A New Twist On Transit

By Elle O’Casey

May is National Bike Month. Established in 1956, National Bike Month is a time to celebrate the many benefits of bicycling and it’s an opportunity to go for a ride. This week marks National Bike to Work Week. From May 15-19th, culminating on May 19th, commuters everywhere are challenged to put down the car keys and pick up a bicycle.

Commuter cycling in Vermont presents a suite of challenges, scenic rewards, unexpected weather, and hills. These cycling challenges may contribute to the fact that Vermont drivers log upwards of 11,200 miles in their car each year. This is the 10th highest number in the nation. The number of miles logged using public transit, walking, or biking to work in Vermont is far lower. There is a lack of options for many Vermonters interesting in utilizing public transit to get to work. Vermont is not alone in this struggle. Developing regular, reliable, affordable public transit in rural areas is a challenge facing many states nationwide.

Last month, the founder of AllEarth Renewables made headlines in VTDigger when he proposed building railcar system serving Vermonters, with riders paying little to no fares. AllEarth Renewables, led by David Blittersdorf, spent about $4 million dollars to buy 12 Budd Rail Diesel railcars he hopes to use for a new mass transit system serving Central and Northern Vermont.

In March, the Vermont Agency of Transportation published a feasibility study looking at a potential Montpelier – Burlington – St. Albans Commuter Rail. That report noted that the overall cost was prohibitive and it was not likely the commuter rail would become a reality in the near future. The report projected upfront costs between $301-363 million dollars, with annual operating costs running about $9 million dollars. Included in this amount is $27 million dollars set aside to buy new trains including coaches and a locomotive.

The train cars David Blittersdorf bought do not require a locomotive because they are self-propelled coaches, each with a motor under the train car floor (VermontBiz.com). These rail diesel cars can also run in both directions because each car is equipped with an engine. In contrast, trains with locomotives up front can only run in one direction, requiring a significant amount of time and land to turn the train around. Blittersdorf estimated he could build a rail system serving Central and Northern Vermont for around $50 million.

While there is both ardent support and fervor opposition to Blittersdorf’s proposed commuter rail line plan, the idea presents a new take on mass transit by recycling used rail cars and proposing a more cost-effective alternative in more rural areas. Blittersdorf hopes to bust the myth that passenger rail cannot work without an urbanized usership to support it. “In Vermont, we’ll show … that you can do it in a lower-density, rural state, if you do it the right way” (VTDigger.com).

The chance of a commuter rail system coming to our state may be years or decades away, but bike week is here to stay. This week, if you are able to bike to work, I challenge you to take to the roads be they gravel or pavement and give it a try. If you are not able to bike, try to walk, carpool, or find a public transit option instead.

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