Report from the House Transportation Committee

For years, the House Transportation Committee of the Vermont Legislature, was known as the “Highway Committee.” The nickname, used by legislators who came to Montpelier to bring a road or bridge project home to their district, expressed what they believed the committee was supposed to do—fund highway projects.

But newly-appointed members of the Committee have a different view of their mission, which extends well beyond enabling a single mode of transportation. They hope to move as many people as possible out of single-occupancy vehicles with buses and carpools, electrify the transportation sector, and make transportation more affordable, especially for low- and moderate-income people. All these measures will help achieve the overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

Transportation accounts for about 45 percent of Vermont’s carbon emissions. Over the years we’ve made great strides in de-carbonizing the electricity sector and some strides in reducing emissions from heating buildings—though we could do a fair bit more by dramatically increasing weatherization.

Transportation has been the toughest nut to crack. But crack it we must.

Many people fear that we cannot afford to make these changes. The truth is, we cannot afford not to. Weatherization projects and locally-produced electricity recirculate investment in the local economy and strengthen it. But we do not produce any fossil fuel in Vermont. The 78 cents of each dollar we spend on gasoline and diesel leaves the state. While the State of Vermont regulates the price of electricity—every utility needs to appear before the Public Utility Commission to justify a rate increase to its customers—the state has no control whatsoever over the cost of fossil fuel. The price at the pump fluctuates based on market whims way beyond our control. It is incumbent upon the legislature and the administration to provide alternatives— before motorists find that a gallon of gas is up to $4 or more a gallon. As a member of the House Transportation Committee I hope to work with other legislators and people within the state Agency of Transportation to see that we do that.

Following the fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen—advertising its diesel cars as clean and green while in fact they emitted about 40 times the allowed pollution—Vermont joined a national lawsuit against the car maker. It now has an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past. We can transform the transportation sector by making sure the settlement funds go toward electrification and not to subsidizing diesel vehicles. Rep. Mike Yantachka of Charlotte has introduced legislation—that I co-sponsored—to require that settlement money only be used to electrify our transportation fleet.

The largest amount of these funds—$18.7 million from the federal lawsuit against Volkswagen—has some restrictions on how it is spent. Fifteen percent of this must go toward installing electric charging stations. This will greatly reduce the anxiety many people have about purchasing an electric car. No one wants to run out of fuel while they are on the road.

The State of Vermont filed a separate lawsuit for violating Vermont’s laws. The State received $6.5 million from this settlement. Fiat, Chrysler and Bosch had similar violations and also were fined. While these dollars came to us through corporate deceit we can now view this as an opportunity to move forward in a new and different direction. For example, the cost of operating and maintaining an e-vehicle is dramatically lower than a gas car. But the initial cost tends to be higher. Many legislators want to make sure that lower income people can overcome that initial barrier. They are discussing programs to subsidize electric cars for low-income Vermonters so they too can enjoy the benefits of a cleaner vehicle that saves them money.

The Agency of Transportation is required by law to make sure its transportation plan aligns with the state’s Clean Energy Plan. Electrifying transportation and moving toward public transit and away from the single occupant vehicle is certainly a way to make sure these two plans are in alignment. It will not only strengthen our economy by sending fewer dollars out of state, it will also improve our air quality, which means a healthier citizenry with fewer asthma attacks, fewer lost work days, fewer premature deaths, etc. 

After serving on House Natural Resources Committee for many years, this is a new committee for me, But it is an exciting one. And it is exciting to serve with Rep. Curt McCormack who is, most likely, the first chair of this committee since cars were invented, not to own one. He takes the bus back and forth to Burlington. In case you’re wondering, my husband and I do own a car but I generally either get a ride to Montpelier with someone else or take the bus.

There are people on the committee from rural areas who really want to see better transit in their parts of the state where the density is low. Testimony before our committee has been interesting and our discussion definitely focuses on how we can reduce our emissions from this sector. Let’s hope when all is said and done, we make make some real progress.

Mary Sullivan, of Burlington, represents Chittenden District 6-5 in the Vermont House of Representatives. A long-time legislator, she has served on the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, as well as the Joint Energy Committee. She is the former Director of Communications at Burlington Electric Department and a past board member of Car Share Vermont.