Railroad lobby picks up steam
RUTLAND — There was a pro-rail rally in Rutland on Monday in honor of a federal official who came to see just how enthusiastic area and state business and government leaders were about the prospect of rail in the state’s western corridor.
They were pretty enthusiastic.
“I was told to come meet a ‘handful’ of local folks and talk about rail,” Deputy Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration Karen Rae told the crowd of about 100 assembled at the Howe Conference Center Monday afternoon. “This is the most amazing ‘handful’ of people I’ve encountered in a while.”
Rae was invited by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., to come to Rutland to hear from businesspeople, community members and state and local officials about the importance of rail to the local and state economy and the potential benefits that will come from improving the passenger and freight rail line along the state’s western corridor — including through Brandon, Middlebury and Vergennes.
The idea of expanding rail access on the western side of the state is not new. Vermont has twice applied for federal rail funds for the western corridor only to be turned down. Promises were made to expand rail on the western side of the state when Interstate 89 was built in eastern Vermont in the early 1960s.
What is new is $2.4 billion in available federal high-speed rail funds since several Republican governors rejected the Obama administration’s stimulus money for rail projects previously agreed to by their Democratic predecessors. Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin rejected the federal rail funds. Vermont’s congressional delegation, led by Welch, has been pushing for those funds to be reallocated to Vermont’s western corridor project. New York, Virginia, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are also angling for the rail funds.
“The governor of Florida just couldn’t bear the burden of $2.4 billion in transportation funds,” Welch told those gathered at the Rutland event. “Me, Sen. Sanders and Sen. Leahy, we were willing to step up and take some of that money.”
Welch said he didn’t have to explain to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood how important expanding rail in the western corridor is to the regional and state economy.
Gov. Peter Shumlin was perhaps the most enthusiastic about the prospect of improving rail in his comments, although he called it “medium-speed rail.”
“I am convinced with the help of this great administration and this delegation, we can be the first to deliver medium speed rail from Albany to Montreal with a spur to Boston,” Shumlin said emphatically. “Let’s get this thing built! It’s our economic future! We’re going to make this happen together! We’re going to get it done!”
Rae, who hails from Glens Falls, N.Y., said that Vermont needs to bring its “A” game in competing for the federal funds on Capitol Hill.
“Be sure as a state and a region that you bring the energy I hear today in applying for this money,” she said. “Bring projects that are ready to go. It will take a lot of strength on The Hill in Washington to move forward on a long-term commitment to rail, but it will only happen if groups and leadership step up to the table.”
After Rae’s remarks, a parade of business and economic leaders took the podium to give their take on the prospect of rail along the western corridor.
Tom Donahue, Executive Director of the Rutland Regional Chamber of Commerce threw out some notable statistics on what visitors spend. He said the first five months of 2011 saw 7,183 people pass through the downtown Rutland Amtrak Station. On average, a domestic day visitor spends $107, Donahue said, and an overnight domestic visitor spends $292.
“Seventy-five percent of those domestic visitors stayed overnight,” he said. “We believe the missing link to tourism in this region is a rail connector to Middlebury and Burlington.”
Pierre Masuy, the plant manager of Omya in Florence, talked about how rail weight limits in Vermont affect Omya’s ability to move its calcium carbonate products. Omya is the state’s top rail user, but must truck its calcium carbonate from its Middlebury quarry to the Florence plant, as there is no direct rail service available. There are plans to build a 3.3-mile-long rail spur that would link the Omya quarry off Foote Street in Middlebury with the main line west of Otter Creek. Officials hope to start work on the estimated $30 million project during the spring of 2013.
“Expanding rail along the western corridor would be an advantage to Omya and attract new businesses,” Masuy said.
Addison County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Andy Mayer said Middlebury College would provide significant ridership on expanded passenger rail and cited a number of Addison County businesses that rely on the movement of freight but need the heavier trains that can’t come this way.
“We really need to connect to New England, the Northeast and the world,” Mayer said. “We need the rail.”
During the question and answer period following the officials’ comments, Rae again emphasized the importance of solidarity in vying for those federal rail funds.
“If we don’t hear how important this is and have people continue to bring that home, other things will become more important,” she said. “This once-in-a-generation opportunity could be lost. This regional thinking and connectivity is important.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, is on the Vermont House Transportation Committee.
She said she was encouraged by what she heard at Monday’s event, despite earlier setbacks in getting federal rail funding to Vermont.
“Maybe third time’s a charm,” she said. “I’m more encouraged that Deputy Secretary Rae took the time to come her and allow us to lobby her, or at least present our case.”
Lanpher said the House Transportation Bill already includes the authority to bond for $15 million in matching funds should the stimulus money be awarded to Vermont.
“We’re ready to go, we’ve got our match, and we present a strong application,” she said. “We’ve been through this twice. We have strong leadership and (Rae) is here. It’s got to mean something.”