THE "BURLINGTON [VT] GOPHER"--LIGHT RAIL LINE
The outline for a Burlington (VT) Light Rail Line, the "Gopher", stemmed from a suggestion that the 1.5 mile corridor from the bustling and planned major development up two levels to the Church Street Marketplace and then clearly the two largest institutions--University of Vermont (UVM) and Fletcher Allen Health Center (FAHC)--overlooking the City continue to be best served by a pedestrian bus service. The suggestion asserted that a light rail line alternative, a Gopher if you will, just could not be done because of the expense.....
Is light rail too expensive from the Waterfront to UVM/FAHC? Is the money available, can it be available? Good questions. Yes, buses can be electric—Toronto has some nice ones. Still, a bus is a bus—inferior to the performance and attractiveness to the customer.
Let’s look further into the cost, availability of funds, etc.
Regarding population, I am not a believer in the “Population Growth Elf” or the “Traffic Growth Elf” for Burlington or the County for that matter—population growth will continue to be mostly oldsters and continued immigration, much of it from distant points--not even global warming likely changes this for some decades.
Vermonters always show a certain sense of what their State and communities need for now and the future. For the now past auto age, Vermonters, perhaps seeing the car was not the inevitable future, rejected in a statewide vote the rooftop highway during the depression. It represented one prescient choice—the Green Mountain Parkway, which really could have literally divided the State east and west along the Route 100 corridor, bit the dust. (One casualty of that project was its inclusion in the plan of an equestrian trail in the highway right of way.) Obviously the rooftop highway was affordable since it was funded wholly with federal funds. What a gift! (We may say the same for certain sections of the interstate system in the not too distant future.) The Green Mountain Parkway idea would generate gales of laughter today—as would recently the Circumferential Highway, the “Circ”, does some sixty years later (well laughter from Burlingtonians at least).
The Champlain Parkway project now shows the same shagginess as the Circ—the original now “Parkwayette” $37 million project construction now devolves down to about $25-$30 million with the City policy now to “finish” the unaddressed connection from Pine to Battery with some sensible and simple street segments. Even the fate of the original downsized “Parkwayette” from the end of Pine to Lakeshore Drive remains murky—note the 29% decline in traffic on Pine Street since 1989 in the vicinity of the old Vermont Transit terminal (and still declining like practically all streets feeding the Burlington downtown from the outside, the Traffic Growth Elf not to be seen at work here)!
Given those numbers as a background, consider that each year Chittenden County gets a quarter of the new federal highway largess of over $200 million to fund various highway, walk and bike projects, and transit. Amtrak right now is funded only with State dollars. The Chittenden boodle is about $50 million new money each year—a third of those funds, say $15 million a year could be used for capital and operating funds for transit projects with up to 80% federal-20% state/local match. We get $50 million a year, a half billion dollars a decade to dole out for various purposes in transportation. The region even dumped about the equivalent of one year of apportionments into the ill-fated planning and design of the abandoned Circ. Vermont Digger cites the figure of $40 million in planning funds devoted to that expired effort.
In regard to a two-track roughly 1.5 light rail line from the waterfront/Union Station to UVM/FAHC via the Marketplace using a modern trolley car like those in Toronto or the San Francisco Muni line. Assume operating every day about the same hours as bus routes with 10-minute peak hour headways (requires three trolley units and one spare). The yearly operating costs likely equal or slightly below those buses. Light rail cars clearly provide a larger, more comfortable, higher bike loading capacity than a bus. So regarding cost, there are two key cost elements really, the initial capital cost of the line and the transit vehicles. (Of course trolleys can operate in multiple units—some yet to be accomplished using buses.) The transit vehicles have a lifespan of 30-40 years, really endless based on the demand on ancient trolleys operating on the Market Street line to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Let’s sort of admit these cost more than buses but because they draw more riders than buses, the cost per rider (support) evens out or even bends to the trolley side.
So, it all comes down to the capital costs and how to finance them. The two studies in the 1990s looked at longer routes, to Winooski, South Burlington and the airport. The “Trunk” section in the 1999 was the segment from the waterfront to UVM/FAHC via the Marketplace (College or Main were the options). If one takes the “Trunk” cost from the 1999 study, the capital cost for the track, catenary, etc. amounts to—and the figure seems scary--$60 million with adjustment for inflation. These estimates need to be revisited but so would the route of light rail in view of the new plan being developed for the waterfront. But spread over 25 years (like bonding for an new highway or passenger rail project) amounts to about $3 million a year. The cost for two Amtrak trains this year $4.5 state dollars serving less than 100,000 passengers, far fewer than the current College Street shuttle operating 200 days a year and far below a 365 day light rail service.
Not all is lost here, one can apply for a separate capital grant and operating funds with an 80 federal-20 state split of the capital cost (say $3 million annually) and the operating cost of about $1.5 million—the shuttle would be free as it is now. That funding would not come from the annual Chittenden County apportionments of federal funds. Second, you could use some of that apportionment to Chittenden to fund either capital and/or operating costs. Finally—and this is important—what do you think will happened to property values along the waterfront and Lake Street with a full time light rail service available making it a ten minute ride to the Marketplace, Library, Roxy, City Market—and five minutes further to UVM, the Health Center, and FAHC? And what will be the reasonable amount of tax revenues from the presence of this light rail service—certainly a portion of the “trolley tax yield” fairly goes to the operation and capital accounts of light rail. Can a bus do that?
Consider the other benefits of light rail. For the driver-operators, the task is far easier—no steering wheel, rapid acceleration and stopping compared to vehicles with rubber tires—overall far less stress and strain. For riders no more listening to the noise of engines straining up the grades. And all those bicycles we can entrain! If you want to experience some waste of light rail investment in terms of passenger usage, take a ride on some of the lines in Sacramento or San Jose—the Burlington Gopher will surely outshine them just about anytime.
Let’s get a light rail “re-plan” going and apply for the funds, get support from the Metro towns, etc. Seems cheap to me….