In the Amtrak controversy, Intervale emerges as option

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In the Amtrak controversy, Intervale emerges as option

Thu, 11/21/2019 - 4:11pm -- tim

The Burlington Bike Path runs along the Wing building on Burlington's Waterfront. Under a proposal to bring Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express all the way to Burlington, a second train track would be laid where the bike path is now. The Amtrak train would then park there overnight. And the bike path would be relocated to the left of the existing track. The residents and owner of the Wing building object to such a scenario. VBM file photo.

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine The controversy over the overnight storage of an Amtrak train due to begin serving Burlington in 2021 heated up at a November 19 public meeting of the City Council's Transportation, Energy and Utilities Committee (TEUC). Speakers directed their ire over the plans primarily at the Vermont Rail System (VRS), for its insistence on construction of a second track, or siding, to accommodate the train at Burlington Union Station, its destination in the Queen City.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) absorbed its share of flak at the meeting, too, for its handling of the welter of issues surrounding the launch of the Amtrak service.

The culmination of a quarter-century of hopeful planning, the project would extend the reach of Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express train north to Burlington from its current northern terminus in Rutland.

The train, which originates in New York City, would deliver passengers to Union Station, part of the Main Street Landing (MSL) development, late in the day – but what would then happen to the train is uncertain.

Melinda Moulton, president of Main Street Landing, has been one of the most vocal opponents of parking the proposed NYC to Burlington Amtrak train on the Waterfront. C.B. Hall/VBM photo.

Would it stay overnight on the new siding there, a few feet from residences in the MSL's Wing Building adjacent to the station? Would it proceed on to a final stop and overnight servicing in St Albans? Or to some third servicing site?

In various ways, VTrans officials have strongly suggested that overnighting the train at Union Station is the only option. At the TEUC meeting, however, Michele Boomhower, director of policy, planning and intermodal development at the agency, said that the decision on where to overnight the train “has not been made.”

She buttressed that statement by surprising the 35 or so attendees with a new option: keeping the train overnight on a siding to be built near the McNeil Generating Station, north of Union Station in Burlington's Intervale neighborhood.

She nodded when TEUC member Jack Hanson asked if the “public reaction to this” had motivated VTrans's identification of the Intervale site as a possibility.

She described the location as “schematically” fitting, but stressed that “many questions need to be addressed.”

Those include the determination of costs to build the siding and coordination with the New England Central Railroad (NECR), which owns the rail route north of the station. She termed NECR's reaction to the possibility “amenable.”

But time is short, as officials at the meeting pointed out.

Released in July, a study conducted by South Burlington consultants VHB for the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) on possible sites in Burlington for overnighting the train took almost two years, ignored the Intervale site, and at this stage appears less and less important to the discussion.

The state must get the service rolling by the close of 2021, Boomhower told the meeting, or forfeit $10 million in federal grant money awarded for the service extension's capital needs.

Several speakers at the meeting emphasized the belated timing of the event. Consideration of the overnight storage issue – which Boomhower described as “fraught with conflict” – reached the City Council only in the last few weeks.

MSL CEO Melinda Moulton has objected strenuously to her organization's omission from the planning process, given that MSL's property abuts the rail right-of-way for several hundred feet in the Union Station area. And the discussion's language is getting stronger.

Terming storage of the train at Union Station “idiotic,” Moulton told the meeting, “I'm going to do everything I can to stop it.”

Strong words have also come from residents of the Wing Building, who have said that their homes will be rendered uninhabitable if an idling Amtrak locomotive sits all night on the siding, eight feet away from their homes, in their telling.

VBM's best estimate puts that distance at 14 feet. The CCRPC/VHB study found that emissions from the locomotive could contain nitrogen oxide levels exceeding federal standards at a distance of 50 feet.

The second track, pro and con

While opting for the Intervale site would relieve the Wing Building residents of the prospect of an Amtrak locomotive idling next to their balconies, the second track itself may present even thornier issues.

VRS, which leases the state-owned rail right-of-way from Burlington's College Street south past the station and on to Rutland and Bennington, enjoys what appears to be an unfettered right to build new infrastructure within that right-of-way.

It has insisted on the construction of the new track to keep Amtrak's train, while it's at the station, out of the way of VRS's freight operations – even in the event that the train only dwells at the station for a matter of minutes before moving on to, say, the Intervale location.

But minutes of a May 23 meeting among representatives of VTrans, VRS, NECR, Amtrak, the city, and consultants note that VRS “will use the siding to build trains during the daytime when Amtrak is not at the siding.”

The minutes' reference to the assembling of freight trains has caused skeptics to ask whether the siding, to be built with public money, will serve a legitimate need to separate the Amtrak and freight operations, or merely facilitate the expansion of VRS's railyard operations.

And, they ask, if VRS needs the track for its everyday operations anyway, why should the state be paying for its construction, at the railroad's insistence?

Some speakers at the TEUC meeting suggested that VRS was indeed acting opportunistically, using the advent of the Amtrak service to get some publicly financed infrastructure that will ease the way for a return of railyard operations to the cherished heart of Burlington's waterfront.

Critics have pointedly reminded decision-makers that the city undertook the removal of railyard infrastructure from the central waterfront in the 1980s, with the assumption that the noise of locomotives and jolted rail cars, say nothing of diesel fumes and tie-ups at street crossings, would not return to the area and its now-parklike environment.

“The thought of changing it back to a more industrial use is devastating to me,” long-serving City Councilor Sharon Bushor told the TEUC meeting.

“What we're doing in Burlington is no different from what we did when Amtrak came into Rutland,” VRS vice president Selden Houghton responded to the criticisms in a phone interview. “We have to have a way to get around Amtrak when it comes into the station... This is purely an operational thing.”

Asked if his company would need the new siding absent the Amtrak service extension, he said, “Amtrak is not there today, and we're getting along there now. With the coming of passenger rail, there's infrastructure that's added to support that.”

“That's not to say we wouldn't use [the siding and platform] for some of our passenger operations when the Amtrak wasn't there,” he said. He would not exclude the possibility of also using the siding in routine freight operations, either, albeit under certain limited circumstances.

“Of course the railroad has the right to use any track for its operation ... [but] it's not like we're going to be building a train and leaving it there" on the siding.

Joined at the hip?

“We have created the need for the second track,” Boomhower told the TEUC meeting. She referred to the Amtrak presence as an imposition on VRS's business, and said that VTrans therefore has “agreed that we will pay for that track.”

Regardless of who pays for the new siding – VTrans or VRS – it would become the property of the state as owner of the right-of-way.

On May 7, VTrans gave VHB a notice to proceed with design of the new Union Station configuration, which VHB consultant Scott Burbank, in an email to VTrans, described as “the Burlington station platform and siding,” the new track would force a relocation of the passenger platform.

Valued at $229,000, the VTrans-VHB contract refers to the addition of “an Amtrak siding” at the station “for the loading and unloading of passengers from the Amtrak train as well as amenities to service the train while it is stored overnight on the siding.”

Appearing alongside Boomhower at the TEUC meeting, VTrans Rail and Aviation Bureau director Dan Delabruere emphasized, however, that the track design represented a minor aspect of the contractual work, which will focus on the platform.

The minutes of the aforementioned May 23 meeting describe it as a “design kick-off meeting.” The CCRPC/VHB study was not released until July, however, leading some critics to call it a sham engineered to prop up a decision already made.

In any event, the emergence of the Intervale alternative undercuts the relevance of the study, which also noted that the Union Station storage site would be cheaper than other alternatives, entailing no costs beyond a $300,000 outlay for hooking up Amtrak's locomotives to a so-called hot-start electrical system that would reduce the need to idle the locomotives overnight in cold weather.

The study's analysis thus omitted public funding for the second track, which in itself would carry a price tag in the millions, based on an extrapolation of available information.

At the TEUC meeting, Burlington attorney Ritchie Berger, representing MSL, accused VTrans of being “joined at the hip” with VRS in facilitating the latter's plans for an expansion of its railyard operations.

The agency, he said, “had blinders on” in its insistence on the second track “come Hell or high water.”

But for the most part the angry fingers were pointed at VRS, which was not represented at the meeting. No one speaking there -- or during a long public discussion of the project at the City Council's November 4 meeting – expressed support for the second-track plan.

“If it is built, it will be used” for substantial freight operations, passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler of Williston said at the TEUC meeting, referring to the second track.

“Main Street Landing is going to take this on,” Moulton said. “We are going to fight the railroad.”

A role for the feds?

Questioning VRS's role in the controversy, councilor and TEUC member Jack Hanson employed some of the bluntest language in the course of the discussion, which lasted well over two hours.

“I feel like we're being bullied,” he said. He termed the predicament “a hostage situation” that presented the city with a choice between giving VRS “whatever it wants” and foregoing the Amtrak service altogether, given the railroad's rights to use the new track and its insistence on it as part of the deal. He termed the use of state money for the siding “a handout.”

In advance of the meeting, and apparently without knowledge of the Intervale option, Burlington mayor Miro Weinberger addressed his concerns in a letter to VTrans Secretary Joe Flynn.

As a basis for formulating the city's position on the thicket of issues, Weinberger's missive posed key questions that he wants answered on the need for the second track, options for the Amtrak train's storage, and mitigation of air pollution impacts on the Wing Building residents.

But the city's influence on the course of events is weakened by what is called federal preemption, in essence the federal regulation of railroad operations as interstate common carriers not subject to local authorities who could otherwise change the ground rules for running a railroad at every city line.

The law allows, however, for the federal Surface Transportation Board to adjudicate terms of Amtrak's access to host railroads when differences on those terms cannot otherwise be resolved to the satisfaction of the parties in question.

In this case STB handling of the matter would place the state in a central role as the track owner, the funding source for the second track, and the sponsor of the Amtrak service.

In a response to a question from VBM on this point, Boomhower told the meeting that, “I would not imagine that the agency would challenge the railroad” by asking the STB to step in. She would expect the federal board's decision to favor the VRS's position, she explained.

Following up, Fowler said that Amtrak had brought two such terms-of-use cases before the STB or its predecessor, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and that Amtrak had prevailed in both cases – one of which happened to involve the host railroad's inadequate maintenance of Vermont tracks used by Amtrak's Vermonter train.

“If VRS is insisting on an absolute right [to use the siding], then it makes sense to use the STB option,” Fowler opined.

Given such issues, and in accordance with a request made by the TEUC committee at the close of the meeting, public works director Chapin Spencer, the city's main contact with VRS, said he would be inviting VRS to attend a meeting in December to provide more information on its role in the project.

Then There's St Albans

While responding to the outcry over the prospective Union Station storage site by putting the Intervale option on the table, VTrans appears also to be warming up to the idea of extending the Amtrak service to St Albans.

An NECR railyard there already services the Vermonter train nightly and to all appearances has plenty of room to accommodate the Ethan Allen Express, too.

Critics of the Union Station option have advanced the St Albans scenario repeatedly, and Weinberger raised the issue in his letter to Flynn.

At the TEUC meeting, Boomhower noted the St Albans extension option as a second-tier priority in her agency's 2015 state rail plan.

“We're still gathering information” on the alternative, she said.

Her PowerPoint presentation brought attention to the issues that would need to be resolved, however, to bring the scenario to fruition. Chief among those obstacles is the need for capital investment to bring the tracks between Burlington Union Station and the NECR mainline in Essex – the so-called Winooski Branch – up to standards appropriate for passenger traffic.

The same state rail plan calls for devoting $4 million in state funds to that purpose by 2025.

Reached by telephone, Charlie Moore, a retired St Albans railroader who spent 20 years as vice president of RailAmerica, a former owner of the NECR, said that upgrades sufficient to allow passenger rail speeds of up to 60 miles an hour on the Winooski Branch could be made in one construction season.

As of this writing, however, VTrans is not seeking funding for the upgrades, Boomhower said in an interview for this article.

“Because the rail plan is a visionary document,” she explained. “At this time we are still working to implement the top priorities in the rail plan.”

Those consist of bringing the Ethan Allen to Burlington and extending the Vermonter to Montreal.

Supporters of the St Albans option include Representative Curt McCormack (D-Burlington), who happens to chair the House Transportation Committee.

He told VBM that, in the upcoming session, his committee might want to look at issues of where the train is to be stored and serviced, whether in Burlington or 32 track miles to the north in St Albans.

“We can get into any level of detail we choose to,” he said.

He supported investment in the Winooski Branch.

But, he added, “If we wait for that upgrade, that would probably delay” the inauguration of service to Burlington. And pushing the service launch past 2021 could mean sacrificing those $10 million that the feds have conditioned on the service's beginning by then.

For now, the questions continue to proliferate, impatience is mounting, and the clock keeps on ticking.

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.