Rutland Herald (VT)
August 28, 2012

Omya rail spur put on hold indefinitely

   Bruce Edwards

A proposed $32 million rail spur that would take Omya's marble ore hauling trucks off Route 7 has been put on hold with no timetable for moving forward with the project. Omya plant manager Jim Stewart said "given the economic climate, sluggish economy and the cost" the company and Vermont Rail Systems are not pursuing the project.

"We worked very closely with the railroad and the state of Vermont and it's going to lie dormant for now," said Stewart, who took over as manager of the Pittsford plant this month. "I don't believe we can economically go for it."

He said a careful analysis concluded that building the rail spur would be far more costly than continuing to ship the raw material via truck.

The 3.3-mile rail spur would connect Omya's Middlebury quarry to the main rail line to the west, allowing the company to ship its marble ore south to its Pittsford calcium carbonate plant.

The impetus behind the project was to get the company's trucks off Route 7, which pass through Brandon's historic downtown.

Omya's Act 250 permit limits the company to 115 roundtrips a day.

Vermont Railway President David Wulfson said Monday that given the current economic climate, the cost to move forward with the project was prohibitive.

"It's taken so long to go through the environmental work on the project, and so many years have passed, it's just gotten very expensive," Wulfson said.

When the rail spur was first discussed 20 years ago, he said the cost was in the $7.5 million range.

With financing harder to come by since the global economic collapse four years ago, Wulfson said the company is exploring alternative financing through the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Regional Center program. In return for an investment that creates new jobs, the foreign investor is granted a green card to live in the United States.

The EB-5 program has fueled foreign investment in Jay Peak Resort's recent expansion.

A 2008 federal Environmental Impact Statement settled on a preferred route for the rail spur, which would follow Lower Foote Street, Route 7 and Halladay Road to connect to the main rail line.

The project includes a 2,050-foot trestle over the Otter Creek and Creek Road and a 2.2-acre loading facility that would serve potential Middlebury-area shippers.

The project was opposed by some neighbors in the immediate vicinity.

Vermonters for a Clean Environment also took issue with the project. Annette Smith, the environmental group's executive director, said the project had too many problems associated with the spur's construction and its impact on neighbors.

"This is the right decision for Omya, Vermont Railway and especially the neighborhood," Smith said, adding "the only other good news I'd like to hear is that this is the final decision and that this is not going to come back again and create (an) uproar in the neighborhood all over again."

Mark Perrin, who owns Creek Road Farm, said while the best scenario would be no spur, he and his wife were neither for or against it. He said what was troubling was not knowing whether it would be built or not.

"What we've always wanted was to have a decision made one way or another because our land is kind of held hostage as long as it's in limbo," said Perrin, whose property faces Otter Creek.

He said the spur, if built, would skirt the northern edge of the 77-acre property.

Having the spur remain a question mark would make it more difficult to sell the property if he chose to, according to Perrin, who also owns Green Peppers Restaurant.

He said he's not sure whether the decision to put the project on the back burner indefinitely resolves his dilemma.

Chris Coles of the state Agency of Transportation said the state remains ready to follow through with its part of the project - a $6 million to $7 million underpass of Route 7 between the quarry and the main rail line.

"We're prepared to go forward with that portion of the project, when and if the Vermont Rail Systems gets financing for the project," said Coles, director of planning, policy and intermodal development for the AOT.

Coles said the state would pay for the underpass using federal highway dollars.

The other option would be to use a portion of a $30 million federal earmark set aside for the western rail corridor upgrade between Rutland and Burlington. But Coles said the state's preferred option is to use federal highway money.

The congressional earmark to upgrade the tracks between Rutland and Burlington was sponsored by then U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt.