Council asks: Why roads, not rail?

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(Host) The state will borrow an additional $10 million for transportation projects as part of an economic stimulus package.

But members of a state advisory council were dismayed to learn this week that none of that money will go to improve the rail network in Vermont.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Legislature and Governor Jim Douglas agreed that the state needs to borrow more money to fix the aging transportation system.

But when the infrastructure committee of the Vermont Rail Council met this week, members questioned why no rail projects were included in the potential list of work.

Council member Mike Coates wanted answers from Sam Lewis, the director of operations for the Transportation Agency.

(Coates) "If the agency prepared the list and if it was for transportation infrastructure, why didn’t rail get some consideration? I mean, we’ve got a hell of a problem here."

(Dillon) Lewis told Coates that lawmakers have other priorities.

(Lewis) "It’s not to say that rail isn’t important. But I would say that just about everybody in the Legislature is a little more interested in the road and the bridge. I understand your frustration, but they’re looking at this larger transportation picture."

(Dillon) Members of the Rail Council are frustrated. The council is advisory, and it doesn’t have much clout to shape transportation policy. And some members complain that three years after the state got $30 million in special federal funds for rail projects in the western part of the state, the work has yet to begin.

Mike Coates:

(Coates) "We’ve got the opportunity with this $10 million in bonding to finally leverage the federal funds that are sitting there….

I still feel we’ve got to look at that, and make sure we’re going to use those funds."

(Dillon) Council member Charles Moore is a former executive with New England Central Railroad. He said that rail is an even more valuable alternative now that fuel prices are at record levels.

(Moore) “We keep talking and preaching about getting trucks and people off of the highways and the damage that’s done to our roads. And we keep saying that over and over and over. And get everything on the rail, or as much as we can on rail. And then we get faced with a situation like this. I mean, do they know what’s going on? Do they believe in rail? I don’t know.”

(Dillon) Coates told Agency officials that they need stronger advocates for rail within state government.

Sam Lewis of the Transportation Agency said rail has to be balanced with other transportation projects.

(Lewis) “I take exception to your statement. That will be part of the discussion. But the discussion is all modes.”

(Dillon) But council members also complained that the position of rail director within the agency has been vacant for five months. The vacancy, they said, indicates the priority the agency gives to rail.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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