Jim Sullivan, the executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission and Costa Pappis, with the Vermont Agency of Transportation led a meeting about the New York and Vermont Bi-State intercity passenger rail study last Thursday at Arlington Memorial High School.
Pappis said there was great interest in the project, especially one that is regional in scope and a rail project. However, while this is generally a popular idea, there are now some challenges to rail now. This has not always been the case though. The $500,000 for this rail study was provided by the Federal Rail Association and was jointly undertaken with the New York State Department of Transportation.
"During the stimulus era, a lot of funding was given across the country for rail," he said. "In essence what we're looking at [in this study] is what's the best way to get passenger rail service through southwestern Vermont and how do we link it to the rest of the country."
This process usually takes four to five years, but Pappis said Vermont and New York were give permission to complete the different studies - environmental, preliminary engineering and studying routes - concurrently to save time.
There were multiple routes studied, including rerouting the Ethan Allen line, as well as creating completely new lines. The route picked would leave the Ethan Allen intact, while opening up new service along the western corridor.
The biggest challenge now to this project is that funding has been federally cut for rail lines such as this one.
"There was a major change in the federal law that essentially put Amtrak out of the subsidy business," Pappis said.
Now, the majority, if not all of the funding for this project would have to come from the state. The total cost of opening up the line on the Western corridor would be $138 million, split between Vermont and New York state.
While there are challenges to the project, there is also a large amount of community support. Susan Sgorbati, a professor at Bennington College, presented a petition with 300 signatures to Pappis.
"We feel like we have tremendous momentum building at the college, we also feel Southern Vermont College and Community College of Vermont would join us," she said. "We would like to form a coalition with our people in New York state. We feel like we want to keep building on the momentum that we have."
New York State's commitment to the project and working in cooperation with them was brought up at multiple points in the meeting. One man asked if there was a legislative update - did both Vermont and New York politicians want this project?
"You're exactly right, Vermont is committed to this. Vermont is committed to the western corridor, we're going to make the upgrades," George Lerrigo, with the rail advocacy group, Southwestern Vermont Rail Corridors committee said. "We will figure out how to make it work over time, this is a reality, New York State is the key."
While there is support locally, not everyone agrees passenger rail will help the area. One man, "a local" as he referred to himself, said he has come to a different conclusion about this project than most people.
"I'm not a fan of this. It's a complete waste of time. It's been presented before, [as] we're bringing passenger rail to Vermont...We're going to have trains blowing through trains at 60 miles per hour. It's scary," he said. "[This rail line will be] serving people who want to go back and forth to New York [and] as a local I honestly could care less. I love Vermont, I vacation in Vermont...If you love New York, stay in New York. That's my opinion."