The Agency of Transportation has issued its first statewide rail plan in nearly a decade. The proposal envisions new passenger routes to Burlington, Montreal, Manchester and Bennington, but there’s no clear plan to pay for the massive track upgrades needed to make it all a reality.
The plan to extend Amtrak’s passenger service from Rutland to Burlington has been in the works for years, and state officials have reaffirmed their commitment to the project in the 145-page rail plan released by the Agency of Transportation last month.
“But as you look further out, there’s some things that we haven’t heard before that are in this plan that are exciting,” says Christopher Parker, head of the Vermont Rail Action Network, an organization trying to build political and financial support for major rail improvements.
The long-planned extension to Burlington on Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express would establish a direct line between New York City and Vermont’s most populous urban hub.
Parker says the new statewide plan also calls for major extensions on Vermont's other major passenger route, called the Vermonter, and envisions an entirely new passenger route that would connect Albany, Bennington, Manchester, and Rutland.
By 2035, the agency hopes to extend service on the Vermonter, which runs along the eastern side of the state, all the way to Montreal.
“And what all that means is a commitment to the state energy plan of more than quadrupling ridership on inner-city passenger trains,” Parker says.
Living up to that commitment, however, will require enormous capital investments. The combined price tag for the 20-year plan totals $665 million, well more than the $380 million in state and federal funding anticipated over the same time frame.
“It is an incredible challenge that we have before us, and we are going to work together with the Legislature to determine what our priorities are, and whether we can meet all the needs of our rail system,” says Chris Cole, deputy secretary of the Agency of Transportation.
Cole says the stakes are high, and that stitching Vermont into the socioeconomic fabric of the northeast region hinges in part on tapping in to the high-speed rail network connecting major metropolitan hubs.
“And we need to be part of that system. We’re small rural state tucked up in the northeast part of our country,” Cole says.
Cole says extending Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express from Rutland to Burlington is the most realistic goal in the near term, and he says funding is already largely in place for that project, which officials hope to complete by 2019.
How to fund the creation of a new service to Bennington and Manchester, or to solve the financial and logistical hurdles of extending the Vermonter line across the international border and into Montreal is less clear.
Parker says the plan is a good one. But he says it’s still just a plan.
“And in order to make it something more than that, it will take political will on the part of Vermonters and our leaders,” Parker says.
Cole says the plan also calls for major upgrades to freight lines.