Wednesday, July 11, 2012



Count the reasons for commuter rail passenger services in Vermont, but the most important remains the ability of self-propelled rail diesel cars (RDCs) to smoothly move hundreds of existing daily commuters crowding buses and handle growth in excess of 20% each year. Simply, as the post-auto age evolves and households deal with the reality of constrained incomes and competing needs, increasing numbers delay getting a driver license, curtail driving or quit cars altogether. Those necessary trips switched from cars--like getting to and from work—come to light in the form of surging commuter bus numbers. In the Burlington to Montpelier 40 mile corridor served by 22 buses each workday in less than a decade about 260 commuters, about a third of the total market, will travel by commuter bus during the coming twelve months.

The explosion in commuter bus usage in Vermont, particularly the three corridors leading to Burlington deserves such descriptives as breathtaking, unprecedented and astonishing. But so too are the first decade of the new century numbers in Vermont and regional numbers in just about every statistic related to the car. All kinds of numbers show the sea change. New England states recorded a first ever single digit increase in overall car travel, totally 3% for the 2000-2010 decade with Rhode Island actually declining slightly. New England—and Vermont—car travel now moves toward a likely negative number for this decade, reversing the region's upward trend dating to the Stanley Steamer. National data shows a first ever decline in the younger age population getting driver licenses.

The commuter “Link” services out of Burlington began about 2005 and one employer survey data cited covering “before” and “after” the introduction of the Link services reflects partly the impacts of the commuter bus service introduction. The Link” services operated by the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) now operate along the corridors to St. Albans, Montpelier, and Middlebury—46 buses weekdays which did not exist in 2000. This coming year about 500 commuters will utilize the commuter buses out of Burlington including the 260 traveling on 22 buses each weekday in the Montpelier-Burlington corridor, about 225,000 individual trips overall.

Other factors working against driving include: (1) flatlining of Vermont driving age population 200-2030 while over 65-year-old population doubles, a population which drives 40% less miles per year and drives less at peak times; and (2) employer side initiatives which drive down commuting and driving, again driving down mostly peak hour traffic numbers. Burlngton has the the first “transportation management association” (TMA), CATMA, currently composed of the troika of the University of Vermont (UVM) Champlain College and Fletcher Allen Health Care (FAHC). CATMA runs a bus service, manages parking, and provides a wide range of planning and commuter choice programming for the troika's 10,000 employees and 12,000 students.

The CATMA periodic employer and student survey picked up the downtrend of solo driving during the 2000-2010 period. But a dramatic drop in solo driving—about 15 percent overall—accelerated after a “free” universal pass on all CCTA buses began in 2003. Latest national data shows solo driving to work hovers around 90% while the latest comparative number for CATMA member employees is 54 percent with about a quarter of those solo drivers using a shuttle bus to complete the work trip. Again, these CATMA numbers drive home the behavioral changes finding expression in part through the introduction of Link commuter buses and a universal bus pass during the 2000-2010 period.

          The RDC, the rail stations, and Vermont planning law

The RDC, the type of equipment used at the end of scheduled rail service in Vermont in the 1950s, can carry 140-180 passenger in two-car units, about three to four times the capacity of buses used now. From planning perspectives commuter rail service cannot be matched by any other transportation type in furthering the Vermont planning law goal: “maintain the historic settlement pattern of compact village and urban centers surrounded by rural countryside.” Consider the stations along the base 40 mile Burlington-Montpelier route: Montpelier across from the State House, Montpelier Jct., Middlesex, Bolton, Richmond, Essex Jct., Winooski and Burlington's Union Station. Add to this route IBM at the main plant parking lot and a second Winooski stop within a block of Vermont Community College and two-blocks from Champlain Mill, the Winooski City Center Roundabout, and Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. One authoritative study calls for a base service with about an hour between Montpelier and Burlington, including stops, would be ten trains weekdays in each direction, including the current Amtrak runs.  A Burlington-Montpelier service would naturally extend to Barre downtown and Berlin.

While transportation policy still remains mostly invested in highways, the “customer”, the Vermont citizen, changed the direction of their transportation choices some years ago—and catching up in transportation programming must include commuter rail services which serve not only to meet current demands and economic as well as community development needs --but inevitably leads to a network of rail passenger services, a network as important if not more important in the future than the existing major highway network.

Clearly the market for commuter rail exists today. Are there transportation funds available to start such a service?—that is the subject of the next blog.

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