Politically Thinking: Local rail upgrade gets new chance
One of the most important infrastructure projects in Vermont is the upgrade of the western rail corridor from Rutland through Middlebury to Burlington. Improvements to this line would enable passenger rail service to be extended north from Rutland to Burlington. The rebuilt line would also allow more freight to be shipped to and from Vermont by rail rather than by road.
The western corridor is an essential link in Vermont’s rail network. At the southern end, it connects in Rutland with a line that comes up from Albany through Saratoga Springs and Whitehall, N.Y. Amtrak provides passenger service from New York to Rutland via this route.
The western corridor also services daily freight trains. Much of the gasoline and heating oil used in northwestern Vermont is shipped by rail from Albany to Middlebury and Burlington.
The infrastructure of this rail line has not received much attention in recent years. The maximum speed on much of the route is 30 miles per hour, too slow for passenger trains.
Low overpasses, such as those in downtown Middlebury, prevent modern freight cars from being used on the route. The estimated cost of bringing the line up to today’s passenger and freight standards is $70 million, or about $1 million per mile.
Earlier this year, the state of Vermont submitted a proposal to the federal Department of Transportation for a $59 million grant that would cover most of the costs of upgrading the western rail corridor. Passenger train speeds on the improved line would be 60 miles per hour, allowing Amtrak’s New York service to be extended from Rutland to Middlebury and Burlington. Improvements to overpasses and other infrastructure would enable more freight to be transported over the line, reducing truck traffic on Routes 7 and 22A.
This was one of two rail improvement grant proposals submitted to Washington by Vermont.
The Department of Transportation funded the other project, $50 million for the Brattleboro-White River-St. Albans line, but turned down the application for funds for the western corridor. While DOT gave the western corridor proposal a favorable rating, states submitted more grants for railroad projects than could be funded with the available appropriation. Many applications, including Vermont’s western corridor, had to be turned down.
After last month’s election, newly elected Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin said they did not want to accept federal funding for rail projects that their Democratic predecessors had supported. These new governors did not want to commit their states to covering the operating costs of the additional passenger trains that would run on the upgraded lines. They also favor highway infrastructure over rail infrastructure.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has said that his department will reallocate the money to be returned by Ohio and Wisconsin — a total of $1.2 billion — to rail projects in other states that were turned down earlier this year. Vermont’s Congressional delegation has asked LaHood to take a second look at the western corridor project. Approving the Vermont project would take up only about 5 percent of the reallocated funds.
Rail is a much more fuel-efficient mode of passenger and freight transport than road, and also contributes to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The Rutland-to-Burlington rail improvement project will bring both environmental and economic development benefits to the western side of Vermont. Environmentalists, rail shippers, and passenger rail advocates in Rutland, Addison, and Chittenden counties will work with the congressional delegation in the weeks ahead to make the case for the western rail corridor in the reopened funding round.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.