Friday, March 21, 2014

A New World of Transportation for Vermont?

A New World of Transportation for Vermont? 

During a February Burlington (VT) North Avenue corridor study meeting the question of funding for carrying out a “vision” of a livable street led to government types lamenting the scarcity of funding.  Then came President Obama’s March proposed budget starting October calling for a 25% increase in federal transportation program funding meaning a likely increase of $50 million or more for Vermont yearly over the $196 million currently budgeted.

Pretty much ignored by the press—no expects the expansion to pass Congress—the President’s proposal marks a historic but inevitable shift of funding from gasoline taxes to general funds.  As important, the budget calls for additional highway and transit funding plus two entirely new program categories, rail and multimodal.   

After car travel growth slowing for more than a decade, it flatlined beginning in 2007 and that peak year remains the national record to this day.  As car travel plateaued (it only grew 3% 2000-2010 in all of New England) so did gas and diesel tax revenues.  By 2010 the ramshackle federal Highway Trust Fund used for roadway and transit projects went bust (it raises about $37 billion a year) and Congress for a temporary fix dumped $14.7 billion into it from general funds. The President’s budget addresses the problem and more.  The budget calls for a $18 billion a year spending increase with corporate income tax reform raising about $36 billion yearly covering the spending increase and closing the current accumulated deficits.

While highway travel growth came to a halt, public transportation growth continued and accelerated.  In 2012 public transportation trips reached the highest level in a half century.  Rail and public transportation needs increase meaning more funding to meet demand as well as fostering transportation modes known for higher levels of safety and per passenger mile reductions pollution, emissions, and global warming gases.  In addition this means increased emphasis and investments in long neglected urban and town center walking and bicycling modes infrastructure—particularly the new technologies of cycle track (protected bike lanes) and roundabouts (one laners are truly “intersection safety belts” for all users).

While no immediate federal program expansion is expected, the new transportation finance direction is clear, and states also began last year moving away from highway vehicle-only sources for transportation finance.  Virginia last year abolished its gas tax and moved all transportation funding from a dedicated general sales tax.  Massachusetts seriously considered sourcing additional transportation funding at a rate of  $1.9 billion in income taxation to deal with the evaporating car-based revenues twinned with higher public transportation and highway funding demands.  Further, the near term solution to transportation funding for states can only be resolved with federal assistance since over half the states contain constitutional provisions and laws, mostly dating from the 1930s, prohibiting gasoline and motor vehicle taxes being used for anything but highways.   

An injection of $50 million federal funding into transportation in Vermont posed by President’s budget along with shifting federal programming strongly toward multi-modal and rail would signify substantial opportunities for the State.  Here are some Vermont examples of estimated capital costs for rail passenger services and basic walking/bicycling infrastructure composed of cycle track (protected bike lanes) and roundabouts:
(1)  Commuter rail: between Burlington and Montpelier-Barre/St. Albans/Middlebury--$60 million (includes track upgrades and rail passenger equipment).
(2)  Intercity rail: extension of rail passenger services to Bennington, St. Johnsbury and between Bellows Falls-Rutland--$60 million (includes rail passenger equipment).
(3)  Light rail: extending outward north and south from Rutland downtown-$60 million (includes light rail vehicles).
(4)  Light rail: Burlington north/south line North Avenue’s Flynn School to south end of Pine $60 million; and Burlington’s waterfront to Fletcher Allen Health Center/University of Vermont/Champlain College via Church Street Marketplace--$80 million estimates (includes light rail vehicles).
(5)  Cycle track for urban and town centers: $2 million a mile
(6)  Urban roundabouts (single lane): $2 million per intersection average (roundabouts are designed with separate/shared paths for cyclists).

Of course Vermont and other states must also address their overall transportation funding and in most cases reflect the same kind of movement toward general fund revenue sources found in Virginia, Massachusetts and the federal proposed budget.

The new and revised revenue streams for transportation present challenges and opportunities but these cannot be avoided as the age of car travel as the primary funder of all transportation modes recedes into history.  Currently in urban U.S. about four percent of commuters go by bike and on foot with another six percent using public transit.   When all is said and done, Vermont urban and town centers—like those of the rest of the nation—will come to more closely resemble those in Western Europe where about half of all urban trips each day occur on transit, by bicycle and on foot.

Monday, March 3, 2014


The gas tank on the Federal Highway Trust Fund runs dry later this year.  Yes, Congress continues to spend money it does not have for highways and the deficit in the Trust Fund—expenses over revenues of about $35 billion now runs over $10 billion.  The Republican tax reform plan announced a week ago calls for $18 billion a year from the corporate profits tax for six years (Vermont’s share $36 million yearly) to shore up the Trust Fund and give this to everyone who drives a car “free.”  Forget about most of 90% of all workers who travel to work by car get a “free” parking space or that 42% of total cost of highways capital and maintenance of our streets and highways comes from non-user revenues (property tax is the biggest source)--we just cannot subsidize the driver enough in this era if one ignores the lack of abundant petroleum resources, clean air and global warming, and the new-poor of suburbia.

A penny-a-gallon gas tax raises about $1.3 billion so if the revenue needed per year for the next few years, $18 billion a year, came via the gas tax the current federal gas tax of 18 cents would increase by 14 cents without touching any of the other subsidies for car travel. 
Actually part of the revenue problem stems from the fact that lots of folks—every age group—travel less by car today than in 2000, driver licensing rates of the young has declined, and in Vermont at least journey-to-work by car flatlined some time ago and walking, bicycling, and transiting to work grows by leaps and bounds. Vehicle miles of travel nationwide peaked in 2007 and have not returned to that level since—and New England states may very well go negative for vehicle miles this decade.
We really need to increase the rewards to those who walk, bike and transit around as these travelers do not draw down any where near the level of subsidy provided to those running around in their own private metal and composite boxes.
While our energy independent neighbor to the north uses high taxes to keep their price per gallon about $1 above ours and European nations gas pricing of $8-$9 result from gas taxes of several dollars (and they are oil dependent like the U.S.) one wonders when the U.S. will face up to the reality of car travel today—or at least begin to wean vehicle owners of subsidies we can no longer afford.