Home Commentary Why Not a Local Trolley?

Why Not a Local Trolley?

One of the many questions that still hangs out there about creating a rec center at the city-owned Country Club Road property regards transportation to and from downtown, especially in winter and especially for younger people. One person asked on Front Porch Forum a couple of months ago why can’t we have a trolley running from downtown past Country Club Road. Who owns the tracks and what could be done?

I am the first to shout that we should have a rail service along the valley from Barre to Waterbury. The resources are there, but the institutional resistance is amazing.

It is not even a new concept. From the 1890s to the 1920s, there was almost hourly trolley service along the current track route.

The state of Vermont owns the tracks and right-of-way. It provides a somewhat “friendly” lease to Vermont Rail Systems (VRS) in which the state Agency of Transportation (VTrans) leases the tracks to VRS, which in turn provides maintenance. In fact, the tracks were recently upgraded when it became clear that more attention needed to be paid to them after a few rail car tip-overs. In turn, those tracks are now used exclusively for the granite trains we see rolling through our downtown. Basically, it is a sweetheart deal, and VRS does not want any other parties messing with the freight business on their tracks.

As owners of the railbed, the VTrans administration is also clear on its negative opinion on passenger service using those tracks. VTrans, in that way, supports the interests of Vermont Rail Service. When asked, state bureaucrats want nothing to do with passenger rail in our valley. They believe that today, with everyone using personal cars, there is no reason to assume that a viable trolley system can be maintained and paid for.

This perception may no longer be true. As the price of personal transport keeps rising, a lot of folks are suddenly interested in alternatives. I started seeing this in 2016–17 when I was running the Sustainable Montpelier Design Competition. The winning entry was based around a functioning rail line that ran the length of Montpelier. One of the finalists also included a similar rail connection, featuring a trolley running through town. By public vote back then, the most popular visions of our future included a functioning trolley.

Based on a belief that such a majority vote indicated a substantial potential demand for such a trolley, the entrepreneur David Blittersdorf went out and spent several million dollars to purchase a number of Budd cars, which could provide trolley service. Those self-propelled rail cars can move forward and back and are sized to use the existing tracks. They are perfect for such a link.

One could assume that, with all the pieces in place, allowing a demonstration project for a Barre-to-Montpelier Junction (or preferably Burlington) rail service would have made a lot of public policy sense. Yet, Vermont Rail Systems and VTrans made sure that no such demonstration could take place. The state is convinced that local passenger rail is no longer viable. That position is, of course, consistent with the administration of a governor who races high-performance cars and whose family fortune comes from road construction. Our auto-focused governor only wants us to travel by car. Or, if we are poor, we must be dependent on an inefficient bus service that has been lumbering along for years.

Under the assumption that no good deed shall go unpunished, Blittersdorf has met nothing but resistance in trying to get such a service demonstrated. Those Budd cars are currently housed in Graniteville and could be brought into service quickly. However, faced with the political reality that VTrans and Vermont Rail Service want nothing to do with local passenger rail, Blittersdorf is negotiating other options. It turns out that some major municipal areas would find these cars useful in shifting to more mass transit.

Dan Jones is a sustainability advocate who organized the Sustainable Montpelier Design Competition and co-founded the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition.