Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Upon further reflection, the startling growth in numbers of Vermont commuters already using various commuter oriented bus services throughout Vermont reflects a “state of transportation emergency” curable only by undertaking an immediate installation of commuter rail services to handle demand for commuting without a car.

The surging growth of commuters shifting to bus services to get back and forth to work constitutes the proverbial canary in the coal mine signaling needed action now as the automobile as a mechanism of travel no longer serves as the satisfactory core transportation mode in a post-auto age for Vermont. Consider that a commuter rail service starting from the State House complex in Montpelier would include within about an hour stops at Middlesex, downtown Waterbury, Bolton, the center of Richmond, the IBM parking lot, Essex Jct., Winooski and Burlington Union Station. All these stops in a total trip time about the same as the Montpelier Link bus which can only service the outskirts of Richmond along with central Burlington and Montpelier. Overall commuters potentially served by a commuter rail total about 5,000 on the Burlington-Montpelier corridor—another total of 5,000 potential exists for the two other lines ending in Burlington from St. Albans and Middlebury.

Lots of planning and transportation money now goes to investing in park-and-ride lots which would be much better diverted to starting up the long term future of Vermont transportation—a network of commuter and intercity rail services connecting all the State's urban areas and many of its tourist destinations. These services would utilize mostly self-propelled single and two car sets with seating capacities of 80-150. The same equipment was proposed as a cost-saving demonstration in place of Amtrak services from St. Albans to New Haven, CN.

Yes the auto industry will fight the return of the rail car based service just as it funded the demise of urban rail a century ago, but continuing to fund and subsidize an auto mode no longer sustainable as the core network of transportation no longer remains economic (if it ever was) and can no longer be afforded.

Meanwhile, New England car travel numbers now trend negative, Vermont population under-65 population growth level flat lines for the foreseeable future, and three decades of stagnant wages with no end in sight—all contribute to the high growth of bus and Amtrak numbers which yearly hit new highs. And those same factors provide the underpinning for a shift of the Vermont transportation core network from one centered on cars to one centered on sustainable rail passenger and freight services.

Let's recognize that the bus trip represents a lower tier level of comfort and ease for commuters and travelers in general versus commuter rail. People only put up with buses if rail is unavailable. Besides, practical commuter bus capacities are about 30-50 while a two-car self-propelled rail car set capacity easily amounts to 150, expandable to several hundred by just adding more passenger cars.

For years many argued that we will not abandon our cars for a bus—but more and more Vermonters are abandon the solo car or carpooling for the bus every month—the three commuter “Link” bus services out of Burlington have increased about 20% each year for the past for two years.

The three musty Vermont commuter rail studies already provide the basic blueprints—the only elements missing now are leadership from Governor Shumlin, at least one member of the Vermont Congressional delegation, and the municipal leaders of affected communities—to the north along the line to St. Albans, to the east Montpelier and Barre, and to the south Vergennes and Middlebury. Add two other initial potential lines: (1) a Connecticut River Valley line connecting White River Jct., Windsor, Bellows Falls and Brattleboro; and (2) West Route—Bennington, Manchester, Rutland and Middlebury.

An initial service, say either of the three Burlington routes (IBM expressed a preference for a St. Albans/IBM/Burlington service) might take two years at most. Note while the entire core Montreal Metro system construction took about a year, Vermont rail lines for service are in place, the St. Albans-Brattleboro line with a 60 mph service level now serves Amtrak daily, and the desired rail equipment already operates on two commuter lines, one in Portland, OR.

Cost? Well federal law requires Chittenden County and the Governor directly command $50 million annually in capital and public transportation investments which involve federal funding. A first commuter rail service line could easily be handled with about $5-$6 million for the first year or two, affordable with current funding streams. The rail equipment and costs for service were thoroughly examined in 2008-2009 when the Amtrak demonstration of the same equipment to reduce Vermont subsidies (still a good idea!!).

The tide in transportation began to turn about two decades ago away from an auto-based dominance and now that same tide can be seen clearly—it is time now to respond to the “state of transportation emergency” and begin the welcome task of establishing a core of commuter and intercity rail passengers in Vermont as part of a workable, sustainable, and economy supporting backbone for the transportation system.

1 comment:

  1. Certainly driving less does not constitute an emergency - indeed it seems like a positive development.

    But we must consider how the landscape is altered because of it. There are economic consequences here.

    Indeed, Vermont already spends more per capita on public transportation than any other state. We just don't have a lot of capita! I think it is not unsurprising that we have less unemployment than any other state besides those out west that are in the grip of an oil boom.

    Apparently we are doing something right and given the many examples of economic growth that public transportation has brought elsewhere, I think it's reasonable to assume that our public transportation is bringing results here too.

    In the future there will be more and more people that want a non-driving lifestyle -- or have aged into it. Our economy will benefit if we can offer the means to get to work and to travel to family, clients and life away. Employers will have a better pool of hires and more people will choose to live in Vermont, boosting our economy.