Business & Economy

Vermont loses out on high-speed rail grant; state may use “Jeffords” earmark instead

The New England Central Rail Road passing through Montpelier Junction. VTD/Josh Larkin
The New England Central Railroad passing through Montpelier Junction. VTD/Josh Larkin

Despite the Shumlin administration’s best efforts, the third time wasn’t the charm for the Amtrak western corridor project. The U.S. Department of Transportation passed over Vermont’s most recent bid for $83 million in funding for track improvements that would have enabled the state to offer passenger rail service from Burlington to Rutland. The western corridor is now used for freight.

In March and April, Gov. Peter Shumlin made several personal appeals to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for a portion of the high-speed rail funding that states like Florida turned down.

On Monday, Vermont’s application was rejected in the third, and last, grant round. The funding would have extended the Western Corridor Amtrak Service. Twenty-four states applied for 15 awards. LaHood announced that about $945.2 million would go toward projects in the Northeast. The federal government has, to date, awarded $10.6 billion for improvements in the reliability, speed and frequency of existing lines. Of that amount, $5.8 billion is obligated.

In a statement, Shumlin accentuated the positive and downplayed the negative. He drew attention to the $53 million in high-speed rail money the state had received last year through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act for improvements to the Vermonter rail line, which runs from St. Albans to Brattleboro and on to Penn Station in Manhattan. (The Vermont rail upgrades began last fall and are slated for completion in 2012.)

The high-speed investments announced this week for other nearby states will indirectly benefit Vermont, Shumlin said, because they will result in faster travel times to New York.

“Vermont will see direct benefits from the funding received by our New England partners: the Connecticut project will support work for the Vermonter line and the major Northeast corridor projects in the New York metro area will ensure quicker clearance and reduced time travel for all trains,” he wrote. “Additionally, the New York State project in the Albany area will directly benefit travel time for the Ethan Allen service.”

Sue Minter, deputy secretary of the Agency of Transportation, said it’s clear the federal government wants to bolster the existing eastern rail Amtrak corridor before they expand another section.

Sue Minter
Sue Minter. VTD file

“It is a disappointment because we were really gearing up for that investment in the western corridor and seeing it as a critical link from Burlington to Rutland, which is one of highest priorities of the administration,” Minter said.

The current horizon for future federal funding for high-speed rail doesn’t look optimistic, according to Joe Flynn, rail director for the Agency of Transportation.

“It would have been wonderful to have gotten the award, and it would be disingenuous to say otherwise,” Flynn said.

The Burlington-Rutland line project is important for Vermont, Flynn said, but compared with projects in other states with denser populations, “our desire (to improve) the western corridor may not marry up to Washington’s radar screen.”

“We may have to do it without large sums of federal funding,” Flynn said. “We may have to look at other ways to do it.”

Flynn pointed to the $19.8 million earmark for transportation obtained by former Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., who retired from office in 2006, as a possible source of funding for passenger rail development on the western corridor. “We shouldn’t curl up in a ball because we didn’t get the grant,” Flynn said.

He suggested that the agency needs to determine exactly what it would take “to get Amtrak here so that it’s a competitive form of transportation.”

Amtrak revenues and ridership are both up, Flynn said. About 140,000 people used passenger rail in Vermont last year. The state appropriated $4.5 million in subsidies for Amtrak in fiscal year 2012.

The Ethan Allen Express, which runs from Rutland to Albany, and the Vermonter are both “in the black,” according to Flynn. In the last fiscal year, revenues increased by $838,000, and the taxpayer subsidies for the service decreased accordingly.

Meanwhile, the $52.7 million improvements to the Vermonter rail line could increase train speeds by as much as 20 miles per hour, Flynn said. Once the upgrades are completed, trains will be able to travel at a rate of 59 miles per hour and up to 79 miles per hour in certain areas.

It currently takes about 10 hours to travel from St. Albans to New York City by train. The improvements on the Vermont line will shave 27 minutes from the total travel time; additional upgrades in Connecticut and Massachusetts will carve another hour from the trip, according to Flynn.

“The Vermonter has high travel time,” Minter said. “The more we can do to reduce travel time, the more we can increase ridership.”

Minter said the agency is actively discussing a northern run to Montreal via St. Albans. The rail project would involve designing a security checkpoint in Montreal, she said.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Why spend money on something nobody will use?

    • Karl Riemer

      Don’t you love comments from people who already know what they think without bothering to read the article? 140,000 nobodies used Amtrak last year in a state with terrible track, not one single ticket counter and sloooow speeds. Vermont is poorly served by Amtrak because we’re at the end of a dead-end track with a miniscule population. Yet Amtrak, almost in spite of itself, attracts a large percentage ridership and makes money here. The reason to spend money on it is to increase that ridership and reduce fuel wasted by half-empty grossly-over-powered private cars on heavily subsidized highways.

      Incidentally, I don’t mean to criticize Amtrak for the condition of Vermont track. It’s leased track. I do think they could deliver tickets through Vermont stations or install kiosks to print tickets instead of mandating delivery by mail or courier. That’s just dopey.

      • Christian Noll

        Hey Karl Ha ! Nice one.

        Vermont was never the “dead end” of the “Montrealer” which I used to take up from Philadelphia as a child. I think it took twelve hours to reach Essex Jct.

        Montreal was the “terminus” before it turned around and came back.

  • Josh Schlossberg

    Rail (and bicycles and carshares) is essential for the future of Vermont transportation. Some of the highest energy expenditures and CO2 emissions from Vermonters is from each of us driving individual cars.