MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- Efforts to bring back passenger rail service to western Vermont took a big step forward Thursday when a legislative committee authorized the Transportation Agency to embark on a rail upgrade project.
Once completed, the project will leave a gap of 11 miles that would have to be improved before Amtrak could begin running between Rutland and Burlington.
Agency officials hope they will be able to apply in January for federal grant money that could be used to upgrade that final stretch at a cost of an estimated $23 million for the rail upgrade as well as upgrades to rail crossings and bridges.
The state hasn't found the funding yet for that section of rail, but officials are hopeful they'll be able to apply.
If all goes well, it's possible the agency could ask the Legislature to fund extending Amtrak from Rutland to Burlington in the 2016 budget year, said Chris Cole, the Vermont Agency of Transportation's director of policy, planning and intermodal development.
"To use a rail metaphor, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we need federal participation. We can't do it alone," Cole said Thursday after the Legislature's Joint Transportation Oversight Committee authorized the agency to spend the $8.9 million federal grant that had been approved to upgrade a portion of the rails for the 20 miles north of Rutland.
In addition to the grant that can now be spent, the 20-mile stretch between Rutland and Leicester will be funded with $10 million in additional funding from the federal and state governments and other sources.
For years Vermont transportation officials have dreamed of restoring inter-city passenger rail service to Burlington.
The rail infrastructure improvements authorized Thursday were specifically designed to improve freight service in the region, which will get trucks off the highways. But it will have the added benefit of making the rails suitable for use by passenger trains.
Vermont officials say improving rail infrastructure will create jobs and increase the use of the railroads to move freight, getting trucks off the highways and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Once the rail system has been upgraded, Vermont would have to pay the bulk of the cost of extending Amtrak service to Burlington. Cole said he did not have an estimate of how much that would cost the state, but extending passenger service has been a priority of Gov. Peter Shumlin and key lawmakers in the Legislature for some time.
"I'm optimistic," Cole said. "The Legislature keeps asking us, 'When are you going to return the train to Burlington?' so I would assume that's an indication of support."