Critics question whether money for rail in western Vermont is being well spent
05/15/08 6:06PM By John Dillon
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(Host) Three years after the state got $30 million dollars for rail improvement in western Vermont, there's little to show for it.
Have important rail projects come off the track? VPR's John Dillon has a special report.
(sound of train whistle as Ethan Allen Express rumbles into Rutland.)
(Dillon) Twelve years ago, the Ethan Allen Express brought train service from Rutland to New York City. The train was a favorite of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords. Before he retired, Jeffords used his seniority and clout to get federal money to improve rail service all over the state.
But a top priority was western Vermont. The region lacks an Interstate highway. And Jeffords' goal was a passenger train that would run from New York City, through Albany, Bennington and on up to Burlington.
Three years ago, Jeffords got a special $30 million "earmark" for this western Vermont rail route. But his dream has yet to be realized.
(Fitzgerald) The western corridor is long needed work, and that's what the money was for. It hasn't been used, and I'm dumbfounded.
(Dillon) St. Albans Representative Jim Fitzgerald had a long career in the railroad business, and now serves on the House Transportation Committee.
He's disappointed that a recent round of state budget cuts delayed some rail projects once again. He says when the $30 million Jeffords earmark does get spent, it will buy a lot less because the price of materials - such as steel rail - has gone up.
(Fitzgerald) We're going to get a lot less for our money than we would have had we been on the ball and taken care of these problems and spent this money in the past.
(Dillon) The House Transportation Committee focused on rail issues this winter and spring. During one hearing, rail consultant Paul Craven studied the budget for the long list of projects.
(Craven) And what becomes visible very quickly is that the earmarks aren't being spent, it really means that the projects are not being advanced.
(Dillon) Craven said the long-planned Burlington to Bennington to Albany passenger service is more important than ever.
(Craven) The timing could not be better than it is right now, in regard to a number of things: gas prices, cost of flying... But we weren't in Vermont able to advance the western corridor concept, and we're still kind of stumbling around. ..
(Dillon) Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville disagrees. Lunderville admits there have been problems. But he says the state's new five-year rail plan spells out how the money will be used, and where.
(Lunderville) We know we've had challenges moving some of that money out the door. We've acknowledges those challenges. We've learned from those challenges, and we put a plan in place to make sure we're not going to repeat those.
(Sound of railyard)
(Dillon) According to the plan, most of the work using the Jeffords money won't begin until 2010. Two-and-a-half million dollars of the western corridor earmark will go to improve the track from Rutland to Burlington.
But $3.5 million will be spent two years from now to build a new rail spur in Middlebury to handle freight for the Omya Corporation. In total, about $13 million of the $30 million dollar earmark is slated for the Middlebury project. Lunderville says it's a good use for the money.
(Lunderville) The Middlebury spur is a great rail project. It's one that's been widely endorsed, that will get our goal of getting trucks off the road, and specifically tractor trucks filled with product for the Omya plant that roll through the town of Brandon every day.
(Dillon) But some people involved in the very beginning of planning for passenger rail for western Vermont says the Middlebury project may be a misplaced priority.
(Stannard) It's just completely taking away from the promise made a decade ago down in this neck of the woods.
(Dillon) Bob Stannard is a former state representative from Manchester. He worked to get federal and state funding to bring passenger rail from Albany to Bennington and up to Burlington.
He has a newspaper headline from 2000 that declares the train would be coming through his town the next summer.
(Stannard) I have a clear shot from my house into Manchester, and I should be able to hear the whistle blowing, and I've not heard it yet.
(Dillon) Stannard said even before the $30 million Jeffords earmark, the state and federal government spent $20 million dollars to upgrade the track in southwestern Vermont. He's still waiting for the results.
(Stannard) You know people keep looking at me and say where's the train? Well I'm kind of out of the deal. I haven't been involved in this for quite a while, but I just sit back and shake my head in amazement that the state of Vermont and this administration would allow this project to fall apart.
(Dillon) David Wulfson is the president of Vermont Railway, a major freight carrier. He says the Middlebury project is a good use of the money. He doesn't have a complaint about how the state is spending the money.
(Wulfson) The five year plan that AOT has put forward is using the earmark money in allocations that are doable. And even though it shows we have $30 million for the western corridor, you still need to do the proper engineering and planning and design.
(Dillon) Transportation Secretary Lunderville says it will be some time yet before passenger trains run down the western side of the state from Burlington to Bennington.
(Lunderville) It's going to be beyond five years from now. The breadth of the repairs that we have to do far exceed our known sources to fund them at this time.
(Dillon) The federal law that authorized the earmark for the Vermont rail projects says the $30 million dollars is available until it gets spent. But congressional staff members also point out that nothing prevents a future Congress - faced with a growing deficit -- from changing the law, and taking the money back.
For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.