MONTPELIER – In an effort to brainstorm ways to increase future public transit use, Montpelier City Council held a forum on Wednesday featuring representatives from the Vermont Agency of Transportation, Green Mountain Transit and other experts.
The capital city has a goal of reaching net zero energy use by 2030, and cites expanding public transportation options as a key strategy.
The potential for a commuter rail from Montpelier to Barre sparked discussion, particularly from entrepreneur David Blittersdorf, who gave a presentation on behalf of his company AllEarth Rail.
Several years ago, Blittersdorf invested $5 million in a fleet of passenger rail cars, and has been pushing for a community train service that would connect a large portion of Vermont’s cities and towns. He said the ambitious plan would begin with a corridor from Montpelier to Barre.
“The auto-centric system does not work going forward,” Blittersdorf said. “It’s too energy-intensive, too polluting, and it’s our number one cause of climate change. We in Vermont are small enough, and hopefully nimble enough to do this.”
AllEarth Rail proposes using eight miles of existing freight track, a section that is currently being studied by VTrans at the request of the Vermont Legislature to see what improvements would need to be made in order to allow for commuter travel.
Residents at the meeting, however, argued that even if those plans came to fruition, there’s a lingering question.
“How would you get people on a train, which has fewer stops than a bus, when it’s currently difficult to get them to even ride the bus?” asked Peter Kelman.
Blittersdorf said he believes the presence of climate change will eventually make vehicle travel an unattractive option.
“If you’re starting to pay $5 a gallon for gasoline, or even if you use an electric vehicle, your whole system cost will go up.”
VTrans is expected to report back to the Legislature as early as November. Dan Delabruere, director of VTrans’ Rail and Aviation Bureau, said it’s too early in their study to provide any significant findings.
“What’s out there for track right now, it’s okay for freight but it’s old,” Delabruere said. “To turn it over to a commuter-type rail, it would need an upgrade.”
He said infrastructure is likely the biggest hurdle facing commuter rail travel in the region.