Rural VT needs broadband, not buses to fight climate change: lawmaker

Vermont legislators tell student journalists what they think will, and won’t, work

From left – Rep. Avram Patt, Rep. Mollie Burke, Rep. Brian Smith.

By the Community News Service

This story features reporting from students in the University of Vermont’s environmental journalism course: Sophie Acker, Quinn Bisbee, Caitlin Boyarsky, Olivia Buchler, Jonas Camera, Lindsay Foxwell, Leah Golding, Emma Graham, Tanner Hopkins, Kate Kampner, Abby Minton, Julia Odwyer, Lindsay Renk, Kate Rosegard, Phoebe Swartz, Amelia Veleber, Meredith Williamson, Finn Hummel, Cassie Mcgonagle and Sangavi Muthuswamy. Mark Johnson edited the story.

Lawmakers say efforts to reduce the effects of climate change are more urgent than ever after devastating flooding caused significant damage throughout many parts of Vermont this summer. 

 Reducing the use of gas-fueled automobiles tops the lists of 16 lawmakers interviewed by the Community News Service this fall. Among their ideas are to create incentives for more people to purchase electric vehicles, build more EV charging stations, promote more public transportation where practical and improve the reliability of internet service in rural areas so more Vermonters can drive less and work from home more. Some caution against setting unachievable goals, though.

 The legislators — who come from both the House and Senate and represent counties across the state — also want to push for more energy efficiency in homes, including improvements in heat pump technology and building housing closer to transportation hubs to reduce the use of gasoline and cut emissions.

 Many lawmakers believe the flooding this July was caused by the effects of climate change and want to make changes that might help reduce the frequency of major flooding events. They also want to expand mitigation efforts, like improved emergency services and placing utilities underground, to reduce the damage when those major weather events occur in the future. 

“(People say) that we want to improve the environment,” said Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, the Senate minority leader. “One of the first things we have to do is not make it worse than it is right now.”

 The costs of improvements and incentives could be significant, but Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, said the costs of cleaning up afterward are higher than taking preventative measures ahead of time. Some of those investments and ideas will be difficult politically and financially for lawmakers to support, she said, but the time for action is now. 

 That includes an effort she’s worked on with former Rep. Curt McCormack, D-Burlington, chair of the House Committee on Transportation last session, and Rep. Gabrielle Stebbins, D-Burlington, of the House environmental committee, to tax gas-guzzling vehicles and giving buyers a “feebate” for vehicles that are more fuel efficient. 

 “Sometimes you have to do things that are politically feasible,” said Burke, a 15-year member of the House transportation committee. “At the same time, we’re in a situation right now where being politically feasible shouldn’t matter. It should matter that we’re in a very bad situation regarding our climate.”

 Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, agreed that investments today could save money on cleanups after future extreme weather events and lessen their blow when they happen.

 “We can either pay to clean up after a weather event or invest upfront in mitigation to save us all money” said Sims, who serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means. 

 Among Sims’ suggestions are burying power lines, stabilizing sloped roads to aid in drainage and upgrading stormwater infrastructure. Many infrastructure improvements made after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 are credited with reducing the impact from this summer’s flooding.

 Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said reducing the use of cars is key to offsetting the costs of climate change. 

 “Transportation is probably the biggest sector of environmental impacts that we’re dealing with right now,” said Stevens, chair of the House Committee on General and Housing. 

 Some ideas, like expanded bus service or more bike lanes, are more practical in urban than rural areas, lawmakers say.

“Bus routes are not viable in extremely rural areas,” says Rep. Avram Patt, D-Worcester, who once helmed an organization developing and planning central Vermont’s public transportation system. “You’re going to be running empty buses down long distances.”

 Having more people working remotely, even if it’s just a few days of the week, Patt said, can not only reduce the use of cars but have other benefits too. 

 “It also makes the job more attractive to a larger number of people who might otherwise not apply,” said Patt, a member of the House environmental and energy committee. 

But he said better internet service is key to making remote work more feasible, especially in rural areas. He spoke about some constituents who took extreme measures to make remote work possible during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 “Two working parents, two small children, (with) basically no internet,” he said. “At their home, four people could not be on the Internet, so they were driving to the Wi-Fi hotspot in their town and sitting in their car for half a day, the poor people, to go to work.”

Some jobs like those in health care, Patt acknowledged, have to be done in person. 

 Where public transportation is more viable, like Burlington and the surrounding areas, Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden-Southeast, wants to see bus drivers paid better and fewer costs falling so heavily on municipalities. He said one possibility for more funding could come from a surcharge on car registrations. 

 “The answer is not just more electric cars — it’s also in less cars,” said Chittenden, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation. He also said e-Bikes, like those recently proliferating in Burlington, aren’t a practical solution for many.  

 “I’m not against e-bikes, but I don’t see them as the best solution for the most vulnerable,” said Chittenden. “They are a great luxury to have when you also have a vehicle. But when you need to get a gallon of milk and some groceries, (e-bikes are) not going to work for those that need the resources the most,” Chittenden said. 

 Rep. Tesha Buss, D-West Woodstock, wants to work on making heat pump technology more accessible and attractive for consumers. Commercial use heat pumps only have a warranty of one year, unlike those for residential use, which have a warranty from eight to 10 years. Buss said she wants to see the warranties for commercial heat pumps extended longer. 

 Buss also wants to dispel some of the “misconceptions” she’s heard about electric vehicles, particularly the claim they are more expensive. An EV owner, Buss said electric vehicles typically need fewer engine repairs and brake replacements than gas vehicles. 

Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, expressed skepticism about the affordability of EVs and urged caution against any policies that would compel people to own them. “If I don’t know I want to buy an electric car, I shouldn’t be penalized,” said Smith, a member of the House environmental committee. 

Smith also questioned whether Vermont can deploy charging stations at the scale needed to meet emissions goals.

But legislators broadly signaled support for more EV charging stations and more EVs in consumers’ hands around the state. That includes traditionally offroad vehicles popular in Vermont’s recreation economy. Sen. David Weeks, R-Rutland, said he believes in “the use of electric snowmobiles and ATVs to mitigate air and noise pollution.” 

Alongside those vehicles,“the related recharging infrastructure must also be available,” he said.

Weeks, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, mentioned as a priority reforming Act 250, the state’s land-use and conservation law long seen as too strict on builders. 

Act 250 should be enhanced “to support interstate road development, address the housing shortage and encourage business development,” he said.

Discussions of infrastructure, transportation and the environment almost necessarily include regulations like Act 250, along with some of Vermont’s most immediate and well-known challenges: housing and demographic trends.

Brock, the Senate minority leader, said that “you don’t want to create sprawl, and you don’t want to create an environment that damages the natural beauty of the place in which we live,” though, “We have to recognize that we do have to have places for people to live.” 

He said Vermont needs to look less toward government agencies and more toward the private sector to help the state’s housing crisis.

Part of solving that crisis, and of state projects to address environmental problems, depends on Vermont’s demographic dynamics, he said. For years the state’s population has declined on the whole and become increasingly older, apart from a small spike amid the pandemic. Officials have long talked about the flight of younger Vermonters.

“We don’t have enough people to do the jobs that need to be done,” Brock said, adding later, “We don’t have the number of folks moving in who are plumbers, carpenters and electricians, which is one of the things that we desperately need.”

He doesn’t think Vermont has enough skilled workers to add efficient heat pumps on the scale required. “People have gone most of the winter without their heat pumps working because they couldn’t find someone to do the repairs,” he said.

Critical to addressing the impacts of environmental changes in Vermont is boosting the number of folks in the trades, he said.

“You can’t do the insulation and the changes to add new and more advanced and more environmentally friendly heating sources unless you have the labor force to be capable and competent to be able to do that,” he said, adding, that the lacking labor force is “among the biggest risks that we have right now to be able to achieve our environmental goals.”

Some of the climate-related issues brought up are outside of the lawmakers’ jurisdiction but nonetheless affect their constituents.

“We certainly have a major environmental problem on our hands,” said Brock. “But it’s not a solely Vermont problem. It is a national problem, and indeed it’s an international problem.”

 Rep. Jonathan Williams, D-Barre City, noted some of his constituents had difficulty during the summer flood cleanup because of the smoke coming from Canadian forest fires.

“Folks were cleaning up from the floods, and it involved a lot of, you know, shoveling out mud and stuff like that, but some of that cleaning couldn’t happen, or some folks couldn’t participate in the cleaning because of the air quality,” said Williams, a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus.

 He also said the 211 emergency number needs to be improved because it was not always available for his constituents during the crisis.

Rep. Brian Cina, P/D-Burlington, said the flooding this summer has piqued lawmakers’ interest in passing legislation on climate issues.

 “We’re in a worse situation than people want to admit, because when you really face it, it’s overwhelming. It’s really intense to think about the scale of it,” Cina said. 

The question, he said, is “how do we deal with what’s happening now and prepare for what’s coming.”

On the other hand, Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex, feels it’s more important to resolve the current issues Vermont is facing before trying to bring in new laws. 

“I’m really not so much looking at creating a new law as we’re going to be pretty busy repairing a lot of the flood damage throughout the state,” said Ingalls, who chairs the Senate Committee on Institutions, which is responsible for public buildings.

“I’ve got about 21 buildings right there within sight of the Statehouse that have been flooded,” he said. “And so we’re going to be pretty busy with that … I’ve got enough on my plate right now with running the committee to make sure that we repair the damage from our last flood.”

He said officials should “be wise about where we decide that we’re going to put buildings on and get them out of the floodplain, so that we don’t have to keep on going back and fixing what we’ve fixed the previous years.”

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20 replies »

  1. But what evidence is there that the floods were caused by “climate change”?

    What about the effects of geoengineering and cloud seeding, which is clearly happening in Vermont?

  2. If they want less “gas guzzlers”, they should ban the use of race cars and racing events. That is just a waste of fuel and contributor to C02. Maybe they will have to al race electric vehicles. What about road use taxes for electric vehicles since they will not be purchasing gasoline which has a fuel tax assessed for every gallon, partially to pay for road repairs. Electric vehicles will not be contributing to that expense.

  3. The idea that if we switch a bunch of people to electric vehicles and heat pumps — at massive cost — we will save money on future cleanups is patently absurd. It implies that doing this will STOP a future weather event from occurring, which it absolutely will not. This is a scam.

    • Any weather event today that is slightly out of the historical patterns is now used to fuel the climate change hysteria, there is no need for scientific opinion or research. It’s an emotional appeal used by the politicians as they strive to save the world! What could be more important work, to fuel the egos of these people.

  4. Do VT. politicians have a clue what extra expenses they are forcing onto people. Why is it that these people did not like what was happening in the State they lived in only to come to VT. and make this state the same. Look at CA. is that what you want for our state. All these great ideas have been forced on them and they not only can not afford to live there but it isn’t safe there to go shopping. When is the U.S. going
    to smarten up and start voting some of these far left politicians out of office? Thank about what they are doing to our State and our Country.

  5. Could all the global warming be caused by all the ” Global Crusaders ” globe-trotting around the world in their Lear Jets, spewing more CO2 in one trip, than half the vehicles in the state will produce in a year?………….

    Vermont cannot even support supplying internet within the state from its southern border to its northern border, with no infrastructure to support any uplift in the power demand with all this electrical vehicle boondoggle……….. follow the money !!

  6. Several of those representing us are so out of touch and make outlandish statements. Since Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury (along with many others), said “reducing the use of cars is key to offsetting the costs of climate change” I have an idea of where to start. Ban all State Representatives and Senators from driving vehicles to Montpelier. Instead, run one shuttle bus from every county to pick up the Reps and Senators at their homes and let them ride that public transportation to and from the Statehouse every day they are in session. That would not only “save the climate” but it would save taxpayers from paying said Reps and Senators mileage allowances. How does that sound?

    • If our legislators could work from home during the pandemic, and they wish to reduce carbon emissions why can’t they work from home all the time, and really save us money as they won’t need to rent apartments at the expense of taxpayers.

  7. Regarding the money being spent on expanding broadband to the entire state – what good is providing the broadband when people cannot afford to hook up to the service providing the internet? I have several senior friends that cannot afford the cost of the internet service from the cable companies. With the medical information being online making it easier to contact their doctors – it sure would be helpful for them to have internet service. Nice that you want to run all those wires but if everyone can’t afford the service…. it’s not really as beneficial as you would have us believe.

  8. The weird weather this year is far more likely to be related to the Hunga-Tonga volcano that put 13% of the normal amount of water vapor into the atmosphere in the biggest explosion ever recorded here on planet Earth. Otherwise wouldn’t the weather pattern always increasingly be like this year’s was? Expect a couple more years like this before returning to the normal levels of change as we exit an actual ice age. And while I’m here, Vermont is the least polluting, most carbon neutral state in the nation. We don’t need to screw working people with expensive electric garbage. My electric bill is already insanely high because it’s so “green.” We’re already doing our part, and it’s absolutely insignificant compared to China, India and Indonesia.

  9. You are correct in all statements. This is why the United Nations employs the logic that climate change transcends boards, which mandates requiring that all member nation states employs its solution. This is how this unelected global power accrues more power. Vermont’s progressive legislature is happy to accommodate them. Invite folks to view he Democratic Socialist of America platform/agenda. It’s platform is to abolish white supremacy, open boarders and establish social justice. These objectives are shared with the UN. The true is what these entities want to do is replace the free market system with socialism.The UN is already the defacto one world leader, which is driving geopolitics in implementing global socialism aka equity, forcing equal outcomes. Anti racism is anti capitalism.

  10. Where do these scientifically-ignorant public officials get their completely outlandish ideas about the effect that all of Vermont could have on our local climate? Are they unaware that the billions of people in the underdeveloped world are adopting fossil fueled (and even nuclear powered) electricity generating plants at a speed that dwarfs any attempts in VT to reduce CO2?
    I realize these people believe climate change is apocalyptic when it is actually just one of many problems we face. It is a bit technical but if one would like to try and understand how this apocalyptical scenario was promulgated see this link for Dr. Roger Pielke’s Substack article:

    • For all that is being forced on already overtaxed Vermonters….when you look at the global picture….we are little more than a gnat on an elephant’s rear end. But, gee….don’t they just think they are saving the world.

    • and this is all beside the fact that Vermont, with all its trees is carbon neutral