By Rob Roper
David Blittersdorf of AllEarth Renewables has made a fortune by convincing Vermont politicians to force taxpayers to fund economically unviable schemes that would never survive on their own in the marketplace. His latest adventure in rent seeking is AllEarth Rail, an envisioned commuter rail service between St. Albans and the Global Foundries complex in Essex Junction (and, if the tax dollars flow thick enough, with future expansions to Montpelier, Middlebury and Rutland).
Blittersdorf has already purchased a dozen rail cars for this purpose, and Vermont Business Magazine reported that he recently invited some key legislators onto one for a posh breakfast in order to sell them on the idea of cutting him another fat, taxpayer funded check.
But here’s how ridiculous this boondoggle is.
It takes about half an hour to drive from St. Albans to Essex Junction, door to door, and costs about six dollars worth of gasoline, round trip. Your car will take you exactly where you want to go and on your schedule.
But, if you opt for the AllEarth Rail option, you have to first drive from your home to the train station (don’t be late!), park, wait for the train, ride the train (which one expert predicts won’t be able travel more than 25 miles an hour), and then, unless you actually work at Global Foundries and that’s where you’re going, figure out how to get to your ultimate destination. It’s about a seven mile walk to either Burlington or Williston. Uber or a cab? Taxifarefinder.com estimates that cost at about $20. Each way.
Honestly, how many people are going to choose the AllEarth Rail option here? Even if the train were subsidized to the point where the ticket was free (I can see Blittersdorf rubbing his hands together), nobody is going to ride that train. Certainly nowhere near the numbers necessary to make the project economically intelligent. It only makes sense for people who live in St. Albans within walking distance of the train station and commute to Global Foundries. That’s not a lot of passengers, and if Global Foundries needs help getting workers to their campus, they can always charter a bus.
And how much in taxpayer subsidies will be necessary to get this lead balloon off the ground? It’s not clear, but Vermont Business Magazine described the number as “a lot” and chronicled some estimated and potential costs, including just under $20 million for track upgrades, negotiated fees for using the rail lines, hundreds of thousands of dollars for new train stations, and the fact that AllEarth Rail would likely have to get a waiver from the federal law requiring “positive train control.” PTC is a rail safety technology mandated after a series of fatal commuter line crashes in 2008, which would apparently be prohibitively expensive for AllEarth Rail to install.
If the folks at AllEarth really believe in this idea and really see a market for the service, then they should invest their own money and reap whatever profits the venture yields. If it were a good investment, this is exactly what they would do, and I would sincerely wish them every success. But taxpayers should not be forced to waste one cent on this fiscal train wreck.