- Molly Walsh
- Passengers boarding at the Green Mountain Transit center in downtown Burlington
As climate-change warriors filled the streets of Burlington last month to demand reductions in fossil-fuel pollution, Vermont's largest public transit system touted its environmental benefits on social media.
"One full bus carries the same number of people as 60 cars," Green Mountain Transit proclaimed on its Facebook page. On Twitter, GMT chirped that public transit reduces national carbon emissions by "37 MILLION metric tons annually."
The September 20 rally was the most energetic display of environmentalism the Queen City has seen in years. But some participants drove home in cars, a reminder that, so far, the growing concern about global warming has not powered an increase in riders for GMT, whose fleet of blue-and-green buses offers an alternative to carbon-spewing autos.
GMT's current ridership is down 13 percent from the system's peak in 2012. That year, it logged 3 million trips, compared to 2.6 million for the fiscal year that ended in June. The public transit system operates city and commuter routes in the Champlain Valley, as well as in and around Stowe, Montpelier and Waitsfield, and is run by a 13-member board of commissioners representing four counties and eight municipalities.
The slack ridership is taking a financial toll. Over the past four years, the bus authority has reduced cash reserves from $2 million to $700,000 to balance its annual budget, which today is roughly $29 million.
The company must stop raiding reserves to pay the bills, said GMT's interim general manager, Jon Moore, during an interview at the transit system's headquarters in Burlington's South End. "We can't do it again, because those funds will be exhausted," he said.
On Tuesday, the GMT finance board unanimously approved cuts to the current year's budget that pare $68,000 from marketing and $169,000 from capital spending, which means canceling plans to purchase three new buses. The trims also included $109,000 in reduced staff costs; some open positions will be left vacant. The full board will have the final say on whether to approve the cuts at its regular meeting on Tuesday, October 15.
As the board formulates next year's budget, for fiscal year 2021, cuts to bus service and to employee benefits could be on the table, officials said.
Just four months ago, GMT rolled out its NextGen Service Plan, an overhaul designed to attract more riders with new, streamlined routes offering bus service every 20 minutes. The regular fare rose from $1.25 to $1.50 — the first hike since 2005. Monthly fare cards dropped from $50 to $40 to incentivize frequent ridership. New mobile phone payment and bus tracking options were added.
It's too early to analyze the full impact of the changes, but the initial numbers are disappointing. August ridership fell 4.5 percent from the prior year, and revenues slumped, too, according to Moore.
Most of the transit company's cash comes from federal, state and participating local government funding. What customers pay amounts to a small share of the revenue pie, but it still matters.
In a budget memo, finance and grants director Nick Foss wrote that fare income has been lower than anticipated, which is just one of the fiscal challenges. Costs went over budget on bus parts and maintenance, workers' comp, and consulting and legal fees.
GMT could face more legal bills in the coming months. Two Burlington families have filed complaints against GMT with the Vermont Human Rights Commission alleging racial bias after a driver ordered Burlington schoolchildren off a bus in May. The company denies the claims but terminated the driver for failing to follow protocols designed to deal with disruptive passengers. The driver filed a labor grievance and was reinstated in August.
As those problems were brewing, the board put GMT general manager Mark Sousa on paid suspension July 8. He resigned July 20, before his contract was up, and negotiated a separation agreement that cost about $47,000 in pay and benefits. Seven Days could not reach Sousa for comment.
Tom Chittenden, the GMT board chair, said confidentiality rules prevented him from revealing the reasons for Sousa's departure. When asked whether the budget problems and handling of the bus-driver incident contributed, Chittenden replied that a number of factors were involved.
Moore was appointed interim general manager and is now navigating the budget problems, labor issues and bias complaints.
There are also infrastructure woes to worry about. For instance, outdated fare boxes break down daily. Hit a pothole, and one might stop working, said Moore. Hit another, and it might restart. At GMT headquarters last week, a jumble of broken fair boxes awaited repairs that often involve parts cannibalized from older machines. Fares go uncollected when the boxes stop working — one of the problems Foss cited in his budget memo.
The decision to put off the purchase of three conventional buses would not affect plans already in the works to add two electric buses, the first in GMT's fleet. The buses should arrive later this month, Moore said.
The goal is to put them into service by the end of the year. That could be a challenge, though, because GMT has had trouble finding an electrician to install the bus-charging systems. "If you know anyone..." Moore quipped.
While the electric buses are part of a major initiative intended to appeal to environmentally conscious riders, it's unclear whether they'll attract their target audience.
"People do not make the connection between climate change and transportation," said Julie Campoli of Burlington, the editor of the website Sustainable Transportation Vermont. "It's a huge blind spot."
It's not just a local problem. Transit ridership was lackluster nationally during the last five years.
"Low gas prices and strong economies generally do have a negative impact on ridership, and that has been seen in Chittenden County, as well," said Ross MacDonald, a public transit coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Surveys of the state's public transit systems show that around 80 percent of users ride buses because they have to, MacDonald said. They can't afford cars, or they can't drive due to a disability.
Most transit experts agree that new strategies are needed to encourage a broader pool of people to ride. One way to do it, according to MacDonald and other transit planners: Implement new tools such as the Transit app, which GMT piloted over the summer and all state public transit systems will formally adopt this month.
At GMT's downtown transit center in Burlington, riders had their own ideas for how to convince more people to take the bus.
Habibo Noor, an 18-year-old Burlington High School student, gave the Transit app a big thumbs-up as she waited for a bus to take her to the University Mall in South Burlington.
But others say even more frequent service than the NextGen schedule offers, and not an app, is the key to attracting riders. As she prepared to board for a shopping excursion at Target in South Burlington, Champlain College student Breanna Wright said she takes the bus only if she really "has to." She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., accustomed to buses that arrive every 10 minutes.
Consistent on-time performance is the key to attract riders, said Kira Cogger, a recent Saint Michael's College grad who was waiting for a bus to Essex Junction, where she works as a pharmacy tech. People have busy schedules and "don't want to be sitting in a bus stop."
This fall, GMT will work with the University of Vermont and the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission to survey the public and organize focus groups designed to increase commuter use of the bus service.
No one debates that increased ridership would reduce traffic, particularly in Chittenden County, home to many of Vermont's busiest roads. But environmentalists in particular need to help the cause by using mass transit options and not just calling for more of them, suggested Rep. Curt McCormack (D-Burlington), chair of the Vermont House Transportation Committee. "Most of them don't," he said.
McCormack, on the other hand, does. He spoke via phone from Bennington last Friday during a statewide tour that he is making by bicycle and bus to visit each member of the House Transportation Committee to better understand local transportation problems.
McCormack said he pedaled hard that day to travel downhill in heavy headwinds and cold rain, but he still waxed enthusiastically about ideas to grow car-alternative transit, including the concept of free bus fares for all. The lost revenue would have to be made up somehow, McCormack said, but it might propel ridership — and discourage car trips. VTrans is researching the idea, he said.
"We need ridership to increase," he said, "because you cannot convince people in the legislature to support more money for transit when ridership is declining."