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Public: area needs more bike lanes, mass transit

Agency of Transportation gets an earful about state transportation priorities

Meetings continue through mid-November, and dates and locations may be found at tboard.vermont.gov.

BELLOWS FALLS—Area residents urged the state Transportation Board to provide more consistently marked and maintained bike lanes throughout the Connecticut River valley, and they urged access to public transportation for poor and rural residents.

In the first of six public meetings across the state this fall, the board met with residents Oct. 14 at the behest of the Agency of Transportation (AOT).

Last year, the board met at college campuses with millennials. This year, the AOT tasked the board with determining the transportation needs and desires of an older demographic.

“We want to hear from the older generation,” Transportation Board Executive Secretary John Zicconi told residents.

Chairman Nick Morrow and board member William Carris were also on hand in the Lower Theater of the Bellows Falls Opera House to listen as residents responded to a set of specific questions set up by the board, including any safety concerns regarding regulating drivers if recreational marijuana is legalized.

Vermonters drive less than they used to

Zicconi began by noting that Vermonters have consistently been driving less each year since 2004. “Why” was unclear, but in 2013, Americans drove 6 percent fewer miles than in 2004. And in Vermont in 2013, drivers drove 8.4 percent fewer miles than in 2007.

However, correlations with the economic downturn, climate change, and gas prices could not be made with certainty, he said.

Zicconi said AOT wants to be responsive with reflections in state transportation policy associated with public transportation, train travel, and highway safety, including bicycle and pedestrian safety.

He explained that in general, Vermonters also own a decreasing number of cars per capita, a trend that mirrors national statistics.

Other national factors include changing demographics, saturated highways (though not likely in Vermont, Zicconi noted), and the attractions of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods that reduce the need to drive.

Nationally, millennials — those younger than age 30 — are also taking to bikes, walking, and public transportation more, though that trend holds for only two areas in Vermont that provide those opportunities.

Zicconi pointed out that Vermont has a significant number of aging drivers, and “as people age, they drive less.” As would be expected, however, those between the ages of 30 and 60 drive more.

The millennials, Zicconi said, are driving less and can reasonably be expected to continue to drive less if the trend continues as they age — but that prediction is only a best guess at this point, he said.

“Only time will tell,” he said.

AOT funding by the numbers

To meet the challenges of changing transportation trends, AOT funding has increased by 74 percent since 2006, from $354.1 million to $616.1 million in 2016.

Federal dollars account for 54.8 percent of the agency’s budget and state transportation funds cover 38.2 percent, with local dollars providing 1.5 percent of the total funding.

The remaining 5.5 percent is covered by Central Garage Internal Service — internal garage space and repair services for state vehicles — and the state transportation infrastructure bonds (TIB) statutes.

Those bonds represent long-term state investments in infrastructure, financing the costs of rehabilitation, reconstruction, or replacement of state and municipal bridges and culverts and state roads, railroads, airports and necessary buildings.

In turn, state transportation revenues are gathered from gasoline (27.7 percent) and diesel (6.7 percent) tax, purchase and use tax (24.3 percent), motor vehicle fees (28.7 percent), the TIB fund (5.4 percent) , and other sources (7.2 percent).

In 2016, those revenues will be allocated: town programs (16.8 percent), state paving (16.2 percent), maintenance (14.1 percent), roadway and safety (10 percent), state bridges (8.0 percent), rail (5.7 percent), Department of Motor Vehicles and public transit (4.4 percent each), pike and pedestrian (1 percent), and transportation alternatives (0.3 percent). Other projects account for the remaining 13.5 percent of the expenditures.

Few public transportation options in the region

As BOT chair Morris moderated solicited comments, Zicconi began by asking residents what factors played into how they choose where to live and work.

One elderly gentleman responded, with typical Vermont practicality and austerity, “I live where I please, work where I can, and drive where I have to.”

Representatives from social service agencies from Bellows Falls, Westminster, Chester, and Mt. Ascutney emphasized the need for connective services to public transportation from rural areas, noting that Connecticut River Transit (CRT) has too few daytime runs during the week and is not in service at all on the weekends, when many people have time to do their errands or want to attend events out of town.

Several advocates noted that free public transportation is of particular need for those who live in poverty and want to get to work, hospital appointments, or shopping, with too few run times, one in the morning and one in the evening to and from Brattleboro, Keene, or Claremont, and wait times in between could take up a person’s whole day.

The current public transportation scheduling prohibits anyone without access to a vehicle from accepting a night job.

A midday bus run would help parents with small children and elderly people, they noted. The ability to walk to school and have access to public transportation is important to these demographics.

The problem, advocates said, was that there is a rural population that can do neither. Ride sharing among neighbors and friends is common, necessary, and widely used in rural situations, according to one.

Issues with not being able to afford even the $1 fare that CRT now charges “could mean a meal” to some riders.

Advance-notice bus pickups become an issue when there is a medical emergency, an advocate noted.

Car-sharing services like Zipcar were discussed briefly, but they would never be an option for social services clientele, one advocate said.

In a rural setting, such services would require a car (or at least access to a ride) to get to the car, and fees are equal to or greater than a taxi service.

Taxis are virtually unheard of in this area, it was noted, and the regulations and costs associated with operating one are prohibitive, though Rockingham Selectboard member Ann DiBernardo said that having a taxi available for medical appointments could be a help locally.

Uber, an online ride-sharing service that connects drivers and passengers via a website and mobile phone app, was briefly discussed. The service is not available anywhere in Vermont.

Walking and biking

One recurring theme was the lack of bike lanes in southeastern Vermont, which make both walking and biking hazardous. Crumbling roadside edges and sidewalks were part of the problem, but the lack of dedicated bike and pedestrian lanes was key, many people said.

Several avid bike riders in the audience commented on the dangers of riding on Vermont roads without fog lines or bike lanes. Educating drivers, especially truck drivers, to share the road with biker and pedestrian traffic was important, one audience member said.

Bonnie Anderson, director and founder of the BF Community Bike Project, said that she had moved to Bellows Falls hoping to use her bike as a primary source of transportation. She noted that of her 17 years in Burlington, 13 of those were car-less. She was disappointed to find safe bike routes are essentially nonexistent in southeastern Vermont.

Anderson said that she hears from people “all the time” asking where they can safely take their families for a bike ride. She said she has a hard time finding places where she can direct them.

Zicconi noted that Vermont roads were laid in 1937 with a three-foot shoulder, and at the time neither bikes nor cars were an issue. The cost of universally adding bike lanes and the resources such an undertaking would require would be problematic given the number of roads that would need to be re-engineered.

Biking or walking anywhere in Vermont, one audience member noted, is problematic as well, because it is so hilly throughout, and roadsides are crumbling, making them a danger for users.

Public transportation: who pays when it’s free?

Zicconi said that the AOT goal of funding increased public transportation in the state was to get 20 percent from local sources — i.e., businesses. The agency’s goal is not to make such services free, however.

Bus lines in Montpelier are free for riders but have been subsidized by the AOT because of a demand by state employees living outside of Montpelier. Similarly, bus rides in the Upper Valley cost nothing for passengers but are heavily subsidized by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

For CRT to be “free” locally, the same thing would have to happen: local businesses would have to step up to help support “free” public transportation and extra routes.

CRT serves 31 towns in southeastern Vermont and, according to a representative from the agency at the meeting, receives no financial support from local businesses for its $4 million budget, which includes about $41,000 from the state.

That means, she said, the CRT needs to ask riders to participate in helping fund their transportation. Their ridership dropped, she said, when they started charging for rides, and they lost the after school ridership as well.

One man commented that “buses are a big city model in a small valley world.”

The CRT representative said it was a challenge and not cheap to run the buses, and that in rural areas, it was expensive to add more routes without the funding.

Interstate transit and compromises

Passenger rail ridership has gone up for both in-state users and interstate users, according to state reports — but with no federal funding except through bonds or grants.

One commenter praised the Amtrak’s Vermonter, which travels up the state’s eastern corridor from points south that include New York City.

But taking the bus from Bellows Falls to Boston is only convenient for going one way, the audience member continued. A return trip requires an overnight in White River Junction, making a 2{1/2}-hour trip into a 30-hour overnight commitment. No other public transportation is available to a city that many southeastern Vermonters have ties to.

Amtrak had offered $12 tickets for destinations within Vermont, but that program were suspended this year. Although in-state tickets are now discounted 20 percent, the cost increase makes passenger-rail travel prohibitive for poorer and elderly Vermonters, one person said.

Cannabis and driving

Last on the agenda for the evening was whether Vermonters are concerned about the safety aspects of cannabis consumption and driving. Zicconi said AOT wanted to know audience concerns and suggestions if recreational cannabis is legalized or decriminalized in the state.

While less time was spent on this subject than issues of public transportation access or bike lanes, local “drug-free” advocates for youth said they are in favor of “driving-impaired” regulations for cannabis users that parallel restrictions for alcohol consumption.

However, state legislators are looking at ways to test for levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the component of marijuana responsible for impairing effects, with plenty of doubters in the audience noting the unreliability of current methods.

Alcohol and marijuana motor vehicle deaths and injuries are on the increase in states that have legalized or decriminalized recreational pot, according to studies in Colorado and Washington states.

However, no one at the meeting disagreed with the premise that driving impaired is a risk to everyone on the road, and that drivers should be regulated in a similar fashion as they are with alcohol.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #328 (Wednesday, October 21, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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