Rail yard ballot item raises controversy in Rutland

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(Host) Town meeting day voters in Rutland City and Rutland Town will be considering the pros and cons of a $100 million rail yard relocation project. While many in the community are in favor of the move, VPR’s Nina Keck reports debate over the proposed site has heated up in recent weeks.

(Keck) People driving through downtown Rutland have been complaining for years about the trains that regularly tie up traffic. To help fix the problem, local officials have spent the last five years developing a plan to move the city’s switching yard to a 77-acre parcel of land about a mile south of the city in Rutland Town.

(Howard Burgess) “I support the concept of the rail yard project, but not the location of where they want to move it to.”

(Keck) That’s Rutland Town Lister Howard Burgess. He believes much of the land proposed for the new rail yard is too swampy for industrial development. The rest he says should remain farmland. A natural aquifer that’s on the site could provide future Rutland Town residents with a plentiful water source. That’s a resource Burgess and many others don’t want to see jeopardized by rail cars carrying hazardous or toxic materials. So Burgess hopes voters in Rutland Town will vote no when asked whether their select board should continue discussing the project.

(Burgess) “We need to stop it now, they need to stop and they need to start looking at something else, and start looking at the other sites and start reconsidering. Really, because of the environmental issues, because of that rail site, I don’t think it will ever get permitted.”

(Matthew Sternberg) “A lot of these things always seem easier if they just put it someplace else.”

(Keck) Matthew Sternberg is head of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority and one of the project’s strongest proponents. Eleven different sites were considered for the rail yard, but Sternberg says the size and location of the Rutland Town parcel make it better suited for the project. He says wetland mitigation will have to occur on portions of the property closest to Otter Creek.

(Sternberg) “But the area right up near the rail yard is more of an upland area, that does stay dryer that is more stable. There are a number of businesses located there now just on the other side of the train tracks. So it’s clearly suitable for that kind of development and that’s where the growth would be focused.”

(Keck) Sternberg says in addition to moving the switching yards, the plan includes an access road that would run just from Route 4, south of Rutland into the city’s center. That road would take trucks entering the city off busy Route 7. Sternberg says it would also provide access to new industrial development sites in Rutland City and Rutland Town. Sharon Davis, president of the Rutland City Board of Alderman, says voters need to understand that this project could bring in an estimated 800 new jobs.

(Davis) “And we have to remember, that we don’t have an interstate connect and we’re not going to get one. We don’t have a bypass and we’re not going to get one. The only way to get product into this community is by rail and we have to take advantage of that if we want to see this region prosper, if we want to see additional jobs and if we want to stop exporting our kids to somewhere else.”

(Keck) Creating jobs is important, agrees Heather Ruelke, but at what cost? The Rutland Town resident says an active rail yard will make the town’s aquifer unusable as well as destroy prime agricultural land, which she says is rapidly disappearing across Vermont.

(Ruelke) “I know that everyone likes to wave the economic flag, I just am very cautious about that. I know that they can’t specifically say who’s going to go in there with industry. I want to know where these jobs are going to come from, I want more information from them. I’m not hearing enough to make me say yeah, I’m going to destroy a natural resource for this.”

(Keck) Local officials point out that the project is a long way from getting built and the Town Meeting Day vote is only a first step. Rutland City’s Sharon Davis says a yes vote will allow officials to begin environmental impact studies. If wetland or other problems come up, Davis says Rutland City and Rutland Town officials can work together to address them.

While residents in the two communities will be voting on slightly different ballot items, Mathew Sternberg of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority says people need to remember this is more than a local issue.

(Sternberg) “This is where four major lines serving the entire west side of the state come together. So ultimately as the state looks at making the transportation system work, the yard is going to be addressed. And we can go about it in two ways, we can either let it happen to us, or we can try to take more control and have more say in determining our own destiny with it.”

(Keck) Rutland City and Rutland Town residents will have their first chance to take more control of this issue when they vote.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

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