BED photo of the McNeil Generating Station in the Intervale north of Burlington's downtown. Most of the wood chips are delivered via rail.
by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine The statutory Vermont Rail Advisory Council (VRAC) voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday night in Barre in favor of a site near Burlington's McNeil Generating Station as the best place for overnight storage of the Amtrak train that is scheduled to begin serving the Queen City in late 2021.
The vote by the 11 members opened a new phase of the prolonged controversy over the overnighting issue. A Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission report issued in July had rated a yet-to-be-built rail siding at Burlington Union Station as the best of five options for accommodating the Ethan Allen Express train overnight in Burlington.
That finding elicited loud protests from many quarters, including Main Street Landing (MSL), the owner and developer of Union Station and neighboring property in the heart of the city's waterfront.
Residents of the Wing Building, adjacent to the station and owned by MSL, also cried foul, saying that fumes from an Amtrak diesel locomotive parked next to their apartments and possibly idling all night would render them uninhabitable.
VBM file photo of the McNeil plant and railroad crossing.
In the wake of the protests, the Agency of Transportation (VTrans) raised a sixth alternative: a a new siding that would be built along the New England Central Railroad (NECR) tracks in Burlington's Intervale neighborhood, near the McNeil Generating Station. Far more sequestered than the central waterfront, the Intervale site proved more popular, among the VRAC members, than any of the original five alternatives.
A location in the city's Urban Reserve, directly north of Union Station, took a distant second place, followed in order by a second location in the reserve, the VRS rail-yard just south of Union Station, and, tied for last place in the ranking vote was the Union Station option and a site near the Onion River Co-op store in Burlington's South End.
After the vote was taken, VTrans Secretary Joe Flynn, who chaired the meeting, stressed that the council's preference was merely advisory. His agency will have the final say on the overnight siting.
"There's a lot of detail on any of these options that still needs to be worked out," Flynn said. He has anticipated making a decision on the siting by year's end.
MSL CEO Melinda Moulton expressed pleasure at the vote's outcome, diminishing as it did the chances of Amtrak locomotives belching diesel fumes through the winter nights, to prevent engine freeze-ups, at Union Station.
"It truly was a gift," she said, to see the Union Station site get walloped in the voting.
But the Ethan Allen's overnight lodgings constitute only one of the thorny questions still facing VTrans as it prepares for the service launch, which will extend the New York-Vermont train's reach north along the state-owned rail line from Rutland, the service's current northern terminus.
A passenger train has not run from New York City to Burlington since the 1950s.
The Vermont Rail System (VRS), which leases the tracks from the state, has taken the position that a second track must be built at Union Station in order to preserve fluidity for its operations.
"VRS considers construction of a ... siding at Union Station essential to the return of Amtrak service to Burlington - and would intend to proceed with necessary track work regardless of any eventual decision about where Amtrak will overnight," VRS vice president Selden Houghton laid out his company's position in a letter sent to Secretary Flynn in advance of the VRAC meeting.
That is, VRS wants the siding built as a consequence of the new train's presence at the station, even if that's only a matter of a few minutes' stopover before proceeding to the Intervale site, for example.
In a November interview with VBM, Houghton noted that VRS has the right to use all the infrastructure in the right-of-way it leases, regardless of what happens with the Amtrak train. But, he added, "it's not like we're going to be building a train and leaving it there" on the new track.
The use of the Intervale site thus does not eliminate the possibility that the Wing Building's residents will still have to contend with some increment in diesel fumes from locomotives as little as 14 feet, by VBM's calculation, from their balconies.
MSL CEO Melinda Moulton shortly after the conclusion of the VRAC meeting. C.B. Hall/VBM photo
Whether the new passenger service requires a second track to maintain VRS's operational capacities is thus emerging as a key question. If the answer is yes, the state, as sponsor of the Amtrak service, would arguably have an obligation to foot the bill for the siding and related infrastructure work, at a cost certain to exceed a million dollars.
But opponents of the idea say that the answer is no, and that state funding of the pricey siding would amount to a freebie extended to a private enterprise, VRS.
The VTrans position on the question is less than entirely clear. The agency's Michele Boomhower told a November 19 meeting of the Burlington City Council's Transportation, Energy and Utilities Committee (TEUC) that VTrans would foot the bill, given that the passenger service would otherwise create an imposition on VRS's operations.
Speaking after Tuesday's meeting, however, Secretary Flynn told VBM that VTrans had "no written agreement specific to the second track" at the Union Station site.
An NECR train comes down to Burlington from St. Albans nightly in order to exchange cars with VRS in its rail-yard.
At the VRAC meeting, NECR representative Charles Hunter noted, however, that his railroad might in the future run additional trains into Burlington. That would increase the need for operating room in the area as cars are moved around in the VRS yard just south of the station.
Led by Williston-based passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler, skeptics have made their feelings clear. Fowler told the VRAC gathering that he was "absolutely opposed" to the construction of the second track if the Amtrak train is not stored at the station. Like many other council members, he viewed the Intervale location as the best alternative.
The need for the second track will likely come under detailed discussion at a meeting being sought by TEUC at an undetermined date this month. TEUC is inviting VRS to participate in that discussion.
Responding to a question from VBM at the VRAC meeting, Flynn said that "we're trying to absorb all the input that we can," possibly including the yield from the TEUC meeting, but he alluded to the need for his agency to make a decision on the train's overnight lodgings soon. The debate, he said, "is something that's not going to go on in perpetuity."
Fowler and others have advocated extending the Ethan Allen's reach north to St. Albans, where a spacious NECR rail-yard already hosts Amtrak's Vermonter train overnight. That alternative would however call for upgrades, likely with public financing, to the eight miles of track between Union Station and the NECR mainline at Essex Junction.
Supporters of the St. Albans option have said that those improvements could be completed in time for the Ethan Allen's service extension, but VTrans has not sought any funding for them. A November 25 memo from Boomhower to the council stated, however, that "a comprehensive study would be required" before proceeding with the upgrades, and that an analysis of the St. Albans proposal "would likely cost between $200,000-$400,000 an [sic] take 12-18 months to complete."
"We don't have the luxury here today to have [St Albans] as an alternative," Flynn told the VRAC meeting.