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Remembering Jeff Munger, who put his ‘heart and soul’ into bringing Amtrak to Burlington

A man in a collared shirt sits at a desk with a computer keyboard and mouse, next to a young child in a light green dress.
Emma Ingalls
Jeff Munger, seen here in his office shortly before his retirement in 2015, worked for years to help secure federal funds needed to bring Amtrak train service to Burlington.

This Friday, an Amtrak train will roll into downtown Burlington. The new passenger rail service will provide a direct connection from Vermont’s largest city to New York City for the first time in nearly 70 years. It hasn’t come easy. The project has been in the works since the mid-1990s, and it cost over $115 million in federal and state funds.

Large celebrations are planned for the arrival of the train. But one man, named Jeff Munger, who spent much of his adult life working to bring Amtrak to Burlington, will be missing.

When he was in his 30s, Munger sailed around the world. This was in the 1970s, before GPS was widely used. His wife, Mary Munger, said he charted the boat’s course using celestial navigation, following the stars.

“[He was] using a sextant, which people have been doing for thousands of years,” Mary said. “[He] got them where they needed to go.”

A man in a maroon shirt and backwards cap stands behind the steering wheel of a sailboat.
Emma Ingalls
When he was in his 30's, Jeff Munger sailed around the world. He's seen here on a sailing trip in fall 2021.

Jeff traveled the globe for seven years. He chartered a boat owned by his aunt who’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness, Mary said. The two of them sailed to the Caribbean, Fiji, Australia and Djibouti, among other places.

After all that, Jeff came to visit family in Shrewsbury, Vermont, where he met Mary. In the early '80s, they settled down in the area, and happened to be neighbors with then-U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords. Jeff and his brother would occasionally help Jeffords with tasks on the senator’s property, like chopping wood and cutting trees. Soon, Jeff and Jeffords — a Republican senator with an independent streak — became friends.

“They went to football games, Rutland High School football games. That's how it started, really,” Mary explained.

In 1993, that friendship turned into a job offer: Jeffords wanted Jeff to work on his 1994 reelection campaign.

“I said, ‘Jim, what do you want to do, spoil a good friendship?’ ” Jeff recalled with a laugh during a 2019 interview with VPR.

Toby Talbot
Sen. Jim Jeffords, who represented Vermont until 2007, first hired Jeff Munger for his 1994 reelection campaign.

Despite his lack of political experience, Jeff took the campaign job, and after Jeffords won, he joined the senator’s staff, working on his transportation team. Jeff was a fast learner, according to his daughter Emma Ingalls.

“In terms of transportation expertise, I don't know that you could find somebody that knew about more places and where they were in the world than my dad,” Ingalls said.

Shortly after he was hired by Jeffords, Jeff started working on a project he’d be involved in for the rest of his life: bringing passenger rail service up the western side of Vermont. The line would start in New York City, then travel north through Albany to Rutland, and finally up to Burlington.

More from Vermont Public: 'Did It Work?': Bringing Amtrak Train Service From Rutland To Burlington

To do that, the state needed to upgrade aging rail tracks that hadn’t seen passenger trains in decades. Plus the line needed new crossings, platforms, bridge upgrades. It was a major undertaking.

“You’ve got to realize that all the rail, all the ties… most of the bridges, had to be brought up to standard,” Jeff explained.

All that takes money, and it was Jeff, through Sen. Jeffords’ office, who helped secure the necessary federal funds. The problem was, Jeff and the state’s congressional delegation couldn’t get enough money for the project all at once. Instead, they brought it in piece by piece.

“We would get $7 million one year, we'd get $11 million the next,” recalled Carl Fowler, a vocal advocate of passenger rail who served with Jeff on the state’s rail council for years.

This wrangling of federal funds went on for two decades, through three presidential administrations and three Vermont gubernatorial administrations. Even Jeffords left the Senate in 2007. But according to Fowler, one name remained consistent.

“It was Munger who was always there on the Senate side, and was always somebody you could turn to,” he said.

When Jeffords — who was once a Republican — stepped down, Jeff hopped right over to the office of the new senator who took his place: independent democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. There, he kept slowly chipping away at the train project.

“It was Munger who was always there on the Senate side, and was always somebody you could turn to.”
Carl Fowler, advocate for passenger rail

As much as Jeff was committed to his work, he didn’t bring it home with him, according to his family. Instead, he cooked dinner nearly every night, he did crosswords every day. He loved sports, cigars and playing golf. And he valued the social aspect of his work.

“He was a people person,” Mary said. “I think he put people at ease — and that's really important, obviously, in politics.”

“Anything in Vermont related to transportation is going to have Jeff Munger’s stamp on it,” said Melinda Moulton, the former CEO of Main Street Landing, a mixed-use development in downtown Burlington.

“This rail project, he put his heart and soul into.”

Moulton, like Jeff and Carl Fowler, has been waiting for the train to arrive in Burlington for decades, and so has the train station she built on the back of Main Street Landing in 1997.

The project has experienced numerous delays over the last several decades, beyond the slow trickle of federal money. The train will go through a tunnel under downtown Middlebury, which took years to plan and build. There was a dispute over where to park the train overnight in downtown Burlington. Tracks were damaged in Tropical Storm Irene. The pandemic lockdown put everything on pause.

A woman in a pink shirt stands on a train platform in downtown Burlington.
Henry Epp
Vermont Public
Melinda Moulton, the former CEO of Main Street Landing, stands on the new train platform in downtown Burlington. She's been waiting for the train's arrival for decades.

Finally, in a few days, the project will be complete. Three years ago, Jeff was anticipating this moment.

“I always tell Melinda Moulton, ‘I hope we're still alive when the first train pulls into union station in Burlington,’ ” he said in 2019.

But in July 2021, Jeff was diagnosed with Leukemia. He spent the next 10 months in treatment, all the while still attending virtual meetings of the Vermont Rail Council and the Burlington Airport Commission. He died on May 8. He was 79 years old.

“I really miss Jeff, and I'm so sorry that he did not live to see this moment in time,” Moulton said, sitting in the Main Street Landing station. “But I have no doubt, when we're out here and the Amtrak pulls in, Jeff is going to be on that train with us.”

That train will leave downtown Burlington at 10:10 a.m. on Friday, destined for New York’s Penn Station. From there, you could travel all over the country by train if you really wanted to: Florida, New Orleans, Chicago, California. It wouldn’t be an efficient trip, but it would be an adventure.

When Jeff's daughter Emma Ingalls was about five years old, she’d already heard her dad’s stories of sailing around the world, navigating by the stars.

“He would take me out on summer nights, like the summer nights we've been having, and show me the stars, and show me Orion's belt and the Big Dipper,” Ingalls remembered. “He would tell me, ‘You can sail by those stars, you can travel the world by those stars.’ ”

Some nights, they’d go outside and they were surrounded by fireflies.

“He showed me how to catch a firefly in a jar, and I just thought he was magic,” she said. “It was like he was catching the stars in a jar.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp:


Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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