Comments on Vermont's 2015 Draft Rail Plan
To: Mr. Costa Pappis, Planner
Vermont Agency of Transportation
1 National Life Drive, Davis Bldg, 5th Floor, Montpelier, VT 05633
Email: Costa.email@example.com; Phone: (802) 828.5790
Dear Mr. Pappis,
While railroads bring benefits, they also bring risks. Vermont's 2015 Draft Rail Plan would bring four times as many trains and twice as much freight cargo with hazardous materials travelling through our communities at speeds up to 79 mph. The national trends in safety concerns about the rail transportation of hazardous materials are alarming: the US Department of Transportation has predicted 10 major hazmat derailments a year and billions of dollars in damage over the next 20 years, and the United States has had 6 major hazmat train derailments and 47 deaths already this year.
Vermont’s Draft Rail Plan aims to link our Western Rail Corridor to the national rail network via Albany, NY. Albany is right next door-- and it is now the nation’s 3rd-largest oil transportation hub, where the volume of Bakken crude oil shipments-- the same volatile oil that caused the train disasters in Lac Megantic, Quebec and around the US--has quickly increased to more than 2 billion gallons a year. The county of Albany just joined the growing list of communities, first responders, and environmental groups around the country who are in legal actions against railroads and the federal government to hold them accountable for the damages from unsafe hazmat rail transportation practices. Vermont needs to consider these alarming trends while taking another close look at our 2015 Draft Rail Plan.
Mr. Pappis, we appreciate the work of the Vermont Agency of Transportation to develop a Plan that improves Vermont's railroad system. On the other hand, we love our beautiful state and we want to protect it from the railroad safety crisis that is happening in Albany and the rest of the country. We need a Rail Plan that makes public safety the No. 1 priority. The state of Vermont has plenty of room to do this: the Draft Rail Plan and budget will be funded by our taxpayer dollars, and the state owns the Western Rail Corridor and most of the railroads in Vermont. We therefore urge the Vermont Transportation Agency (VTrans) to improve Vermont’s Draft Rail Plan by addressing these 6 priority areas:
1. APPLY LESSONS FROM NATIONAL TRENDS AND STATE INITIATIVES. Recent initiatives in a number of states, including New York state, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Washington state to protect the public and the environment from rail hazmat disasters should be applied to strengthen the Draft Rail Plan so that we can reduce the risk of having a rail disaster in Vermont.
2. PUT SAFETY FIRST. New York state and other states in the US are working to require more frequent rail and train inspections, and to ensure slower train speeds at public and private crossings, and near homes and businesses close to the rails. Vermont’s Rail Plan should do the same, and also ensure that enough of our taxpayer dollars are allocated to the budget for appropriate training, prompt notification of hazmat trains and all train derailments, and the supplies and equipment first responders need in order to prepare for and respond to any rail disasters.
3. FUND DESIGNATED RAILYARDS FOR STORAGE OF HAZMAT TANKERS. Storing hazmat freight tankers on side rails near homes, businesses, farmland and wetlands puts the public and our environment at risk. We need to put a stop to this practice. In the Draft Rail Plan, over four times more taxpayer dollars are being invested in side rails than in rail yards along the Western Rail Corridor. Revise the budget so that our tax dollars are used to prioritize railyards for the Western Rail Corridor.
4. TAKE MORE TIME FOR REAL DIALOGUE WITH OUR TOWNS AND MUNICIPALITIES. While VTrans has held some public meetings, many Towns and citizens along the Western Rail Corridor are not even aware of the Draft Rail Plan and have not yet been sufficiently engaged to make sure that this Plan supports and protects our communities. Ensure the compatibility of Vermont’s Draft Rail Plan with our regional and municipality Plans-- as well as our zoning, safety, and all-hazards mitigation plans-- by taking more time to have real dialogue about it with our Towns.
5. FUND RAIL SYSTEM MAINTENANCE TO PROTECT OUR COMMUNITIES. Railroads rely heavily on herbicides for weed control, the least expensive method. Reliance on herbicides alone contaminates water and air, harms citizens and wildlife, and promotes weeds that are resistant to herbicides. Vermont’s Rail Plan needs to include alternative rail maintenance systems, including those in other countries, such as Switzerland, and invest in more environmentally-friendly methods to keep the railroads safe by removing soil and control weeds on the tracks.
6. DESIGNATE CLEAR ACCOUNTABILITY, RESPONSIBILITY, AND LIABILITY FOR PUBLIC SAFETY. Vermont must take a proactive stand that will not leave families and communities financially bankrupt in the event of a train derailment or a hazmat rail disaster. VTrans needs to work with other state agencies to clarify the accountability and responsibility of the state of Vermont and the private railroads for the safety of our human and natural communities, and to describe these clearly in Vermont’s Rail Plan. With the dramatic increase in train numbers, train speed, and hazmat freight travelling through our communities, Vermont's Rail Plan must address liability issues, and how compensation for homes, businesses and property that are too close to tracks will be handled.