State continues to push for Amtrak cut
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | January 15,2009
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Times Argus
House and Senate Transportation committee members listen to a question from a colleague during a joint transportation committee hearing at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday.
From left are Sen. Phil Scott, R-Washington, Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Grand Isle, Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, and Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro.
MONTPELIER — Opponents of a plan to cut passenger rail service between Rutland and New York City are readying for a heated debate over how to balance the floundering transportation budget.
Administration officials have sought to eliminate a portion of the 241-mile Amtrak route and replace it with a bus service. The move would save an estimated $1.4 million in the fiscal year 2010 transportation budget, which is reeling in the wake of yet another significant revenue downgrade announced Tuesday.
City officials in Rutland, however, call the train a beacon in an otherwise bleak economic picture and have urged lawmakers to reject the cost-cutting move. Eliminating Amtrak service, they argue, will only compound the state revenue problems Vermont is experiencing so acutely.
"This train is a major part of our economy," said Rep. Steve Howard, a Rutland Democrat. "It is one of the few beacons of hope we have in what is increasingly an empty, boarded-up downtown."
The administration's proposal replaces the train route with an Amtrak-operated bus service that would run from Albany to Burlington, with a stop in Rutland.
Robert Ide, program manager for the rail division at the Agency of Transportation, said the plan maintains passenger service, albeit via bus, and noted that the proposal would add stops in Middlebury, Bennington and Manchester, none of which have access to the public transit network. While there is no service via Amtrak, municipal transit services offer intercity buses from Bennington to Burlington on weekdays with transfers in Manchester, Rutland and Middlebury.
Tourists and other travelers looking to go from Vermont to New York City would have to disembark the bus in Albany and ride the remainder of the trip on a train.
"What we are trying to do is recognize the budgetary situation we are in," Ide told lawmakers Wednesday. "We're trying to find a way whereby we can provide an Amtrak-type service to more communities and find a way to reduce our costs."
A New York City-to-Burlington train route remains a high priority in the agency's long-range plans, according to Ide, who said he hopes the federal stimulus package will provide occasion to begin a $30 million track upgrade toward that end.
For now, though, Ide said the budget-trimming measure will solve shorter-term fiscal shortfalls without irreparably cutting services.
Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network, is among a number of rail proponents who worry that reinstating the train service could prove impossible if it's eliminated now.
"I'm skeptical the train will return because once the train goes, the equipment will be sucked into the Amtrak system and it will be very hard to get it back," Parker said.
Parker also said that bus service will push ridership numbers down at a time when Vermont needs more investment in public transit, not less.
"In general, it's my experience that if you substitute a bus for a train, 60 percent less people will be riding the bus," Parker said.
Parker, Howard and other Rutland officials are leading a charge to convince lawmakers to scrap the proposed cut. On Monday, at 4 p.m. at the Rutland train station, Parker is staging a save-the-train rally. He also is organizing a car pool for people to attend a public hearing on the matter at 5 p.m. next Wednesday in Montpelier.
"It's an economic asset to Vermont," Parker said. "There are millions and millions of people who would never come to Vermont if there were no trains."
Rep. Rich Westman, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, said he'll reserve judgment on the proposal until he hears more testimony. But the plan, he said, offers a creative solution to a stark budget problem.
"I think the proposal shows out-of-the-box thinking," he said. "I think it's an interesting proposal, and I feel badly for the people of Rutland who don't want to see this happen."
Westman said the plan has its supporters: residents in Bennington and Manchester, he said, are eager to see public transit arrive in their towns. And given the scope of previous budget reductions, Westman said, it will be difficult to find more palatable savings elsewhere in the budget.
"All that's left for state dollars is this and aid to the towns," Westman said. "If we cut anywhere else, we lose out on a lot of federal money."