Sunday, July 15, 2012



Part 2:  No Barriers to Funding Commuter Rail Services

Vermont yearly household expenditures for local transportation reminds one of the recipe for horse and rabbit stew—key ingredients are one horse, auto expenditures of about $1.8 billion, and one rabbit, all public transportation expenditures, about $40 million or less than 2 cents on the household dollar spent on car travel. The $40 million includes a tax subsidy of about $28 million. Vermont public transit riders pay about a third of the cost of service or $12 million.

But many Vermont workers—increasing by the day—abandon the car and look to the rabbit in the stew for essential transportation to and from work. That explains how in the span of less than a decade about a third of central community workers in the Burlington-Montpelier corridor, about 260 by the next June, pile onto the 22 buses each workday to and from their job. The 40 mile Burlington-Montpelier bus commuting fares do not come cheap, about $160 a month, still very attractive compared to solo driving costing upwards of $800 monthly with total car expense approaching 50 cents a mile.

So, thanks to public policy there exists a bus an outlet for workers to get to work and reduce commuting expenses. But why not increase the public and user $40 million now going into public transportation to initiate and operate commuter rail services along the Burlington-Montpelier corridor as well as add stops at the IBM parking lot, Middlesex, Winooski, and Richmond? Assuming one spreads out capital costs over a few years, one easily could start and continue service at perhaps $4-5 million and make some savings with reduced current bus trips, equivalent to less than a half a penny on estimated current household car expenses. Commuter rail offers a more pleasant, safer, more attractive way to get to and from work than a bus. Ultimately a statewide network could serve not just commuters but all types of intercity transportation, including provision of service to tourists.

Based on 2011 complete year information, Vermont received federal funds of $210 million—and over $60 million of those funds can applied to the purchase or operating costs of commuter rail services. That is a new apportionment of $60 million each year! Delay a highway project a year or two and the funds need to start an eventual statewide commuting and ultimately intercity network represents an easy lift—and the taste of the horse and rabbit stew will change little.

While the federal funds require about a 20% state match, the $4.5 million appropriation last year—all state dollars without a match--for the two Vermont Amtrak trains served fewer passengers than the three corridor Link services out of Burlington expected the year ending next June, about 225,000.

Besides the commuter rail service can handle three to four times the number of passengers per trip than a bus, provide lots of room for bicycles, and shift traffic off congested streets and highways. And, downtown and village centers receive an economic boost and businesses access to a workforce with a quality, reliable and low cost transportation commuting mode.

The only barrier to starting commuter rail services in Vermont rests in the public domain, willingness of Governor Shumlin, legislative transportation committees and regional transportation committee to shift a few federal resources from highways to rail passenger services, easily done without interfering with the taste of the transportation stew. The shift to commuter rail equals shifting less than half a cent of 98 cents of household expenditure per dollar now spent car transportation to travel in Vermont communities. And, all this can be easily done in just a few months—remember the original Montreal Metro construction took about a year!

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