CCTA seeks system of regional funding (4/16/09)

New route in Williston could be at stake

April 16, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Chittenden County Transportation Authority has long bridled at relying on local funding to pay for its regional bus service.

Some towns, including Williston, share the cost. Other towns, however, refuse to chip in, keeping buses away from potential passengers.

CCTA is seeking to change that arrangement. It wants legislation that would provide regional or state funding for new routes — including a more direct run from Williston to Burlington — that cross municipal boundaries.

Revenue could come from a regional sales or gas tax or even a levy on car rentals, said Chapin Spencer, a member of the transit agency’s Board of Commissioners. Or the state could elect to increase funding through its transportation budget.

In recent weeks, General Manager Chris Cole has been making the rounds of CCTA member towns, asking them to pass a resolution supporting some form of regional funding. He spoke with the Williston Selectboard on April 6.

“In Vermont we don’t have regional revenue,” Cole said, according to a recording of the session. “So we’re in this conundrum: How do we provide regional and local services?”

The resolution states that “service expansion has long been constrained by an over reliance on the local property tax” and calls for regional funding and governance for mass transit systems. CCTA officials say town-by-town funding results in a fragmented network of routes that sometimes fail to bring buses where they are needed.

“It’s important to realize what we have now is a cobbled-together system,” Spencer said. “If people want there to be a seamless system we’re going to have to make changes.”

Among the new routes that could be funded under a new system is one running along U.S. 2 from Williston to Burlington. Passengers on the existing route must now transfer at the University Mall in South Burlington. The trip takes about 90 minutes.

The new route could halve that travel time. And Cole told the Selectboard that the route during peak commute hours would likely extend to Williston Village, which is not now served by a bus.

Spencer said that adding the route is CCTA’s No. 1 priority among a number of proposed service expansions. But he said the route will not happen without additional funding.

The resolution also seeks support for a proposed merger between CCTA and Green Mountain Transit Agency, which was formed after the former bus provider in central Vermont went out of business. The merger, intended to save money, would appear to be somewhat of a formality because CCTA has administered the service for the past few years.

Cole told the Selectboard the agency is combining the merger with part of a larger push to regionalize public transit funding. CCTA wants either a dedicated tax or more state funding.

Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs wondered if that meant Williston would no longer have to pay for service. The town budgeted $180,260 for CCTA funding in the current fiscal year.

Cole replied that Williston and other towns would likely continue what he called the “pay to play” arrangement for current routes, but CCTA seeks regional funding for new routes that serve more than one town.

Public seeks more service

The funding debate comes at a time of increasing use of mass transit both locally and nationally, with ridership up amid rising fuel prices and concerns about the environment.

Bus use spiked after gas prices skyrocketed last summer. CCTA’s numbers have remained strong even though fuel costs have since fallen.

The number of riders on the Williston route increased 12.3 percent for the eight months ending in February, compared to the same period a year ago. Combined ridership for all regular CCTA routes jumped 15.5 percent.

Prospects are uncertain, however, for legislation establishing a tax for public transit or for more state funding.

“It’s rural Vermont,” said Sen. Dick Mazza, the Colchester Democrat who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “It’s very difficult to fund public transportation to the extent we’d like to fund it.”

Mazza said he is staunchly opposed to a regional tax similar to the local option sales tax, which he said pits towns against each other. He’d prefer to see public transportation funded through the state budget.

He pointed out that CCTA and other public transit agencies in Vermont already receive significant public funding. Cole acknowledged as much during his Selectboard presentation, saying that after fares are counted, the federal government covers about 50 percent of the agency’s budget, with the state picking up about 30 percent and area towns paying the remaining 20 percent or so.

Competing demands for money

Rep. Rich Westman, R-Cambridge, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the crushing demands of repairing Vermont’s aging roads and bridges are consuming all available state transportation funding. Vermont is receiving roughly $10 million in federal stimulus money for public transit, but that money is earmarked for new buses, not additional routes.

Westman also noted that there are other public transit companies around the state that could use more money. He said he would only support changes in funding that would benefit all of Vermont’s public transportation agencies. Mazza said he would like to move toward one consolidated transit agency that serves the entire state.

The current push for other funding sources is not the first time CCTA has petitioned the Legislature for change. Earlier this decade it also sought regional funding to no avail.

The agency is approaching the issue methodically this time, using the resolution to gather support. The resolution notably makes no mention of a new regional tax. Spencer said CCTA prefers to leave it up to the lawmakers to debate the funding mechanism.

Cole told the Selectboard the issue of mass transit funding will be aired during a series of public hearings this summer. He said he doesn’t expect a vote on proposed funding legislation until the next biennium, and new routes are at least a year away.

Spencer said increasing ridership and public requests for bus service prove Vermonters want improved public transportation.

“Frankly, at the end of the day what people are telling us is they want a better transit system,” he said. “We can’t provide everything people are demanding without restructuring how we do business.”