Earmark will fund major upgrades to Vermont’s busiest train station

A rendering showing proposed improvements to Essex Junction Rail and Bus Station. Courtesy of Essex Junction Village

‘Deterioration of walls, panels and structures’: Essex Junction plans to repair these and other longstanding issues at its Amtrak station using $3 million in congressional funding, aimed at making Vermont’s busiest railroad hub safer and more attractive to passengers.

The funding comes from a special assignment from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who said the project would have a lasting impact on both the future city and the state.

“For years, the station has been in desperate need of updates to provide modern amenities,” Leahy said in a statement. “The upgrade and revitalization of this station is another central part of improving Vermont’s surface transportation system.

Officials do not yet know exactly what changes will be made to the Chittenden County station, but plans will likely be based on proposals in a 2016 study of the existing facility, according to Andrew Brown, chairman of the Essex Junction board.

At the time, administrators selected a preferred design from several build options.

The design includes a new open truss canopy over the station building as well as train and bus boarding areas. It also includes a large clock at the top. In general, it is meant to echo the historic designs of Northeastern United States train stations.

Plans also include a new glassed-in waiting area with bathrooms at the south end of the station building. Roads around the station could be converted into a one-way loop, according to plans, to make public transit safer for cars, taxis and buses.

The design chosen by the council would create approximately 3,200 additional square feet of pedestrian space and 720 square feet of green space around the station.

Brown said Essex Junction does not yet know when it will receive funding for the project from the federal government, so a timeline for the renovations remains in the works.

“I was told it could take time,” he said.

Officials have long identified the need to renovate the station. In addition to citing parts of the station that are “deteriorating”, a prospectus on the project, residents are concerned about safety around the station due to poor lighting and undefined traffic patterns.

Brown said the station is often the first impression people have of the Burlington area, but it’s not the one he thinks would draw people to the area for work or school.

The 2016 study also recommends the construction of a new elevated train platform at the station to improve accessibility for people getting on and off the train.

“Those getting off the train wonder if they’ve arrived at the right place,” the flyer says. “Vermont’s busiest train station is not the sight you expect to see.”

The flyer notes that more than 20,000 passengers used Essex Junction station in 2019, which was a banner year for Amtrak in the state. Brown said the village facility is also a key bus stop for local Green Mountain Transit riders.

In response to a question, Brown said the village expects future Amtrak service from a station in Burlington — about a 20-minute drive away, with trains expected to start operating in July — may keep some away. Essex Junction passengers.

But officials have no reason to worry, he said, partly because they believe passengers will continue to be drawn to a station outside the hustle and bustle of the biggest city. from Vermont.

Trains passing through both stations will connect to New York, but travel there by different routes. Essex Junction is on Amtrak Vermont route, which roughly follows Interstate 89 across the state to White River Junction, before heading south through western Massachusetts and central Connecticut.

The Burlington station will be on the Ethan AllenExpress route, which will head south to Rutland before continuing along its existing route through eastern New York State.

The Vermonter also continues south from New York to Washington, D.C.

Trini Brassard, special projects manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the impact of Burlington Station on Essex Junction Station will be “negligible.”

“There’s not a big change that’s going to happen that we can point out and say, ‘Oh, it’s because we came to Burlington,'” she said.

Brassard said Vermont officials were pleased with Amtrak ridership in the state since the train service resumed last summer. Currently, fiscal 2022 ridership on the Ethan Allen Express is about 6% lower than it was in fiscal 2019, she said; on Vermonter, current ridership is about 3% lower than three years ago.

An Amtrak spokesperson referred VTDigger’s questions about the service to VTrans.

Brown said that while passenger numbers were to decline at the Essex Junction station, officials are confident the station would see an increase in new usage if Amtrak service resumes to Montreal in the future, along the current Vermonter route.

Brassard said the biggest remaining hurdles for the “Montrealer” project are on the Canadian side of the border. “On the American side, we’re pretty much ready,” she said.

Among those hurdles is the construction of a pre-clearance facility at Montreal Central Station, which would allow passengers to be screened to and from both countries. Leahy-drafted legislation authorizing the expansion of these facilities in Canada was signed into law in 2017, followed by complementary Canadian legislation.

Now Quebec Provincial Budget 2022-23 includes C$1 million (about $800,000) to fund a feasibility study and design plan for the Montreal facility, according to Marie-Claude Francoeur, Quebec government delegate to New England.

Francoeur said the study could be underway in a few months, and once it’s completed, the whole project may be able to take a big step forward.

“The government is very committed,” she said of Quebec. “I think the best proof of that is the money that’s been put in the budget.”

Francoeur said Canadian officials are also looking at needed improvements to the security-focused tracks between the border and Montreal Central Station, though those aren’t complete. Upgrades on the US side are complete, Brassard said.

In response to a question, Francoeur said she could not give a target date for Amtrak service across the border – although she maintained there was political will for the project. two sides.

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James H. Wright