• Amtrak rally draws 200 people
    By PETER HIRSCHFELD and STEPHANIE M. PETERS Herald Staff | January 20,2009
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    Vyto Starinskas / Rutland Herald

    People attending a rally to save Amtrak service to Rutland wait for the train to leave Monday afternoon after passengers carrying skis and snowboards boarded the train to New York City.
    Amtrak passengers struggled Monday afternoon to maneuver ski bags and bulky suitcases through a throng of more than 100 people gathered in the tiny James M. Jeffords Rail Passenger Welcome Center to rally to preserve the line.

    With the Ethan Allen Express in jeopardy as the Legislature contemplates budget rescissions, the juxtaposition of train riders and advocates Monday was confirmation of what the county's business and political leaders have said since the possible cut was announced – the service is vital to the community.

    One of many elected officials in attendance, Rep. Steve Howard recalled Sen. Jeffords' fight to hold the state to its promise that if the region did not get an interstate, it would get train service.

    "This is about jobs today and about jobs tomorrow," he said. "Nobody understood that better than Sen. Jeffords."

    Eight-year-old Ian Suddarth, a second-grader at Barstow Elementary School and the youngest member of the Rutland Railway Association, earned the loudest cheers from the crowd when he shared his train-riding experiences.

    "Every time I get on a train it feels like I'm starting a new adventure," he said, as he intermittently peeked over a "Save the Ethan Allen" sign nearly as tall as he is.

    The rally was organized by the Vermont Action Rail Network as a build up to a Wednesday evening public hearing before the Legislature, when all are invited to share their thoughts on the Douglas Administration's proposal to trim $1.4 million from the Fiscal Year 2010 transportation budget by replacing Rutland's train service with an Amtrak-operated bus route.

    For Carl Fowler, a member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council and general manager of the Rail Travel Center, a company that books tours by train, the state's proposal to cut passenger rail service comes at an odd time. Ridership on the Ethan Allen Express, which connects Rutland and New York City via Albany, grew by 17.5 percent in Fiscal Year 2008. The recent spike caps 39 months of uninterrupted growth in passenger numbers on the 241-mile Amtrak route.

    Fowler has advocated that the state could realize offsetting revenue increases with an increase in Amtrak ridership.

    "If they could get 30 more passengers a day on the Ethan Allen, that alone generates enough revenue to accomplish the Governor's cost-saving target," Fowler said. And getting more people on the bus, he said, could be as easy as revising bus schedules. "I have been advocating for an extended period of time that the state ought to look at coordinating train service in the state with surviving bus lines," Fowler said.

    He said a modest increase in the train's marketing budget would also reap measurable returns.

    "A weekly ad in daily newspapers simply carrying a schedule of the train and a quick summary of round-trip fares would make an incredible difference in utility. People know the trains exist, but they have no idea where the hell they go," he said.

    The Rail Advisory Council, a committee formed to steer rail policy in Vermont, recently came out 9-to-1 against the proposed cut. Its disapproval underscores the nearly unanimous opposition against Amtrak cuts among elected leaders and economic officials in Rutland.

    "I'm amazed at the unity on this issue," said Tom Donahue, head of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce. "It crosses party lines, it crosses demographics. There's just total agreement that this is a bad idea."

    Donahue said the Administration's proposal needs a fuller vetting before lawmakers agree to the plan. He questions the accuracy of the figures contained in the Agency's proposal, and said the "bustitution" may prove more costly than current estimates project.

    "I think the important part now is to point out that the state might not even save any money doing this," Donahue said. "If it turns out that this isn't going to save anything, and may even cost money, then I can't believe there would be any further support for it."

    Mobilization against the cuts – participants at the rally Monday will head to the Statehouse on Wednesday evening for a four-hour public hearing on the matter – reflects deep consternation in Rutland over the proposal.

    Numerous organizations and businesses in Rutland have also voiced concern over the plan. A spokesperson for the Rutland Regional Medical Center said the train represents a key element in its recruiting efforts.

    "The more disconnected you look from the world, it doesn't necessarily entice folks to want to come to the area," said Joe Stuhlmueller, public relations coordinator for Rutland Regional. "It's bad enough we don't have major airport. If you take away the only major mass public transit service away, you're not doing the region any justice."

    Robert Ide, head of the rail division at the Agency of Transportation, said passenger rail service along the western corridor remains a top priority in the Agency's long-range plan. He said the state hopes to deploy more than millions in federal money for track upgrades, possibly as soon as this construction season, pending the provisions of the federal stimulus package.

    The interim bus service, Ide said, would work to build ridership in advance of an extended train route, which would ferry passengers from New York City to Rutland and on to Burlington.

    Fowler said however that cutting train service now jeopardizes any future expansion of rail. "If they take the train off now with a plan to bring it back in five years, as rational as that may sound it's unlikely to be accomplished," Fowler said. "If we lose the five cars assigned to the Ethan Allen Express, they will be reassigned virtually instantaneously."

    If history is any guide, Fowler said, once the train goes, it will be exceedingly difficult to get it back. The last time Rutland lost passenger train service, in 1953, the city had to wait 43 years – until 1996 – to get the Ethan Allen Express. John Zicconi, communications director for the Agency of Transportation, said the proposal represents an effort to reduce state expenditures without revoking transit services. The bus route, he said, replaces only a portion of the Rutland-to-New York City line and maintains a transit network that enables passenger movement.

    "Clearly a bus is not a train. A bus is not as sexy as a train, and we understand that," Zicconi said. "But for the short term, until we can get passenger service from Burlington all the way down the western corridor of the state, we do feel that the bus is option that keeps everybody whole in the interim and allows us to save $1.4 to $1.5 million."

    Zicconi said increases in ridership might make the route more financially viable, but he said boosting passenger numbers in such short order would prove difficult. "Could it work? Theoretically, if you can get the riders," Zicconi said. "How you get riders, and how you get them that quickly, is very difficult to see."

    Key lawmakers in the Legislature's transportation committees have thus far been noncommittal on the Administration's Amtrak proposal. Rep. Rich Westman, chair of the House Transportation Committee, emphasized that legislators will have to mine cost savings in the 2010 budget, but said he will withhold judgment on the Amtrak measure until he hears from interested parties at the public hearing Wednesday.

    Sen. Dick Mazza, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and longtime proponent of rail, said he wants to see how the numbers crunch before he makes a decision. "I support the rail and I'm going to do everything I possibly can to keep rail there, but the numbers are going to tell the story," Mazza said. "I'm not ready to throw in the towel (on the Ethan Allen Express), but we've got to look at the financial side too."

    Contact Stephanie M. Peters at stephanie.peters@rutlandherald.com.
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