By Guy Page
Back in WWII, many folks on the home front thumbtacked a world map to the wall and used pushpins to follow the advancing American forces. In the same spirit of trying to understand what the heck is going on, here’s a rundown on Vermont’s War on the internal combustion engine.
Transportation accounts for more than half of Vermont’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change activists in government and the renewable power industry and lobby are on a war footing. Here are some of the battlefields.
Bike lanes coming to Williston Road. Like the Doolittle Raiders bombing Tokyo, climate warriors are taking the fight to the heart of the enemy: stop-and-go commuter traffic on Williston Road. South Burlington City plans to build $2.4 million worth of buffered bike and pedestrian lanes, crossings and signage there by 2022. Vehicle travel lanes will shrink to 11 feet wide, according to Local Motion. Eventually, a separate pedestrian bridge will cross I-89, WCAX reports. The idea is to make Williston Road friendlier to bike or walk. If it’s less friendly to single-occupant motorists – meh. A similar project on the Barre-Montpelier Road has met with general approval from motorists and pedestrians alike.
New rural commuter bus routes. Rural Community Transportation (RTC) on November 4 began a free fare, 14-seat commuter bus route back and forth from Morrisville, Hardwick, Montpelier and smaller towns in between. From Montpelier, bus riders can transfer to buses headed for Chittenden and Caledonia counties. A similar route runs along Rte. 15 from Burlington to Jeffersonville, just 10 miles from Morrisville. Need a car to get anywhere in rural Vermont? Maybe not, someday, if bus routes continued to be seeded and take, uh, root. Yet cultivation is costly: a multi-million dollar federal grant will cover the first three years. Then, the tab will fall on riders, towns, and RTC.
Electric snowmobiles. Pro-renewable lobbyist VPIRG wants snow machine enthusiasts to consider the benefits of the Taiga electric-powered snowmobile. As reported by the Vermont Daily Chronicle, VPIRG said in a Nov. 12 tweet that “Gas-powered snowmobiles are a blast, but they’re up to 50x more polluting than an average car. Taiga Motors’ flagship electric model reaches speeds of 60mph in under 3 seconds while significantly reducing the noise associated with conventional snowmobiles.” The cheapest Taiga snow machines cost $15,000 (presumably in Canadian dollars), the website for the Montreal-based company says. By comparison, Minnesota-built Polaris gas-powered sleds start at $5400, with the top-of-line at about $15,000.
Car-free urban living. The Taylor Street apartment building/transit center that opened last month in Montpelier is a demo for car-free urban living. Its 30 ultra-low energy apartments (costing $256,000 per unit to build) are built on top of a ground floor train/bus stop (additional estimated cost of $10-12 million) with convenient traffic circle and direct access to the capital city’s expanded bike path. The State House and state office complex are just a block away. In many ways the Taylor Street project is the urban planner’s answer to the question, how can people live and commute comfortably without a car? Most of the $17-19 million of funding came from local, state, and federal sources. How often can that size of payout be repeated?
Transportation & Climate Initiative – AKA the multi-state Stealth Carbon Tax – is in for a tough battle it may not win. Last week Gov. Phil Scott emphatically told the State House press corps that if the TCI is a carbon tax, he opposes it. He said it twice. And it is a carbon tax – the TCI would assess a 5-18 cent/gallon fee on gasoline and on-road diesel dealers, to be recouped from consumers at the pump. The final report is due out next month. Gov. Scott wants to wait to see what other states do with the TCI. Across our long border with New Hampshire, gasoline is now 30 cents cheaper. A TCI would widen the gap. NH Gov. Chris Sununu has already vetoed one carbon tax bill.
Tolls could become a renewable transportation battlefield in the not-too-distant future. In a recent interview with Vermont Business Magazine, Gov. Scott said the thought of tolls replacing the gas tax “excites” him. But it would need to be done at the federal level, he said. Something’s gotta replace the highway-maintaining gas tax, receipts from which decline annually as more Vermonters buy electric cars, commute, walk or bike. Lawmakers have been arm-wrestling for years over either raising the gasoline tax or assessing an equivalent on electric cars, without a clear winner. Another possibility is a highway use tax based on mileage recorded during annual inspections. “A new tax structure will appear,” Scott told VBM.
Bans on mobile billboards? Former gubernatorial candidate and utility exec Christine Hallquist tweeted indignation earlier this month after seeing a roving “mobile billboard” tooling around Burlington. Ingenious marketers have designed truck-drawn trailers bearing billboards, possibly flouting the state’s 50-year-old billboard law. Unlike buses that carry advertising, these vehicles seem to exist solely to be driven around, promoting their products. Citing climate impact, Hallquist wants them banned.
With the upset over snowmobiles and mobile billboards, it’s understandable that some skeptics on social media suggested that proposed enforcement of current restrictions on demolition derbies are another anti-internal combustion ploy. T’ain’t so. When the Vermont Daily Chronicle ran that idea by a state official his response was “Ridiculous!” His office wants DDs to continue – albeit more safely and by the regs.
The conflict grinds on. The many commuter park-and-rides approved in the Transportation Bill this year are in various stages of design and construction. A feasibility study for a Barre-Montpelier commuter train is due out next month. And the Vermont Legislature has yet to pass S173, the proposed Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act that would put virtually every state agency in carbon-reduction mode. But it’s clear that even without such a declaration, Vermont has gone to war.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports at the Vermont Daily Chronicle.