OP-ED: Montpelier’s Transportation Future

by Dan Jones

What is the best use of our downtown? Is it found in that reality you can see in the red map showing the current commitment of our open space to warehousing commuter cars all day and then lying empty at night? Or could it be in the image of the winning entry to the recent Sustainable Montpelier Design Competition, where we see dense downtown housing along with riverfront parks and new commercial spaces?

For most people this second vision is certainly desirable, but also abstract. Of course it would be nice to have a more lively, dense, and sustainable downtown, but, right now, that vision simply isn’t possible.  Our whole transportation system is built around the personal car, and there are few, if any, realistic alternatives. So, even if we might want people downtown to live, work, and shop, right now there simply needs to be all those parking lots. End of story.

Maybe, instead, we need to start rewriting that story’s ending. We know global warming is happening faster as the carbon cost of our transportation system grows. We need to address the cost of the car on all our lives sooner than later. And we can do it, if we get together and start creating the transportation options needed for a more secure and sustainable future.

Right now, we basically have one transportation option: the personal car, and maybe the local bus service provided by Green Mountain Transit.  There are a couple of cabs and rumors of an Uber driver, but he gets up late. Other than the very popular LINK Express to Burlington, most of the other options are not considered desirable or affordable. The current choices are also revenue sinks, that is, all cost while providing no tax benefit to the city. Since that is the picture in people’s minds about alternative transport, the prevailing belief is that there will be no demand for any kind of new services.

Let’s change the conversation. What if we could agree to work together to make new parts of the local system that would be more convenient and desirable?

Right now the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition (SMC) is organizing an effort to explore attractive alternatives that could be developed more rapidly than the plodding pace offered by government services.  Government can adequately maintain the commons but is stretched to innovate or develop.  That is the role was once delegated to business entrepreneurs.  However, our non-governmental entity, the SMC, intends to be the social entrepreneur and help catalyze new services and developments. The SMC understands the need for new forms of finance, sustainability, and security that need to be embedded in any effort that is going to weather the coming climate and economic storms.

We envision at least two kinds of transportation options that could provide the conveniences we hope for at a price that is substantially lower than the $9,000 per year the American Automobile Association says that it takes to keep a car on the road in Vermont,  One concept is called “micro-transit,” and it operates on an Uber-type system that provides shared local rides to work and all the stuff you do in town every day.  This service would eventually be provided with electric microbuses. Such services already exists in other place, so should we want to see it developed here, we will only have to figure out how to finance and operate it locally.

Another obvious choice is the train. We all know there is a train track through the middle of town, and occasionally we are stalled in front of Shaw’s supermarket waiting for the passage of a granite train. On that track, however, we could imagine a well-run commuter train between Barre, Berlin, and Montpelier. The city is hoping for a planning grant for such a service but in a 10-year time horizon. We should be looking at a much faster commitment.

An interim development that can help move the transition along is the creation of satellite parking lots on the periphery of the city served by a GMT shuttle. There are a lot of built-in problems with the amount of time people will wait for a shuttle, but at least something is starting.

Next month we will be convening our next transportation round table to help get things moving on the real alternatives in a time frame that can make a difference to our near-term sustainability. If we can make this work, we can start building a much closer future where those downtown parking craters are no longer needed because our smart citizens are discovering more efficient and cheaper ways of getting around.

Dan Jones is executive director of the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition.

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