Friday, June 8, 2012




Admit it, we are tired hearing the routine comments from recent travelers and TV commentators touting the great European high speed trains, how frequently they run, their great on-time performance, and ease finding local transit connections to and from final destinations. (Why some European nations even boast networks for bicyclists and walkers from various transit centers—but let's not get into that subject here!) The follow up unwelcome comment continues with a question like “why doesn't the U.S. have quality rail services.” The reason why we do not want hear this any more--like the mention of the every 20 minute (you don't need a schedule) high speed service from early morning to late night in Taiwan connecting their their largest cities, yes, Taiwan, not to mention the extension underway now of the older high speed South Korean “KTX” service to the Winter Olympics base city of Chuncheon—comes not from the idea America no longer competes but from the suspicion our leaders do not really care any more or are just plain deaf.

By looking at the the “state of transportation” in a small state like Vermont, the U.S. “transportation problem” and its solution becomes easily apparent. Vermont transportation officials point to the State's supposed high per capita expenditure on public transit services, mostly through regional agencies running buses--a figure of $40 million a year in public monies gets mention.

The real question is what is $40 million in the overall Vermont “transportation market” and the place of public transportation in the overall scheme of things. Look at the answer first: it appears an in-state passenger rail system providing an integrated commuter/intercity network in that “overall scheme”--an expenditure of $10 to $50 million or even more in startup funding (primarily capital) followed by a programmed expansion involving more capital investment--represents a drop in the proverbial maple sap bucket in Vermont transportation expenditures.

Consider the current Vermont market, mostly cars.  Using 2010 U.S. typical household expenditure of $48,109 (after taxes) transportation represented 16.0% or $7700 ($7,697 rounded to the nearest $100).  Vermont median household income was within $100 of the U.S. (see U.S. Census “Quick Facts” online). When this number is multiplied by Vermont's 256,612 households it totals $1.986 billion.

How does this $1.986 billion for Vermont consumer transportation expenditure annually break down in terms of public transportation, the car and “other” (primarily air but also intercity bus and rail)? The online “Urban Transportation Fact Book 2004 gives an indication urban breakdown which reflects a public transportation dimension: 94% “user operated” (best known as a car), 1.44% “purchased local transit” and 4.56% “purchased intercity.”

Using 1.44% “purchased local transit” against a Vermont total figure of $1.986 billion gives consumer purchase of local transportation figure of $28.6 million. This figure—as one would expect in Vermont which has a much smaller typical urban footprint—appears too large when you consider that for the FY 2013 budget the total estimated consumer expense (fare box and “purchased services”) for the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) is $3.99 million out of a $13.75 million revenue total.

The best estimate—and certainly on the high end—simply involves taking the CCTA numbers and multiplying by four since the County represents 24% of the State population, or $55 million expenditures by public transit agencies and $16 paid by users (who certainly pay under 30% user of trip costs). These numbers clearly overstate the actual numbers, but do give a rough dimension. In terms of consumer expenditure in Vermont.   From the Urban Transportation Fact Book, consumers spend 65 times “purchased local transit” on “user operated” car travel--and using $16 million expended by Vermont riders on public transit and 94% of $1.986 billion on car travel, the ratio of  Vermont car travel expenditures to public transit expense is 117 to 1. Admittedly the a sizable chunk of Vermont public transit operations provide for low income and older folks and the system is not expected to pay its way.

As we all know, U.S.--and Vermont—car travel gets huge per mile subsidies in the form of about 40% of all highway infrastructure paid for by non-user taxes and fees, high subsidies for parking at work and at other destinations (much of it provided for free), subsidies required to provide for orderly motor fuel markets, and devoting about a quarter of all urban land to the street system in great part to accommodate motor vehicles.

One cannot escape the conclusion that shifting a small amount—tiny in terms of the $1.9 billion overall Vermont household annual transportation expenditures and governmental consumption from the automobile to create a sustainable commuter and intercity passenger rail system not only is possible but desirable as already a substantial latent demand exists for an alternative to being a slave to the car. Consider the over bus 300 commuters—and growing by double digits yearly--to and from Burlington. These folks left cars for the “Link” bus services, all done a few short years—and almost no one chooses a bus to work if quality rail were available. Weekdays 18 Link commuter buses a day run the Burlington to Montpelier/Waterbury corridor with the average bus over half full. Self-propelled rail cars--with more comfort and greater safety--can serve twice the number of commuters in corridor with as few as half the trips.

As a practical matter we know that a rail-based service in a short period of time would shake the auto-centricity of this State to its very foundation.  Several basic feasibility studies date from 1989. Very likely and quite quickly a rail passenger network with integrated bus and bicycle connectivity replaces the unsustainable car system and becomes the preferable and permanent way of “getting from here to there” in Vermont.


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