It started with a senator's vision for passenger rail. Now $100 million and 23 years later, what happened to plans to bring Amtrak service from Rutland to Burlington?
VPR's Did It Work? series looks at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.
The late Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords had a goal: to bring passenger rail to Burlington, connecting Vermont’s largest city through the western side of the state to New York City.
According to Jeff Munger, who served on Jeffords' transportation team, the late senator's love of trains was cemented in childhood. The father of one of his close friends worked for the Rutland Railroad, Munger said, and young Jeffords sometimes got to ride in the caboose.
"You know, you can imagine if you're a boy of eight or nine years of age getting to ride in a caboose," Munger said. "So that was a big adventure, and I think that's what started Jim's love of trains."
In the mid-1990s, when Jeffords was in the U.S. Senate, Amtrak moved to cancel its only service through Vermont, known as the Montrealer. But the congressional delegation worked to save a portion of that line, ending it in St. Albans instead of Montreal, and changing the name to the Vermonter.
The Vermonter mostly serves eastern and central Vermont, following a similar path as the interstates. That leaves western Vermont comparatively lacking in transportation infrastructure.
"If you've ever driven say from Burlington to Bennington, you only have Route 7, whereas other parts of the state have interstate," Munger said. "So Jim thought about that, and right then and there he decided that we were going to get passenger rail for the western corridor."
The plan? Build a passenger line from Burlington, down through Middlebury, Rutland, Manchester, Bennington and on to Albany. Jeffords started hauling in federal money to make it happen.
"So Jim originally got $10 million," Munger said.
On Dec. 2, 1996, an Amtrak train from New York City arrived in Rutland — the first run of a passenger rail line called the Ethan Allen Express. A crowd of local officials and train lovers cheered it on.
According to a New York Times write-up, it was the first train of any kind to take that route since the early 1950s. The line is almost entirely in New York, with just two stops in Vermont: Castleton and Rutland.
"Jim Jeffords got us an earmark that got the train into Rutland itself in 1996," said Carl Fowler, a passenger rail advocate, "and he started working almost immediately on getting the train extended to Burlington."
Starting in the late '90s, Jeffords started earmarking even more money to get passenger rail up to Burlington: all told, $40 million.
The plan was for the Ethan Allen Express to stop at Burlington's Union Station, near the Lake Champlain waterfront. But, the project has hit some obstacles over the years.
"The project is pretty complex," Fowler said. "The last time a passenger train came in from Rutland on a regular basis into Burlington was 1953."
According to Fowler, the tracks were in bad shape and it's taken a lot of work to get them upgraded to what's known as continuously-welded rail, allowing trains to run smoother and faster.
"It's terribly frustrating but it's not like there's been a deliberate conspiracy to sabotage the train," said Fowler, a member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council. "Government projects take forever. There's environmental impact studies, there's engineering studies, but most importantly there's the need to garner the funding."
Most of the money for this project is federal, starting with about $40 million of Jeffords' earmarks. Jeffords left the Senate in 2007, and he died in 2014.
In 2011, Congress essentially abolished earmarks, leaving Vermont to compete with other states and cities for federal grants.
After several tries, the state eventually won enough federal money to cover the project. Piecing all that together took time, said Dan Delabruere, the director of rail at the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
"We are just about there as far as funding goes," Delabruere said. "Our last Tiger 7 Grant put us at the finish line as far as funding goes, so we think we finally have enough money to get us to Burlington."
The state estimates this project will cost a little over $100 million. Delabruere, who has been in his position for nine years, said there are strong controls to oversee the various contractors who've worked on this project and he's confident the money has been used effectively.
But go back further in time, and there's evidence that wasn't always the case.
An audit back in 2008 found that many state rail contracts, including some for the western corridor, were not put out for competitive bids, and in general, lacked sufficient oversight. It also found that VTrans had no penalty in place to incentivize a contractor to finish work on time.
Two years later, the auditor's office followed up, and determined that VTrans had fixed nearly all these problems.
There was also a big setback out of the state's control: Tropical Storm Irene badly damaged the tracks between Rutland and Middlebury, according to Carl Fowler.
"Had that not happened, we might again have gotten the train up here quicker," Fowler said.
Today, there are two notably unresolved issues keeping the train line from completion.
First, if you've been through downtown Middlebury in the last two years, then you know there's a major construction project going on. Two aging bridges were torn down and they're being replaced with a tunnel, allowing the rail line to go under downtown. That project is supposed to be done by July 21, 2021.
The second big obstacle is at the end of the line in Burlington, where there's a controversy brewing over where to keep the train at night.
Main Street Landing is a mixed-use development in the old Union Station building in downtown, where the train will stop. Melinda Moulton, the CEO of Main Street Landing, is a big supporter of rail but she's not a fan of a recent recommendation by the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.
The Amtrak train needs to park somewhere overnight — and in that time, refuel, get cleaned, have its toilets emptied — and the commission looked at several different options of where that could be done. Their first choice? Right next to Main Street Landing.
"We don't support that. We're like, 'Why would you do that?'" Moulton said. "This is a pedestrian area. There are people who live here. Why would you want to park a train in the busiest part of downtown?"
Delabruere said VTrans is taking the planning commission study into account, but there's no final decision yet on where to keep the train overnight. He said there's still plenty of time to sort it out before 2021.
Twenty-three years later, the Ethan Allen Express still ends in Rutland. So no, it didn't work — at least not yet.
At this point, most of the work on the rail itself is done. A few platforms still need to be built, but Delabruere with VTrans said Amtrak is on board to provide the service, and the state is on board to fund it.
"Sometime in 2021 is when Amtrak will… should be extended to Burlington," Delabruere said.
Munger and others are confident it'll be worth the wait. Already, freight trains can move faster on the upgraded rail lines — and these advocates say that, eventually, expanded passenger rail will take cars off the road.
Moulton thinks the late Jeffords would be thrilled that the line is as far along as it is, but Munger thinks otherwise: "I think that were he alive today, sure he would be disappointed that the project hasn't been completed."
Munger said Jeffords envisioned an even greater rebirth of rail throughout the state, hearkening back to his childhood. Munger recalled a visit with Jeffords to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in New York.
"They have a model train set up in this huge room," Munger said, "and I mean it's incredible, and they've got trains running all over the place … and his eyes just lit up when he saw it all. So, he was very passionate about it."
Whether Vermont will ever see Jeffords' full rail vision is hard to say. First, check back in two years to see if the Ethan Allen Express has made it to Burlington.
Bringing Amtrak Train Service From Rutland To Burlington... [drumroll / mobile users flip your phones] ...
While we hear a lot about new initiatives or funding when first announced, it's not always as easy to figure out whether they lived up to their promises down the line — and if they were a good use of public money. In VPR's Did It Work? series, we're following up at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.