When Ray Kinsella plowed over his Iowa corn stalks, fear of financial ruin be damned, his purpose was clear, if only to him: Build it, and they’ll come.
Though bordering cliché, the metaphor neatly characterizes Williston-based energy mogul David Blittersdorf’s pursuit of his own field of dreams to kick-start commuter rail service in Vermont.
Blittersdorf has invested $5 million of his own funds to form AllEarth Rail, a subsidiary of his AllEarth Renewables, to bring a dozen self-propelled rail cars to Vermont with the hope of disproving critics who believe his plan is little more than fantasy.
“Eighty percent of our population lives within walking distance of a railroad,” Blittersdorf told the Essex Rotary on August 16. “There’s a reason for that. We built the United States around railroads and rivers.”
Blittersdorf made headlines again earlier this month as his 1950s-era Budd trains rolled into Montpelier to complete a cross-country route from Dallas, where he purchased the cars.
He wants to provide sample runs in the fall with a goal of starting sometime next year, and though still unsure of routes, he believes one will run from St. Albans to Montpelier, welcome news for hopeful village residents.
“Essex Jct. is right there, centered between all these rail stations,” he said.
Blittersdorf speaks of his interest in commuter rail with nonchalance, explaining his purchase was inspired by state officials’ claims it would take decades to build in Vermont. That didn’t sit well with the 60-year-old, so he wondered: What if he brought the hardware?
Now, “somebody has to do something,” he said.
If he’s ever to get commuter rail off the ground, however, Blittersdorf will need to complete a to-do list that may seem longer than the rail system itself.
To achieve ticket prices low enough to compete with the ease of motor vehicles, AllEarth must secure a public subsidy amid pushes to rein in government spending. Blittersdorf will need to compel improvements to tracks in various parts of the state — most notably, a 7.8-mile stretch connecting Burlington and Essex Jct. And he will need to convince owners and operators of current railroad lines to allow his service for a reasonable price.
Michael Williams, spokesman for Genesse & Wyoming, owner of the New England Central Rail Company that maintains tracks that run through Essex Jct., said the company hasn’t received any inquiries about non-Amtrak passenger service in Vermont.
Before this could be seriously considered, the company would need to study rider safety and any impacts on freight customers and Amtrak, Williams said.
“Beyond that, I can’t comment on hypotheticals,” he added.
Even if AllEarth navigated those obstacles, it would then need a ridership that economically sustains the system, all while unable to draw from a true population center.
A Vermont Agency of Transportation feasibility study estimated the total cost for a commuter line to be upward of $300 million, including about $50 million to build or upgrade six stations, though about half of those overall costs include price tags for dozens of passenger cars and some locomotives, Blittersdorf pointed out, way beyond what he paid for his fleet.
Like Kinsella, Blittersdorf is no stranger to accusations of lunacy, yet said he remains optimistic. Accompanied by Charlie Moore, whom he hired as president, Blittersdorf ran through his pitch to the Rotary in under 15 minutes.
Blittersdorf’s cars are operated by a skinny crew of two, half what’s typical for passenger trains, and divide mid-route because each has a pair of diesel engines. They can also reverse at the end of the line, he said, all of which means lower costs compared to locomotive-hauled trains.
He also plans to offer free transit to major employers like GlobalFoundries and the University of Vermont in exchange for subsidies.
And the kicker: A study from Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which sold the cars to Blittersdorf, found each dollar invested in rail stations spurred $7 of private investments in commercial development and housing.
That’s promising news for areas that need to build new stations or fix existing ones, like Essex Jct., which is waiting for federal funding to finance a $1.2 million rehab for its Amtrak station.
Local rail enthusiast Greg Morgan, chairman of Essex’s Economic Development Commission who invited Blittersdorf to the Rotary, said he believes the plan could help bring funding to Essex Jct. because it would create a “train system that’s actually real.”
Blittersdorf admits he’d be happy to simply break even. His real goal, he said, is to lead the charge into the renewable future.
Because his cars get over 2 miles per gallon and can carry over 100 people, they are more efficient than trucks, which use 10 times more energy, he said. Cars are even worse, he added, while 50 percent of Vermont’s oil usage is transportation-based.
“We have a fundamental change happening in the world. A lot of people say ‘No, we’re not switching off what we’re doing.’ That’s like committing suicide,” he said. “You know it’s coming, and if you don’t start doing something about it, you’re going to have to react just like everybody else.
“We will help Vermonters be better off with less risk by doing this,” he added.
Blittersdorf believes his service would encourage more downtown-centric growth and lessen cars on the road, both of which can be difficult sells. A Facebook group that grew after he gave a talk two years ago offers proof. It’s tagline: “Don’t Blittersdorf Vermont.”
Unfazed, Blittersdorf shared his biggest dream: creating a system of electrically-propelled rail cars.
“That gets to the renewable future that we all want,” he said. “But we’ve got to start somewhere.”