March 15, 2011 | Leadership, Sustainability + Energy
The wind is howling in Vermont’s biggest snowstorm of the season. I dressed for work as usual this morning, but when I opened the garage door, the wall of snow was higher than my car. It took me one brief pass with the snow shovel to see there would be no digging ourselves out today. I came inside and called the plow guy.
Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m writing about a bus on a day when most Vermonters are leaving their cars in the garage or the driveway. In Vermont, we drive ourselves to work, most often alone. According to U.S. Census Bureau data (2000), the percentage of Vermonters commuting to work by themselves is 75%, matching the national average.
In Hinesburg, the small, rural community where NRG Systems has been headquartered since 1989, you can stand by the main street and spot the problem. Every morning and evening, as drivers head to and from work and school, the road can be backed up for miles. On one typical morning in 2009, the University of Vermont’s Transportation Research Center counted cars on Hinesburg’s main road – 91% of them had only the driver inside.
The Gasoline Consumption Action Plan
NRG Systems has wrestled with this commuting issue as part of our commitment to environmental sustainability. An employee-led program – the Gasoline Consumption Action Plan, or GasCAP for short – encourages carpooling, telecommuting, biking, and other car-free options, aiming to achieve one car-free day per week on average across the company. As we are all learning, the solo-driving habit is tremendously hard to kick.
Our effort to free ourselves from our cars has also led us to a close partnership with the Town of Hinesburg. Karla Munson, a tireless, inspiring, and wicked funny community advocate who has lived and farmed in Hinesburg since the 1970s, convened the first meeting of Hinesburg Rides in late 2006. This volunteer advocacy group is dedicated to creating local transportation alternatives, and NRG Systems has been at the table and closely engaged since the start.
Public Commuter Bus Service
Our current and biggest project is to secure public commuter bus service for Hinesburg and towns to the north and south. We formed an innovative private/public partnership that includes the Town and local residents, NRG Systems, the Chittenden County Transportation Authority, and Addison County Transit Resources. We support bus service for several reasons:
- We believe reliable public transit is a core community service, like good schools and hospitals. An investment in local transportation supports commuters getting to work, people who ride the bus because it’s better for the environment, and those who rely on public transit because they aren’t able to drive or can’t afford the costs of owning and maintaining a car.
- Public transit is a tool for sustained economic development, giving communities a competitive advantage in good times and bad. Reliable bus service is part of the infrastructure that attracts and retains businesses, bringing jobs, services, and tax revenue to towns.
- Public transit offers added protection when gas prices spike. By reducing driver miles and allowing some households to go from two cars to one, or one to zero, the bus will put much-needed money in people’s pockets instead of their gas tanks.
- Support for community infrastructure is one of the highest-yield investments we can make. A pivotal study (.pdf, Robert Shapiro and Aparna Mathur, 2008) measured the impact of charitable giving and community support. Dollar for dollar, the most dramatic multiplier effect – as high as $22 for every $1 of support – results from investments in community infrastructure for economic and civic development.
The Hinesburg bus won’t happen overnight – it’s taken us three years already – but focused action and leveraged investment is getting us closer to federally-funded commuter service. NRG Systems has agreed to cover all up-front capital costs for two buses, underwriting the required local 10% share that will trigger federal funding for the remaining 90%. With two “yes” votes at Hinesburg’s Town Meeting last year and last month, residents have set aside tax money to meet the 20% local match for operating costs that will secure the 80% balance from federal dollars.
Later this week, I will join Hinesburg colleagues and transportation providers to testify before the Vermont House and Senate Transportation Committees on expanded bus service in Vermont. We believe the ROI on this infrastructure investment will be high for our state.
I hear the plows rumbling outside now, digging us out from this massive storm. Tomorrow, I’ll be able to pull my car out of the garage and drive to work. But, like other Hinesburg employees and commuters across Vermont, I imagine a future when we can take the bus.
Ann Jones-Weinstock, NRG Systems’ Director of Philanthropic Initiatives, is exploring ways to give back to the community that has been our home for more than two decades.