GMTA proposes free bus fare, paid for by car owners

By Guy Page

Fact One: The Feebate report, funded in the 2019 House Transportation Committee’s omnibus bill and published this October, describes how the State of Vermont could charge a higher registration “fee” for gas-guzzlers and then “rebate” the money to owners of electric cars.

Fact Two: Green Mountain Transit Authority, the statewide public transit system, is $1 million in the hole because not enough people will ditch their cars and ride the bus. According to a VT Digger report, GMTA leaders are trying to sell House Transportation Chair Rep. Curt McCormack (D-Burlington) and Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe (D/P – Chittenden) on a plan to boost ridership by letting everyone ride for free.   

GMTA can’t raise fares. Even fewer people would ride the bus. That’s bad for the bottom line and Vermont’s climate policy goals. And don’t ask member municipalities to pay more – they’re already being hit with an increase.  

But – ride for free? Cut revenue to cut the deficit? You never see headlines like “to save struggling hamburger franchise, CEO announces free burgers for all.” Unlike big banks and public transportation, private enterprise can’t rely on the government for emergency cash. Here’s how the State of Vermont might ride to the rescue: the Legislature may “re-examine car registration fees,” GMTA said.

“Re-examine” in this context clearly means “increase the heck out of.” But who would pay? And, how much?

“Feebate” would seem a handy tool. True, public transportation funding isn’t specifically mentioned as a way to spend the money raised by liberating carbon polluters from their lamentable addiction to driving all-wheel drive vehicles on slippery Vermont roads. Still, increasing public transportation and electric vehicles are the twin pillars of transportation carbon emission. One’s as good as the other.  

According to January 2019 Boston Globe editorial, more than 100 cities around the world let bus passengers ride free. Most are in Europe, where socialized rail reigns. The Vermont Legislature has already patterned its electricity generation future after Germany’s pro-wind/solar, anti-nuke Energiewinde. Next up, apparently, is subsidizing trains and buses with auto revenue.

Make no mistake, public transportation is a blessing to Vermonters working low-wage jobs but living in expensive housing. Something’s got to give. Better to lose the car than the home, especially if the bus goes past or near our workplace.  

Most public transit riders live and work in Chittenden County. If there must be free bus rides – a very real “if” – perhaps CC car drivers, businesses and taxpayers should do the heavy lifting. Assess public transportation costs where it’s used, not where it’s not – low-income rural counties with thousands of small, unpaved roads. It’s only fare.