THE WHY AND WHEREFORE--COMMUTER RAIL, THE MISSING LINK OF VERMONT TRANSPORTATON, AND THE SIMPLE REMEDY
With the truly overnight growth from 0 to 46 commuter buses radiating outward from Burlington, VT each workday the obvious question arises, why not adding commuter rail services to serve Vermont workers and employers?
It goes without saying commuter rail with self-propelled vehicles handle upwards of 150 passengers per trip, reduce the need for the current 46 buses daily (though some would continue and new short link shuttle services added). Unlike buses, commuter rail serves the tourist, contain space for many bicycles, and set a backbone for an eventual in-state intercity rail passenger network.
The real reason for no commuter rail services lies in the American tradition of subsidizing cars only and failing to recognize governmental responsibility for assuring a multi-modal transportation system characterized by safety, efficiency, and sustainability in all senses of that word.
A Redington Blog dated June 8, 2012 describes transportation in terms of a Vermont household, i.e., basic consumer expenditures. It is no surprise that of the 16% of household expenditures devoted to transportation practically all—about 95%--gets gobbled up by moving around by car. Since Vermont median household income closely parallels the national figure, the ballpark figure for total ground transportation spending by Vermont households roughly comes to $1.986.
The June Blog outlines the proportion of funding as follows:
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.”
The key number involves expenditure on cars, 94%, translates to $1.87 billion for Vermont households spending on car transport. Since this number comes from an urban-based analysis, it understates somewhat the both the proportion and amount of Vermont households expenditures on cars. Using some data and making some guesstimates, here are the other ground transportation household expenditures by Vermont households along with associated government support:
Household Expenditure State/Federal/Local
Automobile $1,986.0 million Over $100 million
Public transportation (bus services) $16.0 million $39 million
Amtrak $15.0 million $4 million
Greyhound/Vermont Transit/Megabus $25.0 million Substantial
Future Commuter Rail $2.4 million $2.4 million
Several commuter rail plans dating back to 1989 provide the planning for operations, costs, schedules, etc. The next steps involve establishing the necessary rail authority, development of a short term plan for the first corridor, acquisition of equipment, preparation of stations, and startup of service.
Few would suggest erasing all local bus services in Vermont. Few would suggest ending Amtrak rail service. And private intercity bus services depend on infrastructure—highways, bridges, capital maintenance, etc.--funded by about 40% from non-highway user revenue sources. Commuter rail can easily serve far more Vermonter trips than Amtrak, rival commercial inter-city bus service trips, and also serve tourists and the tourist industry. The public cost of support for commuter rail—capital and operating--will be far less than current State expenditures for public transportation and somewhat more than Amtrak. (Note Amtrak support involve pure State tax dollars.) Also important much of the cost of installing new commuter rail service can be obtained from current federal transportation funding and likely special federal transportation appropriations.
In conclusion, consideration of commuter rail no longer needs to be a “vision” but as a task to be completed with the next two or three years.
Notes: 1. Public transportation expenditures/support based on multiplying Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) FY 2012 budget numbers by a factor of 4.
2. Commercial bus expenditures a guesstimate
3. Amtrak based on recent data annual passengers, 140,000, a typical ticket roundtrip to NYC at $106, and FY 2012 $4.5 million budget for the State cost share.
4. See June Blog for additional sources of data.
5. Future Commuter rail based on 200 day operation with about 3,000 trips daily (1,500 roundtrip commuters) or about three times the current year numbers on CCTA Link services. Revenue roundtrip used is $7, a dollar less than current Burlington/Montpelier Link fares.