A new study found that an 8-mile stretch of railroad track from Montpelier to Barre would need a $96 million makeover to bring it up to commuter rail standards.
Some are raising questions about the high price estimated for the project. The Legislature requested the study last session to better understand the costs of the effort to cut down on car traffic by adding commuter railway capabilities between the two cities. The track is currently only capable of transporting freight trains.
The railway stretches between the Montpelier Junction in Montpelier and the TD Bank drive-thru on Metro Way in Barre. The study found that all 8 miles would need new timber cross ties, new trackbed to assist with drainage and platforms that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Along this stretch, there are seven bridges, two of which need to be replaced and two of which need rehabilitation in order for commuter trains to safely travel the railway, according to the study.
David Blittersdorf, CEO of AllEarth Renewables, has been pushing for more commuter railway systems in Vermont for years and encouraged lawmakers to pursue this commuter rail study.
He said he thinks the study was intentionally “gold plated” by VHB, the company hired by the Vermont Agency of Transportation to conduct the study, because he thinks VTrans is biased against supporting commuter rail. He questioned why new track bed, new fencing and new safety measures were added to this cost estimate.
“We need a different way to move people around to reduce our carbon, to reduce pollution and change our future,” Blittersdorf said. “There’s a lack of leadership to do this.”
In 2017, Blittersdorf bought a dozen Budd commuter cars, that have since cost him $6 million. While he supports the development of commuter rail in Vermont in an effort to lower transportation pollution, he also wants to lease these cars worth $500,000 each to the state, a deal he claims wouldn’t make him much money.
The House Transportation Committee will review the report after they reconvene in January. Chair Rep. Curt McCormack, D-Burlington, said the cost for the plan surprised him and that he wants to work with VTrans officials to bring the price down in order to cut down on environmentally unfriendly car transportation in the state.
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“I think the pricing is awfully high,” McCormack said. “I will look into whether or not it does need to be this high.”
Past railroad project costs haven’t come near this price point set by the study. A mix of federal and state funding was set to improve 11 miles of track between Burlington and Rutland for $26 million in 2015. In 2018, the state made a plan to rebuild or rehabilitate 31 rail bridges along 53 miles of railway between Rutland and Bennington for a total of $31 million.
Dan Delabruere, rail and aviation bureau director for VTrans, said the cost of the project is inflated due to the safety standards that commuter rail tracks need to meet. Positive train control technology, or PTC, is one of those safety measures that keep trains from colliding or derailing. Without the PTC technology, the $96.4 million plan would decrease to $67 million.
McCormack questioned whether or not the track needed to be equipped with this technology in an effort to lower the project’s price tag. Delabruere said the state would need to acquire a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration in order to do this. No other track in Vermont is equipped with PTC, but federal authorities are requiring all new track to have this technology, according to the agency.
“We don’t want to put people on trains and put them in a situation where something could go wrong,” Delabruere said.
Delabruere said the 8 miles of track currently only carry freight trains that go about 10-15 miles per hour, whereas a commuter train would hit speeds of up to 40 mph to be competitive with car transportation. This requires that all of the track, and certain bridges, would need to be replaced in order to accommodate these speeds.
Rep. Barbara Murphy, I-Fairfax, who also sits on the House Transportation Committee, said she wasn’t surprised by the cost because these projects often have “hefty” price tags. But because it’s not essential for the track to transition to commuter capabilities, she said she doesn’t plan to make a push for this project to be a financial priority this legislative session.
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