Get a group talking about transportation and sooner or later someone says, “I don’t understand why we don’t support our railroads more.” In fact the state of Vermont does support railroads, to a degree, and just completed a strategic policy plan to guide spending on rail and evaluate progress.
The overall aim of the plan is to maintain and modestly improve the rail network that exists. “By using spending criteria and performance objectives outlined in the plan, “We’ll see hopefully how well we are dong and make wise decisions as to how to spend our limited resources,” says Scott Bascom, the Agency of Transportation Planning Coordinator who was in charge of developing the plan.
The topic of rail policy might make your eyes glaze over, but documents such as this shape decisions that influence daily life. Supporting the rail infrastructure in Vermont used by Amtrak and freight railroads removes cars and trucks from the interstates and benefits the environment. And like other policy decisions, it supports some interests while others loose out.
“If we continue our rail service and improve it, that has economic impact on the state of Vermont,” said Richard Hosking, Vtrans’ Rail Program Manager.
On the other hand, moving traffic from highways to rail impacts those who live alongside the railroad as well as benefits those who interact with the highway.
For example in St. Johnsbury, the town and local developers have been eyeing the rail yard as a site for a new big-box development and have not been happy to see the state support its continued operation as a rail center.
The state funds two Amtrak trains, the “Ethan Allen” from Rutland to New York and the Vermonter which originates in St. Albans and follows interstate 89 and interstate 91 southward to New York, Philadelphia and Washington. The department envisions first continuing to fund operation of these trains and hopefully extending the “Ethan Allen” to Burlington and along the western part of the state, a move that would require millions of dollars in track improvements.
Despite its support of passenger trains, and the fact that most people interact with rail through passenger travel, most of the state’s rail policy concerns freight. That’s because, Hoskings notes, freight trains are more heavily used in Vermont.
“Some people have ridden passenger rail, and that’s part of their experience,” said Bascom. “The fact that rail brings their fuel oil, they don’t experience that, since it’s a truck that delivers to their home.”
The plan is not a vision for future rail use, but a criteria for how to better determine how the state can best utilize its resources.
“We really needed a tool that could measure what are the benefits of a project and what are the impacts,” said Charlie Miller, VTrans’ rail planning coordinator.
The plan includes “performance measures, a prioritization process and other elements that indeed give us a method for determining the types of projects [to undertake], the value of those projects to stake holders – possibly shippers, possibly the railroads themselves, the state as a whole, the local community,” said Miller.
The plan includes a 14 point ranking scheme, covering questions about everything from environmental to economic impacts.
“This plan is not to identify the problems,” Hosking said. “It’s to give us the tools so that when we identify the problems we can prioritize them and go to the legislature. Then the legislature, because they are aware of the plan, have a higher level of confidence than if we didn’t have the plan.”
The plan matches work VTrans is doing for air, bike and road networks, according to Miller who points out how this will integrate projects across modes.
About five percent of the state transportation budget is used for rail, a figure that has been relatively consistent recently, although some federally funded projects such as the enlargement of the Bellows Falls VT rail tunnel have lately augmented that amount significantly. “Traditionally, it’s what’s developed over the years,” said Hosking.
Priorities identified in the plan are increasing weight limits to new national standards including caring for bridges, providing clearance for double-stacked containers and tall automobile carriers, adding truck-rail terminals and more
In late Novemeber, VTrans held a statewide meeting to hear views on the plan.
Like jury duty, this is democracy in action; a way for citizens to influence and participate in the process. Interactive television was used for citizens to question Bascom, and Ron O’Blenis, the consultant from Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas who was retained to create the plan.
One criticism came from Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment who said she was concerned that some improvements were designed for the benefit of Omya Inc. in Florence, the largest rail shipper in the state.
Aside from Omya, other significant rail shippers are Exxon-Mobil in Burlington, followed by Blue Seal Feeds, Sprague Energy, Feed Commodities International, Poulin Grain, Irving Oil and Duke Energy.
But Bascom says measuring the benefits of specific rail projects is problematic because they benefit the network as a whole. “It’s kind of like asking about the bridge on the interstate that we are putting a new deck on. It’s kind of a silly question because the highway becomes non unusable if there’s a link broken.”
“The rail policy plan is not a plan that gets adapted and goes on the shelf,” promised Hosking. “It’s going to be continuously reviewed. It’s an active document,” he said. Miller noted that “If something does alter our plan, we have several vehicles to address that. One is the state rail council – which is made up of operators and others appointed by the Governor who help direct the agency toward issues when they come up.”