(Reformer file photo)
(Reformer file photo)

BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont Agency of Transportation staff will be in Brattleboro next week to gather input on the state's Rail Plan.

The state updates its rail plan every five years and VTrans will hold a public meeting Tuesday, March 25 at 6:30 p.m. in the Brattleboro Savings and Loan Community Room at 221 Main Street.

VTrans Planner Costa Pappis said the plan outlines the state's goals and priorities for passenger and freight rail service, and public input is important as planners try to improve and expand rail service in the state.

The plan will be finalized by the end of 2014.

"We update our plan every five years and we do that with the purpose to examine whether the vision and policy we have is still up to date or if it needs to be changed," Pappis said. "We are holding these meetings to make sure that the projects we are selecting and prioritizing are in synch with what the public wants the system to be."

The state has recently completed an inventory of its rail system and Pappis said planners are now trying to determine how to strengthen the infrastructure to encourage more freight and passenger service.

Vermont's rail system has undergone some significant change over the last few years.

The state received $50 million in American Recovery & Reinvestment Act funding which allowed trains to travel at a higher speed.

The tracks beneath the Bellows Falls tunnel, which prevented double-stacked trains from traveling through Vermont, were lowered, and the heavier freight can now travel the length of the state.

And a focus on marketing helped passenger ridership in Vermont increase by 4 percent last year. Passenger ridership hit a low of 57,121 in 2005, and that number increased to 100,829 in 2013.

Pappis said the federal government changed the way it funds rail infrastructure two years ago and states are now expected to provide more of the money needed to upgrade tracks.

As ridership continues to climb, Pappis said it is going to be more of a challenge to maintain the tracks and infrastructure to keep the rail line safe and modern.

"It is a big change and we are going to have to find a way to address that," Pappis said. "A big part of that challenge is making sure we prioritize our projects, and that's why we want to hear from the public."

Windham Regional Commission Senior Planner Matt Mann said the meeting Tuesday is an important opportunity to let VTrans know about the support it has for improved rail service, as well as a chance to talk about what can be improved.

Comments made at the meeting will be recorded and VTrans planners will set out a course for the next five years based on what the business community and the public wants to see from Vermont's rail system.

"Freight and passengers travel over the same rails, and we are trying to look at similar issues that have to be addressed to support the Vermont economy and increase passenger service," Mann said. "A lot of work has been done in Vermont over the past few years and as we make a plan for the future it will be important to say, 'Here is what was said at the public meetings, and here is the support for the plan.' That's why we want people to come out."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.