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TRC Critical Issues and Chris Cole
- By Ben Carlson
Above: Chris Cole (second from left) discusses transportation issues with TRC 312
The most critical issue facing our state and national transportation system is arguably, "How will we fund it?" This was the topic of discussion with Chris Cole,Director of Policy, Planning, and Intermodal Development Division at the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), who was a guest at the TRC's graduate seminar, Critical Issues in Transportation, taught by Brian Lee. Cole laid out the key concerns that the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) was attempting to address in planning for the future design, operation and maintenance of the state's infrastructure. These included:
- Due to the growing costs of transportation and declining revenues, a study committee determined that the state will be underfunding the system $250 million per year. Low cost solutions for infrastructure were also examined, as well as best practices for infrastructure.
- A vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) fee has become much discussed as a solution to the declining revenues from the gas tax. Cole noted that the option would only be feasible if implemented nationally due to the loss of payment from visitors. He also mentioned, however, that there are already agreements for commercial vehicles to pay by use of roads to states on a miles driven basis, so this type of fee has proven that it can function nationally.
- The agency has prioritized investment in rail and public transit to prepare for a future of high fuel costs. Public transit investment has more than doubled from $12 to $27 million over the last 12 years, mainly focusing on commuters as a way to reduce miles traveled.
- Cooperation between VTrans and the Agency of Natural Resources has greatly improved. Post-Irene, the agencies were forced to cooperate due to the damaged roadways and altered rivers. The agencies now meet weekly, discussing issues such as water quality standards for gravel roads.
- Cole suggests forming an alliance between rural states and educating legislators to ensure adequate future funding from the federal government. While Vermont is guaranteed level funding for two years through the recent legislation, MAP-21, the prior funding formula has been eliminated. Without this funding guarantee, rural communities may see reduced funds as the federal government focuses on federal priority projects in the near future.
Critical Issues in Transportation, a core course in the TRC Certificate in Sustainable Transportation, is offered every fall. Students in the course currently have a wide range of backgrounds, including land-use planning, communications, workforce development, and agriculture. Taught by Prof. Brian Lee, a TRC Associated Faculty member, the course covers the most important topics in transportation over the course of the semester, discussing issues such as transportation modeling and planning, funding, fuel sources, and access and mobility. The class has already visited Burlington International Airport to talk with planning and development director Bob McEwing, traveled to Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Office to speak with staff, as well as hosted guest speakers Owen Brady of Vermont Natural Gas, Inc. and Tom McGrath of the Vermont Clean Cities Coalition, and attended a lecture by Brown University Professor and “Carjacked” author Dr. Catherine Lutz.