Nine-inch dig to lift economic hope

Call it a miniversion of Boston's Big Dig: A railroad tunnel that burrows beneath this former mill town will soon have an additional nine inches of clearance. Because buildings built atop the tunnel prohibit raising the roof, the railbed will be lowered, as it has been done twice before. When finished, the project will unblock a major north-south rail bottleneck and draw more freight traffic to the region, with the attendant ripples of economic growth. Nine inches may help lift this former mill town.

Nine more inches will let high-capacity railroad cars, including triple-decker car carriers, pass through the tunnel, built in 1851. For now, trucks that carry imported Audis, Subarus, and Volkswagens northward from a Rhode Island port cross over a bridge altered to accommodate future use by the larger rail cars.

Improvements to the rail spur serving the port will be completed this year, so car shipments will be able to head straight north via rail through this Vermont town to Montreal and beyond. Carrying freight by rail instead of by truck is more cost-effective and fuel efficient, notes Charles Miller, rail operations program manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. Using the same amount of fuel, trains can move freight three times as far as trucks, he says.

The $2 million effort is part of a $286 billion transportation bill that was signed into law last month. It's in stark contrast to the "Bridge to Nowhere" project in rural Alaska. The bill provides $223 million for the Alaska bridge, which leads to the tiny community on Gravina Island (pop.: 50).

"It definitely tops the list in terms of what we consider a wasteful project," says Erich Zimmerman, senior policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C.

As surging fuel prices threaten the nation's economic health, Mr. Miller hopes there will be "less talk about pork and more talk about ... the fuel economy of moving freight."

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