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Middlebury may get passenger train

The Vermont Agency of Transportation submitted an application for federal taxpayer funds -via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009-to upgrade the so-called Western Corridor between Rutland and Burlington and extend Amtrak's costly Ethan Allen Express passenger train through Middlebury to Union Station in downtown Burlington.

The state had the benefit of feedback from the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, which is responsible for awarding the taxpayer funds. Because of this feedback, the application includes money to improve highway grade crossings the length of the route.

The route was recognized by the legislature as the priority rail route in Vermont for investment.

The federal government will cover 80 percent of the cost of the work, almost $60 million in funds from U.S. taxpayers. The state will put up a local match which will be covered by $15 million in bonding, which is a lot for Vermont, which has a relatively small transportation budget and bonding capacity.

In order to include highway crossing upgrades and remain within budget, work in New York east of Whitehall and work on bridges was removed from the application.

Bridges on the line, which are owned and maintained by the state, are safe but in poor condition after many years of lack of investment (just like highways). In the case of Vermont's highways and bridges, politicians channeled those funds to other more constituent popular programs. Because of the bridge condition, freight cars cannot be fully loaded, which puts Vermont at an economic disadvantage and raises the cost of fuel in the state (trains bring the gas and heating oil).

"This is as strong an application as we could make and the local match shows the state's commitment," said Christopher Parker of Vermont Rail Action Network, a public transporation advocacy organization. "We appreciate the work of the rail program and the entire Agency of Transportation. There is strong political support for this project and it is important for the state."

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