(Host) It’s been slow going – but plans to relocate Rutland’s congested downtown rail yard continue to inch forward.
As VPR’s Nina Keck reports – finding a suitable location and funding for the project remain the biggest challenges.
(Train yard sounds)
(Keck) Eighty percent of the rail freight that moves throughout the state goes through downtown Rutland. With fuel prices high, demand for rail service is growing.
But Bob Steele, Operations Manager for Vermont Rail Systems, says Rutland’s congested yard is already at capacity.
(Steele) "The trains could be bigger – longer. And that’s part of the problem now. Say we come in through Bellows Falls, we have to clear the train on south Main street and a lot of times we have a long train and we have to pull way up behind the plaza. If there’s another train up there we have to leave one train outside the yard while the other train gets out of the way. We can’t block the crossings obviously and the longer the trains are the more crossings get blocked. That’s a big problem, blocking crossing."
(Keck) So is safety. Located behind Price Chopper and Walmart, Steele says there are way too many pedestrians walking through the yard. Officials in Rutland have been talking about moving the tracks for years.
Early last year, the Army Corps of Engineers narrowed down a list of potential sites. An 80 acre tract south of the city, which includes land in Rutland Town, was getting a lot of attention. But economic, political and environmental issues made it problematic so other proposals were reconsidered.
Tom Macaulay is executive director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority.
(Macaulay) "The project did slow down for about a year. Whenever you destroy an acre of wetland you need to find two acres somewhere else in the watershed to replace it with. Under one of the plans there was 26 acres that would be destroyed so we had to find 52 acres somewhere else in Otter Valley and that was difficult."
(Keck) Macaulay says the Army corps of Engineers is currently assessing the environmental impact of five proposals. One would leave the yard as it is, another would expand the existing yard, and three proposals would move it south of town in different configurations.
Macaulay expects them to release their findings this spring. Once that’s done, public meetings will be held to get input from local residents, a design can be created and the biggest challenge of all addressed – cost. Depending on the plan, Macaulay says estimates are in the $100-150 million range.
(Macaulay)"We believe we can find solutions for the environmental problems being identified. So we have to find a way to phase in construction so we don’t have to put all the big money up first . Lay a few tracks and expanding the capability of the yard without building the entire yard up front and then over time we can just keep adding to it. "
(Keck) Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras and Rutland Town Select board Chairman Stanley Rhodes caused a stir last month when they told visiting state transportation secretary Neale Lunderville that they would prefer to see the railyard move north of town.
But Bill Gillam Jr. a longtime member of the Rutland Board of Aldermen and a member of the Rutland County Transportation Council, says that area has already been shown to be poorly suited for the project.
(Gillam) "People need to read the documentation. When there are new people coming on you need to read the history of where we’ve been with this project. And how long it’s taken us to get there. And just to come up and say something off the cuff start a whole riot up and down the corridor here. I have people calling me from Burlington and St Albans all the way down to Bennington saying did you guys just jump the ship? And I go, Oh, no no no – we didn’t jump the ship, there’s just a little mis-communication going on here."
(Keck) Gillam says people need to realize that this is a long range project that will take years to complete. But he says considering the high cost of fuel and the nation’s renewed interest in rail, he’s optimistic about its chances.
For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.