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Combined cost of housing, transportation key to affordability in northwest Vermont

I-89 as seen from the Williston Road overpass August 6, 2021. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

The populations of Franklin and Grand Isle counties both grew about 4.5% over the past decade, according to 2020 U.S. Census data released this month.

Experts have linked this growth to sprawl from Chittenden County — which grew 7.5% — as people opt for longer commutes in exchange for more affordable housing.

But the only transportation option for most workers who travel to the Burlington area is driving, which is the most expensive form of commuting for most people. 

Planners said that means it’s important to define affordable living in northwest Vermont not just by the cost of housing, but by the combined cost of housing and transportation.

“You end up without a net gain,” said Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, “if you lose the affordability of the cheaper housing by the higher transportation costs.”

As a rule of thumb, people should spend no more than 45% of their income on these combined expenses, Shupe said.

Franklin County households spend an average of 49% of their income on both costs, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, which is based on 2015 American Community Survey data.

In Grand Isle County, households spend an average of 55% on these costs, the index shows.

Catherine Dimitruk, executive director of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, said as more 2020 census data becomes available, she’s interested to see if the region’s average combined cost of housing and transportation continues to exceed what’s recommended.

“It’s often hard to trust the data because the numbers are so small, and they’re usually estimates,” she said, referring to counts in small communities. “So until we get some more of that granular data, it’s going to be hard to know.”

Bearing that caveat in mind — many Franklin and Grand Isle county communities grew in population from 2010 to 2020, the census data shows. 

The largest increases in Franklin County were in Fairfax, St. Albans Town and Fairfield. Fairfax grew by 729 people, or 17%. St. Albans Town gained 989 people, an increase of 16.5%. And Fairfield’s population grew by 153, or 8.1%.

On the Islands, the top gains were in North Hero and Isle La Motte. North Hero grew by 136 people, or 16.9%. Isle La Motte grew by 17 people, or 3.6%. 

Enosburg and Alburgh were excluded from VTDigger’s 2020 census analysis because they did not have comparative data from 2010.

Parts of Franklin and Grand Isle counties are served by Green Mountain Transit bus routes, but these play a comparatively small role in the region’s transportation network.

Dimitruk said the 116 bus, which runs along Route 105 between Richford and St. Albans, mainly serves workers at the St. Albans Town Industrial Park. The park contains some of Franklin County’s largest manufacturers, including Ben and Jerry’s and Barry Callebaut chocolates.

“We have a lot of really successful employers that are hiring and doing well,” Dimitruk said of Franklin and Grand Isle counties. “It’s not just the Chittenden County push.”

She also said the 96 bus, which travels on Interstate 89 between St. Albans City and Burlington, carries some workers to professional jobs around the Queen City. 

“It’s not expensive,” Dimitruk said of taking the buses. “So if you’re one of the lucky ones for whom your schedule aligns with the transit opportunities, they’re great.” 

Longer car commutes are not just more expensive, but also produce more carbon emissions, Shupe noted. The most sustainable growth is local, he said, since mass transit works best in compact town and city centers.

Cars and trucks account for the majority of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions — about 45%, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

“As we fragment our resources with more scattered development,” Shupe said, “it does have very real environmental impacts.”

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