A week ago, I was writing an action plan to transition Vermont to a modern transportation system accessible to all Vermonters and is compatible with Vermont’s climate goals when I received an emergency phone call from my wife. She had just run out of gas driving home on I-89. But having one family car, I had to scramble to find other transportation. Similar to that, we as a state are scrambling with an empty tank, but fortunately, we have solutions that don’t rely on fossil fuels.
I live in Montpelier, and am surrounded by a walkable community. That is a privileged situation, because housing in Montpelier is at a premium, and there are limited jobs, so it is not an affordable option for all. Vermonters live in rural communities and drive many miles to provide for their households. How do we help those Vermonters and those who can’t drive or even afford the expenses associated with owning a car? How do we reduce Vermont’s carbon footprint? It is very fortunate that we can, and that it is within reach if we make investments today.
At the State House, Representatives McCormack, White, Burke, Stebbins, and Bartholomew just introduced the Transportation Modernization Act to invest in communities and make transit more accessible while being consistent with our climate goals. The ideas included are policies that Vermont has already enacted, and we need to make strategic decisions to use existing revenue. Furthermore, as Vermont is slated to receive millions of dollars of stimulus from the Federal government, it has to be prepared to seek viable solutions that are accessible to all.
Vehicle Electrification. A myth promulgated by those who oppose electric vehicles is that EVs are only for the wealthy. EVs’ costs-to-purchase are higher, but EVs require less maintenance, reduce energy costs, and lower electricity rates1, while increased electrification creates local jobs. However, given that the initial costs are higher, Vermont has created two incentive programs to help lower these costs. The New Electric Vehicle Incentive Program administered by Drive Electric Vermont and the Mileage Smart Program administered by Capstone can exclusively help low-income Vermonters reduce their car costs. These programs can get more Vermonters into clean and modern cars — new or used higher-mileage vehicles.
At the same time, we need to rapidly invest in a charging infrastructure especially for multi-family dwellings and workplaces. We also need to electrify all school and transit buses and include electric bikes. Incentives and grants to make infrastructure and all vehicle types affordable must be a part of any transportation modernization. Vermont can help the country reach the goals of the Paris Climate Accords with smart incentives.
Transit. It’s also important to create diversified transit options that don’t involve a car. Fare-free transit is an important policy. It removes financial impediments and makes it easier to access any transit route. A $2.7 million dollar investment will remove those hurdles and make for seamless travel. The state needs to continue to invest in new routes, because fixed-route transit is not always accessible. Innovative micro-transit projects such as Montpelier’s MY Ride program should be explored. Large employers should explore Transportation Demand Management programs to encourage tele-commuting, ride-sharing, biking to work, or using public transit. To ensure all transit operations are linked, whether it is a bus, micro-transit, or passenger rail, establishing a centralized transportation authority is also being considered.
Downtown Development and Bicycle- and Pedestrian-Friendly Communities. Creating communities that are walkable and equally accessible for all Vermonters is very marketable for businesses, helpful for employers, and increases the general quality of life. With a focus on supporting downtowns, there would be less of a demand for single-occupancy motor vehicles. Helping to ensure roads are safe and comfortable for bicyclists and pedestrians will encourage better health and a greater connection to the community.
Vermont is already doing this. However, it is going to take greater investment. The Transportation Modernization Act calls for utilizing just over $10 million dollars from current revenues to make these investments. This is a start and given the promise of the Biden Administration, there is a hope that Vermont will receive more federal dollars to invest in more for Vermonters.
Vermont is currently stuck in an antiquated transit system operating from the remnants of the dinosaur age. The potential is great for a new path. Nonetheless, we must think beyond roads and bridges, and think out of the box, or should I say out of the gasoline-powered automobile. We are metaphorically running out of gas, but instead of refueling, we can rebuild with a clean, modern, and equitable transportation system.
1 Most EVs are charged in the evening. The energy purchased is mostly excess electricity that the utilities are unable to utilize. The utilities sell energy and profit over what would have been wasted (http://bit.ly/EVsDriveElectricRatesDown)
Robb Kidd is the Conservation Program Manager for the Vermont Sierra Club. He can be reached at 802-505-1540 or firstname.lastname@example.org.