Editorial: Rail upgrades should prompt a changing mindset in Vermont

Good news came last Thursday in the form of a $8.9 million grant to rebuild 20 miles of state-owned Vermont Railway track between Leicester and Rutland. It’s part of the $18.5 million project that will refurbish the tracks between Burlington and Rutland and allow the trains to move at higher speeds. The hope is the improved rail will spur economic development.
“The western part of the state is economically challenged because they have a transportation challenge,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said at that Thursday press conference. The higher-speed track will improve passenger and freight traffic by being able to move larger loads faster and safer, transportation officials said, while increased rail traffic will also lead to lower carbon dioxide emissions.
The grant is comprised of $3.2 million from the state’s Transportation Fund, $6 million from already-allocated federal funds, and about $200,000 from the rail operators. Completion date is scheduled within two years.
Those are the facts that made up the press conference last week and the majority of the news stories that were published. (See story here.)
Within that story, however, is a subtle slight that Vergennes, Middlebury and Brandon officials need to address. In those press releases, television coverage and news stories it is far too easy to suggest the rail improvements are to benefit the state’s two largest cities, Rutland and Burlington, without bringing similar benefits to Vergennes, Middlebury and Brandon.
It’s a long-running state mindset that needs to be changed — not just with rhetoric, but by helping those communities spawn rail-related commerce.
Vergennes has several industries that could benefit from improved rail, as does Middlebury. Working with the railway, state and local economic development officials need to be sure that all possible uses are explored and developed from the get-go (not added in phases decades hence), so that important concepts are thoroughly discussed before the new tracks are laid.
Improved passenger traffic could also potentially cut commuter numbers from Middlebury and Vergennes to Burlington if early morning trains to Chittenden County are met by commuter buses to take residents to the major employers of the area and hooked up at the end of the normal work shift to get workers back home at reasonable hours. And having speedy rail service from this area to New York City would be a boon to many, especially those at Middlebury College as well as independent entrepreneurs and telecommuters.
Middlebury also has significant rail infrastructure in sections of its industrial park serving Cabot/Agri-Mark, a grain mill, and oil and gas businesses, not to mention potential work with the producers of Woodchuck Cider — home to 60 percent of the nation’s hard cider production. Brandon also has unique opportunities to benefit from the improved railway that deserve state consideration.
But here’s what we know: While state aid will play a part in future developments, if history is a guide, most of that will go to larger cities and established industries that can profit more by growing bigger. It is the easier path, but it misses the opportunity to bolster vital smaller communities like Brandon and Vergennes, and set the stage for bigger growth in mid-size towns like Middlebury.
With this project, what’s needed early on is a state commitment to ensure economic development is encouraged all along the western corridor and not targeted at a single market. For Brandon and Addison County, that’s a message to promote aggressively and continously as opportunities arise.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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