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VTrans seeks funds for railroad upgrades

Responding to local political and business leaders and the Vermont Rail Action Network, the Vermont Agency of Transportation submitted an application for federal taxpayer funds to upgrade the so-called Western Corridor between Rutland and Burlington and extend the 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) due to taxpayer funds being syphoned off for special interest social and education 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 ofVermont Rail Action Network. 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."

While improving the line would make it easier for future commuter service to begin, this project is aimed at the Burlington-Middlebury to New York market, via Albany. The train will leave Burlington in the morning and return from New York in the afternoon. Top speed will be 59 mph. Welded rail will replace the old jointed rail.

Grants are supposed to be awarded at the end of September, although given that this is a tight timeframe, it would not be surprising if the process took longer.

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