MONTPELIER — Transportation options in central Vermont aimed at combating climate change were the focus of a public meeting last week.
Organized by the Montpelier Transportation Infrastructure Committee at City Hall on Wednesday, it drew visionaries and transit experts for a discussion about future transport solutions.
“Transportation has been such a hot topic in Montpelier, and with good cause,” said Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson. “It’s the number-one source of greenhouse gases for Vermonters, and undoubtedly for Montpelier, so it’s worth discussing.”
Watson said the issue would also be discussed at a meeting of the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission at City Hall on Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.
Representatives of Green Mountain Transit, Vermont Agency of Transportation, allEarth Rail and the Montpelier Transportation Infrastructure Committee discussed the future of public transportation in Montpelier at last week’s meeting.
First up during presentations was David Blittersdorf, a Vermont industrialist with a long history in the renewable energy business, through wind turbines and then with solar energy through Williston-based allEarth Renewables. A spinoff division, allEarth Rail, is focused on bringing back passenger rail with 1950s-era Budliner diesel rail cars that can each carry up to 94 passengers. The 12 rail cars would be leased to a rail network, Blittersdorf said.
Blittersdorf said the most obvious place to start would be to build a Barre-Montpelier commuter rail passenger network that would serve as a “back to the future renaissance,” upgrading an existing rail network. It would also reduce the need for parking, offsetting the need for a proposed parking garage on some of “the most expensive real estate” in Montpelier, he said.
Blittersdorf said he hopes planning grants can help fund the estimated $3 million upgrade to 8 miles of the 13-mile state-owned rail network in the Barre-Montpelier corridor. Operating the rail route would cost about $1 million a year, he said, adding, “It can be reasonably done.”
Train stops along the way would include the Capitol Complex/Taylor Street Transit Center, Grossmans at the start of Route 302 (where a satellite parking lot would operate), the Berlin retail center on Route 302, and Depot Square in Barre, also serving the Barre state office complex, with other possible stops along the way.
Blittersdorf proposed eight round trips daily, during rush hour and at mid-day, with an annual 6,000 trips serving 180,000 passengers, with significant fuel savings, reducing carbon emissions by “five times,” he said.
“If you get one person on a train, that’s like getting 100 cars off the road,” Blittersdorf said.
Blittersdorf said he would provide the Budliner rail cars, but operation of the passenger rail system would be the responsibility of a state or regional entity. He called for a transit authority to manage a combined train and bus network (including school bus routes), with commercial and community partners, similar to successful coalitions in Britain.
“The model has already been done,” Blittersdorf said.
Public funding would attract commercial investment in other business and housing development, Blittersdorf said, urging Vermonters to lobby civic leaders to fund community rail service.
“Now is the time get moving,” he said.
Dan Delabruere, the rail and aviation bureau director for the Agency of Transportation (AOT), said he agreed that “rail is a big part of the future,” and the Legislature had asked AOT to study the cost to upgrade the Barre-Montpelier rail corridor, but no estimates are available yet. A report is due to be sent to the Legislature in November.
Delabruere said freight and commuter rail traffic could run on the same track but not at the same time. He also said another entity would have to operate a commuter rail service on the state’s rail tracks. The statewide rail plan does not identify the Barre-Montpelier rail corridor as a need at this time, he added.
“It has not come up before this. It has not come up in our statewide rail plan,” Delabruere said.
The meeting also heard from John Kaplan, the bicycle and pedestrian program manager for AOT, which recently announced $3 million in funding for projects around the state that support alternative transport initiatives. He also discussed the existing Route 302 bike lane project and other potential projects. E-bikes and bike share programs and the state’s strategic plan for similar programs were also discussed.
Barbara Donovan, the public transport manager for AOT, said there is a study by the Micro-Transit working group of the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition to consider a program to improve access to public transport through a ride-share app in Montpelier. A grant for the program has been submitted.
Jamie Smith, director of marketing and planning for Green Mountain Transit, discussed fixed and deviated routes that allow the elderly and other people to be picked up for medical appointments in the Montpelier-Berlin-Barre area, and on other routes.
The completion of the Taylor Street Transit Center is expected to result in changes to some routes in Montpelier to reduce congestion, beginning in mid-November, Smith said.
Bonnie Waninger, executive director of the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission, is looking at bus service in Washington County and the potential for commuter rail service.
Dan Jones, executive director of the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition, noted large areas of downtown Montpelier are devoted to parking that could be used for other commercial, retail and housing options if there were other transport alternatives available. He said a “multi-modal” transport system was the “next wave” in travel options.
Colleague Elizabeth Parker said the coalition is working on a survey of potential ridership and building a brand identity and best practices for a multi-modal traffic model, with inter-city and intracity options.
Resident Sandy Vitzthum spoke about the Net Zero Vermont contest two years ago that highlighted the need to improve downtown Montpelier by providing alternative transport options. She also spoke of the Hitching Post ride-share program between Worcester and Montpelier, to reduce emissions.
Deb Sachs, executive director of Net Zero Vermont, urged people who travel to work to contact Go Vermont to find alternative travel options, at www.connectingcommuters.org