Editorial: Railways and the law

Since the late 1800s and the western expansion of the U.S., railroads have enjoyed a preferential status among businesses. That it continues today, at the expense of communities put in jeopardy by unwanted and sometimes unwise construction projects, is an anomaly that perhaps should be revisited by the state’s Legislature and the U.S. Congress.
While no one questions the value of a cohesive rail plan, particularly one that could move commuters and freight by rail instead of by road, today’s leaders should question the corporate welfare doled out to rail interests and the extent to which the railroad’s interest supersede all others. At the very least, the contracts between the state and the two railway companies operating within the state should include clauses that place the economic health of the state’s communities on an equal par with that of the railroads’ profit margins.
That is not the case today.
As Michele Boomhower of the Vermont Department of Transportation said very clearly in a front-page story in today’s Addison Independent, “We really have very little latitude in terms of directing (the railroads). We work collaboratively as much as possible with the railroads to try to arrive at common objectives, but we don’t have the authority to overrule them in most instances.”
Middlebury’s pending project to rebuild two railway underpasses through its downtown defines the point. At issue is the replacement of two crumbling road structures over the existing rail. It’s the road overhead that needs replacing, not the rail underneath. But because modern standards call for more clearance of the underpass to accommodate taller rail cars (which are more profitable for the railroads), the state and federal governments will fork out tens of millions of dollars to construct a project that, in the end, adds to the railway’s bottom line while gaining little for the common good. Adding insult to injury, the project will most definitely cause short-term economic damage to a number of businesses in Middlebury’s downtown and could cost the downtown business community long-term harm if the three-year project changes local resident’s shopping patterns.
But here’s the kick in the pants: the railway doesn’t need to care.
While David Wulfson, president of Vermont Rail Systems, is quick to paint a picture of disastrous economic harm to his multi-million company if he were to detour freight around Middlebury for a few months, he doesn’t have to give one thought to the economic harm his decisions will have on Middlebury downtown businesses, or how his decisions might negatively impact Middlebury’s 8,000 residents for the next three years.
How pompous.
Here’s a better scenario:
• Vermont Rail Systems, Vtrans and the feds should commission a study to determine how much additional cost is being added to this proposed project by having two trains a day run through Middlebury while new tracks are being laid (meaning, work has to be stopped, undone and redone multiple times throughout each day of the three-year project.) This is pure math and could be done in a matter of weeks.
• An advisory study could be done to estimate the lost revenue the project will likely have on downtown Middlebury businesses, just for ball-park purposes as there is no mechanism to replace lost revenues for such businesses, although VRS receives full compensation for any business lost during construction of the project (so it’s questionable whether VRS would suffer financially if the train traffic were detoured.)
• Appropriate parties should explore how much it would cost to detour the freight traffic around Middlebury — for all or just the most crucial times — and how such an arrangement could be done with the competing railway without long-term business loss to VRS. If short-term arrangements can be made to accommodate such detours, and they are, the basis for a longer-term arrangement is also reasonable.
Armed with that information, the state could work with VRS to come up with the best solution or VRS might face stricter parameters within its next contract.
For instance: If the project’s cost could be cut by a third, or $15 million or more in taxpayer dollars, and the project duration cut in half, would it not be worth considering that possibility? At the very least, taxpayers should demand such analysis if their tax dollars are being used to pay for the construction. That’s just prudent.
That it isn’t part of the routine cost analysis of all such projects might be a reflection of a too-cozy relationship between the state, the feds and their railway partners — or just poorly crafted law.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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