeliest option would by the bi-directional, self-contained Budd Co. cars AllEarth Rail LLC has been pushing for more than two years.
Steinman described the 94-seat Budd cars as “antiques” and argued they have a much larger carbon footprint than GMT’s 18-seat buses that rarely run at capacity.
“We’re going to use taxpayer dollars to run a 50-year-old train between Barre and Montpelier that will be carrying less than 18 people?” he asked. “We’re going to support that? For what purpose?”
Steinman said re-establishing passenger rail in central Vermont would be “… redundant, unnecessary … and not nimble enough for the 21st century.” It also, he said, could create a parking problem in downtown Barre where those who wanted to travel by train would have limited places to board, as opposed to what councilors were told will be a soon-to-be-expanded number of GMT bus stops.
Herring said Steinman was getting ahead of the study, which would be far more comprehensive than the report the AOT has been asked to prepare by Dec. 1.
“For me it’s really just looking at different options,” he said. “It’s a study to see what could (be). If we don’t look into it, we’ll never know.”
Councilor John LePage agreed.
“All this is is an application for a grant to obtain some knowledge,” he said. “It’s not like we’re committing to do something … It’s a no-brainer.”
Not according to Councilor Michael Boutin, who said he couldn’t bring himself to support spending tax dollars — even federal tax dollars — on an idea he doesn’t believe makes sense.
“I don’t see a future (in it),” he said.
With Steinman and Boutin both opposed and Councilor Jeffrey Tuper-Giles absent, Herring had to cast the decisive vote, joining LePage and Councilors Rich Morey and Teddy Waszazak in the requisite four-vote majority.
During a discussion that saw LePage and Steinman call each other out for interrupting, councilors never discussed the amount of the grant application or what it would actually pay for.
Dan Currier, manager of the regional planning commission’s transportation program, said Wednesday both are still moving targets.
Days before Monday’s application deadline, Currier said he expects the commission will apply for at least $400,000 and perhaps as much as $1 million to finance an analysis that will be far more thorough than the report AOT must prepare by Dec. 1.
Assuming the planning grant is awarded — and that is a big “if,” according to Currier — the AOT report would be finished months before the start of a consultant-led study. That feasibility study, he said, could take 18 month to two years to complete, would involve a cost-benefit analysis, significant community outreach and a deeper dive into improvements — both required and desired — to accommodate passenger rail.
“The planning study that we are proposing would go quite a bit further than what [AOT] will do,” he said. “It’s a significant project.”