Saturday, October 20, 2007

What is G.R.I.P.?

Does G.R.I.P. want to put a train in your front yard?


Have you heard of the Gateway Rural Improvement Pilot Association?

According to Saturday's Rutland Herald, G.R.I.P. will be making public appearances in Manchester, Rutland, Middlebury and Burlington (not Bennington?) on Monday and Tuesday.

The only substantive information available on the web about G.R.I.P. comes from the freight web site of the CCMPO -- Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Association -- which is headed by former Agency of Natural Resource Secretary Scott Johnstone. Scroll down the page and you'll come to a few documents about G.R.I.P. Their purpose is explained:
GRIP™ serves several useful roles:
1) It will provide a “third party” platform for financing agreements between public
and private partners.
2) The GRIP™ partners will focus on identifying sources of non-Federal matching
funds not dependent on state taxes.
3) They will also work to identify public/private strategies to provide full funding for the five project elements.
4) They will help prioritize projects to maximize economic development potential.
VCE has been following the money; the federal money that has been designated for western corridor improvements and the private money Omya says it will pay for a portion of the rail spur proposed to go through productive farmland along the Otter Creek in Middlebury. As far as we can tell, GRIP began as an attempt to facilitate leveraging Omya's money to pay for other western rail corridor improvements in the future, because federal and state rules regarding money and public process are viewed by project proponents as obstacles to construction of new rail facilities.

So what's the problem? The Middlebury Omya Rail Spur (MORS) is the first priority of GRIP, and it is moving along. Hearings were held on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (VCE submitted comments identifying substantive errors) and the Final EIS is expected to be released by the end of this year. Once the Record of Decision (RoD) is released, the design can be put out to bid and the hope is to have a designer on board by May 2008. After that, negotiations with landowners and permitting can begin, with actual construction estimated to be 5 to 7 years away.

There are numerous problems with the MORS, none of which seem to be on the radar of the numerous cheerleaders for what is, no matter how you spin it, corporate welfare:
  1. the rail spur would use eminent domain to take private property for the benefit of one private, multi-national corporation
  2. the rail spur would use public funding to benefit one private, multi-national corporation
  3. the rail spur can utilize a federal exemption from state and local permitting; specifically courts have upheld that Act 250 does not apply to rail projects in Vermont.
  4. it is unclear what permitting there will be
  5. virtually all the landowners along the proposed route are opposed to the rail spur
  6. at least five of the properties affected by the rail spur have land conservation easements
  7. and then there are the environmental and quality of life issues involving panoramic views of farmland and marshes, potential flooding problems, native american artifacts, wetlands, noise, air pollution, dust and more.
The Middlebury Omya Rail Spur has a long history, which is detailed in this article from 1998. There is no question that Brandon bears an unreasonable amount of truck traffic through its prospering downtown. But Omya's recent announcement that it is moving its North American headquarters out of Vermont has raised legitimate questions about Omya's commitment to Vermont. Meanwhile, Omya's neighbors in Florence are learning how Omya's chemicals affect the groundwater in their neighborhood, and they are not happy about the prospect of Omya using the rail spur to increase the amount of rock that comes from the Middlebury quarry to the Florence plant if it means more chemically-contaminated waste dumped in unlined quarries, more oil burned, more chemicals used, more water pumped from their aquifer, and more air pollution.

There are lots of moving parts in this western rail corridor train set. Who is driving the train?

Group to discuss Vermont railroad expansion proposal
October 20, 2007

An ambitious proposal to upgrade Vermont's western railroads will be taking to the rail lines on Monday and Tuesday.

Members of GRIP — the Gateway Rural Improvement Pilot Association — are embarking on a legislative whistle-stop train tour designed to brief legislators, business leaders and the public on the potential for a comprehensive rail improvement plan that would improve 150 miles of rail running between Bennington and the Canadian border.

The four major improvements planned for the rail include relocating the Rutland rail yard, building a spur to the Omya Inc. quarry in Middlebury, building an intermodal connector from downtown St. Albans to I-89 and upgrading the lines between Bennington, Rutland, Burlington and Essex to increase maximum weight capacities.

GRIP was created after $30 million in federal funds was authorized to test the gateway principle in 2005.

The organization's train tour will begin on Monday at 7 p.m. with a whistle stop at the Depot Café on Depot Street in Manchester. On Tuesday, the train and the presentation will be at 8 a.m. at the Rutland train station. At 2 p.m., the group will make a stop at the historic Middlebury Train Station on Seymour Street and at 5:30 p.m. the tour will end with a presentation at the Burlington Union Station.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

OK, I'm a cheerleader for this project, so I'll address the points raised:

Regarding "corporate welfare:" This is a project that builds infrastructure rather than directly subsidizing a corporation. It's the nature of our economy that infrastructure supports economic activity and government routinely provides that. Vermont already provides the infrastructure for Omya - route seven. The spur provides different infrastructure that offers environmental and quality of life benefits to the public - and helps Omya (and several other potential rail users) as well. It isn't a question of IF we provide infrastructure since we already do, it's HOW we provide it; what form it's in. Let's choose the environmentally and fiscally responsible way of doing so. Rail is many many times more fuel efficient, which means vastly less particulates, vastly less greenhouse gas, more safety . . .

<< 1. the rail spur would use eminent domain to take private property for the benefit of one private, multi-national corporation>>

No question Omya benefits significantly. But the community benefits in general, which is why eminent domain is appropriate, as it has been in virtually all transportation projects ever undertaken in the US.

<< 2. the rail spur would use public funding to benefit one private, multi-national corporation>>

What matters is does the community benefit. It does.

In fact there are several companies that are potential rail customers along the line. Omya is overwhelmingly the biggest, but not the only one.

Aside from the environmental and community benefit of converting this particular truck move to rail, there is also a benefit of strengthening the rail network as a whole.

<< 3. the rail spur can utilize a federal exemption from state and local permitting; specifically courts have upheld that Act 250 does not apply to rail projects in Vermont.>>

True. (The constitution restricts states from regulating interstate commerce and railroads are regulated nationally since most movement is interstate)
Act 250 doesn't apply to the truck movement either, though truck traffic is impacted when act 250 is applied on property and development.

<< 4. it is unclear what permitting there will be>>

I don't know either. There certainly has been plenty of public and legislative input.

<< 5. virtually all the landowners along the proposed route are opposed to the rail spur>>

I don't believe in favoring specific local landowners when the larger community gains. (That's why I support windmills in Vermont).

<< 6. at least five of the properties affected by the rail spur have land conservation easements>>

I don't know the specific issues with these easements and properties, but as a general principal, the spur supports conservation by removing all that truck traffic.

<< 7. and then there are the environmental and quality of life issues involving panoramic views of farmland and marshes, potential flooding problems, native american artifacts, wetlands, noise, air pollution, dust and more.>>

No question, a rail line is an impact, but not the same level as a road - or 70,000 trucks. The rail move is one train a day, each way. Sure, that's an impact, but it's pretty minor, actually.

I'm sure we still disagree, but thank you for letting me respond and for considering how there are benefits to the community as well.