Paving a green path from CVU to Charlotte (3/26/09)

Harcourt, town researching alternative transportation options

March 26, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Biking to school late last summer and early fall, Champlain Valley Union High School senior Rebecca Harcourt had an epiphany: Maybe more students at CVU would be inclined to seek alternative transportation if the opportunities existed.

In warmer weather, Harcourt, a Charlotte resident, twice a week biked 22 miles roundtrip between home and school. Her enthusiasm for alternative transportation recently earned Charlotte a $6,800 federal transportation grant, which is helping to fund her research and complete her graduation challenge at the high school.

Concerned with climate change and greenhouse gases, Harcourt set about researching ways Charlotte could improve its roads and transportation options to CVU. She said biking to the high school sometimes proved scary on the narrow roads.

“I was biking a lot and noticed the roads were all windy and terrible,” Harcourt said.

While she discovered that having the roads widened and bike lanes installed would be an impractical and expensive fix given the economy, Harcourt continued her research. She looked into reducing the number of bus stops, installing bike racks on school buses and considered other alternative transportation solutions.

Her work caught the eye of Charlotte Selectboard Assistant and Town Planner Dean Bloch. With the help of Bloch, Harcourt applied for a federal grant through the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Bryan Davis, transportation planner with the organization, said nearly $300,000 was doled out to communities for a variety of programs. The money is part of the Transportation Action Grant, and could only be given to communities researching alternative or consolidated transportation. Besides Charlotte, municipalities that received grants for transportation studies included Burlington, Hinesburg and Richmond.

Davis said the grant became available through the federal highway systems budget.

“It was the (federal) money and the public’s money, so we wanted to make sure we had access to it,” Davis said, specifying that the grant is not part of the federal stimulus package.

To receive the money, Charlotte must contribute a cost equal to 20 percent of the total grant. Bloch said those funds would come through the volunteer hours he and Harcourt will donate.

“The grant is for planning and research — it’s not for construction,” Bloch said.

The grant is also paying the nonprofit group Local Motion to help Harcourt in her research. Local Motion is an organization that promotes bicycling and walking as alternative forms of transportation across Vermont. The group has done similar transportation studies for businesses and towns, but never for a high school, said Charlene Wallace, Local Motion’s director of operations.

Harcourt said she’s been “extremely busy” with her project so far. Last month, she developed a survey — the results are pending — for students at CVU to see how they get to the high school and how they might use alternative transportation.

For instance, she wanted to determine the feasibility of and interest in setting up a common meeting point for cyclists to take a bus to school. In other words, would students go to a bus stop instead of a bus coming to them? Reducing bus stops would reduce greenhouse gases, Harcourt explained.

“It seems like that might be the easiest way to go at this point,” Harcourt said.

CVU already has new, express bus routes leaving centralized locations in Williston and Shelburne. Harcourt said she’s talked with CVU Transportation Director Ken Martin about creating an express bus for Charlotte.

Installing bike racks on school buses might be the next step, although Harcourt said she’s still researching that piece.

Harcourt is also looking at creating an online ride-share program, where students could sign up for carpools. She’s also having CVU participate in “Way to Go!” week in May with the help of Local Motion. “Way to Go Week!” encourages Vermonters to seek alternative modes of transportation to work and can set up challenges between businesses to see which ones reduce the most greenhouse gases. CVU will encourage students to bike or carpool to school during that week and tally its greenhouse gas savings, according to Wallace.

Wallace said Harcourt’s dedication and hard work are unique to the Champlain Valley.

“She’s the only one in the area doing something like this,” Wallace said. “She’s incredible.”

Harcourt said much of her work would only be the start of creating easy alternative transportation methods from Charlotte to CVU. She hopes another student next year will pick up where she leaves off. And she’s still holding out hope for bike lanes on Charlotte’s back roads.

“I’m mostly hoping to raise awareness and maybe get people to find alternative ways to school,” Harcourt said.