The Road to Transformative Action: Transportation Climate Initiative before Rainy Day Funds

Opinion Editorial by Jenn Wood

 “There’s nothing like 40+ degrees and raining to say Happy Holidays in New England!” Sadly, it has been a recurring family greeting of late. As someone who loves the outdoors in all seasons with a special affinity (some say obsession) to snow and skiing, this weather makes me cringe, and honestly, fight back tears of sorrow.

Growing up low-income in a small rural town, I was never able to afford the true luxury of skiing. At the time, I did not know what I was missing. Regardless I was still fortunate to spend endless hours playing outside – blossoming my intrinsic connection to the rural landscape as well as my fascination for all creatures. I didn’t need all that ‘stuff’ we couldn’t afford.

Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say it was not always easy. However, I’ve learned and continually work to embrace the powerful notion that vulnerability is bravery. My experiences have driven me to find work as an advocate for the communities and natural environments of Vermont.

Part of my work includes serving on the Board of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR), a statewide, nonprofit business association whose mission centers on People, Planet, and Prosperity. After years taking action on climate in the energy efficiency and renewable energy sectors, I recently delved into the world of transportation, which makes up the majority of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions. Both energy expenditures as well as energy burden – or one’s annual spending on energy as a percentage of income – for transportation, are higher in Vermont relative to money spent on thermal or electricity costs. Vermont is a rural state and people who live in rural communities have to drive farther to commute to work and school, for recreation, and for all of the regular daily tasks that are part of a full and vibrant life. Our long commutes mean higher household expenses and increased carbon emissions.

Rural public transportation can work, but there is no denying that it is a complex system in need of coordinated, systematic solutions – including providing viable clean transportation choices, affordably, to rural Vermonters. One opportunity for this comes from the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) – a chance to collaborate with up to 12 other northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States on a region-wide approach to make transportation cleaner and more accessible. TCI is a cap and invest system. Each participating state is afforded the flexibility to choose how to use the TCI revenues. In Vermont, we could support not only what we usually think about as transit, but innovative solutions to meet the mobility needs of ALL Vermonters, especially those in rural areas. This could include increased route frequency, more nimble services like on-call microtransit, smart growth planning, electrification, microgrids, and even rebates to help people get into cleaner, safer vehicles.

Moreover, TCI has the potential to help the very fabric of where I came from – low-income and rural towns – by shaping investments through a lens of equity and economic opportunity. As do too many Vermonters, I know what it is like to grow up hungry and/or with parents too proud to ask for help. When my older brother gave me rides in his car that had a completely rusted out floor where my feet were supposed to go, it was a bit scary but also kind of cool, then; still I was thankful merely having a ride!

With programs like TCI, we have an opportunity to do more than just business as usual. Vermonters deserve cleaner, safer, and more reliable transit options.

As a staunch climate advocate, I feel it critical to ensure that the most vulnerable are not left behind – particularly when they’re the least responsible for climate change yet bear the most burden, as we saw during Tropical Storm Irene. Equally, I feel it imperative for me to speak out as someone who has endured similar challenges. Many extremely loud voices are spreading extensive misinformation about how vulnerable populations will be most hurt by such a TCI framework. Again, it comes down to choices – in signing on we have an opportunity to design programs ensuring that rural, low-income Vermonters are not disproportionately disadvantaged as the goals of the initiative outline.

Shifting transportation in Vermont can’t be done with the flip of a switch. Like the water challenges we face here, we need a long but focused effort to transition a system that has developed over an expanse of time with significant financial contributions. So where do we start? Well, fervent action is needed now. TCI is by no means the complete answer as it will take time to implement and it will not sufficiently cover all transportation investment requirements. Vermont needs to start the engine of transformation to a cleaner, more accessible transportation system immediately by investing in all aspects of our transportation system – from buses, sidewalks and cleaner cars to supporting our downtowns, developing affordable housing in places where people can walk, and even wastewater infrastructure improvements to help our small villages thrive. Such actions will put Vermont ahead of the curve.

All of this requires a collective approach. Please join me in the statehouse and around the state in advocating for a future that is inclusive and healthy for all – humans, the environment, and other creatures alike. Let’s protect our winters, our magnificent landscape and ALL Vermonters so no one is left out in the rain.