Southwest Corner: rail and air services expand

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(Host) Officials in Bennington County say improving their transportation infrastructure will go a long way in helping to boost the area’s economy. While work on the bypass is ongoing, it may be years before it’s useable.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports in the final installment of our week-long series on southwestern Vermont, Bennington may see more immediate results by upgrading it’s rail access and using what transportation assets they have more creatively.

(Keck) Former state Representative Dick Pembroke stands in downtown Bennington at the corner of Routes 7 and 9 and points to passing fuel trucks, which rumble one after another through town.

(Pembroke) “The port of Albany is a big port for fuel and we’ll get trucks – those Lyndonville trucks that just went through. Here again, it’d be nice to get that rail thing going and send some of that north on rail.”

(Keck) Currently, freight headed into Bennington by rail has to travel through White Hall, New York, then over to Rutland before coming to Bennington. Pembroke, who served for 16 years on the House Transportation Committee, says they’ve been trying for years to streamline the rail connection.

A few years ago, the state purchased the rail lines that connect Bennington to Hoosick Junction, New York; $15 million in state and federal funding has been spent to upgrade the lines all the way to Manchester. Dick Pembroke says some minor work remains, but he believes the project could be completed this summer. Bob Stannard, a Manchester businessman and former lawmaker, says providing passenger rail service to Manchester is the logical next step and would bring in an estimated $3.5 million a year:

(Stannard) “I’m pretty optimistic, primarily because I think it would be unconscionable for the state and federal government to spend the kind of money we’ve spent and never run services.”

(Keck) But Charlie Miller, Rail Operations Manager for Vermont’s Agency of Transportation, says that when the state began work on the Bennington connection, Amtrak was subsidizing more of its costs in Vermont than they are today. He says now that the price of passenger service has gone up, the state is facing some tough choices on whether to even continue Amtrak’s existing routes:

(Miller) “I don’t think that we can change its route from its present configuration for a number of reasons. Mainly that our market into Rutland is what we’re trying to serve and then get the train north up into Burlington eventually. There’s a significant area of track upgrades that are needed between Rutland and Manchester that aren’t scheduled to be completed into the foreseeable future.”

(Keck) While rail service remains uncertain, new developments at the airfield are putting Bennington on the map. AirNow is a company based at Morse State Airport. For over 20 years, its small fleet of planes has been delivering last minute priority freight for companies like Federal Express and UPS. Mark Nesbit, AirNow’s marketing manager, says this is a business where getting it there overnight simply isn’t fast enough:

(Nesbit) “Keep in mind that when a manufacturer calls and wants a charter, they’re in deep doo doo. They’re about ready to shut down an assembly line that could cost millions of dollars in wages or time for every five minutes that assembly line is shut down.”

(Keck) Nesbit says typically that manufacturer would reach for the phone and call one charter carrier after another until they found one who could deliver whatever it was the company needed to get back on track. Choices tended to be limited. The folks at AirNow figured there had to be a better way so they went out and designed one. What they came up with is a sort of charter service eBay – an Internet bidding site where jobs are posted and within minutes, freight carriers from all over the country start bidding for them:

(Nesbit) “Here’s a client that’s on the system right now, it happens to be UPS. And they’re looking for material that’s going from Louisville to Philly. And there are turbo prop carriers, there are jet carriers all submitting bids, trying to get not only the lowest price options, but also meet UPS’s time commitment. And there’s a span here from the highest bid of $7,100 to a low bid of $2,100 or $2,200, so there’s a big savings.”

(Keck) AirNow currently employs about 50 people – 35 in Bennington. Most of their operation remains freight delivery, but company President David Corey says they’re new Internet service is growing and they’re exploring ways to take it overseas, as well as to expand it to include other freight delivery systems such as trucking.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Bennington.

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