Regional Commission seeks to connect Bennington and Manchester to Amtrak network

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MANCHESTER >> The Bennington County Regional Commission held its January meeting in Manchester on Thursday, discussing Vermont's solar energy programs and a proposed bus line that would add Bennington and Manchester to the Amtrak network.

BCRC executive director Jim Sullivan presented a proposed Amtrak Thruway Bus project, which would see the creation of an Amtrak bus line that would run from Albany to Bennington to Manchester, in lieu of a train line that was proposed last year, which would have run along a similar route. Sullivan said that bringing passenger rail service to Bennington County is still something there is interest in, but, "If you've been paying attention to what's going on in Washington and Montpelier, there isn't any money for the capital cost [of the train line, estimated to be about roughly $113 million], and there's probably not a lot of interest in the $7 million [annual] subsidy [required to run the train line]."

Those numbers represented the cost to run one train a day, including the extensive capital improvements that would have to be made across the region in order to make the passenger rail project feasible. This new proposal, said Sullivan, would run two buses a day, in conjunction with the Amtrak schedule, and built into Amtrak ticket prices. The required annual subsidy from the state would be a much more manageable $490 thousand, which Sullivan said was based on a conservative ridership estimate of about 30,000 passengers a year riding from the Bennington and Manchester stops.

What this would mean, said Sullivan, was that a resident of New York City, or any city connected to the Amtrak network, could now select Bennington or Manchester as a destination when purchasing tickets. The train would drop them off in Albany, and they would take the bus the rest of the way. Sullivan credited North Bennington resident George Lerrigo, who was also a major part of the passenger rail proposal, for researching the success of Amtrak Thruway buses in California, where they are widespread.

Currently two Amtrak systems run through Vermont: the Ethan Allen Express Route, which runs from New York City to Rutland, and the Vermonter Route, which runs from Washington, D.C., to St. Albans, passing through New York City, Brattleboro, Montpelier, and White River Junction.

The assembled membership of the BCRC voted overwhelmingly to pursue the project further, although some expressed reservations that ranged from whether Amtrak was the right provider, to how expensive the tickets would be. Sullivan said that the project would need several things to move forward, including local support, a commitment of funding from the state, and a willingness to work with other modes of transportation, such as rental cars and hotel shuttles. With those, Bennington County could become a practical tourist destination for travelers from New York and beyond.

The BCRC also invited three representatives from the state to discuss solar energy projects: Jeannie Elias of the Department of Public Service; Billy Coster of the Agency of Natural Resources; and Johanna Miller of the Natural Resources Council. They each gave an individual presentation, explaining the permitting process for net-metering, community solar projects in which a group of neighbors join together to purchase an array and share the savings, and how the state is balancing promoting the use of solar energy with environmental concerns.

During Elias' presentation, a resident from Bennington, concerned about the proposed solar project there — especially its visibility from the Monument and the highway — asked if the state, "had ever turned down an application for environmental, or more importantly, aesthetic concerns."

Elias responded that, while the state turned down applications for environmental concerns frequently, it had never, to her knowledge, turned one down for aesthetic reasons, citing a Vt. Supreme Court decision in which they declared that the blending of renewable energy was not considered, "shocking or offensive to the average person."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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