By Rob Roper
A little backstory for those who may have missed it. David Blitterdorf of All Earth Renewables purchased some 1950s-era passenger rail cars in the hopes of putting them back to use in mass public transportation for Vermonters, at taxpayer-subsidized expense. Why at taxpayers’ expense and not as a private investment? Because the idea is totally impractical with no possible pathway to making a profit. How bad is it exactly? The report came out this week.
Stuck into last year’s budget was an earmark for a study of what it would take to put just one very small phase of Blittersdorf’s vision into practice: upgrading an eight-mile stretch of railway track between Barre and Montpelier. The document, WACR MB Freight Corridor Commuter Rail Study, determined the cost to upgrade the tracks and install Positive Train Control (a safety system required for passenger rail service) to be $96.4 million over a five-year period.
That’s nearly $20 million a year for five years just to put the tracks in shape to move some people a short distance. This cost does not consider what ongoing subsidies would be required to operate the trains, as it is highly unlikely that ticket prices alone would come close to covering the cost of operations. (Think Amtrak.)
Now let’s put this into a larger context. One of the demands that climate activists are calling for is expanded public transportation, of which rail is a romanticized part. If it costs nearly $100 million just to upgrade eight miles of track, what do you think it will cost to build up passenger rail infrastructure to the point where it is actually convenient and useful enough for a critical mass of people to realistically give up driving cars? It would be more viable (and way cooler) for Vermont to launch its own space program.
It is questionable as to why this study was even necessary. That the plan was financially unrealistic should have been obvious. But, if the staggering numbers here succeed in putting this and other such plans to rest for good, perhaps it will have been worth it.