Rutland Herald

Railway is pushing for a spur to OMYA

December 5, 1999

MIDDLEBURY - A proposed $18-million rail spur to the OMYA marble company's Middlebury quarry would benefit several area companies in addition to OMYA, according to Vermont Railway president David Wulfson.

The link would give Middlebury industries access to rail shipping and would make the quarry area more attractive to other companies, Wulfson said. Vermont Railway consultant Paul Craven has made the same point to Middlebury's Select Board, and has said Standard Register, which has a paper products plant near the quarry, and others have already expressed interest.

Vermont Railway is taking the lead in re-activating the idea of a rail spur, often mentioned during the past year in connection with debate over OMYA's use of trucks to carry marble ore from Middlebury to a grinding plant in Pittsford. Brandon innkeepers opposed increasing that truck traffic, which led to Act 250 limits being placed on OMYA plans for increased production. That in turn has led OMYA to file lawsuits with the Vermont Supreme Court and the U. S. District Court in Burlington.

OMYA had wanted 170 round-trips by trucks per day, but only got 113 from the District Environmental Commission and 115 from an appeal to the Environmental Court. Both decisions said the parties should pay more attention to the rail alternative, as described in a recently updated feasibility study.

But in a recent interview, Wulfson said Vermont Railway's effort to get a 3.2-mile track extension is based on strong beliefs about the need for truly free enterprise, not just the chance to get a lucrative contract for shipping marble. He said he is confident that rail shipment would offer competitive rates, but not just for OMYA.

The railroad is hoping part of the spur's cost will be footed by the state. But before it can obtain funding, it needs environmental permits and state Transportation Agency approval.

Vermont Railway is a major carrier that runs from northern to southern Vermont on tracks leased from the state.

The Standard Register plant would be along the proposed route, and further extensions could easily reach the Joseph. P. Carrara & Sons concrete products company and the Specialty Filaments plastics plant in East Middlebury, Wulfson said. The East Middlebury Spur, as his company calls the project, could help facilitate industrial development in that entire area, especially once the OMYA quarry is decommissioned, he said.

In effect, Wulfson said, Vermont Railway is going back to a memorandum of understanding that was signed over a year ago by his company, OMYA, the Agency of Transportation, the Agency of Natural Resources and the Conservation Law Foundation, which helped broker the agreement. All the signers pledged to work toward creating a spur, he said - something that had been put on the back burner during the contentious Act 250 deliberations on the truck issue.

OMYA attorney Edward Van Schwiebert said Friday that the company is also investigating a rail spur, but wants Vermont Railway to take the lead. "It's a rail project, and they know how to do this," he said.

In Brandon, where many community leaders hope an ongoing Route 7 improvement project will lead to the creation of a bypass, the rail spur has been viewed with skepticism. The consensus there is that $18 million would build a bypass, which would remove many more of the trucks that are eroding the historic, small-town character of a struggling business district.

Boosting rail transportation is part of the Conservation Law Foundation's environmental agenda. The Foundation, one of the state's leading environmental groups, believes shipping by rail will increase energy efficiency and decrease pollution.

In any case, it would take years for a rail spur to be built, due to the environmental and financial obstacles, Wulfson said.

Now that the Agency of Transportation is working through regional transportation advisory committees to set its priorities, the approval of Addison County's committee is vital. Susan Leonard, the Addison County Regional Planning Commission's transportation planner, said the committee is in no position to act yet, because it needs to hear from Middlebury's Select Board about the town's position.

At a recent meeting, the select board decided not to make a decision on the spur's desirability until after a public information meeting on Monday. Property owners who would be affected by the spur are being encouraged to attend.

To reach the quarry area, a rail spur will need to go under Route 7, pass over Creek Road, bridge Otter Creek, and travel through flood plains. Wulfson said Vermont Railway is already working with the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the wetlands.

Among the likely local obstacles is the Eddy Farm School for Horse and Rider, a horse farm and natural preserve whose land the rail spur would cross.

Wulfson said that although the quarry is only about 1.7 miles from the main line of the railroad, a 3.2 mile route would be needed to haul loads uphill.

Vermont Railway and OMYA have already contributed $50,000 apiece to begin addressing the environmental issues, Wulfson said. They have also applied to the state's Rail Facilities Enhancement Fund to start a $1.5-million project to deal with permitting, engineering and property acquisition.

Vermont Railway and OMYA would each pay $500,000 toward the work, and the Enhancement Fund would cover the other $500,000, he said.

Vermont Railway is trying to take the initiative on the rail concept and "keep it alive," Wulfson said. His company supports OMYA's argument in federal court that OMYA has a constitutional right to run its trucks on a U.S. highway like U.S. Route 7, he said. Similarly, rail should have the chance to compete with trucking for such business, Wulfson added.