BENNINGTON -- Would you like to be able to hop on a train to take you from the Bennington area to points north or south? Bring your opinion to a meeting to be held at Arlington Memorial High School on Thursday, April 3, at 7 p.m. to discuss a rail study and get community input.
The Vermont and New York agencies of transportation recently completed a joint study designed to judge the potential cost, impact, and benefits of extending rail service to Bennington County by creating a connection between Albany and Rutland.
The "New York-Vermont Bi-State Intercity Passenger Rail Study" took three years to complete. It recommends that a new service be established, which would run through Mechanicville and Hoosick Junction, in New York, before continuing north through North Bennington, Manchester, and eventually to Rutland.
"In 1944, the year I was born, 50 percent of all in intercity trips were done by rail," said George Lerrigo, who has been part of a local rail advocacy group, the Southwestern Vermont Rail Corridor Committee, "Amtrak [makes up] about two to three percent of intercity trips now. So we've gone from 50 to two and we wonder why we have full highways."
Joann Erenhouse, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, who was also on the rail committee, spoke of the potential economic benefits the passenger rail would bring to Bennington. "In this day and age of telecommuting, you could be an executive in New York City, and go into the office once or twice a week, and telecommute the rest of the time. Would you mind a train ride two times a week? No. But the impact, economically, on our communities and our state are phenomenal, because he would be paying Vermont income tax based on a New York City salary, which would be probably better than anybody gets paid in Vermont. The disposable income that becomes available gets spent where?... here in Vermont."
"It makes our attractions, our ski slopes, more attractive to urban dwellers who would love to come here, but don't have a car," said Erenhouse, who noted that she gets calls at the Chamber all the time from parents whose children will be attending one of the area colleges, but don't have a car to drive them there.
Jim Sullivan, director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, added that there are over one million people in the New York City area without cars.
"We are so tantalizingly close to one of the world's greatest financial centers," said Erenhouse, "and it is beyond my comprehension why our state insists on not being connected through us. We are the gateway to Vermont, literally."
"I appreciate that the bulk of our population and our legislators live in the Burlington area or Chittenden County. Not to take anything away from them, but so much of the effort for the last three years, on this train issue, has been focused on getting people to Montreal," said Erenhouse, who said that that project had been put on hold because of issues with crossing the border. "New York City, do you have to cross another border? Do you have to go through customs. I don't believe so. So, that's another benefit of getting us down into the higher population areas."
In North Bennington, which would be the nearest station to Bennington in the proposed rail line, Americans with Disabilities Act regulations on the length and height of the platform would make the North Bennington Train Station impossible to use. The study proposes putting a new train station across the street, and straightening out the tracks. The majority of the land that would be affected is owned by Bennington College, said Lerrigo. While that would be an added cost, Sullivan said, "If we can pay for the rest of the improvements, we can pay for that."
The study estimates that the entire project would cost about $138 million, and would rely heavily on federal grant money. It's estimated that the project, if it were started today, would cost about $112 million, but includes the additional $26 million to adjust for projected inflation.
"There's a lot of infrastructure work that needs to be done," said Erenhouse. Among that work would be installing signals at every railroad crossing between Albany and Rutland, each of which costs six-figures, according to Sullivan. Additionally, the existing tracks will need to be updated, else the speed of the trains will simply be too slow to compete with Amtrak's existing Ethan Allen Express Service, which runs from Albany to Rutland by way of Fort Edward and Whitehall, N.Y. The proposed line through Bennington would shave about 30 minutes off that trip, which currently takes around three hours.
Erenhouse spoke to the importance of having a strong community presence at the April 3 meeting, as without the support of the community the project won't be able to get the attention it needs to move forward.
"Long-term I think its absolutely critical that we have that kind of connectivity," said Sullivan, "Frankly, 30, 40 years from now, I'm not convinced everybody's going to be hopping in their cars and driving to New York City, or Washington, or Chicago, or Buffalo, or wherever they want to go, or even flying for that matter. For a real cost-effective way of moving people and goods, you can't really beat rail. There's a brave new world dawning out there, and people need to realize that tomorrow isn't going to look like yesterday."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB