Some Vermont commuters find life better in the bus lane
The Greyhound Corporation once appealed to riders with its comforting slogan, "Leave the driving to us." Old-fashioned self-interest may still motivate many of the nearly 300 long-distance commuters who choose to enter and leave Burlington by public bus: Regular riders along the Middlebury, Montpelier and St. Albans routes can settle into a book, plug into an iPod, chat with a seatmate, or simply doze away the miles. These days, of course, concern - or guilt - about fossil fuel usage is another reason to turn over the steering wheel. Either way, riding the bus is an appealing alternative to the private car, especially as buses themselves get "greener."
The Link service  operated by the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) also appeals to economizers. At $3 per trip, it costs less than driving to or from Middlebury and St. Albans. Even the $4 one-way fare on the Montpelier line is a bargain compared with the cost of gas and maintenance for cars traveling the same distance. And the deal is unbeatable for anyone with a University of Vermont ID card. Students, faculty and staff ride free on all CCTA buses, including the three Link routes. The bus company bills the university, at a discounted rate, for the number of times per month Cat cards are swiped through the fare box.
Extra time to grade papers and prepare for classes at St. Michael's College is the primary reason I've been riding the Middlebury Link since its inception in October 2004. The productive use of the four hours I spend on the bus each week far outweighs the inconvenience of having to adhere to CCTA's schedule.
I'm seldom tempted to motor back and forth to Middlebury, especially since nothing on the radio or my CD player compensates for the frustration and boredom of driving on Route 7. Collecting three speeding tickets in four years further convinced me of the Link service's advantages.
It takes an additional 15 minutes to ride a second bus between the Cherry Street terminal and St. Mike's, but that gives me even more time to read students' work or classroom material. For three or four months of the school year, though, I load my bike on the Link's front-end rack, then pedal from the downtown depot to St. Michael's in the morning - and back in the afternoon. That roundtrip bike ride, on mostly quiet back streets, replaces the hour I'd otherwise spend in the school's gym.
The Link doesn't trump the car in every respect. Traffic congestion in downtown Burlington and along Shelburne Road can cause the bus to run 10 minutes or more behind schedule on southbound trips in the afternoon. And because there's no nighttime service, I can't have dinner in town or go to a show at the Flynn unless I drive that day - or arrange to stay overnight in Burlington.
During the first few months of the Link's life, I was afraid CCTA would snuff the service, just as the Charlotte-Burlington commuter train, which I used to take, was canceled after a couple of years because of insufficient riders. Some mornings, only two or three passengers would board the bus in Middlebury, New Haven, Vergennes or Charlotte en route to Cherry Street. The same discouraging emptiness marked the afternoons.
Gradually, however, ridership grew. At its outset, the Middlebury Link was carrying an average of 20 riders a day on its eight runs - two in each direction in the morning and afternoon. Two years later, an average of 60 commuters ride this Link route each weekday.
The St. Albans commuter bus, which began running early last year, already transports nearly as many passengers as does the Middlebury line. And the Burlington-Montpelier Link has proved there's a big, and expanding, market for public transportation in northern Vermont's commuter corridors.
The run between the Queen City and the capital attracts more daily riders than the other two Link lines combined. In January, an average of 168 passengers per day boarded the bus that travels along I-89, stopping in Richmond and Waterbury.
The Montpelier-Burlington Link ridership has increased by 25 percent in each of the three years the service has been operating. "I don't know where the top end is yet," says CCTA General Manager Chris Cole. "Whenever I check the numbers, I figure, 'OK, this is as high as it's going to get,' but then the next time I check it's higher still."
CCTA will soon add a third morning bus to that Link line, bringing its total number of runs to 12 per day. "We've shown that the more service you put on, the more riders you attract," Cole says.
The growing preference for public transportation benefits all Vermonters, including the 18,000 who continue to commute by car along Interstate 89 or Route 7. In the past three years, the Link service has spared the state the pollution that would have been spewed from the tailpipes of 150 cars. In other words, Cole explains, the commuter buses have offset the equivalent of 2.5 million miles in car travel. That calculation is based on the 17,000 miles that the average Vermont car owner drives per year, according to census studies.
Additional carbon savings will be achieved starting this summer, when highly fuel-efficient buses begin rolling on all Link lines. It would take 60 of these new diesel-powered models to produce as much carbon dioxide as does one of the Link buses currently in operation, Cole says.
Some Link riders say that environmental awareness does influence their decisions. "I don't like driving cars - they're dangerous and stressful," says Roel Boumans. "I also don't have to pay," the UVM professor points out. Boumans uses the half-hour journey between Charlotte and Cherry Street to read or relax. Unsurpris- ingly, green concerns coaxed this professor of ecological economics as well. "Traveling this way is much better in regard to CO2 emissions," he notes.
The opportunity to socialize lures Link rider Leslie Badore, a Fletcher Allen lab assistant who also likes the Link because it stops at the entrance to her workplace. "I get to talk to people or read," she says. "You can make friends on the bus. Driving is a real waste of time in comparison." Environmental issues also matter to the Vergennes resident. "I like the idea of not contributing to global warming," Badore says. "I feel even better about it when I can walk home from the bus stop in good weather."
For Mike Winslow, a staff member of the Lake Champlain Committee, green consciousness was the chief motivator. "The environmental impact was why I started riding the bus," he says. Pausing in his perusal of The Atlantic magazine, the father of a 5-year-old says he cherishes his Vergennes-Burlington Link commute as "the quietest time of my day."
A few Linkers don't have a car to forgo as a commuting option. That's the case for Moritz Remig and some of the other Middlebury College students who ride the Link regularly. Remig, a junior from Germany, was returning one day last week from an afternoon of shopping on Church Street with his French girlfriend, Julie Blommel. "I probably wouldn't go to Burlington if this bus didn't run," Remig says. "It's very convenient, especially because I can use the time for studying."
As another expression of its environmental commitment, Middlebury College has begun partially subsidizing a Saturday Link service, which is operated by Addison County Transportation Resources. Ridership on the four Saturday runs between Middlebury and Burlington has exceeded expectations, says ACTR director Jim Moulton. His organization also recently introduced a four-times-a-day service to Rutland and back in conjunction with the Marble Valley Regional Transit District. It, too, is attracting more riders than planners anticipated, Moulton says.
Despite the growing popularity of these commuter alternatives, passenger fares don't come close to meeting operating costs. The "farebox recovery rate" for the entire CCTA system stands at 25 percent, meaning that riders' payments amount to only a quarter of the bus company's budget. With a 56 percent recovery rate, the Burlington-Montpelier Link ranks as the closest to self-sustaining of CCTA's routes. The gap between passenger receipts and system expenses is closed by federal and state subsidies.
Still, the commuter bus relies much less on government aid than did the Champlain Flyer service operated by Vermont Railway. Cole points out that the train's eight daily runs between Charlotte and Burlington cost $2.5 million a year, compared with $250,000 for the Middlebury-Burlington Link. Also unlike the bus, the train didn't serve the Franklin County-Chittenden County commuter corridor, which, with 7000 car trips a day, qualifies as the busiest in the state.
"A commuter train only works in a densely populated environment with bad congestion," Cole observes. "The Burlington area doesn't have either of those characteristics."
In a state still unfamiliar with public transportation, the commuter bus would probably attract many more customers if its enticements were as heavily advertised as are those of private vehicles. CCTA spends only $20,000 a year to market the Link, mainly through radio and print ads in Addison and Franklin counties.
"We rely mainly on word of mouth to publicize the service," says CCTA marketing director Tiffany Ward. That personal note is key to the come-on, Cole adds. "People are giving up a lot of control and stepping into something unknown and thus feeling vulnerable when they first ride the bus," he notes. "A friend's assurances about the service can count for a lot."
The Link's success has helped spawn a central Vermont commuter run between Randolph and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H. And CCTA has plans to expand its commuter service to Bristol, with a stop in Hinesburg. That and other additions may not be achieved any time soon, however. Gov. James Douglas' proposed state budget contains no funding for new public transportation routes in Vermont, Cole notes. Most commuters would probably agree that the guv needs to get, well, on the bus.