Amtrak train storage issue heats up

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Amtrak train storage issue heats up

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 3:33pm -- tim

The Burlington Bike Path runs in front of Local Motion and the Wing Building. A second train track is proposed for this section of the bike path, which then would be relocated to the West (left) of the existing track. One proposal calls for overnighting the Amtrak Ethan Allen Express on the new track in front of the Wing Building and Union Station, which is just up the bike path. VBM photo.

“As far as double tracking goes, that is going to be moving forward. Melinda is welcome to fight it.”

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine

The controversy over where to store an Amtrak train overnight in Burlington has intensified in the wake of assertions that a study on the subject served only to provide cover for a predetermined decision that Burlington Union Station, part of the Main Street Landing development, would be the best site for parking the train.

The train, the Ethan Allen Express, currently plies a route between New York's Penn Station and Rutland. Extending the service to the Queen City has been a gleam in the eye of Burlington's civic leaders since the mid-1990s.

Present plans call for it to begin serving Burlington as its northern terminus in late 2021 or early 2022, after completion of a new rail tunnel in Middlebury. The train would then be able to reach Burlington along the so-called Westside Rail Corridor.

In its publicly released form, the study, directed by the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC), recommended a yet-to-be-built second track at Union Station as the best of five possible sites analyzed for parking the train overnight, in part because it's the cheapest option – at least according to the study.

All the locations considered are in Burlington, but some parties to the discussion have pushed to have the train continue northward to Essex and St Albans, removing the need for overnight storage and servicing in Burlington altogether, to say nothing of the wrangling over which Burlington site would work best.

Regardless of where the Amtrak train beds down, the construction of the second track right in front of Main Street Landing, the multipurpose development that includes Burlington Union Station, may be a done deal.

The study treated the construction as a given, and a December 2018 email from Michele Boomhower, director of public policy and intermodal development at the Agency of Transportation (VTrans), to agency secretary Joe Flynn confirmed the expectation.

Boomhower reported that David Wulfson, who owns the Vermont Rail System (VRS), had met with Burlington mayor Miro Weinberger some days before “to let him know they would begin preliminary construction of the double tracking in front of Union Station next summer, with finalization in 2020.”

VRS operates the rail line under a lease agreement with the state, which has owned the route since the 1960s.

At press time, no signs of construction were to be seen at the Union Station/Main Street Landing site. And since Flynn and Boomhower's exchange, plenty has muddied the waters.

In his response to Boomhower's email, Flynn noted that he and Dan Delabruere, who heads VTrans's Rail and Aviation Division, had determined that the Union Station site and an alternative location in the Urban Reserve, a publicly owned tract of open land north of the station, had scored equally as suitable places for parking the train.

“All things considered [the Urban Reserve] would seem to be the best location,” he wrote.

The publicly announced timetable for the scoring study, prepared for CCRPC by South Burlington consultants VHB, called for wrapping up the study in January 2019. 

And, indeed, the document was described by CCRPC transportation program manager Eleni Churchill as “finalized” in a January 15, 2019, email to Boomhower and Burlington public works director Chapin Spencer. Churchill's email noted that CCRPC was planning on publicizing both “this final report and appendices ... soon.”

At a well-attended September 18 meeting of the statutory Vermont Rail Advisory Council (VRAC) in Barre, Burlington attorney Ritchie Berger (with the Dinse law firm), representing Main Street Landing, stated that the study's “finalized” January form was altered so as to make the MSL site the “winner” among the alternatives considered – that the outcome was decided before the study was undertaken to justify that decision.

He presented the January version of the report, which, along with a variety of related emails and other documents, he'd obtained through a public documents request.

He noted the January report's equal scoring of the MSL and Urban Reserve sites, consistent with Flynn's observation.

But in the version of the report made public six months later, the scoring had changed. MSL now received 26 points, with the two Urban Reserve options getting 24 and 23.

In his written submission to VRAC in Barre, Berger concluded that “CCRPC went back to do some additional studies and reworked its scores to show Union Station to be the 'winner.'”

In an email statement to VBM, Boomhower wrote that “while the CCRPC staff indicated that [t]he report was in final format in January 2019, the City and VTrans had not finalized their review, so in actuality, the report was in draft format in January. Additional noise evaluation was conducted by [VHB] in the spring of 2019, along with review and edits from the City and VTrans which were incorporated into the report.”

The Other Part of the Story

But the shifting assessment of the five Burlington sites – the VRS railyard just south of the station and a long spur track near the Onion River Co-op's South-Side City Market, in addition to MSL and the Urban Reserve locations – constitutes only part of the story.

Many parties to the discussion, including some attending the Barre meeting, called for rendering the debate over the sites in Burlington moot by extending the train's itinerary to St Albans, where a New England Central Railroad (NECR) yard, the largest in Vermont, already hosts Amtrak's Vermonter train overnight.

That option could reduce the train's stay at Burlington Union Station to a matter of minutes for discharging and receiving passengers. It would make use of a 7.8-mile connecting track, the so-called Winooski Branch, between Union Station and the junction with the NECR main line in Essex.

That branch line would however require upgrades estimated as costing $4 million-$20 million, depending largely on the standard to which the track would be improved.

Charlie Moore, a VRAC member and formerly a regional vice president for NECR, told VBM that, while a million dollars a mile is a reference point for track rehabs, “That line does not have to be gold-plated, and I don't think it needs to be a million a mile” for the passenger rail needs in question.

That sort of investment could allow passenger trains to run at up to 30 miles an hour on the line, reducing the Burlington-Essex trip to something less than what the Green Mountain Transit bus takes for approximately the same traverse.

The to-do list in the state's 2015 rail plan in fact includes the $4 million figure for upgrading the branch line for freight needs. Two months after the completion of that plan, in an email to agency colleagues, Boomhower proposed the Winooski Branch upgrade as a subject for presentation to the agency's executive staff in the context of the Ethan Allen extension.

Her bullet point, in the email, reads, “Upgrade the track from Burlington to Essex to turn [the train around] in Essex (Dan will ask Charles to look into the cost).”

She apparently referred to Delabruere and NECR official Charles Hunter, but in an interview for this article, declined to comment on any of the internal emails, this one included, that Berger had obtained and presented to the Barre meeting.

As late as January 2016 VTrans officials seemed to be still considering the Winooski Branch upgrade.

At that time, in another internal email, Boomhower wrote, “I think we should dig hard on the potential upgrade of the track from Burlington to Essex, there are a lot of freight, passenger and commuter benefits.”

But by August 2017, when CCRPC launched the train-storage study at VTrans's behest, the Winooski Branch had disappeared inexplicably from the agency's agenda. CCRPC and VHB proceeded to look exclusively at the alternatives within Burlington.

The Winooski Branch continued to interest some players, however.

The documents presented by Berger – in a binder a full inch thick – included an August 2018 email from Churchill to Boomhower.

Churchill's message acknowledged a request from Burlington's Spencer for more information on the branch line, but noted that “VTrans had already decided not to take the train to Essex Junction before we initiated the study.”

A subsequent email from Boomhower to Delabruere asked him to send Churchill a list of the reasons why the study was not examining the Essex/St Albans option.

“I think you have a pretty good list of reasons,” Boomhower wrote.

Those reasons are among the things which the mass of documents presented by Berger did not reach.

“We've gotten a lot of documents, and a lot have been withheld,” he told the Barre meeting.

In an interview for this story, Delabruere, like Boomhower, would not comment on internal VTrans emails.

The Essex-St Albans option would expand the Ethan Allen's service to those two communities, with the added potential of a connection between Montreal and Burlington, for example, when plans for restoration of passenger rail service between Vermont and the Canadian metropolis reach fruition.

All indications point to the NECR St Albans yard being able to accommodate the Ethan Allen, thereby consolidating functions for the overnight care of both it and the Vermonter.

Depending on the Ethan Allen's schedule, it could also test the waters for a possible St Albans-Burlington commuter rail service.

On the downside, however, the scenario would require both money for the Winooski Branch upgrade and negotiations between Amtrak and the NECR, although the latter has hosted the Vermonter on its tracks and in its St Albans yard without any noteworthy problems, according to VRAC member and long-time passenger rail advocate Carl Fowler.

Carl Fowler, immediately before the Vermont Rail Action Council meeting in September. Photo by C.B. Hall.

At the Barre meeting, Fowler, arguing for the northward extension, pleaded with decision-makers to “unite the network” of Vermont railroads by improving the deteriorated branch line.

Delabruere responded to the discussion by noting that, while back-of-the-envelope estimates of the upgrade were easy to come by, “putting together hard numbers ... is not going to happen in the next few months.”

However, VTrans published estimates of the upgrade costs in both its 2015 rail plan and a 2017 study of the route's potential use for commuter rail.

Asked about the omission of any substantial consideration of the branch line in the train-storage study, Delabruere and Boomhower said, in separate interviews, that it “is not part of this project.”

“The Heavy Political Lift”

At Main Street Landing, the question, in addition to the Amtrak train's accommodations, is whether VRS will build the second track in any event.

The obvious problem is space: How does one shoehorn two sets of tracks and a route for emergency access into a rail right-of-way that's just 42 feet wide?

Doing that would require moving the bicycle-pedestrian path that currently snakes along the eastern side of the right-of-way, between the station and the existing mainline track, and putting it to the west of the right-of-way, on land owned by Lake Champlain Transportation, which operates the cross-lake ferries from the adjacent dock.

The replacement path would apparently force closure of a driveway on LCT's property, in a 10-foot-wide strip of land between the rail right-of-way and an LCT building.

The scenario, understandably, has its skeptics.

“I would prefer not to have to move the Burlington bike path off our property,” Delabruere wrote in an email to VTrans's then-secretary, Chris Cole, in May of 2016.

In a January 2017 email to VTrans colleague Trini Brassard, Boomhower noted that Burlington officials needed the storage-site study “to back up the heavy political lift they are going to have with ... adjacent property owners relative to the double-tracking.”

Those property owners consist of Lake Champlain Transportation and the ECHO science center, to the west of the tracks, as well as MSL on the east.

Notes from the initial meeting of the study team, in August 2017, mentioned four specific concerns raised by City of Burlington representatives, including the need to relocate the path.

Lake Champlain Transportation and ECHO did not respond by press time to requests for comment.

On the east side of the rail line, attention has focused on the multi-use Wing Building, part of the Main Street Landing complex. The building's first floor houses, among other tenants, Local Motion, which promotes alternative travel and rents bicycles suitable for use on the path right outside its door.

The nonprofit's executive director, Karen Yacos, told VBM that, “If the new path is designed and implemented well, and results in a path that is the same or better for the public than the current path, this could be a good relocation.”

She added that, “We think we can adjust to the proximity of the proposed second track to our base of operations.”

The Wing Building's second floor consists of four apartments, all with west-facing balconies.

Apartment residents are raising strong objections to the plans, particularly the second track. Storing the Amtrak train there would mean idling a diesel locomotive within 15 feet of the balconies, by VBM's computation.

In addition to the locomotive's noise, residents are protesting the prospect of diesel fumes inundating their space.

The CCRPC study found that, of the five sites considered, only the MSL option had the potential for pollutant emissions – nitrogen dioxide, specifically – in excess of the federally established air quality standards for receptors within 50 feet.

In its January “finalized” version, the study recommended “that more detailed air quality assessments be completed if Union Station is selected as the preferred alternative.” In the final version ultimately made public, however, this finding was reworded to call for more detailed assessment “for the selected Amtrak storage site” – without naming the site.

In MSL's view, this change in wording was designed to detract attention from the downside of idling a diesel locomotive directly in front of the Wing Building residences.

The study noted that so-called Hotstart technology would nearly eliminate overnight idling of the parked locomotive in temperatures down to 20 below zero; idling would then last only 20 to 40 minutes after the train's evening arrival and again before its morning departure.

When this issue came up at the Barre meeting, however, two of the railroad professionals present - NECR's Hunter and Kevin Chittenden, a deputy general manager at Amtrak - expressed doubts about keeping the engine shut down until the mercury sank to 20 below.

“We really don't have any options”

While objections to the Union Station site are coming from multiple parties, the Vermont Rail System has found itself in a lonely role as the second-track plan's chief advocate – posing a sort of foil to the passionate protests from Main Street Landing and its CEO Melinda Moulton.

The documents presented by Berger to the Barre meeting paint a picture of a process dominated by VRS.

Minutes of a November 2016 meeting between Burlington and VTrans officials summarized the railroad's position thus: “Only place to park the train is double tracking and putting the train at the station overnight ... Not getting anywhere with VRS on alternative ... Every meeting with VRS comes up with no other options.”

Union Station and Main Street Landing. VBM photo.

In a December 2016 email to Burlington's Spencer, Boomhower wrote that VRS President David Wulfson “is not budging on overnight storage of the train ... [A]t this point, we really don't have any options to move forward with other than storage at the station.”

And in May 2017 – still three months before CCRPC launched the storage-site study – Boomhower told Spencer that “VTrans continues to move forward with the design of the second track at the station... VTrans is open to an alternate overnight location for the train in the event VRS comes into agreement that an alternate location can be accommodated.”

In August 2018, with the study in progress but its completion still months away, the double track at Union Station remained the preference: “As far as double tracking goes, that is going to be moving forward,” Boomhower informed Spencer in email. “Melinda is welcome to fight it.”

In Moulton's view, part of the problem is VTrans's unwillingness to deal straightforwardly with her and MSL.

In March 2017, Boomhower saw fit to inform Local Motion of the storage-site study, then in the scoping stage, and invited the nonprofit's input. As an email attachment, she apparently sent Local Motion a document relevant to the scoping, with the request “please do not distribute.”

By contrast, Moulton told VBM, Main Street Landing, whose property borders the railroad for some 800 feet, knew nothing about the study until the following November, when a Burlington public works official, whose name she did not recall, informed her of it.

“It's perplexing that they would reach out to one of our tenants, but they didn't reach out to the property owner,” Moulton said.

In an email to VBM, Boomhower explained that “Local Motion’s business access was going to be significantly impaired, so they were contacted early in the process.”

She would not comment, however, on the implied confidentiality of the email attachment.

Who decides? Who pays?

Melinda Moulton's husband, Rick Moulton, who sits on the Rail Advisory Council and attended the Barre meeting, told VBM that the standoff between MSL and VRS goes back a ways.

After a meeting of the council in August 2018, Wulfson buttonholed him and, in a tone Moulton described as “not angry, but declarative,” said, “You tell that bride of yours I'm going to put a track two feet from her building. That's our land, and we're putting a second track right there.”

VRS does not however own the property; the state does, and leases it to VRS subsidiary Vermont Railway (VTR).

“The needs of the use of our track have changed,” Wulfson told the Barre meeting. “Vermont Railway has decided that, no matter what happens with Amtrak, we need to put a second track between King and College streets.”

He pointed to a steady increase in the rail line's traffic, leading to strained capacity at the relatively small railyard that his company operates less than a quarter-mile south of Union Station.

No one disputed the operational constraints that VRS must reckon with, but other attendees continued to urge consideration of alternatives to the second track.

“I'm sympathetic,” Fowler addressed Wulfson, “but I think something could be arranged” to satisfy the VRS's needs without, in effect, having the VRS railyard expand its operations to the area of the station.

But VRS appears to have the final say as to whether the second track, whatever its use, gets built.

In her email statement, Boomhower said, "Under the terms of the lease, the railroad has the operational right to use the leased property to fit their operations – if the railroad requires a second track they could install one."

In an email, Jordan Redell, speaking for Mayor Weinberger, reported that “we have been informed by VTR that they are building a second track regardless of the Amtrak. Therefore, we are working on plans to relocate the Bike Path to the west side of the track.

Messages left with staff at VRS, seeking comment from Wulfson, did not receive a response.

Asked who would pay for the second track, Delabruere said, “Until we have a final design I don't want to comment on the funding."  

If the costs of moving the bike path and putting in the second track and the switches at its ends are included, the cost of putting the overnight facility at Union Station could skyrocket – and might be borne by the public, given the uncertainty in Delabruere's comment.

As the study reckoned things, the Union Station alternative involved no expense except a $300,000 hook-up for the Hotstart idle-reduction system.

The other four sites bore much higher price tags.

It appears in any event that the train storage and the construction of the second track may be separable issues: The Amtrak train could pass through Burlington on its way to or from St Albans and still leave the issue of the second track very much alive.

That outcome might satisfy passenger rail advocates, but it would likely leave MSL and VRS at loggerheads.

After nearly two hours of debate on the question, the Barre meeting postponed any recommendation on where the train would spend the night.

A motion to table the agenda item until the VRAC's next meeting passed without a dissenting vote, but with one abstention – from Fowler, the St Albans option's most outspoken advocate. A second motion, to ask VTrans to explore the possibility of the northward service extension with NECR, likewise went through without a nay, but with NECR's Hunter abstaining.

Chairing the gathering, Transportation Secretary Flynn emphasized that the VRAC recommendation, which his agency is not legally obliged to follow, needed to come well before the Legislature reconvenes in January.

A date of December 3 was thus set for the next meeting, leaving some weeks after that for VTrans to make its choice known before the legislators gather.

Their session could add yet more twists and turns to the prospect of restored passenger rail service in Burlington – a prospect that has already awaited fruition for almost a quarter-century.

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