CCTA rolls out charter changes (11/25/09)

CCTA seeks broader funding

Nov. 25, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

For years, the Chittenden County Transportation Authority has been on the pay-as-you-go plan, relying on area towns to approve funding for local bus service.


    File photo
A passenger boards a CCTA bus in this undated file photo.

Now CCTA is pushing for legislation that would permit it to operate throughout northern Vermont, a move that could lead to a long-sought system of regional funding.

General Manager Chris Cole outlined the changes during last week’s meeting of the Williston Selectboard. It is one of a series of visits he’s making to Chittenden County towns in advance of the start of the legislative session in January.

Cole said the not-so-hidden agenda behind the charter changes is to build support for a regional tax that could pay for service that increasingly extends far beyond Chittenden County.

“The board and I have long felt that if we ever are to get regional funding, we’re not going to do it as Chittenden County alone, that we need a broader coalition” Cole said. “This creates that broader coalition.”

The charter, enacted in 1973, established CCTA as a legal entity akin to a municipality. It spells out where service will be offered and how the transit authority is governed.

Under the proposed changes, CCTA’s official area of operation would expand to Addison, Caledonia, Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille, Orange and Washington counties.

CCTA currently operates in most of those counties, Cole said. The LINK Express commuter service runs to Middlebury, Montpelier and St. Albans, making stops in Charlotte and other towns along U.S. 7 and Interstate 89. The authority has also assumed routes in outlying counties as other transit companies disbanded or went out of business.

Seven Chittenden County communities, including Williston, are CCTA members. Each appoints two representatives to the authority’s governing board.

The charter change would give each member except Burlington just one representative. Burlington would continue to have two representatives, a nod to the fact that the city hosts CCTA’s offices and terminal and provides a large share of its funding.

Cole said the change would ensure a manageable-size board and make room for future members.

CCTA is currently funded through a combination of federal and state grants, as well as contributions from member communities and fares. Local assessments are based on the level of service provided to each town.

But that system is increasingly strained by the divergence between the demand for regional service and the desire for local control.

“That’s a problem for Vermont because transportation patterns are more regional than local,” Cole said.

The proposed charter change legislation calls for creation of a legislative study committee to “examine the policy issue of regional taxation for support of public transportation” and report back with recommendations by January 2011.

Cole told the Selectboard that in other jurisdictions around the country, regional public transportation funding comes from sources such as gas taxes, rooms and meals taxes. A regional public transit tax is also a possibility, which would be approved by voters in much the same manner as municipal and school budgets.

CCTA has for years pined for regional funding. Previous proposals have failed to win support from lawmakers and the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Dave Pelletier, AOT’s public transit administrator, said the agency would support some charter changes but it wants them to be modest and gradual. He said fully merging CCTA with the Green Mountain Transit Agency, a bus company serving Washington and Lamoille counties that CCTA operates under contract but still maintains as a separate entity, would be a good first step toward a regional system.

But he said immediately moving beyond that modest proposal raises questions of local control and how to establish regional funding in a state without county government.

“That’s the awkwardness of the situation,” Pelletier said. “We talk about regional services, but we don’t have a regional government.”

The Agency of Transportation is also worried that the proposed changes could reduce its flexibility to fund public transportation throughout Vermont, Pelletier said. Though the federal government provides the bulk of funding, matching state dollars are also required.

Terry Macaig, chairman of the Williston Selectboard and one of the town’s two representatives in the Vermont House, said he had yet to study the charter proposal and so did not know if he would support it.

Macaig said widening CCTA’s service area seemed logical, but a regional tax might be a tough sell. In years past, he said the Selectboard has expressed “angst” about an annual assessment to pay for county courts when it had no say in how that money was spent.

Jim McCullough, the other Williston representative in the House and a CCTA board member, said he “totally supported” the proposed charter changes.

One Selectboard member’s reaction to the initiative could be a preview of questions to come in a state that considers smallness a virtue.

“When first when you said the eight counties, I said wow, that sounds good,” Jeff Fehrs said. “But as we went on a little bit I wondered, is eight counties too big?”