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In Montpelier, climate change meets public policy

Two Windham County legislators have a large influence on state transportation policy in a state where ‘we need cars to get around’

BRATTLEBORO—This is the 15th year that Rep. Mollie S. Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, has been on the front lines in the state’s fight against climate change.

“I really think Mollie’s a bit of an unsung hero in the work that she’s been doing in transportation,” said House Transportation Committee Chair Sara Coffey, D-Guilford. “She’s always seen opportunities to address climate change through the transportation sector.”

Burke says she was inspired to initially run for the House because she wanted to serve on the Transportation Committee.

“Prior to that, in 2005 and 2006, I had organized several exhibitions of poster art with the title ‘The End of the Romance: Cutting Dependence on our Automobiles,’” she said. “This has been a longstanding concern of mine. I’m so terribly interested in transportation because it’s the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Another concern: “How can we make better communities with better bike and pedestrian opportunities and not have our lives just dependent on roads and everything just built for cars?” Burke said.

“Creating livable, walkable communities is a very big economic benefit to towns as well,” she added. For her, “trains, buses, and things” — transportation — is “a really fascinating topic.”

Between 30% and 40% of Vermont’s carbon emissions come from the transportation sector, according to Burke and Coffey.

Burke has served on the Transportation Committee since she entered the House in 2009; this is Coffey’s first year on the committee, as well as her first as chair. Together, they give Windham County a large voice in addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time.

“The transportation sector is doing a lot of work to address climate change,” Coffey said. “And not just address climate change, but think in a more comprehensive way about how to make communities in Vermont more bikable, more pedestrian-friendly, more accessible for people with physical disabilities or challenges.

“There’s a lot of innovation happening in this this area,” she said.

Carbon complications

Burke has been spearheading much of this innovation while facing a reality: In Vermont, “people live apart from each other, and we need cars to get around,” she said.

“So it’s a complicated thing to figure out how to cut carbon emissions from transportation,” said Burke, who has been trying to do so over the past 15 years. But “It has been difficult to enact policies that can actually make a difference in our emissions.”

For one thing, Burke sponsored an anti-idling bill, which became law and took effect in 2014.

By law, “A person shall not cause or permit operation of the primary propulsion engine of a motor vehicle for more than five minutes in any 60-minute period while the vehicle is stationary,” with 11 exceptions (including one’s car in a private driveway or parking area).

Idling is certainly one part of the problem, although it is one that is not easy to enforce.

“It’s all very difficult,” Burke said.

“We have, in the past few years, put in a good amount of money to help people buy electric vehicles, for example,” she said. “And we’ve put in money for low-income people to buy used fuel-efficient vehicles.”

Those two measures now align with the state’s Climate Action Plan, developed after the Legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2020, overriding a veto from Gov. Phil Scott.

“It mandated that we actually meet the emissions goals in our comprehensive energy plan,” Burke said. “This led to the formulation of the Vermont Climate Action Plan, which was completed in December of 2021. This has given us a road map.”

Building the ‘T-Bill’

One central result of the Transportation Committee’s work will be an omnibus transportation bill — called the “T-Bill.” What they call a “money bill,” it funds the state’s highway programs and the related infrastructure.

The transportation budget this year runs to about $885 million, Coffey said. Among other things, it funds the Department of Motor Vehicles, the various programs that are paving interstate bridges, state highway bridges, roadways, park-and-rides, bike and pedestrian facilities, transportation alternatives, multimodal facilities, public transit, aviation, and rail.

Writing transportation legislation begins with the governor’s budget.

“Then the Agency of Transportation comes in and says, ’Well, this is what we’d like,’” Burke said. “So a few years ago, we started putting out a bill ahead of that, saying, ‘Hey, this is what we’d like to put into this.’ Because our job is not just to take what the agency says and do it or tinker around the edges. We’re a separate branch of government.”

So Burke and Montpelier Democrat Rep. Gabrielle Stebbins wrote a separate bill, H.101, parts of which will eventually be folded into the T-Bill.

The bill — “An act relating to transportation initiatives to reduce carbon emissions” — searches for creative ways to reduce Vermont’s greenhouse gases. It is co-sponsored by 44 legislators, including six from Windham County.

“There are a number of proposals designed to cut carbon emissions and make transportation solutions that are more affordable,” Burke said. “Like incentives for electric vehicles for low and moderate income Vermonters. We’re trying to get people into lower-cost transportation options.”

Transporation priorities proposed in bill

Among the 12 measures included in the bill:

• The Agency of Transportation would be required to create a written plan with recommendations on how to fund state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase access to higher-efficiency, lower-cost transportation options.

• A new Legislative Regional Transportation Climate Initiative Working Group would study regional climate initiatives.

• A “feebate” program would collect taxes on carbon-emitting cars and use the revenue to fund a corresponding program: a tax credit for purchasers of low-emissions vehicles. Such a program was studied in a 2019 report to the Legislature from the AOT.

• AOT would be required to assess “motor vehicle fuel use in Vermont in order to identify the most effective actions to transition operators to plug-in electric vehicles.”

Supporting electric vehicle purchases is important, Burke said. The state’s goal is to have 26,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025 and 126,000 by 2030. Right now, approximately 9,000 electric vehicles are registered in the state.

• Funding for the Mobility and Transportation Innovation Grant Program, Bicycle and Pedestrian Program, and eBike Incentive Program.

The MTI grants provide funds “that organizations and communities can use for innovative projects,” Burke said. “We are hoping to put extra money into these grants.”

The 2023 MTI grant program funded 14 projects totalling approximately $985,000.(1)

Six of those projects are feasability studies for “microtransit,” a type of bus service that runs on demand, reminiscent of Uber and other ride-sharing services. Instead of running along a fixed route, the bus would come whenever it is called and would takesthe passenger anywhere within the range that it operates. Pilot programs are now running in Montpelier, Manchester, Morrisville, Windsor, and Barre.

• Asking the AOT to work with Amtrak, “and other entities, on certain modifications to Amtrak service in Vermont.”

Burke says the state pays Amtrak approximately $8 million per year to run two passenger trains — the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express — into the state.

“They don’t pay us. We pay them. So we have purview over that money,” she said.

“The committee could say, ‘Oh, forget it, Amtrak. We’re not going to pay any more.’ And that would be the end of it. They wouldn’t come.”

But Amtrak service to Vermont has proven to be immensely popular. Right now, the push is to extend the Vermonter’s route north of its northern terminus in St. Albans to Montreal. The plan is stalling, however.

“Canadians need to build a secure immigration facility in Montreal,” Burke said. “And there are a lot of complications. They’ve been going on for years. But I think it’ll eventually happen, because everybody wants it to happen.”

• Asking the state to appropriate money to keep the public transit buses running fare-free.

“We’ve made all the rural transit routes to be zero fare last year,” Burke said. “And I think that’s going to continue this year.”

Burke said the MOOver, operating in Windham County from Rockingham and Wilmington, is doing a feasibility study to see what else might be possible in Brattleboro — like extending the hours of service, for example, she said.

• Requiring the AOT to update the Vermont State Standards. “The Vermont State Standards are design standards that are very out of date in terms of being very vehicle-centric,” Burke said. “Hopefully, this will help communities with better solutions for sidewalks, bike paths, and slower traffic patterns through towns and village centers.”

The version of the Vermont State Standards available on the AOT’s website is dated 1997.

Winnowing the priorities

The Transportation Committee is currently working to fold pieces of H.101 into the T-Bill.

“Right now, we’re in the process of figuring out what the committee is going to accept and what parts of this bill are going to make it into the final,” Burke said.

Midway through each session, bills that originate in the House are picked up by the Senate, and vice-versa. In the halls of the statehouse, that milestone is called the “crossover.”

This year, March 17 is the policy bill crossover date. On March 20, the process repeats for legislation requiring expenditures of state money.

“By the third week of March, we will have a bill that will come out of our committee,” Burke said.

(2)“We’ll go over to the House floor, and then look at the Senate bill,” she said of the process, which, she notes, has been described as “sausage making.”

“Then there’ll be a lot of haggling over what they like and don’t like and what we like and don’t like,” Burke said. “We are deep in the process now.”

What might come of that process?

“I’m just hoping that we can get a really strong bill that will make some some kind of difference,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #706 (Wednesday, March 15, 2023). This story appeared on page A2.

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