MONTPELIER -- Work on installing new rails in the western Vermont rail corridor will begin soon as part of the long-term goal of restoring passenger rail service between Rutland and Burlington.
Quarter-mile-long sections of rail were delivered last week to Burlington ahead of their installment on the line between Burlington and Vergennes. Next year, crews will begin installing additional rails for a 20-mile stretch between Rutland and Leicester, said Chris Cole, the Vermont Agency of Transportation's director of policy, planning and intermodal development.
Once that work is completed, it will leave an 11-mile gap that must be filled to complete the track upgrade of the 75-mile stretch between Rutland and Burlington. Officials hope to learn next month if a federal grant for that project will be approved, Cole said.
More will have to be done before Amtrak could begin rolling between Rutland and Burlington. Those projects include upgrading 11 highway crossings and constructing siding so the freight trains that now use the tracks could be assembled without interfering with passenger traffic, Cole said.
The federal grant that Vermont officials hope to receive is part of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program.
"It's going to take us at least two years to take care of all these projects," Cole said. "The big caveat is if we get the next TIGER grant because without that, we have no funding.
If all goes well, the agency could seek funding for Amtrak service in 2018, Cole said.
Vermont officials have worked for years to improve rail service in the 120-mile stretch between Bennington and Burlington. Many officials in western Vermont feel the area's economic development has been hobbled over the decades by the lack of an interstate highway.
Former Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican who lives in Middlebury along the route of the western rail project, pushed for restoration of service during his eight years in office. He left office in 2011.
"Restoring passenger rail service has always been a goal. It's not cheap. We knew we'd need the strong participation of the federal government to make it happen," Douglas said.
Even without restoring passenger service, officials have said improving rail infrastructure will create jobs and increase the use of the railroads to move freight, getting trucks off the highways and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Once the rails between Rutland and Burlington have been improved, officials will turn their attention to the stretch between Rutland and Bennington, Cole said.
The push for the western rail has been widespread.
"It's something that our Legislature has supported, the communities have supported," Douglas said. "It's encouraging to see that progress is being made."