Manchester Select Board votes to support passenger rail
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | March 14,2013
MANCHESTER — The Select Board voted unanimously Tuesday to support passenger rail service after hearing about the possibility of a new train depot in town and a rail line that could go from New York City to Manchester to Rutland.
Wendy Rae Woods, a member of the Southwestern Vermont Rail Corridor Committee, a “coalition of concerned citizens and community leaders,” appeared at the Select Board meeting Tuesday to ask the board for a show of support.
Since 2011, consultants Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., or VHB, have been hosting public meetings in Bennington County as part of a $1 million study, funded by the federal government and the state governments of Vermont and New York, which will result in a recommendation for restoring passenger rail service to serve the western corridor of Vermont.
On Tuesday, Woods told the Select Board that the study was almost complete. While she pointed out she had no control over the final recommendation, she told board members and an audience made up of many of Manchester’s business and civic leaders, that she believed the report would support a rail line that goes from Albany, N.Y., to Vermont through the village of North Bennington and north to Manchester and Rutland.
If the recommendation comes in as expected, Woods said it would be important for towns like Manchester to show their strong support for the return of passenger rail in order to win the most important factor in making the project a reality: federal funding. The federal government would pay 80 percent of the cost of a rail line construction project with the rest paid by state and local funds.
If the project wins funding, Woods said it’s expected to take three construction seasons to build.
Select Board Chairman Ivan Beattie said he had been “excited about the idea for a long time.”
“We’ve come close a few times and I hope it builds momentum again. I’d like to see this gain traction,” he said.
The Manchester depot would potentially be located at a site used by r.k. Miles, a local lumber and building supply company, on Depot Street. Manchester’s railroad depot was formerly located at the site and the state still owns the land on which a depot might be built. Woods said she didn’t believe the former depot could be returned to use because of the costs of making it handicapped accessible.
While the rail line, if it came, couldn’t be high-speed because of the number of grade crossings, Woods said it could be higher speed than some rail service and reach speeds of almost 60 mph. Woods also said the consultants from VHB would be taking those grade crossings into account and recommending crossing gates, lights and other safety features.
The rail line is expected to be an economic driver in Manchester. Beattie said he thought there was “tremendous potential” for businesses to see benefits from visitors brought to the area at local restaurants, shops and a potential shuttle service that would allow visitors to get around once they reach the town.
The Select Board voted unanimously to support a letter to be written and signed by Beattie and Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe indicating the town’s support.
After the meeting, Woods said she had come to the Select Board on Tuesday because the consultants’ report is due soon.
“The study itself is wrapping up and the final corrections are being made to it and then it’s going to be ready to be submitted to the Federal Rail Administration. We know for a fact that the FRA — I won’t say that they’re persuaded but they are influenced when they know that a particular area supports a rail project. It adds some weight to the particular project,” she said.
Bennington, North Bennington and Shaftsbury have already supported the proposal and Woods said she planned to appear before the Dorset Select Board, to ask for their support, next week.