Burlington city councilors on Monday called for the Vermont Agency of Transportation to provide more information about two controversial rail projects planned for the waterfront.
A report released earlier this summer named Burlington's Union Station as the best place to overnight trains once Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express begins service to the Queen City in 2021 or 2022. VTrans and the for-profit Vermont Rail System also intend to build a second rail line between King and College streets regardless of where the trains are stored, Burlington's Public Works Department Director Chapin Spencer told the council.
The new track would displace a section of Burlington bike path, which would need to be rebuilt on the west side of the train tracks and on the city's dime, according to Spencer.
The proposals have drawn ire from residents who say the study was flawed and that a second track will bring noise and pollution to Burlington's waterfront.
"Once the second track is built ... the railroad will do whatever it wants, and we’ll be powerless to stop it," resident Ritchie Berger said, adding that Burlington's waterfront could become a second rail yard.
Charlie Sudbay, who lives in Main Street Landing's Wing building near Union Station, said the second rail line would be just eight feet from his bedroom window.
"Expanding the rail yard north to College Street literally makes my home uninhabitable," Sudbay said, noting the trains will need to refuel and offload sewage. "Adding a second industrial rail spur next to the ECHO Center for Lake Champlain is a complete oxymoron."
Union Station, at 1 Main Street, scored highest among five potential storage sites in the commission's report. It beat out the Northern Urban Reserve, a parkland north of Waterfront Park along the bike path; the Southern Urban Reserve, an area immediately north of the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center; Vermont Rail System's rail yard near Perkins Pier; and Flynn Avenue, adjacent to the South End City Market, Onion River Co-op store.
City of Burlington
A map showing the second track, which would displace the bike path
The second track would allow the Vermont Rail System, a private company that operates 350 miles of track, to deliver freight, store its dinner train and even build trains on the site, all without disrupting Amtrak's service, Spencer said.
VTrans wants to choose an overnight storage site for the trains before year's end, he said; construction could begin in spring 2020.
Many city councilors were surprised that the train storage issue only came to their attention now when conversations about it began in 2016. After hearing a half dozen residents complain that the project would destroy their quality of life, Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) said developers typically engage affected residents early on. "I think this is a significant deviation from that," she said.
Councilor Franklin Paulino (D-North District) agreed, comparing the discussion to being "handed a political football in the last quarter, after a decision's been made."
"I understand it's their property," Paulino said of the railroad, "but what are our remedies?"
Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) said activity on the tracks near her home causes it to shake. "It’s hard to imagine that happening right in the active area of the waterfront," she said, adding that none of the train storage choices are ideal.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said the city wants Amtrak service to enhance the waterfront, not detract from it. He called the prospect of restoring passenger rail to Burlington "tremendously exciting."
“Let’s not lose sight that bringing passenger rail to Burlington after decades of trying will be a great legacy for this council, the city, to have," Weinberger said. "We’re going to make sure we don’t miss that opportunity.”
VTrans representatives are scheduled to present the agency's plan at the council's transportation committee meeting on November 19.