BUSES WEEKDAYS SERVING COMMUTERS OUT OF BURLINGTON (VT) 46 —COMMUTER TRAINS 0: TIME TO SHIFT THOSE NUMBERS, TIME FOR COMMUTER RAIL PASSENGER SERVICES
Evidence mounts Vermont rail priorities place workers abandoning solo driving in second class status, literally stuck in buses with little financial support while the Amtrak lovers get millions of dollars of State subsidy with service expansions in the near future. Why don't Vermont workers doing the right thing by reducing congestion and cutting energy use and pollution deserve first class rail passenger service to and from their workplace?
Recently this blog decried the “forced busing” of commuters on the then 18 buses a weekday along the Burlington-Montpelier corridor:
Feel “transportation discrimination”? Well be a commuter in or out of Burlington,
VT exercising “commuter choice” by abandoning the car and what do you
get?--second-class transportation in the form of a stuffy, jammed and sometimes
standing room only bus (and room for only two bicycles). Welcome to the
transportation quality of service typically found in less developed nations!
Now with June additions of a commuter bus from Montpelier to Winooski center (Vermont Student Assistance Corporation [VSAC]) and a second from Montpelier to IBM the total bus numbers each week day jump to 22. Projecting the Montpelier Link numbers into the next service year starting in this July, a 20% growth in numbers of commuters comes to about 260 by next June, and individual trips annually reach 119,000. Recent actual passengers per Montpelier Link bus run reached about 22, and the increase in passengers recorded for the nine months ending in March hit 40%--a definite surge.
The success of the Burlington-Montpelier Link (Montpelier Link) bus services—now 22 buses scheduled each workday— proves without doubt a simple commuter rail service long overdue in the 40 mile corridor serving, among others, the largest private and public employers—IBM at its main parking area, and the State complexes located in Burlington, Waterbury and Montpelier. Other Burlington corridors with commuter Link services are in order of market potential: St. Albans-IBM-Burlington (once IBM's first choice), Middlebury-Burlington which hosted a commuter rail demonstration service, and the Route 116 Commuter to Bristol/Middlebury.
Comparing Montpelier-Burlington Commuter Rail Service to Amtrak Numbers
With the announcement this month of $8 million in federal funds to upgrade trackage from St. Albans north to the Canadian border, the rumor of Amtrak service extension to Montreal within the next two years gains increasing credibility. How do Amtrak numbers compare to the expected Burlington-Montpelier 119,000 trips in the coming year? (Note the Burlington to Middlebury and Burlington to St. Albans commuter corridors bus runs total 24 additional trips each weekday.) The best estimate for the current year of Amtrak numbers for the two train services—the Ethan Allen Express from Rutland to New York City, and the Vermonter from St. Albans to Washington—comes to 140,000 passengers. Numbers last year were below potential because of using buses in place of trains during scheduled track improvements and repairing the unscheduled damage from hurricane Irene. Clearly the three corridor commuter route total passengers number--Burlington-Montpelier alone at 119,000-- already surpasses Vermont Amtrak users but obviously commuters taking much shorter trips.
The importance of the commuter corridor services at this point comes from the fact that about 90 percent of users are in fact commuting to and from work and that practically all users are adult Vermonters—Amtrak users includes sizable proportions of tourists, retirees and students. Increasingly the current Vermont commuter bus services attract those wishing to access services and the growing mid-day numbers reflect this expansion of usage.
But there are cost and subsidy issues here. The 140,000 Amtrak users cost $4.5 million yearly in State dollars, about $32 per passenger—and this subsidy has been decreasing as each year public transportation passenger numbers increase. While public transportation grows routinely at high single digit and even double digit rates, car travel New England-wide growth shrivels, a tiny 3.2% growth 2000-2010, the lowest decade growth number since the advent of the car. New England car travel may well decline this decade and in Vermont as well.
One reason for the rapid growth of the Burlington “Link” commuter services has been the users, mostly paying $4 a trip which covers a high percentage of operational costs. This allows expansion of bus runs based on demand. Commuter rail also can be expected to pay a substantial portion of its operating costs. The original Eugene Skoropowski proposal of 1989 (he now heads Florida's high speed rail authority) calls for 18 trains weekdays in the Burlington-Montpelier corridor in addition to Amtrak services. It is reasonable to expect a majority of initial operating costs—but not capital costs—to be paid by commuters.
The eventual expansion of the commuter train operations to additional corridors would increase efficiencies all around. The ultimate goal remains a statewide commuter/intercity network serving businesses, tourists, commuters and connecting major Vermont cities and towns.
While a train to Montreal would be nice, don't Vermont workers and citizens deserve rail-based service too starting with commuter routes out of Burlington—right now?