Heather Furman: Investing in Vermont by transforming transportation

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There are few issues people care more about than transportation. How easily we may move about in the world - from home to job to school to the grocery store - has a significant impact on our well-being and on our family budgets. This is true whether you live in an urban area, a small town, or in rural communities.

Here in Vermont, we all drive — a lot. With limited options and dispersed population centers, access to economic, education, or recreation opportunities comes at the cost of gas, car insurance, snow tires, maintenance, and the vehicle itself. Coupled with a commute distance that exceeds the national average, it is no surprise that transportation is the single largest contributor to Vermont's greenhouse gas pollution.

The time has come for us to think differently about how we get around in Vermont while investing in our rural communities, and rural voters seem to agree.

A new poll, conducted by nationally recognized bipartisan pollsters and publicly released by The Nature Conservancy, details both the frustrations and the hopes of rural and small-town voters in Vermont and along the Eastern Seaboard when it comes to transportation. We found that most of these voters view their transportation systems as outdated, unreliable and inefficient, and more than 80 percent believe their communities do not get their fair share of transportation investment dollars.

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Rural communities also very much want the benefits of improved transportation infrastructure. Three quarters of rural voters would support a clean transportation fund that would invest in transportation choices that reduce pollution, including expanding public transportation, creating incentives and infrastructure for electric vehicles, and developing safe ways for people to walk and bike, including in rural areas of the state. The idea of a clean transportation fund enjoys wide support across demographic lines and includes more than 60 percent of voters identifying as Republican or conservative, because access to improved public transportation and cleaner air is not a partisan issue.

The investments rural and small-town communities most want include greater access to high speed internet, allowing more people to telework and enabling communities to attract businesses that need broadband connections to operate. They also want more mass transit options like trains and low-emission buses and vans. Their reasoning is simple and unassailable and rooted in a sense of community: providing better access to transit helps everyone, but especially lower income Vermonters who need a better way to get to their jobs, as well as the disabled and the elderly who want to live more independently. But how do we raise the money?

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The Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) holds the promise to deliver on a bold yet attainable vision for how we work and play in Vermont, along with eleven other Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, while reducing pollution from the transportation sector. By capping and pricing transportation emissions throughout the region and then investing resulting revenue into sustainable transportation solutions, we can transform—for the better—how Vermonters access jobs, schools, and community resources.

Every year, Vermonters send $910 million dollars out of state to big oil and gas companies that have no commitment to our state or economy. Through TCI, we can keep more of our dollars in Vermont and determine how best to invest in transit, electrification, bike and pedestrian pathways, while ensuring a sustainable future for the next generation.

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Moreover, TCI represents a regional, market-based approach to tackling the urgent dual challenges in front of us - doing our part to reduce climate pollution AND addressing critical transportation needs of Vermonters across the state. By joining with other states from the Northeast in adopting TCI, we can avoid putting Vermont at an economic disadvantage that we might risk with a Vermont-only, "go it alone" approach.

The Nature Conservancy's polling makes clear that rural communities badly want and need the economic benefits and improvements to quality of life that regional transportation investments could offer. Policymakers should not ignore our vulnerable infrastructure, our polluted air, our isolated children and elderly, and our need for positive economic development opportunities.

The promise of TCI should not be derailed by divisive sound bites like "carbon tax" without truly understanding TCI's full merits and benefits to Vermont and rural communities throughout the northeast region. Change is difficult, but difficult times demand a change that offers hopeful solutions and economic opportunities for all Vermonters.

Heather Furman is the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont.


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