The big-city problem of traffic congestion avoided Vermont for many years, but now traffic tie-ups are common in Chittenden County and beyond.
The Burlington Free Press wanted to know how the problem is being addressed and turned to Michele Boomhower at the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.
Edited excerpts of an email interview:
Burlington Free Press: Traffic congestion in Chittenden County is an ongoing problem — and only will be getting worse. What is being done to address congestion?
Michele Boomhower: We know we are not going to be able to build our way out of congestion. The 2013 Vermont Transportation Funding Options Report identified a gap of $240 million in funds to maintain, operate and administer our current statewide system — this shortfall excludes any new construction. While at times it appears that traffic is increasing, we know that county-wide, vehicle miles of travel (VMT) per person is also on the decline, down 10 percent between 2003 and 2013. 71 percent of us drive alone to work, down from 76 percent in 2000 but amazingly high compared to the 1980 rate of 36 percent.
We are going to have to use all of the tools in our tool box to lessen congestion, including living closer to where we work, carpooling, taking the bus, biking, walking, information technology improvements for communicating delays and managing traffic signal timing, and increased transportation network options to allow for better street network interconnectivity and choice. In Chittenden County there is a coordinated effort among transportation providers and advocates — including the CCRPC, municipalities, the Campus Area Transportation Management Association (CATMA), CarShare Vermont, CCTA, Local Motion and others — to address transportation system needs from all angles.
There are many benefits to be enjoyed by changing our behavior. By choosing different modes and, if possible, changing the times that we travel to and from work, we can save money, time, improve personal health, reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions.
Northbound traffic on Interstate 89 in Colchester slows following a car crash earlier this year.(Photo: GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS FILE )
BFP: Routes in and out of Burlington are congested, and there is no "rush" in rush hour traffic. Drivers sit through multiple traffic-light cycles before getting through intersections. Reduction of key streets down to single lanes only exasperate drivers. What can Burlington and other communities do to get traffic moving and reduce pollution?
MB: Congestion is a sign of economic health. Significant congestion occurs principally during morning and afternoon peak commute times. The percent of people driving alone to work has remained steady at about 70 percent during the past five years, so it is difficult to predict if congestion will actually increase in the years to come. We'd like to see the region's overall drive-alone trend line decrease, and the rate of work trips made by carpooling, transit, bike and walking increase.
Another emerging trend is the younger generation's approach to transportation. According to StreetBlog USA, in 2011, the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds with driver's licenses dipped to another new low. Just over two-thirds of these young Americans (67 percent) were licensed to drive in 2011, based on the latest licensing data from the Federal Highway Administration and population estimates from the Census Bureau. That's the lowest percentage since at least 1963.
We are observing youth and young professionals in Chittenden County following similar trends and engaging in alternative transportation choices, as well as choosing to live in downtown areas where they can work and play without needing to use a car.
This issue isn't about moving traffic; it's about moving people. Making it attractive, affordable and convenient to choose other modes (including carpooling/bus/walk/bike) will help get people moving, not necessarily traffic.
Motorists are stuck in traffic on Main Street in Burlington last fall. (Photo: GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS FILE )
BFP: What does Chittenden County Regional Planning/MPO consider the five most congested intersections/areas? What is being done about each?
MB: Congestion severity is somewhat relative to individual expectations. The five areas which we hear the most about are U.S. 7 heading into Burlington; Exit 14 heading east and west to South Burlington and Burlington; Exit 16 and the U.S. 7 corridor in Winooski and Colchester; Exit 12 and the Vermont 2A corridor heading into Essex Junction; and the Susie Wilson/Kellogg Road corridor in Essex.
There are several projects under development designed to reduce congestion and increase transportation system connectivity and operations.
• In the U.S. 7 corridor of Burlington, these include the Shelburne Road roundabout, Champlain Parkway and the associated Railyard Enterprise Project.
• Along Interstate 89, the South Burlington Third Lane addition at the Sheraton is nearing completion, the Colchester Exit 16 Diverging Diamond Interchange is in development, and planning for improvements to Exit 17 has recently been completed.
• In the Vermont 2A corridor between Williston and Essex Junction, multiple projects are planned including a four-phase upgrade to Exit 12 and the associated Taft Corners area, Industrial Avenue/Vermont 2A/Mountain View Road Intersection, James Brown Drive/Vermont 2A intersection, the Crescent Connector linking Vermont 2A/Vermont 117/Vermont 15, and the intersection of Vermont 2A and Vermont 289.
• The Susie Wilson/Kellogg Road corridor was recently analyzed for improvements and include plans to upgrade the intersection at Susie Wilson/Kellogg Road, implement Adaptive Signal Control in the corridor and upgrade the intersection at Susie Wilson Road and Vermont 15.
At the Vermont 2A and Vermont 289 intersection, upgrades include the state's first implementation of Adaptive Signal Control to manage traffic signal timing through an automated demand response system. A similar application is being analyzed for 28 signals in the Exit 14 areas heading into Burlington, out Williston Road and on Dorset Street. This system would connect the activity of all signals in an automated system.
Another technological advance under development is transit signal priority to allow buses to get a green signal upon approach to intersections — allowing for more efficient transit system performance.
BFP: Do traffic counts pinpoint other problem areas for traffic in Chittenden County that should be watched?
MB: The most critical area on our horizon is Interstate 89 between Exit 12 (Williston) and Exit 17 (Colchester/Milton). According to the VTrans 2010 Average Annual Daily Traffic Map, there are about 54,000 cars using the Interstate near Exit 14 daily. We are anticipating that at some point in the future, the interstate will need to expand to three lanes in each direction in this area. The CCRPC will be initiating an analysis starting in 2016 of expanding to three lanes.
Other areas to monitor include the U.S. 7 corridor from Milton to Colchester and Charlotte to Burlington, the Vermont 15 Corridor from Underhill to Winooski, and the Vermont 116 Corridor from Hinesburg to South Burlington. There are a number of specific intersections throughout the region which are also being monitored.
Northbound traffic on Interstate 89 in Colchester slows following a car crash earlier this year. (Photo: GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS FILE )
BFP: What can be done to increase carpooling?
MB: Creating new park and ride locations is critical to increasing carpooling. VTrans recently received a permit from the town of Williston to build a park and ride at Exit 12. A park and ride was established in the Riverside area of Jericho to serve the new Vermont 15 Commuter Bus Service, which runs from Jeffersonville to Burlington daily.
Programming through Go Vermont and Go Chittenden County is available to assist folks trying to find carpooling and vanpooling options.
If you carpool with only one other person, you save 50 percent of your travel costs; it just gets better the more folks you can engage in a carpool.
BFP: What can be done to increase public transportation?
MB: Easy and cheap access to parking incentivizes driving and increases congestion. Market pricing parking to incentivize leaving cars at home or at park and ride lots can be a great way to reduce congestion and increase transit ridership. Park and ride lots along commuter routes also are critical in providing access to transit in more rural areas. You can now drive or ride your bike from your rural Underhill home to the Riverside Park and Ride lot on Vermont 15 and take a leisurely ride to work in Essex, Winooski or Burlington.
Transit use increases dramatically when there are denser developments supported by walking and biking connections.
The cost of driving can influence use of public transportation. When gas prices soared above $4 per gallon a few years ago, demand for CCTA transit service grew substantially, and more commuters began using the bus.
BFP: Bicycles zipping in and out of traffic, not following rules and not having lights on after dark have added to traffic congestion and safety issues. How much does widening a road to add a bike lane for one mile cost?
MB: Local Motion has been informally collecting data for several years on rates of pedestrian, bicyclist and motorist compliance with the rules of the road at key intersections, providing a snapshot of what's going on in Burlington's streets. With regard to use of bike lights, they have consistently seen about 50 percent of surveyed bike riders use lights at night. Concerning crosswalks, an average of four cars go by before one stops, which amounts to a 20 percent compliance rate.
With support from the Vermont Governor's Highway Safety Program and the Vermont Agency of Transportation, Local Motion works in several ways to improve these numbers. This includes outreach on the streets at night, educating about the law and offering on-the-spot installation of discounted lights. They also work with area bike shops to offer discounted lights to patrons of their store, and so far in 2014, they have installed lights on 373 bikes.
In downtown Burlington, and in many of our town and city centers, slower traffic speeds and compact development are well suited to multi-modal transportation options. Although few currently exist, many of our roads have room within the existing curb-to-curb to accommodate bike traffic. However, we must all understand the rules of the road, act with courtesy, and where this fails there must be enforcement — for all violations, whether from a bicyclist, a motorist or a pedestrian. The Burlington Police Department should be writing more tickets for traffic infractions by people biking and walking. Given the many things on their plate, it is an ongoing issue.
The general perception is that infractions are harmless and acceptable. It is just as illegal to fail to yield to a person in a crosswalk, to roll through a stop sign (car or bike!), to drive 32 mph in a 25 mph zone as it is to ride without lights.
We are sharing the road, and our actions have an impact on others. Eight out of 10 people who are hit by a car traveling under 25 mph will survive. Only three out of 10people hit by a car traveling 35 mph will survive.
Traffic along Main Street in Burlington. (Photo: GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS FILE )
BFP: What are the benefits for Burlington of becoming a place where walking and biking are easy and safe options for everyone?
MB: Transportation in Burlington is changing. From 2000 to 2012, the number of commutes in Burlington that were taken by bike increased from about 1 percent to nearly 6 percent.
Many people already know that increased bicycling improves public health, decreases crash risk, and adds to our quality of life. What is less well known, though, is the positive impact of bike friendliness on our business community. Among them are: recruiting top talent for tech and other highly competitive sectors, increasing international competitiveness for the tourism sectors, and improving employee health and productivity across all sectors.
An investment in a bikeable Burlington is an investment in Burlington's long-term economic health and competitiveness.
Michele Boomhower serves as assistant/MPO director for the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, spearheading the organization's federally funded metropolitan transportation planning program. She also serves as an appointee of the governor on the Vermont Rail Council.
Vermonters can use the state's free Zimride matching service to arrange carpools. The online system lets you see other riders' profiles and allows you to set any financial arrangements up front.
The state's Go Vermont program provides vans and subsidizes vanpools, which is cost-effective with five or more people with similar commute and work schedules: www.zimride.com/govermont.
Please check back soon!