Getting out of our cars and turning to alternative, emissions-free transportation is among the strategies that the US Department of Transport (DOT) is urging states to adopt if we are to rescue our ever-warming planet from catastrophe.
In Vermont, 40% of our total energy consumption is for transportation; likewise transportation is responsible for 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Vermonters spend $1.8 billion a year on transportation, more than for any other use of energy. Of that sum, about $1.45 billion leaves the state and does not recirculate in the Vermont economy.
With the intent of reducing emissions, the legislature passed a state Comprehensive Energy Plan and the Global Warming Solutions Act that require us to reduce emissions by 2030 to 40% below what was emitted in 1990. But since the passage of the Plan, Vermont’s emissions have increased.
In April the U.S. DOT’s Federal Highway Administration announced a new Carbon Reduction Program (CRP) program that unlocks $6.4 billion in funding for states and localities over five years. This CRP, created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, is to help states develop strategies to reduce their carbon footprint and address the climate crisis facing our nation. Under the CRP, transportation alternatives to motorized vehicles will be developed. In addition it calls for increasing public transit, mitigating congestion, creating more efficient streets, deploying “alternative fuel vehicles” and related infrastructure, and other strategies for carbon reduction.
One emissions-free mode of transportation is the good old bicycle. In fact, there has been a resurgence of interest in bicycling for recreation and personal travel since the introduction of e-bikes that offer a battery-powered boost on hills. However, surveys reveal that about 56% of Vermonters would be interested in cycling more, but they are wary of cycling (and walking) on most Vermont roads. In the last five years, there have been 32 fatal crashes involving pedestrians or bicyclists in Vermont, according to data from the state Agency of Transportation.
Vermont lawmakers are looking to improve this situation. While stopping short of a bill that would require better bicycle and pedestrian safety, they have authorized VTrans to survey the public and municipalities about making state highways and town highways that function as extensions of state roads more bicycle-friendly, for example with wider and smoother shoulders.
In particular House Bill H.479 calls for a survey to assess public interest in a bicycle corridor along some or all of Route 5 “to provide a safe means of travel via bicycle on or along a route that is roughly adjacent to U.S. Route 5 for the approximately 190 miles spanning between the State border with Massachusetts and the State border with Quebec, Canada.”
There would be many benefits to a Route 5 bicycle corridor, increased safety being number one, especially for beginner riders. Drivers would find it easier to pass cyclists if they were using a dedicated bicycle path. Along the Connecticut River Valley, the terrain is more level than in many places in Vermont, and the average distance between towns along Route 5 is six to ten miles. This makes it possible to connect by bicycle between communities and town centers, as well as from town centers to their outskirts.
Speaking of connections, Route 5 is an officially designated “Scenic Byway,” and the Federal Rails to Trails program is interested in connecting a bicycle corridor along Route 5 to the rail trail between Concord and Lebanon, NH. With the help of Route 5, the network would extend to St Johnsbury and from there connect to the recently completed Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. This is the longest Rail Trail in New England, connecting 18 towns from St Johnsbury to Swanton.
Bicycle tourism has proven to be a lucrative economic generator in Quebec, where it is well-supported. The envisioned connection to the National Rail Trails network will increase the area’s reputation as a destination for bicycle vacationing, especially if there were also increased access to the picturesque Connecticut River. The resultant tourism would create more demand for inns, bed and breakfasts, bicycle shops, and other businesses.
VTrans’ schedule was to administer the survey in the fall, and, in fact, the survey was just released to Town Managers, Selectboards, and Planning Commissions. Those bodies may gather input from residents to help fill out the survey. VTrans will analyze the results and compose the report by the end of 2023 and deliver the package to the legislature in January of 2024. To quote Rob Kidd of the VT Sierra Club, “Vermonters have identified that road safety is a significant challenge to riding bikes. We need to build the infrastructure now to get people safely moving on bikes. It’s a good investment for the economy, our health, and our planet.”