State says purchase of fuel-efficient passenger rail cars will have to wait

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(Host) The state says it will have to wait until fall to purchase new, fuel efficient passenger rail cars.

But the reason for the delay is unclear. The state says it wants guidance from a special committee chaired by the state treasurer. But the treasurer says the Legislature has already approved the deal.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The new rail cars are called diesel multiple units.

They’re self-propelled by their own diesel engines and they’re cheaper to operate than conventional trains. 

It will cost about $18 million to buy the state of the art equipment. The new cars will allow Amtrak to operate the Vermonter train twice a day.

And this week, the Agency of Transportation told the Vermont Rail Council that the purchase will be delayed until the state figures out how much it can afford to borrow in the years ahead.

John Zicconi is spokesman for the agency.

(Zicconi) “We have to make sure we can afford it. We can’t move forward with purchasing something the state can’t afford.”

(Dillon) A special committee chaired by the state treasurer determines how much Vermont can borrow. Zicconi said the Transportation Agency wants guidance on how the deal will affect the state’s debt load before it goes ahead with the purchase. The committee will meet in October.

But State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding says the Legislature has already approved the purchase.

He says the capital debt affordability committee is not required to sign off on the deal.

(Spaulding) “There is no connection between this sale and the approval by the Capital Debt Affordability Advisory Committee. So that won’t be a hold up.”

(Dillon) But members of the Rail Council say they were told by the Transportation Agency that the treasurer’s committee had to approve the purchase.

South Burlington Representative Sonny Audette is a member of the council and a member of the House Transportation Committee. He doesn’t want to see any delays. Audette says he’s surprised the Transportation Agency now says it has to go to the debt committee first.

(Audette) “I understood that once we agreed to, it was going to proceed. Now I don’t know why the hold-up, but that’s what they want to do.”

(Dillon) Zicconi of the Transportation Agency says the administration is still committed to the project. He says the modern rail cars will save money over time.

(Zicconi) “Running the new cars will actually be a cost savings, because they are more fuel efficient.”

(Dillon) Members of the Rail Council agree, so they want the state to buy the cars as quickly as possible.

That’s because even after the administration decides to go ahead with the deal, it will still take 18 months for the equipment to be made and put into service.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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