Official softens stance on Amtrak
By PETER HIRSCHFELD Vermont Press Bureau | February 26,2009
MONTPELIER – Secretary of Transportation David Dill softened his stance on proposed cuts to Rutland train service Wednesday, saying he won't fight the surging tide of opposition against the plan.
"My sense is … that the preference really is to keep the service running as it is," Dill said. "If that's the case, I'm not going to press the issue."
The Douglas administration last year proposed eliminating the Albany-to-Rutland train route and replacing it with an Amtrak-operated bus service. The budget-balancing plan sought to cut about $400,000 in fiscal year 2009 spending and save an additional $1.4 million in the 2010 budget.
Dill said Wednesday he's all but given up on realizing any savings in 2009. And he said he's prepared to seek alternate cost-saving mechanisms in the governor's 2010 transportation budget.
"It appears there's considerable support here for rail, and for a number of reasons I'm not going to fight it," Dill said. "… We'll have to look at adjusting the fiscal year 2010 budget to accommodate it."
However, Rep. Rich Westman, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said rail service remains on the chopping block, despite the outpouring of support for the train route.
Transportation revenue fell by $1.5 million in January alone; Westman said further downgrades in coming months could exacerbate the budgetary challenge.
"The issue is not dead yet," Westman said. "At this point nothing is off the table, and until we know what all the revenues are going to be, until we know what all the options are, we can't make a decision on Amtrak."
Vermont's congressional delegation added its voice to train debate Wednesday. In a letter to the Rutland County legislative delegation, Sens. Bernard Sanders and Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch called on the state to retain the Amtrak service.
"While we appreciate the tough budget situation facing the state of Vermont, with Amtrak's increased ridership and revenues in Vermont, we do not think that now is the time to shut down the Ethan Allen Express service to Rutland," the congressmen said.
The congressional delegation said federal stimulus money, combined with the $40 million in federal earmarks appropriated in recent years for western corridor track improvements, were secured precisely to avoid the kind of cuts now being considered.
Legislators also received a hand-delivered petition Wednesday, signed by more than 1,300 Vermonters, asking not only to keep the Rutland train moving, but also to consider extending the route to Burlington.
Christopher Parker, head of the Vermont Rail Action Network, said the document shows broad-based support for a vital economic engine.
"The dilemma for the administration, and one we sympathize with, is how to make ends meet," Parker said. "But this is a train that has unrealized financial potential on a number of levels, and the biggest is that it doesn't go to Burlington."
The Douglas administration's proposal to slash train service has paradoxically spawned a companion debate over how to enhance train service in the state.
Chambers of commerce in at least four cities and towns, including Burlington, Addison, Rutland and Manchester, have endorsed a Rutland-to-Burlington Amtrak extension. Tom Torti, head of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said connecting Burlington to New York City via train would prove an economic boon.
"Just from a tourism perspective, we think it's a big plus for the area," Torti said Wednesday. "… The time is now for a strategic long-term investment."
Westman said Wednesday that the future of the Ethan Allen relies on its eventual arrival in Burlington, though he said it's been difficult to pin down exactly what kind rail improvements are necessary to extend the service.
Present track conditions along the western corridor would reduce traveling speed to as low as five miles per hour along some stretches. The Rutland-to-Burlington commute, according to Amtrak estimates, would today take about two hours and 40 minutes.
John Zicconi, communications director for the Agency of Transportation, said the agency's long-term vision includes Rutland-to-Burlington service. Achieving that, though, will take years of construction and about $45 million in up-front capital, he said.
An $8 billion pot of competitive grant money, included in the federal stimulus package, will be available for track improvements along high-speed rail routes. Zicconi said the state intends to apply for those funds.
"With some luck we will get stimulus money specially earmarked for that stretch between Burlington and Rutland," Zicconi said. "… If we get that money, it could speed up the process of us getting that line ready for Amtrak."
The proposed Amtrak cuts have already escaped the Fiscal Year 2009 budget adjustment. They are now part of a $5 million in potential cuts being considered by the House and Senate transportation committees for fiscal year 2010.