Rutland Herald

New Rutland railyard is key project

May 7, 2003
By BRENT CURTIS Herald Staff

It’s the biggest railyard project — and one of the most expensive transportation projects — ever attempted in Vermont.

More than five miles of tracks would be moved. At least 100 acres, some of it wetlands, would be affected. Route 4 would be raised to build an overpass and a 1,500-foot-long trestle would be built in Center Rutland.

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Rutland eyes $100 million railyard relocation.

The $100 million price tag is more than six times the budget for rail projects statewide this year.

But state and local officials are confident they can move the railyard out of Rutland’s downtown.

“Our view is that this is all doable,” said Matthew Sternberg, executive director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority.

Moving the railyard from its location behind the Rutland Shopping Plaza to a new home on open land south of the city has been the biggest project on the city’s to-do list for some time.

The bulk of the railyard sits on 14 acres surrounding Howe Center and extending to West Street. But technically, the yard stretches from Park Street to the Rutland Town line in Center Rutland.

The new yard would be much bigger. Proposals for the new tracks encompass a 78-acre parcel stretching from Park Street to a point south of Route 4. Most of that area is empty land, void of roads, structures or utilities.

Aside from opening up commercial land in the heart of the city, the relocation could attract rail-dependent industries, add to the city’s tax base, reduce noise and traffic congestion in the city, and reduce the risk of toxic spills and other hazardous events, city officials have said.

But before the first new track can be laid, city, state and federal officials need to agree on what final designs to use and a plan to pay for it.

Sternberg has three years of studying the proposal as the coordinator of the project to back up his claim. But he’s not the only official of the opinion that moving the railyard is within Rutland’s reach.

Everyone from Mayor John Cassarino and Gov. James Douglas to rail company executives and even a handful of environmental groups support the initiative.

That’s not to say that the project doesn’t have its share of doubters and opponents. But, for the most part, moving the railyard has been embraced at the local, state and federal levels.

The state Legislature has invested almost $1 million in the project thus far and a request for $100,000 more is in the state’s transportation spending bill this session.

At the federal level, Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., asked for and received $1.5 million in federal funds for environmental assessments and preliminary engineering two years ago.

Sternberg has used the money to conduct feasibility and environmental studies, and preliminary engineering. He has also laid the groundwork for state and federal permit applications.

That process could take months and the funding packages he’s relying on to pay for the project could take years to procure, but Sternberg said he’s laying the foundation one rail at a time.

“We can’t get rattled by the numbers,” he said. “This project is immensely big for the state of Vermont, but nationally it’s medium sized. We have to deal with hurdles as they come along and seize on opportunities when they come up.”

Sternberg said he bases his faith on the fact that similar projects have been done elsewhere and in states more rural than Vermont.

Alaska received $239 million in federal dollars for work on a variety of rail and highway projects, he said.

“That’s our inspiration,” Sternberg said. “Our feeling is that if Alaska can do it, we can do it.”

But to bring $100 million in federal money to Rutland will take some work in Washington.

Federal lawmakers are currently deciding how to fund transportation projects nationwide for the next six years. Rutland and state officials want to make sure they put more money for improving rail freight into the transportation authorization bill being worked on now.

The current funding bill won’t expire until October.

Concerns about the federal deficit and the war with Iraq have shrunk the amount of discretionary spending allowed in the bill, according to Jeffrey Squires, a senior policy advisor to Jeffords.

But while funding the project wouldn’t be easy, Squires said there was reason to have hope.

“It’s a very challenging undertaking,” he said. “Vermont is one of 50 states looking for money. The good news is that Jeffords has a favorable position on the (Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works) and they are the ones who will be putting this thing together.”

Squires and Sternberg said they hope lawmakers will make funding more available for rail projects that improve freight traffic.

“One of the problems we have now is that most of the programs are only available to commuter rail,” Sternberg said. “While we qualify for some of that money, most of the work we need to do isn’t eligible for funding.”

Assuming that federal money will be available, Sternberg is comfortable that he has the support of state, local and business officials to get the job done.

At the local level, the city and Rutland Town — where about half of the proposed switching yard would be located — have worked together to forward the relocation. The city and town, which had been at odds with each other for 30 years over a proposed bypass, have repeatedly sent delegates to Montpelier to present a unified front to legislators.

The state has put up the money, thus far, and administration officials have said they would support the project in other ways as well.

Douglas said he liked the project and would help to promote it any way he could.

“I support the long-term plans for the western corridor,” the governor said, referring to a concept to improve the Bennington to Burlington railroad and Route 7 which runs alongside it. “I hope to keep it on track.”

Charles Miller, rail operations manager for the state Agency of Transportation, said that not only could the project be completed, it should be.

“I think it deserves to be done,” he said. “I’ve never heard of one this big in the state before — it is a huge project. But the question should revolve around good land use and this fits that category.”

Moving the rail would allow freight transport — principally OMYA tankers at the moment — to expand.

An access road, which would be built along the existing railbed once the tracks were moved, would connect U.S. Route 4 to River Street near the city’s downtown. The road would divert much of the truck traffic currently clogging Route 7 south of the city, Miller said.

An underpass for trains would be built to eliminate an at-grade crossing on U.S. Route 4 near its intersection with Route 7, he said, and the routine roadblock of rail tankers in front of the Howe Center would be removed.

“We’re not just talking about relocating the railyard. This would re-site a facility taking up vital downtown space and move it to a better area resolving other issues at the same time,” Miller said.

“This is not a one-year fix or 10 years, this is a 100-year improvement. If we’re all around 100 years from now these improvements will still be there and should still be meeting the region’s needs,” he added.

Businesses with a stake in the railroad also believe the project can get done — and some of them are willing to chip in on the cost.

Most federal programs require a 20 percent local match in funds, which would mean the state would need to pay $20 million toward the project.

But the state wouldn’t need to pitch in any more money if an agreement between OMYA and Vermont Railway works out as planned.

Presidents from the two companies have said they would agree to pay a combined $22 mil-lion over the next 23 years to help meet the local match. The money would be used as a match to get $110 million in federal grants that planners are depending on to pay for the bulk of the project’s expenses.

The two companies have agreed to pay surcharges on the freight they receive for the next two de-cades — 60 cents a ton for OMYA and 30 cents for Vermont Railway.

Sternberg said federal rail officials were still studying that proposal.

“This is a doable project,” Wulfson said. “There seems to be a lot of support for the project and if we all work together, it will be a win-win for everyone.”

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