We Need to Mobilize
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Beneath the surface of our Vermont summer paradise is a growing unease about the changing climate.

Summer is in full-swing in Vermont. Gardens are planted. Farmers are making hay. Neighbors, families, and friends gather for barbecues and head to swimming holes and rivers. Light lingers in the long twilights of our northern latitude. The green of the Green Mountain state seems especially intense this year, thanks to early rains and a recent rash of sun-filled days.

It’s easy to feel a sense of contentment and ease. And yet, beneath the surface of this paradise, or hanging over it, is a hint of real trouble from rising carbon emissions. It comes when a day seems too hot, or the rain too strong, and some feeling of unease arises that things are not quite right.

And that feeling is justified.

Last fall the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a dire report — we are already experiencing the the extreme weather that comes with global warming and we will have to make “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to avoid the worst.

How might Vermont contribute to those changes? And will our efforts really matter in the totality of this world problem?

In the 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan, Vermont set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals. Unfortunately, recent data shows that emissions are 16% higher than they were in 1990. With the transportation sector contributing about 47% of emissions, it is important to address this with significant policy initiatives. The transportation bill that passed in this year’s legislature takes some steps in this direction.

As a member of the Vermont House Transportation Committee I have worked to implement emission reduction measures. In the eleven years I have served, the Committee has accomplished small actions like limiting vehicle idling, and passing bicycle safety legislation, but these pale before the enormity of the problem.

After a number of legislators promoted some form of carbon pricing in 2017, our 2018 legislative session achieved an appropriation of $120,000 for a study of the impact of carbon pricing on the Vermont economy. The study showed that transportation system electrification is an effective carbon reduction strategy, and that some modest pricing of carbon could generate income for that. This emphasis on electric vehicles aligned with the recommendations of the 2017 Governor’s Climate Action Commission promoting incentives for EV purchases.

Widespread adoption of electric vehicles will require a network of charging stations in key locations.  Photo: Julie Campoli

Widespread adoption of electric vehicles will require a network of charging stations in key locations. Photo: Julie Campoli

When the 2019 transportation bill arrived in the House Transportation Committee, many of us were pleased that the Scott administration proposed a program of incentives for vehicle electrification. The final bill, Act 59, set up a modest electric vehicle incentive program and a high fuel efficiency vehicle incentive and emissions repair program.

Of the $2 million set aside for these programs, $1.1 million goes to help moderate income people buy or lease a new electric vehicle or plug-in electric hybrid. Most of the remainder is for an up to $5000 point-of-sale voucher to help low-income residents purchase a used high-mileage vehicle or hybrid that gets at least 40mpg, or to repair the emission system on a vehicle that failed inspection.

In addition to these incentives, the bill:

  • directs the Agency of Transportation to study a “feebate” system for vehicles that meet fuel efficiency standards,

  • appropriates $512,000 to electrify the State’s motor vehicle fleet, supporting the purchase of 12 fully electric vehicles and charging stations at various State facilities.

  • asks for a report to set up a regulatory structure to address transportation electrification.

  • includes authorization of $1.88 million for two large all-electric transit buses for the Burlington area, and $480,000 for two small-electric shuttle buses for the Montpelier area.

  • requests a study of methods to expand public transit ridership in Vermont, particularly in rural areas, and increase ridership statewide.

As of January, there were about 3,000 electric vehicles registered in Vermont. To reach our statutory goals, it is estimated that we need 50,000 to 60,000 by 2025. Some put that number closer to 90,000.

We need to mobilize.

Recently he Public Utility Commission completed a Report for the Legislature titled Promoting the Ownership and Use of Electric Vehicles in the State of Vermont. The report analyzed barriers to electric vehicle ownership and made recommendations for actions by State government to address these barriers. It asks the legislature to appropriate meaningful funds to incentivize purchases and aid in charging station deployment.

One potential source of funding could come from the Transportation and Climate Initiative—a group of eleven other states plus the District of Columbia, that have made a tentative agreement to negotiate a regional cap and invest program or other carbon pricing mechanism. Stay tuned on the progress of this. We will know more in December of 2019.

I asked the question earlier. “Will our efforts really matter?” I can only answer that we must act boldly and with a sense of the crisis we face. Vermont emissions from transportation are a small fraction of the problem world-wide. Yet we can be an inspiration for other states and jurisdictions, especially given the lack of federal action. The cumulative effect of this can accelerate all our efforts and make some real progress.

Mollie S. Burke was elected to the Vermont State Legislator in 2008 where she serves on the House Transportation Committee. She is a Brattleboro Town Meeting representative and a member of the Brattleboro Coalition for Active Transportation. An artist and teacher, Mollie is the founder and director of Art in the Neighborhood, an organization that provides tuition-free art classes to children in low-income housing communities. She also serves on the Advisory Board of STVT.