Later this summer, the Chittenden County Transportation Authority will ask the state to fund a bus route between Milton and Burlington. That doesn't mean the authority thinks a Milton-to-Burlington line would be the best use of state transit funds.
In fact, a route connecting Malletts Bay and Burlington would probably attract more riders, said Chris Cole, the CCTA's executive director. But, because Colchester voters declined to approve the use of local property-tax revenues to help pay for the route in 2002, the CCTA, which coordinates transportation projects for the region, has no choice but to recommend that the state fund the line to Milton. Milton, which is just north of Colchester, voted as a town to support the bus service.
Cole and other transit experts say this pay-to-play policy is a chronic flaw in the way Vermont sets priorities for the state's public-transportation network. In most states, transportation funding is collected from various sources and distributed regionally based on needs identified by local officials.
Vermont, on the other hand, requires that local taxpayers agree to pick up a share of the cost of transportation improvements before the state will commit funds to a project. "It's not really a rational way to grow a transit system," Cole said.
Peter Keating, a senior transportation planner for the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said relying on local property taxes to fund transit improvements can make it harder to expand existing routes and create new ones. Efforts to decouple public-transportation funding from property taxes have been proposed numerous times in the last decade, Keating said. But legislators who represent constituents not served by bus routes are reluctant to lend support.
The issue has been "looked at upside-down and sideways for a long time," Keating said. "Politically, it's so difficult to sell."
State Rep. Bill Keogh, (D-Burlington), who also serves on the Burlington City Council, agreed. A former chairman of the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization (CCMPO), Keogh said it's hard to convince legislators from rural areas that the state's transit-funding model doesn't work. But even if they climbed on board with a regional funding concept, he surmised, Vermont's political infrastructure isn't designed to administer funds on a county-by-county basis. "It's a good idea," said Keogh, who rides the bus to his job in Montpelier. "But it doesn't play out in the practical world."
Kimberly Murray, Colchester's director of community and economic development, said town officials have long wanted to connect Colchester to existing routes that serve Burlington and Winooski. And five years ago, a study by the CCMPO concluded that Colchester was a prime candidate for major bus service.
Cole and others agree that, because of its growing population, Malletts Bay would be ideal for a new commuter route. Several years ago, CCTA told town officials in Colchester that federal funds to help pay for a new bus route to Burlington could be available, Cole recalled. But that possibility died when Colchester voters declined to pony up their share.
Meanwhile, voters in Milton agreed to fund a percentage of the costs, and the town is now positioned to receive about $150,000 from the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
That's good for Milton, but, as CCMPO's Peter Keating admitted, a bus line to Colchester would probably make more sense.