MONTPELIER — Lawmakers got their first look Wednesday at a “back to the future” effort to reintroduce passenger rail service in Vermont to counteract transportation costs, parking problems in the Capital City and concerns about climate change.
Several lawmakers, including freshmen who are passionate about addressing energy use and climate change, welcomed the arrival of a Budd Rail diesel car in Montpelier, one of 10 that could be used to start passenger rail service in central and western Vermont.
The proposal is the brainchild of David Blittersdorf, a Vermont industrialist with a long history in the renewable energy business, first through NRG wind turbines and then with solar energy through allEarth Renewables, both based in Williston. A spinoff division, allEarth Rail, is focused on bringing back passenger rail with 1950s-era diesel rail cars that can each carry up to 94 passengers.
Blittersdorf hopes to launch rail service between St. Albans, Burlington and Essex Junction in the summer. Other potential routes identified include service between Waterbury, Middlesex, Berlin, Barre and Montpelier in central Vermont and as far south as White River Junction; and between Rutland and Burlington. Blittersdorf paid $5 million for 10 Buddliners last year and brought them to Northern Power Systems, formerly the Bombardier rail plant in Barre, to be readied for service next year.
Blittersdorf notes that transportation is responsible for nearly half of carbon emissions in the state, which has set a goal of being 90 percent carbon neutral by 2050. One way to get there, Blittersdorf said, was to go “back to the future” by reintroducing mass transit to reduce road trips.
“The strategy is we need to get these cars running,” Blittersdorf said. “We just have to get the OK to get a route going.
“But we have to deal with the railroads and work with (the Agency of Transportation) and the administration. So we are trying to put the vision out. We have to work together to make this work. We want to move people in these cars on these rails,” he added.
Among legislators at the rail car open house was Andrew Perchlik, a newly elected senator for Washington County. For the past nine years, Perchlik has been director of the Clean Energy Development Fund at the Public Service Department. Prior to that he was founding executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, a trade association for renewable energy technologies.
“It’s a realization of a dream that a lot of people have to get off fossil fuels — even though these are fossil-fuel trains, it’s so much less fossil fuel on a per-person basis,” Perchlik said. “So how do we make it work?”
Other legislators who support local passenger rail service include Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor.
“If we can address the barriers and make this happen, I think it would be great to get a pilot project going in the next year or two,” Clarkson said. “People love to take the train.
“It’s a wonderful way for people to be productive in other ways while they commute, so it’s just a win-win on all front. A win for the environment, a win for productivity and a win for our carbon footprint,” Clarkson added.
Deb Sachs, executive director of Net Zero Vermont, said the rail cars address many ways to reduce the state’s carbon footprint, increase public transportation options and address parking problems in Montpelier.
“Today’s event is to increase awareness and show legislators that this is a real viable thing,” Sachs said. “It’s all here — the rail cars are here, the tracks are here, and this is another way to move many people efficiently.
“If we had 85 people coming from St. Albans to Essex Junction or Essex Junction to Montpelier, you’ve moved 85 cars from the road, and reduced the need for parking in Montpelier,” she said.
Jay Ansel is a member of the Team Bridges team that won last year’s Net Zero Vermont contest to address energy use and climate change in Montpelier. The team called for the creation of a “Capital Corridor” with Montpelier, Barre, Berlin, Middlesex and Waterbury linked by existing rail lines. The corridor is an area that embraces more than 26,000 residents, 23,000 jobs and 1.5 million square feet of state facilities.
“This really is a no-brainer,” Ansel said. “If we reduced the need for parking, we could keep the cars out of town. People need to step forward in their thinking, instead of backwards. A parking structure is backwards.”
Brad Worthen, vice chairman of the Vermont Action Rail Network, said the organization works to move both people and freight off roads to reduce transportation costs and congestion, and lower emissions.
“This is a good initiative, a good day here, introducing rail and the possibilities to a lot of people,” Worthen said. “David’s done a great job and is on the cutting edge of making something happen.”