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Mind the gap: Transit in Chittenden County faces uncertain future

A group of people ride a bus in Burlington
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
If policymakers and officials want to see more people choose transit over their cars, they'll have to make it as convenient for people as possible. Here, a group learns to ride the bus together through a Green Mountain Transit training.

Public transportation is critical for many people in Burlington and its neighboring towns. There were once big dreams to make it better, but now the system is instead facing cuts. What happened?

Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-powered journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from Nathaniel Eisen, of Winooski:

“Why doesn't Chittenden County have better public transit options?”

Reporter/producer Sabine Poux boards the bus to find out what people love — and don’t love — about public transit in and around the Queen City. And she looks into abandoned plans to make that transit system work for more people.

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers, and they may contain errors.


Tom Whitney: About six months ago, I got rid of my car. I’m older. I’m 84, you know. And driving wasn’t so much fun for me anymore. In addition, I had so much rust on my car, I couldn’t afford to fix it. So, I’m without a car, and I’m learning how to get around.

Emma Kane: You see people that are on their way to work every morning. Or, they’re going to their friend’s house. Or, they’re just on the bus to be social and get out for the day. Or, they’re running errands, you know. … I definitely know a few people that I probably don’t know their name but I’ve seen them on the bus almost every day this year. And it’s just really nice to see these people and feel part of a community.

Jessica: It’s very convenient. So, I enjoy the bus that we have.

Anne Marie: Depending on who is driving.

Jessica: Yeah, right? It depends on who’s driving.

Sabine: Did you two meet on the bus?

Jessica: We met at the bus station.

Anne Marie: Became best friends.

Jessica: Yeah. Well, I asked her for a cigarette, and we were talking about being sober and, you know, walking our sobriety path. And we decided that we would be best friends.

Anne Marie: Yep.

Jessica: And hold each other accountable. And just be each other's people. She’s my person.

Anne Marie: You are my person.

Jessica: Yep.

A Special Services Transportation Agency bus and a Green Mountain Transit Bus parked at a curb in Burlington.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Green Mountain Transit and Special Services Transit Authority — a bus service for people with mental and physical disabilities — often work together to get people around Chittenden County.

Sabine Poux: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Sabine Poux.

Riding the bus around Chittenden County, you witness some bus magic.

Newly minted best friends. A couple on their way to officially move in together for the first time.

Sabine Poux: I can’t believe I met you guys as you’re about to move in together.

Kenny Gavin: I know. What are the odds of that happening again? 

Sabine Poux: Public transit can be a place where people connect with each other, outside the isolated shells of their cars.

And at the heart of the public transit system in Chittenden County is a fleet of big blue and green buses. The system, Green Mountain Transit, has 11 different local routes that run around the county, plus commuter and LINK buses to places like Montpelier and St. Albans.

We heard from people who live near the local bus routes that the system can be incredibly convenient for them. For the last four years, since the start of the pandemic, it was completely free — though that changed just a few days before this episode aired. And, choosing public transit over a car is also better for the environment.

But the bus system we have is fragile. Fewer people are riding the buses today than a decade ago, and Green Mountain Transit is staring down a big fiscal cliff. Unless it can find $2 million by November, GMT says it will have to make major service cuts next year.

That means less service for the people who need it. And, it means it will be harder to attract riders who are used to taking their car — like Nathaniel Eisen, this episode’s winning question asker. (By the way, “bus magic” — that’s his phrase.)

A person stands at a bus stop in Burlington
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Question-asker Nathaniel Eisen waits for the 9 bus in Winooski.

Nathaniel lives in Winooski, and he’s what transit researchers call a “choice rider.” He also has a car, so he’s much more likely to take transit if it’s convenient. And on his way to our interview at the Vermont Public studio in Colchester — it wasn’t.

Nathaniel Eisen: By the time I had the thought, “Oh, I wonder if I could take a bus to Vermont Public?” By the time I would have gotten there, I would have missed the bus that would have gotten me here on time for our interview. And then the next one wasn't for another 20 minutes. 

And so I drove here, and I caught up to that bus. And I was like, behind it. And that just happens to me all the time.

Sabine Poux: That 20-minute window between buses he’s talking about? It’s called a “headway.” Most local GMT buses have weekday headways ranging from 20 to 30 minutes, though some are much longer, depending on the day and the route.

Nathaniel wants to know: What if buses had shorter headways? Or dedicated bus lanes? What if we reintroduced a streetcar system in Burlington?

He did some research and realized — these are all options we’ve considered before.

Sabine Poux: That's probably very validating that you're not the only one who's thought this.

Nathaniel Eisen: It was totally validating.

Sabine Poux: In the early 1990s, the state of Vermont looked into building a new transit system for Chittenden County — either a better and more efficient bus system, or what’s called “light rail” — an above-ground train system.

The state found that all of those options would attract more riders than the current bus network, over time.

And yet, it’s 2024 and we don’t have low headways. We don’t have light rail, either.

Nathaniel Eisen: And so for me, this question is, in part, a question of why weren’t any of these options pursued?

Sabine Poux: Reading these reports, Nathaniel is haunted by the possibility of what could have been. That’s why he wants to know:

Nathaniel Eisen: Why doesn't Chittenden County have better public transit options?


Sabine Poux: Welcome to Brave Little State, Vermont Public’s listener-powered journalism show. Each episode starts with a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience.

Today, listener Nathaniel Eisen and I are boarding the bus to understand the state of public transit in Vermont’s most populous county.

Gina Horner: There’s a lot of people that don’t have cars, too. So this is like our lifeline.

Sabine Poux: We look back at some unrealized transit dreams.

Peter Clavelle: Part of me says, you know, “What were we thinking?” 

Sabine Poux: And hear from the people who are fighting just to keep the system we do have alive.

Clayton Clark: And it will sort of create a death cycle, where we just end up in perpetual cuts.

Sabine Poux: We’re a proud member of the NPR network. Welcome.

A view of a sunset through the front windshield of a bus
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
A fleet of blue and green buses are the heart of Chittenden County's public transit system.

Kenny Gavin: I used to have a truck, and then I crashed it into a telephone pole. 

Sabine Poux: So now the bus is your main way of getting around?

Kenny Gavin: Yeah, until I get a truck again.

Sabine Poux: How long have you two been together? 

Amanda Farnsworth: December 1. We’ve been friends for years.

Sabine Poux: How did you meet?

Amanda Farnsworth: Special Olympics, through Howard Center.

Kenny Gavin: She did um —

Amanda Farnsworth: I did soccer.

Kenny Gavin: She did soccer. I did softball.

Sabine Poux: What do you like about competing in the Olympics?

Kenny Gavin: Bragging rights, about winning and losing. Saying, “Ha ha, you lost. Ha ha, we win. You don’t have the gold medal. We have the gold medal.” And when I, when I play games, I have a serious look on my face. Like … (laughter) You don’t want to mess with me at that point.

Sabine Poux: And is that the face that you fell in love with? 

Amanda Farnsworth: Yes. (laughter)

Two people hug and smile in front of buses.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Amanda Farnsworth and Kenny Gavin wait for their bus at the Downtown Transit Center in Burlington.

Reports, reports, reports

Sabine Poux: Chittenden County is more than Burlington and its surrounding towns. But in terms of public transit history and future, that's where the big ideas have been centered and where we’ll keep our focus this episode. And by the way, if you’re interested in transit infrastructure and behavior in other parts of Vermont — we have an episode for that, you can go check it out. It’s called “How can Vermonters drive less?,” from 2019.

ICYMI: "How can Vermonters drive less?"

Sabine Poux: The first modern public transit system in the Burlington area was a streetcar system. It was extensive, snaking from what’s now South Burlington, up North Avenue to the west, and to Winooski to the east.

Then came the automobile, and all the excitement that came with the automobile. In 1929, Burlington scrapped its streetcars altogether — famously burning the last one in the street — and switched to buses, under a private operator. In the ‘70s, when the local bus company went out of business, the state created a public entity to oversee that system instead.

But by the 1990s, there were still a lot of people using their cars to get around, and officials complained about congestion on the roads.

That’s despite some pretty inventive efforts to get more people to ride the bus. Like this 1992 rap, from students with the mayor’s youth office.

CCTA music video: Instead of 20 cars making smoke and dust. Those 20 people are riding the bus. In the shade of revolution

Sabine Poux: Anyway. In 1992, the state was looking for a more attractive transit option. And it commissioned a study into building a fixed route, light-rail system around Burlington. Think above-ground subways, crossing the city.

Here’s a colleague reading from the report:

Burgess Brown: "These systems can not only increase transit patronage (because people are much more willing to ride rail vehicles than buses) but can also direct growth to downtown areas, cluster higher density development around stations…”

Sabine Poux: The light-rail system could run twice as fast as the existing buses, and would start with a line from downtown Burlington to the airport.

The pricetag:

Burgess Brown "$50 million."

Sabine Poux: Four years later — the state came out with another report. It was 700 pages.

Burgess Brown: “The recommended action plan for transit improvements is in four phases, with two sub-elements of Phase 3…”

Sabine Poux: The first step outlined was to improve bus frequency, or headways, for the current system, down to 10 minutes. And eventually, Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski would have an entirely new light-rail or bus rapid transit system with its own rights-of-way, for quick navigating through traffic.

A map of Burlington with proposed train routes.
Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission
A proposed light-rail transit route included in the 1996 Tri-Center Transit Study.

On paper, this was a time of real hope and excitement for public transit advocates.

Sabine Poux: So the 1996 report comes out. And then what? What happened after that? Can you sort of walk me through where you went from there?

Peter Clavelle: You know, frankly, not much happened.

Sabine Poux: Peter Clavelle was mayor of Burlington for a large chunk of the ‘90s and was on the 1996 project steering committee. (We spoke with him back in January for an episode about Burlington’s sister cities.)

Peter doesn’t remember one decision that the committee made to ditch the project, or one naysayer who dramatically shot the whole thing down at a meeting. Instead —

Peter Clavelle: It just died a slow, quiet … death. You know, again, I think the challenges were just too overwhelming to address. Nor do I know that there was ever a consensus on the best approach.

Sabine Poux: Did you feel at that time, like it was incumbent on your office in any way to push that first wave forward or move forward with some of the recommendations from the report?

Peter Clavelle: Yeah. And again, this was — maybe one of the problems was, there were a lot of people involved, a lot of organizations and institutions. And when everybody's in charge, nobody's in charge. 


Sabine Poux: Despite the length and great amount of technical detail in this study, it didn’t have a specific action plan for moving forward — like, whether to pursue light-rail or bus rapid transit.

It also didn’t recommend a specific source of funding. Most funding for public transit comes from the federal government. Peter says the federal representatives who were part of the study process — they didn’t seem to think it was possible for Burlington to get the money it needed.

Peter Clavelle: You know, frankly, looking back at it, and the 1996 study, part of me says, you know, “What were we thinking?” Did we really think that, at that time, that we might be able to generate a $50 million public investment? Was that real? Or was it just dreamin’?

We might’ve been naive, but I think there was a notion that public transportation is so important that we're going to do this. We're gonna do it right. But those of us that believe that this was important, I think, failed in convincing others, including regular citizens, that this was important.

Sabine Poux: Burlington didn’t entirely abandon its railway dreams. In 2000, the state and federal government reportedly spent almost $20 million on a rail line that extended from Burlington down to Charlotte, 13 miles away. The commuter rail was dubbed the “Champlain Flyer,” and supporters hoped it would usher in a “passenger rail renaissance” in Vermont.

But critics called it a boondoggle. And not long after he entered office, Gov. Jim Douglas pulled the plug on the project, blaming low ridership and other funding priorities, like maintaining roads and bridges. Just two years after its inaugural ride, the Flyer took its last-ever trip in 2003.

A newspaper clipping from the Burlington Free Press about the Champlain Flyer commuter train
Burlington Free Press
A Burlington Free Press story from the Champlain Flyer's early days. The Flyer ran for just over two years.

Gina Horner: I’m not a car person. I’ll just tell you that right off. It’s not that I can’t be. It’s that I choose not to be. I like public transportation. I think it’s good for the environment. It’s sustainable. I think we should all, you know, try to go car free and take the bus more. Or a train more.

Sabine Poux: Do you have a lot of the bus routes memorized?

Gina Horner: Yeah.

Sabine Poux: That’s kind of a superpower. 

Gina Horner: In a sense.

Sabine Poux: What advice do you have for people who are considering going car free, or using their car less, but maybe are daunted by that possibility? 

Gina Horner: Take a chance. Try it. Get to know the schedules, first of all. I would study the schedules. And, give it a try and see what you think. You know. It can be good. You have no hassle of the car. And it gets you out there. Seeing the city. Experiencing relationships with others. So there’s a lot of benefits to it.

Perpetual cuts

Sabine Poux: Burlington’s flirtation with local commuter rail was a bust. We’re not getting streetcars back any time soon, either.

That leaves us with the bus system we have in place now. And, it’s struggling.

Clayton Clark: So over the two years, I think it's very realistic that we'll see about a, almost a one-third reduction in service. 

Sabine Poux: Clayton Clark is general manager of Green Mountain Transit, which runs the buses in Chittenden County.

A person wearing a cowboy hat and a Hawaiian shirt stands in front of a stone wall
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Clayton Clark, general manager of Green Mountain Transit.

GMT faced funding woes before the pandemic, in part due to low ridership. But thanks to a big boost in COVID stimulus funding from the federal government, it could put off making major reductions in service.

Clayton says that’s no longer the case.

Clayton Clark: And that's going to really require GMT to make a lot of really hard and horrible decisions. Because public transit access is critical for people's lives.

Sabine Poux: GMT’s facing a big gap in operating funds — both in federal dollars, and the local and state match. Over and over, agencies in Vermont have studied different ways to make up that match, including in threedifferentstudies in the last decade.

But, lawmakers haven’t taken action on making a longer term plan. Once again: those big studies aren’t worth much without political will, and money.

Clayton Clark: Right now, whenever we find ourselves in a financial hole, there's really just one place to go to, and that's the state Legislature. And, you know, it's clear that that's a pattern that they're tired of.

Sabine Poux: In the absence of another boost from the state — Clayton says GMT’s planning on creating an affiliated nonprofit this summer, so it can raise funds for the bus system.

And he says it’s going to look at making those service cuts, as early as July 2025.

Clayton Clark: And it really worries me that by reducing service, we’ll actually reduce ridership to the point that we'll have to reduce service more, and it will sort of create a death cycle, where we just end up in perpetual cuts.

Sabine Poux: Another hit to ridership: Since the pandemic, GMT has kept fares free. However, a few days before this episode aired, GMT brought back fares for its urban buses at $2 a ride, with the potential for further fare raises down the line. The state estimates that the new fares could reduce ridership by about 15%.


There are a lot of riders that GMT might never lose. Almost all of the passengers we spoke with for this story don’t have cars and need the bus to get around. They said sometimes the buses run behind schedule, and sometimes they are a little worried about their safety. But, for the most part, they find the system convenient, and reliable.

Like 52-year-old Leo Pesce, who lives at the Motel 6 in Winooski. He usually uses the Special Services Transit Agency, or SSTA, to get to the methadone clinic and errands. SSTA is a door-to-door transit service that GMT contracts out for eligible riders with disabilities.

But today, he forgot to set up an appointment — so he’s taking the bus.

Leo: It’s just been a long time. Like, this has been a large chunk of my day. But, it’s alright. I'm glad that it exists. It does its function. It works really well.

Sabine Poux: But, what about so-called choice riders — the ones who could just as easily hop in their cars? How does the system win them over?

That’s after the break.

A person sits on a bus with a bag of frisbee discs next to them.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Darrell Fields on his way home from playing disc golf in Essex. This bus passes by his church (pictured) and stops just a few blocks from his house in downtown Burlington.

Darrell Fields: I went out to play disc golf, and now I’m going back home. (Laughter) So it’s practical! I can get to activity, you know, and — I went early in the morning so I could beat everybody. You know. So I could just do my own thing.

I had cancer for 25 months. And, I mean, radiation treatment was literally me walking one block, even in the worst days — get on the bus, drop me off here, get on the bus, drop me off back at home. So my whole cancer treatment was like — the bus was great. I didn’t have to worry about getting up here for nothing. So, yeah. So, the bus has played a good role in my life.

Sabine Poux: That stop that we just stopped at — that was a big stop for you for a while.

Darrell Fields: Yeah. And you know what? For a while, it gave me a lot of anxiety afterwards. I was like, “Ooh, I hate this bus stop.” But to get to Essex, I gotta go through there, you know? So, yeah. It’s a big bus stop. You’re right.

All aboard

Sabine Poux: In the process of reporting this story, I realized I very much fall into the category of choice rider. I drive or bike most places. But, it turns out — the bus is actually super convenient for me. The number 2 drives right by my house and stops just a block away from my office.

Not everyone has that luxury. We asked Vermonters on Reddit and Instagram why they don’t take the bus. A lot of you said there aren’t convenient routes that take you from your homes to your offices, or into town. One commenter from Burlington’s New North End said their commute is 20 minutes in the car but an hour on the bus, because of transfers.

And lots of people mentioned headways. “If I miss a bus, I’m stuck somewhere for another hour,” said one commenter.

In other words: Policymakers and officials will have to close that gap in convenience, even as the bus system makes major cuts, if they want to see more people choosing to ride.

Part of that is bringing more people to the bus. As those Burlington high schoolers said:

CCTA music video: See you at the bus station.

Sabine Poux: OK, let’s leave that in the ‘90s.

These days, the Burlington Office of City Planning is looking for ways to build more housing along public transit routes. Remember: Buses are convenient for people, like me, when they live on or near those routes.

A map and signs and a bike in an office. The signs say "Getting around greater Burlington" and "What's a mobility wallet?"
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
The City of Burlington is gathering feedback from residents of the Old North End about how they get around for a larger transit study in the works.

The city is also going neighborhood by neighborhood for yet another study into how it could help get people to use transit systems in their areas, beginning with the Old North End. City planners are visiting shift workers to talk to them about getting to and from work after hours. And they’re considering building new infrastructure, like a “mobility hub” — a space where people can access buses and car shares and bikes, all in one place.

In the meantime, local advocates are taking matters into their own hands. A group called Vermonters for People Oriented Places recently installed wooden benches at bus stops around town where there were none — to make a point about how simple transit infrastructure can really be.

Riding together

Joel Kolata: Can you go to the next slide here? Actually, alright so go back. Just one more thing about the transit app —

Sabine Poux: All these efforts to get more people out of their cars and onto the bus — already, there are groups of people making this transition, together.

A dozen people are seated at the Brownell Library in Essex Junction on a Saturday morning. Volunteer Joel Kolata is fielding questions about riding the bus.

It’s part of a new GMT-sponsored training for people who want to learn how to ride the bus. And between the new fare cards and the GMT schedule app, there’s a lot to take in.

Joel Kolata: If you haven't ridden a bus before, even if you're in a new city, the intricacies and the differences between systems and modes of travel can be intimidating. And I've even heard that it dissuades some people from riding the bus, just because they don't know. And it can be embarrassing to make a mistake in public. 

Two people look at a map on a phone
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Joel Kolata fields questions about the GMT schedule app.

Sabine Poux: Joel is a passionate user of public transit. Like me, he conveniently lives right off the number 2 line.

And that’s the bus we’re riding today, to put what we’ve learned during the presentation into practice.

At the bus stop, I wait next to Dorothy Bergendahl, of Essex Junction.

Dorothy Bergendahl: I wanted to learn how I could use the bus to get downtown without taking my car.

Sabine Poux: Why don't you want to take your car?

Dorothy Bergendahl: Parking. The costs, how to pay for it and where to find it. 

Sabine Poux: She’s hoping the training will demystify her questions about the bus schedule. But today introduces some new questions.

A group of people riding the bus in Burlington
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Dorothy Bergendahl (left) says parking downtown is too complicated and expensive, so she's learning to ride the bus instead.

Faith Ingulsrud: And so, 11:40. There's supposed to be one at 11:40.

Sabine Poux: Because, the bus doesn’t come when the app says it’s going to.

Faith Ingulsrud: I hate to say it, but this is not atypical.

Sabine Poux: At first we think we’ve read the schedule wrong. But, turns out, the bus is just a bit late.

Sabine Poux: Is this us?

Joel Kolata: This is us!

Faith Ingulsrud: You just have to be ready for more unexpected occasions when you take transit.

Sabine Poux: Faith Ingulsrud is another volunteer and frequent bus user.

Faith Ingulsrud: Once you've done it, and you understand the system and know how it works for you and have times that work for you, then it's not a big deal, then it's just as convenient to take the bus. But I think that gap of having to learn all the systems is the hardest thing.

Sabine Poux: At the end of the day, though, it’s about more than just learning to board the bus, or pay the fare.

Riders also need to learn to be flexible — and patient. Because, we need the system to work better for us. But in the meantime, we might just have to work with the system we’ve got.

Faith Ingulsrud: Just because we have glitches like that, you know.

But, you know, where else do you get to meet all these different kinds of people?



This episode was reported and produced by Sabine Poux. Editing and additional production from Burgess Brown and Mark Davis. Angela Evancie is Brave Little State’s Executive Producer. Our senior producer is Josh Crane. Theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to: Elodie Reed, Charles Dillard, Gregory Rowangould, Marshall Distel, Chris Cole, Patrick Garahan, Corey Dockser, Bobby Lussier, Jordan Mitchell, Richard Whiting, Patty Wight, Irwin Gratz, Caroline Losneck, Winston Lumpkins, Zack Barowitz and Paul Detzer.

Also, a big thanks to the people we spoke with on the bus and at bus stations for this story: Tom Whitney, Emma Kane, Jessica and Anne Marie, Amanda Farnsworth, Kenny Gavin, Gina Horner, Darrell Fields and Leo Pesce.

As of May 20, 2024, GMT is charging again for bus service in its urban areas. For more information on fare resumption — and information about future Ride Together trainings — head to the GMT website. Visit the Vermont Public Transportation Association site for information on free bus passes for people on Medicaid.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public and a proud member of the NPR Network.

Sabine Poux is a reporter/producer with Brave Little State. She comes to Vermont by way of Kenai, Alaska, where she was a reporter, news director, and on-air host for almost three years. Her reporting on commercial fishing and energy has been syndicated across Alaska and on NPR.
Burgess Brown is part of Vermont Public’s Engagement Journalism team. He is the associate producer for Brave Little State, the station's people-powered journalism project.