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Can public transit adjust fast enough to meet Vermont’s emissions deadline?

By News in pursuit of truth,

2021-10-03
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The Amtrak train Vermonter crosses the Winooski River between Bolton and Duxbury heading south as it resumes service on Monday, July 19, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As Vermont races toward its self-imposed deadline to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there’s an urgent push to get more people out of their cars and on public transit.

The Global Warming Solutions Act — which the Legislature passed last year, overriding Gov. Phil Scott’s veto — requires the state to reduce its carbon emissions to 26% of 2005 levels before 2025 or face potential lawsuits.

And while the Vermont Climate Council won’t issue its plan for how to do that until later this year, the group’s initial blueprint will surely target the transportation sector, which accounts for more emissions than any other area, according to state data.

To meet its climate benchmarks, Vermont would have to replace about 42,000 of its gas-fueled cars with electric vehicles, according to a report by the Vermont Energy Action Network.

Enter public transportation: a way to get people from Point A to Point B using less fuel.

Yet boosting public transit ridership in a rural state like Vermont has a number of challenges, officials and advocates say.

In much of Vermont, public transit exists foremost as a social service for people without cars, industry leaders told VTDigger. That means connecting the state’s small towns, even if they don’t pick up enough passengers to justify the expense.

This town-hopping model is a lifeline for carless Vermonters in rural areas, but makes public transit less convenient for people who have the option to drive. A trip from St. Johnsbury to Montpelier, for instance, is scheduled to take one hour and 15 minutes via Rural Community Transportation’s “U.S. 2 Commuter” bus. Driving the same route in a car would be 20 minutes shorter, according to a Google Maps estimate.

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A Green Mountain Transit bus waits at the Downtown Transit Center in Burlington on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. Photo by Jim Welch/VTDigger

That’s the crux of the issue, said Ross MacDonald, public transit program manager at the state Agency of Transportation. For Vermont to meet its climate goals by 2025, the state’s public transit systems must attract people who can otherwise drive themselves, while still supporting riders for whom that’s the only way to get around.

To turn drivers into riders, the state will have to persuade them to accept at least some level of inconvenience, said Rep. Curt McCormack, D-Burlington, chair of the House Transportation Committee. He hasn’t owned a car for 19 years.

Public transportation “is never ever going to be as convenient as getting into your own car that’s sitting out in your own driveway, waiting for you to take it to wherever you want to go,” McCormack said.

MacDonald agreed: “It will be very difficult to compete with an individual driving their car wherever and whenever they want,” he said.

But at the heart of Vermont’s public transit efforts is a push to do just that. And whether the state is successful will have huge ramifications down the road, both ecological and economic.

Fitting the pieces together

Vermont’s Agency of Transportation has subsidized public transit for years. But with the advent of the Global Warming Solutions Act, those subsidies are now aimed at lowering emissions as much as they are promoting tourism or helping low-income residents get around.

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Greyhound has been asked by the ACLU to stop allowing border agents aboard its buses.

Right now, the state helps fund two interstate bus routes (Colchester to Albany, N.Y., run by Vermont Translines, and Greyhound’s Boston to Montreal service, which has been suspended during the pandemic), two Amtrak routes (the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express), and seven local bus systems.

The key to a strong public transit system is making these different pieces fit together, said Carl Fowler, a longtime rail advocate and member of the Vermont Rail Advisory Council.

If a traveler wanted to get from Burlington to New York City, for example, they could rely on multiple transportation networks to get there. An early morning Vermont Translines bus would connect them with an Amtrak train in Rensselaer, N.Y., landing them in Manhattan before 1 p.m.

But there are other times when the timing doesn’t work out, Fowler said. If Fowler were to use mass transit from Washington, D.C., for instance, he could take Amtrak from the nation’s capital to Essex Junction. But the Green Mountain Transit bus that would take him to surrounding towns like Williston halts its daily service before the train gets into Essex at 8:18 p.m.

“We just need to make what we’re providing work a little better,” Fowler said.

To help would-be riders make good decisions, the state Agency of Transportation launched “Go!Vermont,” a website that allows people to plan trips via public transit and track how much money and emissions they save.

Prioritizing improvements

Beyond better connections between systems, the state could take a number of big steps to improve mass transit, transportation observers say.

As Montreal prepares to complete its first phase of a light rail system, Tony Redington, a transportation policy analyst, believes Vermont’s largest city could support its own. Redington envisions an east-west rail line between Burlington International Airport and the Waterfront — stopping at the University of Vermont and at hospitals along the way — and a north-south line between Shelburne Road and downtown Burlington.

In looking to the future, “we have to look at what systems work and how effective they are,” said Redington, who estimated the project would cost $80 million.

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Rep. Peter Welch waves for photos on the Vermonter train at St. Albans July 19, 2021. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

While not everyone backs Redington’s vision for light rail, there’s broad support for extending Amtrak’s Vermonter route to Montreal — the way things used to be. That would open up a new market of riders, and result in an overnight train between New York and Montreal, which would appeal to business travelers and tourists alike, said Christoper Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network.

Another Amtrak extension will connect Burlington to New York City in early 2022 via the Ethan Allen Express, which now ends in Rutland.

The Montreal connection is just one of more than 20 initiatives in the Vermont Rail Plan, a wishlist the state develops to position itself for federal grants. Other projects include signal work that would allow trains to travel faster in certain corridors, and improving the food options offered on each route.

Upgrades in the first of the state’s three priority categories would cost about $175 million, according to the plan. But those expenses might be covered by the bipartisan infrastructure package if it passes Congress, Fowler said.

“I would be very hopeful that we would get funded pretty much anything that’s sane in the next three to five years, assuming the infrastructure plan is funded,” Fowler said.

McCormack, the transportation chair, told VTDigger he plans to propose funding to improve New England Central Railroad’s Winooski Branch, which connects downtown Burlington with Essex Junction. Passenger trains are currently limited to 15 mph speeds on that track. Now, the rail plan lists the Winooski Branch in the third-priority category, with a price tag of roughly $14 million.

Innovations at Green Mountain Transit

While changes in the state’s rail system would take years, the Green Mountain Transit bus system has multiple projects designed to attract “choice” riders — people who also have a car.

One would be similar to ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. The “MyRide” program allows people to book a trip on a Green Mountain Transit vehicle that will pick them up and drop them off wherever they ask. The bus service started a two-year trial of the service in Montpelier early this year. Green Mountain Transit’s general manager, Jon Moore, said expanding that concept to Chittenden County could supplement the region’s existing routes, as new development stretches the footprint of the Burlington area.

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Passengers run to get on a Green Mountain Transit bus at the Downtown Transit Center in Burlington on Friday, July 26, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Green Mountain Transit has also rotated two electric buses into its Chittenden County fleet, and has secured funding for two electric vans — investments that could prod environmentally conscious drivers out of their cars, Moore said.

Perhaps the most significant change at Green Mountain Transit is waiving the fares on all of its routes. That step was taken to limit face-to-face interactions during the pandemic, but it could outlast the health crisis in rural areas like Washington and Franklin counties, Moore said, where fares never collected much revenue anyway before the pandemic.

Redington, the policy analyst, told VTDigger that maintaining fare-free service could increase public transit ridership in Chittenden County. However, Moore pointed to research that suggests free transit doesn’t attract new passengers, but rather boosts ridership among those who already use it.

Adding more buses to the schedule, on the other hand, is a proven way to attract new passengers, Moore said.

“The No. 1 thing you can really do to draw people to your service besides safety and reliability is frequency,” Moore said. “People want to have the flexibility to travel via public transportation in a time-competitive way with the automobile.”

The bipartisan infrastructure package could fund an increase in Green Mountain Transit’s frequency of service, Moore said, but only if the company can put up enough of its own cash to win a grant. And securing funds on a local level has been a perennial struggle.

“Our cost of labor goes up, our cost of fuel typically goes up, but our local funding has for the most part stayed flat,” Moore said. “Hopefully we can gain some traction and find a more sustainable funding model.”

A public transit ceiling?

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Electric vehicles recharge on Main Street in Burlington on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

While innovations and more frequent service might attract some people to public transit, some transportation observers say there’s a ceiling on how many Vermonters will opt to ride instead of drive.

“I hate to say this, but … I don’t see that there’s much room for expansion when I see the difficulty that I have with friends and colleagues trying to get them to take transit,” McCormack said. “Even when it’s good service, it tends to be just young, old, and poor on the bus.”

Public transit’s most convincing draw may be its ability to replace the stress of driving with productive time, McCormack said. But before drivers can adopt that perspective, they have to ditch what the legislator calls “the car mindset,” which he defines this way:

“Travel is a waste of time, travel is time I have to spend, but I don’t like it, and I want to spend as little time doing that as possible,” McCormack said. “The quality of life for all of us would be greatly improved if we got rid of cars.”

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