Monday, November 24, 2014

Vermont, Burlington Transportation--Cycle Track, Roundabouts, Passenger Rail

                          Comments to the Vermont Transportation Board

  Tony Redington

20 North Winooski Avenue
Burlington, VT  05401
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                                                 November 24, 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to comment in response to the Vermont Transportation Board (Board) fall series of hearings emphasizing concerns regarding the needs for transportation of youth in Vermont.  The past twelve months reflect a continuing and seeming acceleration of transportation transformation in Burlington and Vermont, one characterized by private household resource re-allocation of transportation expenditures away from an auto oriented transport to other modes and as a direct result since the millennium substantially increased walking, bicycling, and transit of all kinds.  In parallel the public wants more walk and bike infrastructure and transit services, particularly ones serving medium to long distance worker commuting.   My comments here stress the policy changes needed to respond to the demand of younger workers and those of all ages to safe walking and bicycling infrastructure, needs of middle class workers for medium distance commuter rail, and the sudden announcement days ago of the Towne Center multi-use expansion promising $200 million direct investments in Burlington’s downtown Marketplace including among other elements significant numbers of housing units, a hotel and convention center capable of handling up to 6,000 attendees, and rejoining the north-south St. Paul Street sections cutoff by the Towne Center with the new connection a walk/bike corridor with separation of each mode. This commitment by the new owners of the Towne Center truly accelerates the known trend of younger workers moving to our State’s downtowns and village centers in order to live, work, and recreate without dependence on the automobile or at least with one less.  And absolutely critical, a $200 million dollar development assures a new source of property tax and sales tax revenue to Burlington likely in the range of $5-$7 million a year for the municipal budget which can help fuel decades long neglect of transportation infrastructure of all types (as well as additional sorely needed funds for the Burlington School District).

            Vermont Transportation Finance

Before proceeding, as contained in my comments to the Board last year, the finance of transportation inevitably must move—as was already the case in Virginia and Massachusetts—away from sole dependence on car oriented revenues to general fund revenues.  Simply as outlined, vehicle miles and gasoline remain in a practically permanent state of decline while alternative modes grow strongly.  Further, walking and bicycling modes particularly require substantial sums of infra investment as will be addressed below.   Vermont Agency of Transportation (VAOT) Secretary Brian Searles this summer clearly stated this same view that Vermont must now not only raise revenues outside the highway domain to maintain and expand not just non-auto modes but even for the needs of the highway system itself.

Burlington Landmark Corridor Study—a New Blueprint for Vermont Urban Streets

After a 15-month study (it ended up citizen driven) of the 2.8 mile North Avenue corridor, the Plan received the blessing of the Mayor and City Council last month.  This first Vermont definition of a quality “world class street,” safest for those who walk and bike or travel by car or transit, features an unprecedented combining of roundabouts at key intersections with cycle track end-to-end (protected bike lanes).  A leap well beyond the legislated “complete street,” the North Avenue Plan truly is a “safe” complete street design as “complete street” designs under law and accepted practice do not require the highest safety treatments along a multi-use urban street (most generally characterized by the liberal use of roundabouts and cycle track).

Safe walk and bike infrastructure must now be the first concern in our downtowns and village centers.  Except in a few roundabout nodes in downtowns, the Burlington Marketplace and Manchester Center roundabout corridor, there does not exist any significant walkable or bikable infrastructure in the State, typical of built up areas nationwide.  Here in Burlington walk and bike injuries remain a historic and continuing fact of life.   Counting the September death of young Julia Cora, 20, at the US 2 crossing between Staples Plaza and the Sheraton in So. Burlington, a few feet from the Burlington border—Burlington now averages a walk/bike fatality every four years, one walk/bike/car occupant fatality each three years—and all these deaths since 1998 all occurred at signalized intersections.  The State of Vermont must no longer ignore the 1993 statute calling for roundabouts at dangerous intersections—it must now admit signalization an inherent unsafe practice and take actions to no longer install signals at new intersections and--as AARP advocates--begin to convert the upwards of 400 signalized intersections to roundabouts (about half of signals now administered by AOT and half by municipalities).  The State and local road officials can no longer ignore the fact that after almost 25 years and construction of about 5,000 roundabouts nationwide (14 in Vermont) not a single walker fatality has occurred and only one documented cyclist (and that occurred on a partially converted traffic circle).  As AAA recently found, in metro U.S.—like the Burlington Metro—the costs of injuries and fatalities far outstrip the costs of congestion (they advocate a national policy of “0 fatality rates” on our highways and streets).

The North Avenue Corridor Plan converts at least three of seven signalized intersections to roundabouts.  And, the Burlington Walk Bike Council (BWBC) in its discussion to date and the AARP workshop in September conduced by nationally known walk mode expert Dan Burden essentially recommend roundabouts at all Pine Street and new Champlain Parkway intersections in that overall $30 million project which will shortly undergo public discussion for re-design of street sections and intersections to high safety cycle track, separate walk/bike facilities and roundabouts—all lacking in the current City’s design.   The BWBC discussion to date also calls for separate bike and walk facilities throughout the Champlain Parkway with bicycle infrastructure to be in form of separated bikeway and/or cycle track.

Certainly Vermont towns and cities now have available the Burlington landmark blueprint of a “ safe” “complete street” design approach in the North Avenue Corridor Plan.  Note that for Chittenden County as a whole, since the 1981 completion of the Church Street Marketplace except for some street segments mostly in South Burlington there do not exist any safe bicycle facilities and not a single roundabout on a busy public street.  By definition, again with the exception of the Marketplace, the lack of a single roundabout on a busy public street in Chittenden County equates to no safe busy intersections for the walk mode in the entire County.  In sum, in just a few decades Vermont and U.S. fell from number one in the world in highway safety to now a national 14th with all modes fatality rates per mile of travel at least twice the level of the leading nations located mostly in Western Europe.  Meanwhile, the VAOT needs to be applauded for the new roundabouts in Morrisville, Cambridge, and Waterbury, which either are in construction or opened within the past year.

We in the walk/bike community all learned a great deal over the past year or so.  We learned that walking and bicycling crash rates are unacceptable and safe infrastructure—cycle track and roundabouts—must be the sine qua non of walkable bikable streets.  We learned thatit is absolutely critical for safe street section cycle track to be paired with bike-accommodating separate pathing at roundabouts to assure safety to all-age-all-skill bicyclists who surely will avail themselves the use of cycle track in their neighborhood.  (Burlington with the Dutch miles of cycle track per population would boast 45 miles of track, Vermont 670 miles.)  While cycle track arose as a new treatment in our thinking in the last year, it is the number one in the view of the cycling community as reported in the 2014 Illinois State Bicycle Transportation Plan, the ”Burlington Declaration” of the Burlington Walk Bike Council issued this summer, and the North Avenue Corridor Plan adopted by Mayor and Council last month.  Note that bicycling—even with lanes and, yes, we have tried lanes in my urban areas—do not meet the needs of the bulk of the Vermont urban population as bicycling still remains the province of mostly young, adult, white males.  Cycle track must be installed in order to enable those of all ages and skills the opportunity to bike on their neighborhood busy streets for the routine transportation each day to shop, go to school, and socialize.

          Light Rail, Commuter Rail and Intercity Rail

The shock of an announcement of $200 million investment in housing, shopping facilities, a convention center and hotel should be sufficient to at the very least initiate at once both commuter rail and light rail feasibility studies, investing in no-regrets improvements to Vermont rail infrastructure to accommodate passenger rail services, and complete both the extension of Amtrak service from Rutland to Burlington (a task that will have taken at least a decade and a half to upgrade 60 miles of trackage) and install Ambus service between Montreal and St. Albans to draw about 15,000 more Amtrak riders on Vermont trains as well as reduce the needed State tax dollar support allocated to Amtrak yearly.

Burlington itself must take the initiative in cooperation with the State to begin light rail feasibility building on the 1990s plan for a first phase from UVMMC/UVM/Chaplain College to the Marketplace and the waterfront.  As car travel wanes light rail becomes an increasingly needed service to assure the movement of people efficiently within the downtown area, to assure the economic viability and growth of both the waterfront and Towne Center developments.  Light rail will likely have a longer time line for development than commuter rail so planning needs to start at once.  There are several commuter rail studies already dating back to 1989, the short-lived Champlain Flyer service at the turn of the century between Charlotte and Burlington, and now 11 years of data showing, for example, a continuing double digit increase in workers each year giving forsaking car commuting for Link bus service between Burlington and Montpelier.  Burlington-Montpelier Link service now nears regular use by almost 300 commuters.  In the same travel time commuter rail service can serve seven downtowns and town centers plus Technology Park while Link service connects only the two downtowns of Burlington and Montpelier.  

Also, Burlington light rail planning also needs to complete a feasibility study of a north-south line along a route from Flynn School to the north to the South Burlington border area to the south via North Avenue, the Marketplace and Pine Street.  The joint study is necessary to determine from the start how to create one or more transfer points with the east-west route. Note that both commuter rail and light rail cars which feature low floor easy boarding can easily be configured to hold a large number of bicycles requiring very little effort by the cyclist.

In sum, Vermont faces an exciting opportunity to redesign its entire system of urban and intercity transportation with—for the first time—walkable and bikable busy street infra, and returning to historic forms of transport, commuter rail and the modern trolley.  

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on Vermont transportation.


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