The New York Times had a great article today about how the hassles of air travel have pushed more and more riders towards Amtrak.  Included were some interesting statistics: Amtrak currently has 75% of the air/rail market between NYC and Washington DC, as well as 54% of the market between Boston and NYC.  This is up from 37% and 20% in 2000.

The article also touched on a few important things including the fact that Amtrak runs an operating profit on the NEC and that they are increasingly subject to competition from the likes of Megabus, Boltbus and many smaller bus companies.  While bus companies can’t offer the time competitiveness of Amtrak (and are constantly subject to unpredictable traffic delays), they generally offer much lower rates and siphon less time sensitive customers from Amtrak (not that this is inherently bad – the more transportation choices, the better, as far as I’m concerned).

The article points out that Amtrak has a $6 billion maintenance backlog on the NEC and that funding from Congress has not been forthcoming recently.  Much of the backlog is a result of the fact that no US president before Obama has ever supported Amtrak’s fiscal needs – regardless of whether they are a Republican or Democrat.  The lack of investment is ultimately Amtrak’s largest obstacle to increased frequency or faster speeds.

Why is this?  Personally, I feel that Amtrak has not made a particularly good case to the public.  Transportation is not a sexy issue – people generally just want to get where they are going and don’t want to dig into the politics, infrastructure and financing behind it all.  If the train runs a time efficient schedule, people will ride it, if not, they’ll find some other way to get there.

For all of it’s alleged inefficiencies, Amtrak has a really good case to make to the public.  For one, they provide are good stewards of the public money they receive.  Amtrak has a 79% fare recovery ratio.  The highest ridership transit system in the nation, New York City Transit, runs at about a 59% recovery ratio, depending on the year.  Almost all other transit agencies in the country run somewhere between a 15-40% recover ratio, with some agencies in the single digits.

Secondly, Amtrak primarily doesn’t make money because we haven’t invested money into it.  Why does Amtrak make money on the NEC?  It’s not just because of the density of the NEC, it’s because it’s one of the only places in the country that Amtrak can offer service that is faster than driving.  It’s able to do so because the NEC is one of the only railways designed primarily for passenger travel in this country.  If we invested the money to build other passenger corridors that offered competitive speeds, Amtrak would be able to cover it’s operating costs there, too.  This is exactly the model that is used in Europe – governments build world class rail infrastructure and then require train operating companies to run at a profit over that infrastructure.

Sure, rail doesn’t pay for the full cost to keep up the infrastructure, but no mode of travel pays it’s full cost of infrastructure.  We don’t require airlines to finance and build their own airports, nor do we make Greyhound or Megabus pay for the highways they use.  Why do we hold passenger rail to a different standard?

Amtrak needs to distill all this into a 30 second soundbite.  They need to come out and say, “We spend $50 billion on highways every year, but only $1.5 billion on rail.  We can certainly make Amtrak profitable, but we have to put it on equal footing with highways.”  They need to come out when people like John Mica or Mitt Romney take shots at Amtrak, panning it as a black hole of taxpayer funds, rather than giving the whole story – if we want profitable trains, we have to invest in them.

Or perhaps Amtrak isn’t the entity to do so – maybe it’s NARP or another passenger rail advocacy organization.  Something like, “The United States invests $50 billion annually in highway infrastructure, but only $1.5 in rail.  We can have world class high speed trains here in the United States.  Come on America, let’s get on board.”

I’m sure there’s plenty of individuals who could come up with a good marketing message for Amtrak – not a marketing message about their service or their product, but one that succinctly and quickly gets at the disparity in investment that Amtrak faces and instantly addressed the right-wing rhetoric that Amtrak is an inefficient government entity that wastes taxpayer funds.

Thinking about marketing and trains, though, made me recall this little clip that the US PIRG did last year in support of high speed rail:

I came across this today.  The Hövding is a collar that one wears around their neck, instead of a helmet.  When a cyclist is involved in an accident, the helmet inflates and shields the head with an airbag.

The website for the product is here: http://www.hovding.com/en/index

It’s very expensive (almost $600), however the technology is new and like any new technology, I would expect the price to decrease dramatically over time.  While I’m not someone who minds wearing a bike helmet, I think there’s a tremendous potential, however, to expand this technology to a wide range of cyclist garments.  I’d absolutely buy a cycling jacket or a pair of pants with the same technology embedded that would inflate and protect my joints and bones upon an impact.

I also found a video that shows many of the tests that were done simulating various cycling collisions to test the design:

Booking a train in Vermont just got a lot easier.

This morning, Amtrak activated e-Ticketing capabilities on all trains in it’s system, the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen included.  Owing to the lack of ticket machines or staffed stations in the state, Vermont has always had one of the most difficult booking procedures for Amtrak.  I have written at length before about how difficult it was to book tickets with less than nine days before departure, which also made it it incredibly difficult to take advantage of any promotional offers unless one planned substantially ahead.  Last minute reservations were a hassle involving a phone call to an Amtrak ticket agent and getting a handwritten ticket from a conductor on board.  And if one was a member of Amtrak’s frequent rider program, those handwritten tickets had to be mailed or faxed to the program’s office if one wanted credit for the ride.  Even if booking before nine days, the hassle of mailed tickets made changes to a reservation incredibly difficult.

All that has changed.  One can simply book a ticket and be e-mailed a PDF, which they can either print out or show to the conductor on their smartphone screen.  Changes can be made instantly and online.  If lost, e-tickets can simply be reprinted.

I’d expect that over time, Vermont will actually see a slight uptick in ridership as a result of e-ticketing, as it dramatically cuts down the confusion and hassle for new riders.

One important fact to note is that if you have multiple reservations on a single ticket and do not ride one of the trains, all downline trips (including your return) are canceled.  If you are making any changes to your plans, you need to inform Amtrak in advance.  This actually makes tremendous business sense for Amtrak, as if you don’t board, Amtrak can resell your seat, rather than taking a loss on the no-show (as one can apply the balance to a no-show ticket to another reservation, or take a refund).

I booked a quick trip and will be trying out the new service later this week.  The days of phone calls and mailed tickets are finally over!

In an effort to continue to compete with Megabus, Greyhound has added a stop at UVM for at least one departure.  The stop is located at the circle at the Royal Tyler Theater, exactly where Megabus picks up.

While they do not offer the stop on every departure they make, Greyhound is making a very obvious attempt to match Megabus’s offerings, and undercut them when possible (currently only in terms of price, not speed).  Ultimately, I think the robust competition is great for Burlington, and hope both players keep at it.   Greyhound’s biggest disadvantage is time: with the number of stops they make, they simply cannot offer a time competitive trip, with most trips taking an addition 1-2.5 hours over Megabus.  It’s a shame that Greyhound continues to charge exorbitant prices in places like Montpelier, where there isn’t direct competition.  I think they could continue to be successful in Vermont over the long term if only they could offer more reasonable fares (say in the $30 range from Montpelier to Boston).

A while back someone gave me a heads up that Greyhound was lowering their prices to compete with Megabus.  I ran some sample bookings on their site and wasn’t able to discern any noticeable improvement, so I mostly forgot about the comments until recently.

My girlfriend was looking to travel to Boston to see a friend for the fourth of July.  Her plan was to leave the evening of the third, and she was booking only three days out.  Megabus was asking $49, which I felt was pretty excessive, almost a return to the old Greyhound pricing (it appears they cut down the number of buses because of a holiday, and just raised prices to cut demand).  On a whim, I looked at Greyhound – they were offering $15 for the same journey.

A little more research into the fares shows that Greyhound is offering $15 tickets every Monday-Thursday and $18 tickets Friday-Sunday.  Only a 24 hour advance purchase is required.  Greyhound has also rolled out print-at-home ticketing for Burlington.  This is a feature they offered for many years out of other cities, but if one wanted tickets from Burlington, they either had to purchase they at the counter or pay a several dollar mailing fee and receive them in the mail.

It’s amazing what a difference competition makes.  Once we discovered the Greyhound fares, my girlfriend asked if she could depart out of Montpelier instead of Burlington.  Greyhound wanted $63 for the ticket.  I’d assume that the low priced fares aren’t available on any intermediate stops, simply because there isn’t competition there.

Now, not everything about the Greyhound experience has changed – they still take a long time to get to Boston.  My girlfriend’s bus took 4h45 to get there, and that was one of the faster trips – many are over five hours.  But if budget is your primary concern, or Megabus’s times don’t work for you (Greyhound offers four departures a day), Greyhound should be considered as a good alternative.

I apologize for not posting for the last few weeks – I was traveling on a train trip around Canada and the US.  Expect to see more frequent posting in the coming days, but in the meantime, I wanted to share an event that everyone should consider attending.

American Flatbread Logo

On Monday, June  July 9th, American Flatbread will be hosting a benefit bake for Carshare Vermont.  Carshare will receive a donation for each flatbread sold between 5 PM and 10 PM.  It doesn’t matter whether you eat in or take out, every flatbread sold will qualify.  So consider coming out, eating some delicious food and supporting a great organization.  Hope to see everyone there!

(If you’re not familiar with Flatbread or need their contact information, click on the above logo to be taken to their site.)

It’s official.  CCTA is live on Google Transit.

For those who are not aware, Google Transit is an online transit trip planner built into Google Maps.  Users request directions from point A to point B and Google provides directions on where bus stops are, which buses to take and what transfers are necessary, if any.

Google Transit is an incredibly powerful tool, especially if one is not familiar with the transit system in the area they are living in.  Whenever I travel, one of the first things I do when arriving in a strange city is to take out my phone and pull up transit directions using Google Transit.  Even if one is familiar with their local transit, Google Transit provides a nice mobile reference tool for when the next bus will be arriving.

For those who are familiar with Google Transit, the main question may be: what took so long?  As it turns out, I happened to be the one who put together CCTA’s Google Transit feed, so here’s the inside story of what it took.

As with anything CCTA related, I want to make it abundantly clear that any views or opinions in my writing are exclusively my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of my employer.

I first stumbled across Google Transit back in the summer of 2008.  A few months before, I walked into CCTA’s offices and pitched myself to be an unpaid intern, intending to get experience in public transit before I packed my bags and moved out to the west coast when I graduated at the end of the year.*  The unpaid internship quickly evolved into a paid internship, with the promise of a full time job when I graduated if everything worked out.

Google Transit cost nothing – other than the staff time to implement it – and it was just the sort of project that appealed to me.  I pitched it to the higher-ups at CCTA and while there was plenty of support for the idea, there were also numerous concerns.  The idea had been looked into a few years before – apparently right around the time that Google Transit came out and some transit agencies had difficulties with implementation and ensuring their data was correct.  Additionally, there were tremendous concerns about maintaining the accuracy of the data as CCTA went through schedule and service changes.  I was tasked with contacting other transit agencies who had launched on Google Transit and getting feedback on their experience and the challenges of implementation and maintaining data.

I had a handful of conversations that summer and almost everyone told me the same thing: they had few or no problems creating a GTFS feed, but there was a very lengthy wait once they submitted the feed to Google for review.  Most agencies told me that the wait was up to six months, though expedited approval sometimes occurred if an agency employed a consultant who had a past history of delivering high quality feeds to Google.  Apparently, a number of agencies were all attempting to be listed at the same time and the backlog at Google was just tremendous.

I prepared a memo summarizing my conversations, but it was the end of the summer and I was heading back for my final semester at UVM.  From mid August to December, I worked five day, 25 hour weeks for CCTA, squeezing my time at work between the few remaining classes I had to complete.  I only had enough time for my core responsibilities at the agency – driver scheduling and maintaining the organization’s IT infrastructure. Google Transit fell by the wayside.

By January of 2009 I was back at CCTA full time – and permanently.  Nonetheless, there were still major barriers that stood in the way of Google Transit implementation.  Chief among them was that we didn’t have a comprehensive and accurate list of stops and their associated coordinates.  The most recent list was several years old and there was some question as to the accuracy of the coordinates.  At some point I took a drive with a laptop and a GPS receiver and attempted to log the stops along the Pine St route – but that was a fairly time consuming activity.

By mid-2009 it was becoming clear that we needed to update our internal stop list.  A member of the planning staff spent a good amount of time over the course of a month or two driving each route with a member of the operations department and comparing each stop to our existing stop list, as well as making decisions about stops that needed to be removed, added or relocated.  We finally had an up to date stop list – but didn’t have accurate coordinates for use with Google Transit.  While I attempted to geocode the stops by using Google Street View, the effort was frustrated by a lack of Street View coverage along many routes, as well as the fact that the footage didn’t reflect any changes in the past year or so.  Additionally, there was concern about the accuracy of some of the sample coordinates we generated this way.

We ultimately had an individual gather all of the coordinates with a GPS, simply going stop by and stop and then compiling the data in a spreadsheet.  With this data in hand, we just needed to get out schedules into GTFS format (GTFS stands for General Transit Feed Specification.  Though pioneered by Google, it has become a standard format for the exchange of transit schedule data).

Compiling data into GTFS format is not a tremendous undertaking for large or small transit agencies.  Large agencies typically have a tool that can automatically generate  a GTFS feed (this is built into most transit scheduling packages) and small agencies don’t have a tremendous amount of data to input.  Mid size agencies, like CCTA, are in the uncomfortable middle.

CCTA does have a transit scheduling tool – in fact, it’s the same one that most major transit agencies use (we’re the smallest agency in the world that’s using it).  The vendor had introduced GTFS support in 2006 – and we were running the version from 2005.  Unlike large agencies, we didn’t have the budget – or the need – to upgrade the software every year or two.  Conversations with the vendor about retrofitting our existing package weren’t very hopeful, or affordable.

So I set to work in early 2010 hand-coding our schedule data into GTFS format using Excel.  I first had to reformat pre-existing stop lists (a list of all the stops by route variant – i.e. each variation of a route) into a workable format to begin constructing our GTFS files.  Then I began to code each trip in, assigning a trip number and crossing it off in a bus map and guide that I was using for a reference.

BM&G used for Google Transit

BM&G used for Google Transit

Just when I felt that efforts to bring Google Transit online were beginning to gain traction, contract negotiations with our drivers’ union began.  Driver scheduling issues, for which I am responsible, were a central point of the negotiations, and I spent many long months answering questions, evaluating the potential of proposals and building scenarios to assess the feasibility or demonstrate the merits of particular contract language.  There simply was no time to work on Google Transit.  Negotiations dragged on for a significant period of time and afterwards I had to rework future schedules to comply with new contract language.

All this time – keep in mind – we had been expanding service, with the largest one-time service expansion in the history of the company in June of 2010 and commuter service to Milton launching, as well as additional trips to Montpelier.  I also had other IT initiatives I was pursing, such as equipping the Link Express buses with WiFi.  Summer is always a busy time for me, as we have back to back schedule changes due to summer break for Burlington schools, as well as seasonal changes in the College St Shuttle service.

With the summer of 2011 over, things had finally settled enough to allow me to double down on the Google Transit project.  Over a period of weeks, I encoded all of our data into GTFS format, then validated it with a handful of tools provided by Google.  I then submitted the data in early December – and waited.

Google made contact with my in late February, letting me know that our data had been set up in a private beta, only accessible to those I designated within the agency.  Volunteers to test the feed were solicited, bugs were identified and corrected and after several successive feeds, we submitted our final feed to Google to be published.

Two weeks later, Google sent me a lengthy QA document with all sorts corrections they wanted done.  They did a remarkably thorough job of comparing our feed to our website and had an extensive list of concerns.  In our bus map & guide (posted in PDF form on our website), for instance, we labeled our main bus station as “Cherry Street”  It was listed as “Cherry St” in my feed.  We had a route map on the site that used colors to indicate the routes – yet we didn’t specify colors in the feed.  Many of the stop names I had listed were listed as street intersections, but they conflicted with the names of our time points in the bus map & guide.  ”Jolley Short Stop” on Shelburne, for instance, was listed as “Shelburne Rd at X Street.”  Google wanted the GTFS data to exactly match the bus map & guide, unless there was a good reason not to.

After these corrections were completed, they approved us for launch, and a week later (last Wednesday), we went live.  There was only one problem.  In the hours before they compiled last week’s transit data, for some reason their system pulled a copy of our GTFS data off our web server.  I had been directly uploading our data – the copy on our web server was from our original feed before we began beta testing.  So when our data went live, it had none of the corrections we had made over the past few months.

I quickly uploaded the newest data on our server, as well as directly uploaded the latest data to Google.  However, they only compile the data once per week and the new updates take effect on Wednesdays.  As a result, we made the decision to wait a week to make a formal announcement. But the fact that our data was live was quickly discovered and shared on Twitter, so our implementation has been an open secret for the last week in many circles.

Even though we’re live, there’s still more to be done.  One thing that you’ll notice about our data is that we didn’t include a shape file, so in areas where there are not a tremendous number of stops (such as Link routes), the path of the bus does not accurately follow the roadway.  A shape file is definitely coming at some point this summer, I’m just waiting on updated GIS files from which I can generate it.  It just wasn’t worth holding up the feed for something that I felt was primarily aesthetic.

You also won’t see all the bus stop icons on Google Maps that you see on other implementations.  These are updated in a separate Google process that only occurs every one to two months.  They will be coming, at some point in the near future (but that doesn’t effect the working of Google Transit).

We’ll also be releasing our raw GTFS feed on our site in the next few weeks, in case any local developers have an interest in using our data for their own projects.  And of course, I’m already make modifications for our upcoming 6/18/12 schedule change.

In the meantime, I hope everyone finds the fruits of our effort useful and that it lowers the barrier to trying transit in Burlington for the first time (or allows existing users to use it more frequently).  Google Transit is the first of many future improvements to come.

*At some point, I’ll write an entry about how I came to find myself employed in the field of public transit and how Burlington almost didn’t end up as my long term home.

The Free Press recently did a story on the Shelburne Police stepping up enforcement on cyclists.  I’ve gone on record before as saying that I’m in favor of enforcement, as long as it’s done in a fair manner (which I think is highly questionable based on how it’s being approached in Shelburne).  I always attempt to bike in a safe, courteous and efficient manner and one of my rules is that I wait for red lights.  I do this for two reasons: 1) safety and 2) courtesy for drivers and pedestrians, and to set a good example.  Even if one can make it across the intersection, I’ve found there’s nothing that irritates drivers more than the sight of cyclists running red lights.  As much as I’m an advocate of car-free living, I think a helping of courtesy goes a long way.  If our goal is to get more people out of their cars and onto bikes, acting arrogantly and flouting traffic laws is not going to be the way to do it.

There’s one huge asterisk on my “don’t run red lights” policy, however: when forced, I will treat a red light as a stop sign – stop, look both ways, and bike through.  Unfortunately, this area has a large number of lights that operate on in ground magnetic sensors that are not designed to trip when a bicycle rolls over them.  If I roll down to the light in front of my house, at Hilside Ter and Riverside Ave, I can wait all day and the light will never turn red for me, unless a car queues up behind me.  I hit two more lights like this on my way to downtown, and there’s a large number of them all over the city.  As far as I’m concerned, these lights are broken, and I have to treat them no differently than a driver would treat a light that’s broken on red – stop, look both ways and proceed cautiously against the red.

Others – drivers, that is – have suggested that I pull over to the side of the road and press the pedestrian crossing button.  These same people who loudly proclaim that “bikes are vehicles and are subject to the rules of the road.”  Well, is a bike a vehicle or not?  Legally, I can’t ride across the road on a pedestrian crossing signal – I’m a vehicle, not a pedestrian.  No one suggests that a driver pull over to the side of the road, get out of their car and hit a pedestrian crossing light, before getting back in and reentering traffic.  If we’re going to hold bicycles to strict traffic laws, then bicycles also need to be accommodated as part of traffic infrastructure, also.

Keep in mind, I’m not asking for the impossible.  Sensor based lights can be calibrated to pick up a bicycle, and pavement markings can be used to indicate where a cyclist needs to wait in order to trip the light.  Portland, OR has a number of bicycle tripped lights some of which are oriented on major bike lines, to allow bicycles to stop traffic and safely cross the road.  Newer lights are camera based and are even easier to calibrate to pick up cyclists.

If Burlington ever were to mount a bicycle enforcement campaign, they’ll need to address the problem of sensor based lights first.  While I know which lights are sensor based in my part of the city, I by no means have a compressive knowledge of all lights.  Each light I have to make a judgement on whether or not it will change for me, so it’s not unreasonable to see cyclists crossing through red lights elsewhere in the city, even where the lights are not sensor based.  The city really should just mark the pavement next to each light, so cyclists know whether to wait or cross safely when they can.

I’ve only biked through Shelburne a handful of times, so I’m not familiar with light configurations in their town. But I’d encourage any cyclist who received a ticket for running a sensor-based light in Shelburne to fight their ticket to the end in court, because cyclists should not be held accountable for the failing’s of a town’s infrastructure to accommodate them.

Vermont is incredibly fortunate to be served by two different Amtrak trains (and have a third – the Adirondack – close by) as well a political administration that’s very supportive of passenger rail.  However, one weak link has been connectivity between Burlington and Vermont’s two passenger trains.  With the success and expansion of Megabus service competing for riders with Amtrak (especially students, many of whom don’t have a vehicle of their own), the State should look at bridging the gap between Burlington and Amtrak to encourage ridership and maximize convenience.

The biggest improvement needed a bus connection between Rutland and Burlington, so one can take the Ethan Allen without needing to drive to Rutland.  The western corridor project to bring the Ethan Allen to Burlington is still several years away – at absolute earliest – and in the meantime the train is useless to anyone without a car, unless they are willing to pay a hefty cab fare that would rival their train ticket.

There’s a quick fix to this problem, at least on the departure end – already there is transit service between Burlington and Rutland, with a connection in Middlebury.  The problem is, the bus arrives at exactly at the time the train departs – 8 AM.  If the state could push the train departure back a bit (or encourage ACTR to move their departure from Middlebury up), there would be a somewhat workable, if risky, connection.

However, that doesn’t help anyone looking to travel back to Burlington from the northbound trip or passengers traveling on any of the weekend trains, nor would it provide enough padding for a truly safe and stress free connection.  What the state really needs to do is run a “thruway bus” that is recognized by Amtrak.  The bus would be a guaranteed connection with the train and would be ticketed by Amtrak, so one could buy a ticket from Burlington to New York, which would consist of a bus segment and a rail segment.  If the bus was late, the southbound train would wait, and if the northbound train was late, the bus would hold for the connection also.  I’d imagine that Amtrak could easily charge $10-$15 for the service and the state could probably recoup the bulk of their costs for the bus trip.  Stops could also be made in major communities along the way, such as Middlebury and Shelburne.

Thru-way bus service is standard practice on many of Amtrak’s long distance routes, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be quickly and easily implemented in Vermont.  The service would undoubtably increase the popularity of the Ethan Allen – perhaps even into the double digit range.

Why hasn’t the State already implemented this?  Cost is the obvious answer, but priced appropriately, I’m sure the bus could come pretty close to covering it’s costs (remember, the State claims that when the Ethan Allen is extended to Burlington, the increased ridership will more than offset the increased costs of running the train the extra distance).  I think the larger answer is that car-free living is just not on the radar of politicians or rail advocates.  When the state threatened to cut the Ethan Allen and replace it with an Albany to Burlington bus, advocacy groups pulled out all the stops to kill the proposal and preserve the train.  After the Ethan Allen was preserved, not a peep was heard from advocates suggesting that a bus bridge to Burlington was still necessary.  Perhaps they worry that a bus bridge will undercut arguments that the western corridor is a priority, but in the meantime, car-free residents of Burlington like myself cannot take advantage of the train.

The Vermonter’s stop in Essex Junction is already fairly well linked to Burlington by public transit – Monday through Saturday, taking the bus to the train station is a cinch.  As long as the train is on time, Monday through Friday, there’s a decent bus connection with CCTA.  If one misses that bus, there’s another bus, but there’s an hour wait.  The problem is that if one is getting in on a Sunday – the highest northbound ridership day for the Vermonter – there are no transportation options available, other than a cab (the same applies for Saturday, though it is not as busy a day).  The cab fare, with tip, runs $18-20 to Burlington.  That’s a pretty sizable addition to a ticket that likely only runs $40-50 for most passengers, if not far less.

I recently booked tickets to New York for a wedding in August and snagged a $1 ticket down on Megabus and booked a $42 train ticket back.  The train departure time was better than the early time offered by Megabus, and the later time was not much faster than the train.  I prefer the comfort of the train to the bus anyway.  However, after the fact I realized that I could likely be stuck with a $62 bill, including the Sunday night cab fare home, Megabus suddenly seemed like a much better option, as it would drop me off right in Burlington.  While I decided to stick with the train for the return, the cost of getting between Essex Junction and Burlington will undoubtably deter many riders, especially students (who make up a large percentage of train riders), and drive them more towards Megabus (which offers more departures and a faster schedule).

A fairly inexpensive solution is to contract with a cab company that has twelve passenger vans.  Offer a through ticketed service on Amtrak (passengers would buy a ticket from point A to Burlington, transferring to the cab in Essex Jct and guaranteeing the connection) for around $5 a trip.  That should cover most of the cost of operating the van service, which could drop people at a few defined points along the way to Burlington.  The State would likely have to reimburse the cab company on a per trip basis, along with compensation if the train was substantially late and the van needed to wait (otherwise it wouldn’t be worth the company’s while), but this is not a terribly expensive proposition, especially if it were limited to weekends.

The above ideas would provide inexpensive but much needed connectivity between Burlington and the state’s two trains.  They would undoubtably contribute to ridership on the trains, which further reduces the state’s operating subsidy.  Why haven’t they been done?  Likely because there’s simply no focus on end to end connectivity – in a mostly rural state with high car ownership, that’s not unexpected, but it shouldn’t be accepted.

Last year, the Department of Energy ran a competition known as the L Prize for a 60-watt replacement LED lightbulb.  $10 million was to be awarded for the bulb that performed the best on a battery of tests designed to measure longevity, light quality and efficiency.  Last fall, the DoE awarded the prize to Philips for their submission, a 9.7W LED bulb that matches the light quality and completely outperforms a standard 60W incandescent.

CFLs (compact fluorescent lightbulbs) have come down substantially in price over the years, to the point where they are regularly offered for under a dollar after energy efficiency rebates (and are only two or three dollars bought without them).  However, I’ve still met a number of people who hold out against them because of their allegedly inferior light output.  Personally, I don’t notice a difference, but their longevity seems to be very hit or miss depending on the brand, and many bulbs seem to take a minute or two to warm up when cold.  They also contain a small amount of mercury, meaning they must be recycled to ensure the mercury is not released into the air or ground.

LED lighting purports to solve all of that, although the technology is still being developed and scaled – LED bulbs are substantially more expensive than CFLs.  A non L Prize bulb that uses 12.5 watts to produce the equivalent of a 60W incandescent currently costs around $24 before energy efficiency rebates.

The L prize bulb, which meets a higher standard (and is also assembled in the US) starts around $50, and was released for sale in the end of April.  Efficiency Vermont offers a $15 incentive per LED bulb, but the bulbs were still an expensive investment (for those in other states, see if your utility offers an incentive, they very well may).  Nonetheless, since I’m a stickler for energy efficiency and have a love of new technology, so I figured I’d give the bulb a try.  I’d never owned an LED bulb before, but once stayed in a hotel room where they were in use and was impressed.

I ordered two bulbs through efi.org/efficiencyvt (try here for other states with EFI).  Ordering through EFI allows one to immediately deduct the energy efficiency incentive and is easier than trying to find a local retailer where the bulb might be in stock.  I received the bulbs a few days ago and replaced two 20W CFLs with them (moving one CFL to replace my last, infrequently used, incandescent) and am very impressed.

Unlike the CFL I had, when I flip the switch I am now presented immediately with the full brightness of the light.  While I truly have no problems with the light of CFLs, the output of my new bulbs just seemed to be of a much higher quality.  It also halved my energy usage for that lamp.  The bulb itself feels very well made and is encased in thick plastic – there’s no glass to break on these bulbs.  Additionally, unlike a CFL, the bulb’s lifespan isn’t shortened by turning the bulb on and off frequently, and it’s also compatible with dimable fixtures.

Despite the bulb’s high cost, it is designed to last for at least 30,000 hours – decades for most users.  The savings in energy at 14 cents/KwH (which is probably on the low end for the northeast) is $250.26 over the bulb’s life – so it’s still a very worthwhile investment.  As one online reviewer wrote, this a bulb that you’ll take with you when you move.

Would I recommend it if money was no object?  No question.  Taking the cost into account, one may be a bit better off with Phillip’s non-L prize offering until the cost comes down.  At the same time, the L prize bulb has been tested so rigorously that I’m confident that the product I’m buying is of very high quality and I don’t mind paying a little bit more.  The $15 that Efficiency Vermont offers definitely helps make the price more palatable (for the record, the incentive applies to other LED bulbs, also, and is limited to 5 bulbs per year).

If you’re fine with the quality that CFLs produce, there’s no reason to jump into LEDs until the price comes down more.  But if you’re still holding on to frequently used incandescents because of light quality or performance issues, don’t look back – buy some of these bulbs!  It will be an investment that will pay itself back many times over – for both yourself and the planet.