Vermonters have strong feelings about passenger rail. A working rail system can reduce truck traffic in historic downtowns, Vermonters told officials at a series of public forums last fall. Rail use can reduce fuel use, contribute to the statewide mission to reduce green-house gas production while attracting new riders to transit, attendees said.
The Vermont Transportation Board conducted seven public forums during the fall of 2016, in the cities and towns of Burlington, Rutland, Vergennes, White River Junction, Brattleboro, Newport and St. Albans. More than 270 people attended the meetings or submitted written comments or phone calls. The Board recently released a report to the Legislature’s House and Senate transportation committees, covering six topics as follows.
Here I summarize those six topics, but encourage readers to view the report online.
Expanding Passenger Rail
There is a common goal here in Vermont that passenger rail be expanded in two locations. First, extending service from Rutland to Burlington is the state’s number one rail priority. To make this happen, Vermont plans to invest more than $100 million in station and track improvements to allow trains to travel at a minimum speed of 59 mph and a maximum speed of 79 mph. Most of the track work is already complete — only 11 miles remain — while stations in Middlebury, Vergennes and Burlington still require upgrades. The state plans to begin service as soon as it finishes constructing a tunnel beneath downtown Middlebury, which it hopes is in either 2020 or 2021. Second, VTrans hopes to begin service to Montreal sometime in 2019. There are just a few pieces that need to fall into place, such as customs on either side of the border and figuring out who is going to pay what portion of the service. There were also a few complaints about current passenger rail that led to broad goals of better train stations, better frequency and reliability, and better connectivity to other forms of transportation from stations.
“With half of Vermont’s carbon emissions coming from the transportation sector, it is essential for our town and our state to encourage convenient, affordable mass transit options to address climate change,” wrote the Brattleboro Energy Committee in a letter sent to the Board. “Increased service also aligns well with the 2016 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan’s goal of encouraging mass transit.”
Establishing Commuter Rail
This assessment didn’t come out until January 2017, so people at the forums couldn’t speak to specifics. But, the report released on the TBoard’s website outlined it. Most important to note is that it would cost $301-363 million (Vermont’s entire rail budget annually is about $35 million) to establish a commuter rail between St. Albans, Burlington, and Montpelier. For reference, the City of Nashville, population at about 1.8 million operates the country’s smallest commuter rail service which sees an average daily ridership of about 1,225. These two facts seem to make the possibility of commuter rail here in Vermont seem unlikely. Nonetheless, this feasibility study laid out what it would take anyway. People complained that the study featured too few stops, excluded logical stops such as Essex Junction and Colchester that would definitely increase ridership and help reduce need for subsidies. “I was hoping to have a really good quality study, but this is misleading,” said a person who attended a VTrans public hearing. “This may be fine for the MBTA in Boston. But it has no place in rural Vermont.”
Railroads as Neighbors
Vermont has 578 miles of active railroad track which rumbles past thousands of homes and passes through several communities that host busy railyards and switching stations. Of the towns with forums, White River had the most concerned citizens with the neighboring railroad.
Downtown Truck Traffic
For many participants of the forums, though, downtown truck traffic was more of an issue that having railroads nearby. Freight passing through Vermont during 2007 travelled 70 percent by truck and 30 percent by rail. According to the state’s freight plan, most Vermont roads are projected by 2035 to see increases of between 20 percent and 40 percent in overall truck traffic. Communities located along the state’s major truck corridors of Route 7, Route 9 and Route 11, and Route 22A through downtown Vergennes are projected to see even larger increases, likely between 40 percent and 60 percent. Many Vermont communities struggle with the noise, pollution, and physical shaking created by large trucks as they rumble through their villages. Such disturbances, which can take place at a rate of more than once per minute in some cases, shatters people’s quality of life and is at great odds with the historic rural setting of many towns. Vergennes is a great example.
Railside Economic Development
The Vermont Agency of Transportation estimated that some $58 billion worth of goods moved either by train or by truck to, from, within or through the state of Vermont in 2007. Identifying developable property around rail is critical…Everyone needs to work together to raise awareness with communities so that they understand this critical need. This communication between communities and rail is crucial. For instance, the Middlebury tunnel project that will allow Amtrak to extend service to Burlington is set to take three years and will include an estimated 10 weeks street closure in downtown Middlebury. Local merchants are worried that this lengthy disruption could kill their businesses. A fair concern…that must be addressed.
In the decade between 2004 and 2013, Vermont experienced 33 accidents at rail crossings along public highways. Ten of these accidents involved passenger trains, while 23 involved freight trains. Two people died as a result of these mishaps, while 13 others were injured. In the 12 months prior to mid-October of 2016 when the T-Board started holding its rail forums, there were seven accidents involving trains that resulted in five deaths. To date, only about 58 percent of Vermont’s highway crossings have train-activated warning devices. The remainder are equipped only with signs or crossbucks.
— Cashel Stewart, Outreach Coordinator, STVT