Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bus Replacement for Vermont Train Meets Local Opposition

In a move to cut $1.4 million from the state transportation budget next year, Vermont officials want to replace the Albany - Rutland segment of Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express with a bus between Albany and Burlington, the Green Mountain State's largest city. The move is one step in a plan to close a $10 million gap in the state transportation budget.

The idea doesn't sit well with Rutland officials, who see the train as one of the few bright spots in a dour local economic picture, the Rutland Herald reports. Under Vermont's plan, the bus would travel along U.S. 7 which runs the length of the state's western side, with additional stops in Middlebury, Manchester and Bennington. However, stations in New York State served by the train, including Saratoga Springs and Fort Edward, would not be served.

Vermont officials say they would like to eventually run a train, rather than a bus, to Burlington, and hope to use federal economic stimulus money to begin a $30 million project to upgrade the Vermont Railway mainline, whose tracks the train would operate over. However, rail advocate Chris Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network, fears that reinstating the train service could prove impossible if it's eliminated now.

"I'm skeptical the train will return because once the train goes, the equipment will be sucked into the Amtrak system and it will be very hard to get it back," he said. He added that ridership generally falls by as much as 60 percent when a bus replaces a train on a route.

Vermont's dilemma is due to the weak economy rather than problems with the train, which experienced significant ridership gains in 2008. The situation reflects the need for more stability in funding formulas with participation by New York as well as Vermont.

It's best bet is extending the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington, where it could tap into a much larger market, including the University of Vermont. If it can access economic stimulus money, completing the line upgrade should be relatively straight forward.

But don't expect the Obama administration to cut a check if there's no train to use the improved line. Vermont has already been down that road when it upgraded part of the line to operate a commuter train, the Champlain Valley Flyer. That service was eliminated a few years ago when a new governor was elected.

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