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Back On Track: Vt. Transportation Secretary On Amtrak Restart, And Future

An Amtrak train passing a railroad crossing sign
Toby Talbot
/
Associated Press File
After shutting down during the pandemic, Amtrak service begins again in Vermont on Monday, July 19.

On Monday, Amtrak service returns to Vermont for the first time in over 15 months. The service shut down when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And while Amtrak trains began running a few months later, in many parts of the country, they didn't come here.

That was a decision made by state officials who took a cautious approach to travel restrictions throughout the past year. But on Monday, the state will celebrate the return of Amtrak with $1 fares and events featuring local politicians and other officials at several train stations along the Ethan Allen Express and Vermonter lines.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Vermont Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, Secretary Flynn, you're about to bring Amtrak back. But some rail advocates were pushing for the service to return as far back as last fall. So, what took so long?

Secretary Joe Flynn: Well, as you said, I think in your opening that we took a cautious approach. We wanted to continue to follow the science and the data. Admittedly, anyone coming to Vermont during the height of the pandemic, by plane or by Amtrak, for that matter, or by transit, would have to quarantine. You know, trying to keep a handle on whether those folks were or not seem to be just added risk. Amtrak, in particular, only because it makes several stops – when either the Vermonter or the Ethan Allen leave New York City, by the time they get to their terminus in Vermont, they've made several stops along the way – we were just concerned about increasing any potential population that could, you know, be contrary to the public safety and public health of Vermonters.

And how our ticket sales so far? Do you expect ridership to bounce back to where it was before the pandemic on Amtrak?

Well, we do. In fact, ticket sales for the day of July 19, next Monday, interestingly enough on the Vermonter is 90% booked right now for travel within the state of Vermont. And ridership prior to the pandemic was actually up, it was up 2.6%, as was ticket revenue, up before the pandemic.

So, given those indicators, we certainly believe that Amtrak will come back, it will come back strong. And we are just pleased that we're able to restore this next week.

The state has been working on an extension of the Ethan Allen Express from Rutland up to Burlington for a number of years. A few years ago, your department estimated that that extension would be done in 2021. But it appears that's not likely. Do you know when exactly train service will return to Burlington?

Yes, great question, and we're glad you bring that up. Actually, this administration has been saying that the Ethan Allen would come into Burlington in late 2021 or early 2022. Currently, as has been reported in the media most recently, like in many places in business today, there are supply chain implications, which are tied back to COVID-19, which is what we are told at least. There are some pieces of rail infrastructure, switches in particular, that are currently on order that may take upwards of four or five months to arrive, which would still put us in early 2022. So, I think the message to Vermonters and everyone waiting for the Ethan Allen to arrive in Burlington is that it is around the corner.

More from VPR: 'Did It Work?': Bringing Amtrak Train Service From Rutland To Burlington

In terms of a date, I mean, early 2022: Does that mean March, April, May?

I would like to be able to say that, you know, if not by December of this year, that it'd be in the first quarter of 2022, which would be by March at the latest.

On another Amtrak issue, there's long been talk of connecting a Vermont service up to Montreal. Is that an active discussion right now?

Absolutely. In fact, that would be reconnecting Vermont service, because back in the day, it was the Montrealer. I actually took that train, as a kid, from Essex Junction to Montreal.

We have been in active conversations with Transport Quebec and the Canadian federal government. I've been to Montreal personally twice. We have emissaries that are working this issue almost weekly for us. And the work really, at this point, is north of the border. And by that I mean, we've been to Central Station right down to the point where they've got architectural drawings on what would need to be remodeled within Central Station in order to accommodate pre-clearing passengers for departure. And, and then there's a degree of track infrastructure work that would have to occur between the city of Montreal and the border in Alburgh, Vermont.

But in terms of when that service might be up and running, is it still a matter of years away?

Candidly, I think it is. I wouldn't want to make comments that, you know, couldn't come true. I think it's doable within a matter of years. I certainly would like to be able to take that trip. There's a lot of pieces to this are more at arm's length than if we were having this discussion with Amtrak ourselves here in the states.

On a different issue, under a law passed last year, Vermont is now required to drastically cut its carbon emissions in the next few years. Part of that equation is likely to involve more electric vehicles on the roads. From your view, does the state have the charging infrastructure right now to support a significant increase in the number of EV's on Vermont roads?

We currently have close to 300 charging stations in the state of Vermont, across the state of Vermont, and in fact, the agency this summer is finishing a strategic initiative to have a Level 3 charging station within 30 miles of every Vermonter.

But to answer your question directly, we need more. More charging stations are in the governor's ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] plan, and they're also in the agency's plan. And you know, we are looking at trying to daisy chain, if that's the right word, electric vehicle charging stations every so many miles even on Vermont state roads.

Finally, Secretary Flynn, Congress is negotiating a major infrastructure bill, which, if it passes, could bring more federal dollars to Vermont for a variety of projects. What's at the top of your wish list right now if that bill were to pass?

There's a lot of things we could do with more infrastructure money, but one thing we can't do is forget the infrastructure we currently have. Most of our interstate bridges, you know, were built in the 60s. We have to do a lot of bridge maintenance. We continue to do bridge maintenance, but our ability to, you know, leapfrog forward on things like that. Also, culverts. We have about 60,000 culverts on the state of Vermont. So, there's a lot of maintenance that we could really, you know, jumpstart. This year alone, we have a $680 million transportation budget, second-largest in the history of the Agency of Transportation.

So, we are doing a lot of maintenance, but to be able to book additional work like that would be significant. And also the money that you're talking about will provide us an opportunity to look at things that'll be transformational [to] Vermont. When you have money like we foresee coming, you really do need to take a look at, what are the things that could set Vermont on a course for the next 50 years or longer that we never otherwise could have achieved?

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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