Saturday, May 24, 2014

Time to Begin the Foundation of Commuter Rail between Montpelier and Burlington?

With the extension of Amtrak's Ethan Allen from Rutland to Burlington's Union Station in as little as two years, has the time arrived to plan and invest in the foundation for commuter rail service between Montpelier and Burlington?

Today in Montpelier the long-awaited Carr lot development as a transit center goes forward with provision to accommodate the needs of a substantial commuter and intercity rail passengers surely part of design considerations. 

While studies for commuter and intercity rail date from 1989, the decade-long Link commuter buses now numbering 18 each workday between Burlington and Montpelier give real life evidence for the estimated outbound 540 on/off rail riders each day at the new Transit Center---270 roundtrips just from Montpelier area commuters traveling each morning to one of the 11 destination stations along the route. The estimated Montpelier boardings of 270 for commuter rail compare to the135 boarding Links now from Montpelier to just Burlington each workday morning.  Even more passenger numbers come along when a natural extension of commuter rail to Berlin and Barre rail stations gets added to the mix.

The Ethan Allen extension to Burlington and completion of Montpelier Jct. to Essex Jct. to 80 mph speeds two years ago along with continuing Link growth the pressure for commuter and intercity services nears a tipping point.  Car travel in Vermont and nationally is down among all age groups, driver licensing proportions are down 10% in the under-30 crowd and Vermont and national public transit, bicycling and walking grow like topsy.  My presentation next month to the Canadian Transportation Research Forum of a small metro case study of Montpelier-Burlington commuter rail estimates on/off passenger concludes commuter rail service feasible today.  Total Montpelier-Burlington Link commuter bus workday trips recently reached the 450 trips (225 round trip commutes) with 135 commuting from Montpelier and 90 from Burlington and the Richmond Park-and-ride.
Estimates of total on/off passengers at Montpelier with commuters to Montpelier added amount to about 1,000 a day total.

For the Vermont worker commuting to the job, the benefit are huge--a household budget saving of over $7,000 after tax income shifting from solo driving to mass transit. Note the Burlngton-Montpelier Link commuter bus service started from scratch in 2003.  The employer saves too since the average surface parking space costs $600-$700 to own and maintain.  

Self-propelled two-car rail diesel units (DMU’s) can accommodate 150-175 passengers and lots of bicycles versus, three to four times the capacity of a bus and commuter rail travel times between Montpelier and Burlington are about the same—but the commuter buses serve three stations while commuter rail serves nine including seven town and city centers. Commuter rail provides direct service to IBM Technology Park.

The cost rest easy on the eyes—less than $1 million with federal support and half the cost—about $3.5 million a year for all capital and operating support--than the Governor’s initial budget of $7 million for the two Amtrak trains for the coming fiscal year. 

Commuter rail service can fit in with intercity and Amtrak services, provides almost 100 passenger miles a gallon of fuel, re-vitalizes the town and city centers, reduces car travel and urban congestion.  It is rail service for all reasons!

For Montpelier-Burlington service in addition to rail equipment and signal control, only three major capital investments are involved: upgrade of Montpelier-Montpelier Jct. and Burlington-Essex Jct. trackage plus rehabilitation of the historic Burlington rail tunnel.  Once Burlington-Montpelier service is in place then natural expansion includes commuter rail Burlington-Middlebury, Burlington-St. Albans and intercity services creating a network covering all of Vermont's urban communities. 

Time for the Montpelier Transit Center development and bring on Burlington-Montpelier commuter and intercity rail—it is back to the future today!

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