THE 23 PERCENT SURPRISE...COMMUTER PASSENGER RAIL SERVICES FOR BURLINGTON-MONTPELIER, FIRED UP BY RECENT DATA--READY TO GO?
The evidence nears a mountainous level the auto age already turns toward a surging shift to public transportation, walking and bicycling. Isolating data on journey-to-work shows roughly 23 percent, one of four, of Montpelier, Barre and Berlin workers employed in Burlington traveling to that City on Link commuter buses operated by the Chittenden Country Transportation Authority (CCTA).
The commuting data reflects another aspect of the tectonic move away from carcentric transportation in Vermont in other states as car travel plateaus or even declines, young age driver licensing drops nationally, and public transit agencies, like the Boston area agency face unprecedented use and likely capacity limits by the end of this decade.
While on a travel vacation with Thailand-located son and his wife (both elementary teachers there) to the Philippines, continue as time permitted to process the various data sources which bear on the market for commuter rail services out of Burlington with special look at the natural start service—the Montpelier State House to Union Station Burlington corridor with stops (east to west): Middlesex, Waterbury, Bolton, Richmond, IBM Technology Park, Essex Junction, Fanny Allen/St. Michaels and Winooski.
A flurry of studies over a ten year period 1989-1999 examined commuter rail services. Two of these studies delved into light rail (trolley) serving corridors from Union Station Burlington with considerable public involvement leading to a “first phase” recommendation through the Church Street Marketplace to UVM and Fletcher Allen Health Center (FAHC). The other studies evaluated among other areas commuter services along the three corridors radiating out of Burlington to Montpelier/Barre, St. Albans and Middlebury.
At the turn of the century through the leadership of Governor Howard Dean commuter rail service—the Champlain Flyer--began from Charlotte to Burlington with an intermediate stop at Shelburne. It operated until early 2002. (I along with many others criticized that service as unjustified by likely use.) The Champlain Flyer now appears prophetic for two reasons. First the track and stations remain ready to host commuter rail service this very moment—and any new service involving Burlington to Montpelier naturally extends the additional 17 miles to Charlotte right from the start. Second, the Champlain flyer with a reported 124 commuters (six months data for October 2001 through March 2002) gives real time information on future passenger rail potential—there is nothing like the real world data to determine demand rather than depending on theoretical models.
A lot changed since the rail studies—the tectonic shift in car transportation starting in the 1990s leading to the 2000-2010 growth New England-wide of only 3% in car travel with a strong likelihood this decade will end up on the negative side, the first since the advent of the auto itself over a century ago.
In addition several years ago, another real world of Burlington area public transit commuter services began and, surprisingly, grew and continues to grow like topsy—those services out of Burlngton along three corridors to Montpelier, St. Albans and Middlebury, called “Link” by the operator, CCTA, provide the most important data on the commuter rail potential. Besides, with more 40 buses daily (about half in the Montpelier corridor alone) the maximum of bus efficiency may already be past.
The number that sticks out in looking at journey-to-work data from the Census and actual commuter numbers come from the 142 who commute regularly by Link into Burlington from Montpelier. This number commuting inbound on CCTA Link buses projected for this year, represents according to Census 23% of all commuters to Burlington from Montpelier, Barre and Berlin to Burlington.
Because a number of Link passengers to Montpelier come from both Burlington and the Richmond park-and-ride, a number of those riders surely come from towns outside of Burlington (time for a survey!). Overall, Link buses serve 2 ½ stations (Montpelier, Burlngton and eastbound only at Richmond park-and-ride).
23% is an important number
The importance of 23% resides in the fact that up to recently, as in the Vermont rail studies, modeling assumed a maximum of about 10% modal share for commuter rail in the immediate areas near stations. The 23% of Montpelier area commuters choosing a bus—far inferior in terms of a commuter preference—reveals the reflection of tectonic shift in still another now obsolete yardstick—the willingness of consumers to choose rail travel from home to work versus the car.
In determining the potential use of commuter rail by Vermonters, the clear evidence now suggests that commuter rail passenger service may well be viable now and may need to be added to the transportation mix now—more to come.