Vermont Officials Want High Speed Rail Funds

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(Host) The deputy chief of the Federal Railroad Administration was in Rutland Monday to listen to Vermonters’ pleas for better rail service in the western part of the state.

A project backed by Vermont and New York State is competing for funds to extend Amtrak’s Ethan Allen passenger train to Burlington. It currently runs from New York City into Rutland.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Government officials, business leaders and rail advocates gathered to make their pitch to Karen Rae, the administration’s rail deputy. They said Vermont’s western corridor rail project is not only shovel ready, it’s a much needed boost to the state’s economy.

Vermont is one of at least 33 states competing for $2.4 billion in stimulus funds rejected by Florida for high speed rail.

In that initial round of competition, a three state project focusing on the Amtrak Vermonter and the eastern rail corridor received $160 million.

A proposal for Vermont’s western corridor was rejected but officials were encouraged to reapply.

Transportation Secretary Brian Searles says that’s about to happen thanks to the newly available funds rejected by Florida.

(Searles) "Our application is for approximately $80 million to improve the infrastructure from Burlington, here to Rutland, and from Rutland over to Whitehall, New York, in order to extend the Ethan Allen Express Service and improve its on-time performance."

(Keese) Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said improving rail from Rutland south through Bennington is also an important part of the western corridor vision.

Another New York-Vermont project looking into service between Bennington and Albany won a planning grant in the last round of federal awards.

(Shumlin) "And that will be the next phase and we will get that done as well."

(Keese) Shumlin described Rutland, once a rail hub, as "transportationally-challenged" because it isn’t near an interstate.

Shumlin also said Prime Minister Jean Charest of Quebec was eager to chip in to bring the Ethan Allen all the way to Montreal.

(Shumlin)  "So let’s get this thing built. It’s our economic future."

(Keese) Other speakers echoed the demand for better rail service.

Larry Cirina is president of Westminster Crackers in Rutland. He said his business wouldn’t be here if he couldn’t get regular rail shipments of flour.

(Cirina) "The other thing is that we do not bring in full-sized rail cars, and that’s because of the condition of the tracks. So my plea is strictly from an economic standpoint to keep us competitive and keep us growing in this part of the world."

(Keese) Karen Rae, of the Federal Rail Administration compared today’s climate to the 1950s when the nation made a commitment to build the interstate highway system.

(Rae) "It will take a lot of strength on the Hill in Washington by folks like Congressman Welch, by the two senators from Vermont, to move forward what the Vice President identified as a long term commitment to rail to the tune of $8 billion a year. "

(Keese) But Rae said that investment will only happen if citizens and local leaders keep the pressure up.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese in Manchester.

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