More to the rail spur story

 

At first blush, the fact that today’s railways operate under many of the out-dated privileges granted them during their hey-day in the 19th century is astonishing, if not outrageous. How can it be that archaic federal laws oblivious to today’s environmental concerns, land trusts, conservation districts and other individual concerns are allowed to so completely trump state, town and individual rights?

We suppose the answer is two-fold: first, because the construction of railways will always be disruptive and that their advancement for the public good can’t be done without the taking of others’ property, such powers have been deemed to be in the public good; second, and more practically, very few new rail lines have been built in the past several decades and it simply has not been a pressing issue.

The proposed rail spur to be operated by Otter Creek Railway, which is a spin-off from Vermont Rail Systems, for the primary purpose of hauling calcium carbonate from the Omya quarry off Foote Street in Middlebury to its processing plant in Florence (20 miles south) is a prime example of a state and town caught offguard by a regulatory process they did not know well.

We say that because of the mistakes made and now recognized: those being, 1) the town was told by the state, Omya and railway that Middlebury residents and town officials need not be concerned by aesthetic and other reasonable considerations early in the process because the project would eventually fall under Act 250 purview. It wasn’t until a year ago (many years later) and after the federal permit was granted, that the town learned the project would be exempt from all state and local oversight; and 2) that the state should not be helping finance any aspect of this transportation project that serves two private businesses that would have paid for the project of their own accord because of the substantial financial benefits to both companies. In short, the private gain was enough to finance the project without any federal or state money.

So, were we caught flat-footed? Maybe a little.

But there’s more to the story.

This Omya spur, so says Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington, is all part of a larger project to improve the western rail corridor from Burlington to Rutland — and that’s a project that governors, congressmen, state legislators and local officials and businessmen have been pushing for years. And it’s a good thing. Few are opposed to it. If the western corridor were improved to carry medium-speed passenger rail, up to 90 mph instead of the current average of 40 mph, the economies of the region would surely benefit greatly — and we would reduce our dependence on gas-guzzling cars.

How closely the Omya spur is currently tied to the rest of the western corridor is fuzzy and worth the effort to investigate, but the history is clear: The rail spur’s origin was an outcome of an Act 250 denial of Omya’s proposed trucking increase on Route 7, a court appeal of which was denied to Omya. Back then, the Conservation Law Foundation and many other liberals maintained that rail transportation was better for the environment and communities than increased truck traffic, and they pushed Omya to develop rail service from its quarry to Florence. Omya did, and Vermont Rail Systems joined in. Sen. James Jeffords signed on and used his considerable influence to secure a deal, as Dunnington explains, “to draw down federal transportation rail dollars using Omya’s dollars and financial interest in hauling by rail” to justify the federal commitment.

We haven’t yet been able to trace the money trail from origin of the federal earmark to completion, but of the $30 million to $45 million this spur is likely to cost, we know that only $6 million is currently designated from state or federal funds — to build the railway underpass under Route 7 — with the rest being financed by the interested businesses.

This is not, then, an issue or a process that has a lot to do with current political power or process. The die was cast more than a decade ago and the consequences of that action have been slowly making headway through the federal transportation labyrinth. To blame current legislators or town officials for political complicity is, frankly, grossly misplaced.

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Today’s question, then, is clear: What can we do now? 

Here are a few thoughts, several of which require quick acton:

• Push quickly for an amendment to the transportation bill that would incorporate a Section 248 process that mitigates the harm to the environment and aesthetic concerns of private property owners most affected.  It’s not a perfect process, but the state precedent is strong as it’s the same used for natural gas transmission lines, electric facilities (putting in the VELCO lines, for example) and wind power, plus provides at least some state oversight.

• Our state legislators could also push an amendment to update Vermont’s railroad statutes by requiring a higher standard of public benefit when a railway spur is primarily serving a business-to-business transaction as opposed to a railway built to serve the greater public good.

• Monitor damage to town roads during the two-year construction of the railway and work with Omya and the railway to cover those costs.

• Ensure the transportation loading facility near the quarry, for other interested businesses, requires no town taxpayer expense associated with roads to that facility. (It’s bad enough that the railway is exempt from paying local property taxes when millions will be made from this venture, which is another revision to state law officials should consider.)

• Finally, the town and affected neighbors should revisit the alternative route for Halladay Road, a creative suggestion that splits Halladay Road in half by creating two partial roads that loop to Route 7 and end what is now the Halladay Road thoroughfare. This proposal would have Halladay Road end just south of Holly Hathaway’s house (about 2/3rds of a mile from its northern junction with Route 7) and loop back east to Route 7. To the south, a road would be built just south of the Omya quarry entrance off Route 7 (just south of the old Standard Register building) that would join the existing Halladay Road a few hundred feet south of the proposed railway.

The advantages are significant: the Otter Creek Railway avoids an at-grade crossing on Halladay Road (because it ceases to be a through road), and neighbors don’t have to worry about noise disruptions from train whistles or loud blasts from a horn; more importantly, Halladay Road would cease to be a main transport to western Salisbury and points south as it is used today. Rather, that traffic would be diverted to Route 7. Finally, the decreased traffic would be more conducive to building a quieter neighborhood than has been possible in the past. As anyone who drives the road regularly knows, the scenery is pastoral, but the 40-plus mph traffic along the road is anything but peaceful. And if Omya and Vermont Rail Systems could help finance the road (it would benefit them as well), so much the better.

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None of these suggestions stop the train from heading down the tracks. No hero is prescribed to rescue the damsel in distress, and though we sympathize, we’re not ready to join national Tea Party hooligans out to sabotage all public works projects and the economic benefits that go along with them. Rather, as Rep. Paul Ralston suggests, the best bet is to help put into place measures for site mitigation, aesthetics and a public process that gives at least some voice to those most affected.

 

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100