“This is the 21st century, but our transportation systems are stuck in the 20th. One of four bridges in the U.S. is structurally deficient or obsolete, more than half the miles we drive on federal highways are on roads in less than good condition and our transit systems are stretched beyond capacity. This is a recipe for falling behind, not competing in the global economy. We can put men and women back to work building America, get our economy on track and leave behind real assets for taxpayers and future generations.”
—Terry O’Sullivan, General President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
America’s infrastructure suffers from decades of reckless neglect, what bureaucrats and policymakers conceal behind the euphemism of “deferred maintenance.” Decrepit describes the consequences. Myopic describes the attitude. This affects many realms—our public schools, our public health system, our electrical transmission grid and, despite how deeply we Americans treasure personal mobility, our transportation system.
in Minneapolis collapsed in August 2007.
(Photo by Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard)
Occasionally, as happened in 2007 just a few miles from where Netroots Nation is just finishing its sixth annual convention, a bridge will fall down, a few people will die or be maimed, and everyone will ask what could have gone wrong. In this particular case, it was the inevitable result of having 75,000 U.S. bridges in the “structurally deficient” category. The problem is everywhere. In California cars are a sacred birthright, yet the state contains seven of the 20 U.S. cities with the worst major roads and highways.
But our transportation infrastructure is not merely plagued with antique equipment and battered pavement. Shaky old ideas predominate as well. In spite of the obvious purpose of transportation—connecting human beings, goods and services—we have allowed inefficiency, gridlock, lethal pollution and fiscal insustainability to rule the day.
According to one study, the average commuter was delayed a total of 34 hours in traffic in 2009, one full week of work. Inflation-adjusted congestion costs rose from $24 billion in 1982 to $115 billion in 2009. Wasted fuel from congestion hit 3.9 billion gallons—equal to 130 days of flow in the Alaska Pipeline. About half of Americans have no alternative to travel by automobile and no reasonable access to public transit. Like our roads and bridges, that public transit has been subjected to decades of deferred maintenance that would take $77 billion just bring into good working order.
Fixes matter. Decaying bridges can't be ignored. But too much of our attention in transportation is devoted to repairing and not enough to rethinking. Important improvements are being made. For example, light rail, a system prevalent in many cities in the days before the internal combustion engine reshaped our lives, is making a comeback a few urban miles at a time. But this is a small effort, piecemeal and underfunded. Vehicle drive-trains are being revamped, but ever so slowly.
Rethinking transportation means rethinking zoning and other aspects of how we build our cities and develop the land in between. It demands a hard look at subsidies that promote particular modes of transportation to the exclusion of others and broadening the definition of what a subsidy is. Rethinking transportation requires rethinking the currently inadequate public revenue streams that pay for most of its infrastructure. And, obviously, it means extricating ourselves from dependence on fossil fuel, not just the imported stuff but what we take out of the ground within our own borders and from beneath the continental shelves.
The good news is that rethinking and subsequently enacting policies for remaking our transportation system can spur us to build more bike- and pedestrian-friendly cities, make our vehicles efficient, cut pollution, lower CO2 emissions, reduce the size of our military budget, boost the use of alternative fuels (including renewably generated electricity), decrease congestion and help restore America’s manufacturing base, which, in turn, will supply millions of badly needed, high-quality jobs. The bad news is that there is stubborn opposition, local and national, to all of this.
Take, for instance, one small but important proposal that a coalition of environmental advocates favors: Setting an average 60 miles-per-gallon as the fuel-efficiency standard for all cars, light trucks and SUVs by 2025. (Sixty-two mpg was the original proposal, but we love our round numbers.) This would save motorists $16 billion a year (thousands of dollars each over the life of their vehicles), reduce oil use by 217 million barrels a year and cut carbon emissions by 6% a year. The Obama administration, which has already set 35.5 mpg as the standard for 2016, is studying options for a 2025 standard and will announce its conclusions in September.
Policy item No. 1: The administration should call for a 62-mpg standard.
No. 2: The government should not sell its shares in General Motors this summer as planned, but keep them and use them as other large shareholders do, to encourage and discourage certain corporate policies.
No. 3: As my colleague Mark Sumner has proposed: Implement a additional federal tax on gasoline and diesel fuel that begins at one cent per gallon and increases by one cent per month over the next 10 years. Direct all revenue from the increase into research and development of renewable energy and into rebates (or a "gas-stamp" program) for Americans in the lowest-income categories.
No. 4: Extend and increase federal tax credits for purchase of plug-in and fully electric vehicles.
No. 5: Offer a government-funded $5 billion-dollar award for the company that designs the first reasonably priced mass-producible automobile that gets 100 miles per gallon or its equivalent.
Getting people into more efficient cars, however, is only one piece of a good transportation policy. Getting them out of cars is just as important. That requires providing ample access to other convenient modes of getting around. And that requires a long-term reshaping of our cities to make cars less necessary. This will be expensive and politically tough, both at the national and local levels.
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The BlueGreen Alliance is a coalition of 10 unions and four of the nation’s largest environmental groups. BGA, which will formally merge on July 1 with another eco-labor coalition, the Apollo Alliance, issued a policy brief the first week of June, . The document lays out some good general guidelines for what a reasonable new policy ought to include:
- Modernize Transportation Infrastructure and Make It More Efficient
- Make Our Transportation Networks Greener
- Support Flexibility for Transit Operating Assistance
- Build Cleaner Cars and Trucks Here In America
- Support Cleaner Ports and Freight
- Create Quality U.S. Jobs In Transportation
Let’s take a closer look at that last bullet point. Last October, before it became BGA’s partner, the Apollo Alliance produced Make It in America: The Apollo Clean Transportation Manufacturing Action Plan. Some great ideas there:
…TMAP calls for a comprehensive strategy to boost domestic transit and freight manufacturing that starts with increasing current federal investment to $30 billion per year for public transit and $10 billion per year for intercity and high-speed rail.
Bringing transit and rail investments up to these levels will create 3.7 million jobs, double ridership over the next two decades, and build out a comprehensive intercity and high-speed rail system. In addition, these investments will generate $60 billion in net annual gross domestic product, nearly $45 billion in additional worker income, and $14 billion in annual tax revenue, spurring additional growth throughout the economy.
Currently, the United States lags in meeting public transportation needs and falls far behind its European and Asian counterparts in modernizing public transportation systems. In this context, federal policymakers will consider future investments to modernize public transit infrastructure. If these investments are done correctly, they will create new opportunity for American manufacturers.
More than 600,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector alone would be created by increasing annual federal public transit domestic advanced transportation manufacturing industry. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act investments in public transit put more than 12,000 new buses, rail cars, and paratransit vans into service, supporting over 175 jobs at the Gillig bus manufacturing facility alone. In 2009, United Streetcar Company produced the first 100 percent U.S.-made streetcar in 60 years. And targeted investments in clean transportation manufacturing from the Department of Energy will soon support 100 manufacturing jobs at a new Allison Transmission facility capable of producing more than 20,000 hybrid propulsion systems annually for buses and trucks.
In order to fully reap manufacturing job-creation benefits, transit investments must be accompanied by measures that strengthen domestic production capacity. Since the passage of the last transportation reauthorization, over $10 billion has gone toward the purchase of public transit vehicles, track, and supporting equipment manufactured abroad. With an estimated 27,600 transit buses, 4,000 passenger rail cars and locomotives, and 220 light rail cars in need of replacement over the next six years, America simply cannot afford to continue purchasing this equipment overseas.
That's a lot of jobs. And it's part of a good approach for rejuvenating U.S. manufacturing. Expanding rail and bus lines would provide more business for those growing domestic companies. More sales, more jobs.
No. 6: Set a precedent for other cities by approving Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's 30/10 initiative. A voter-passed measure in Los Angeles will raise $18 billion for public transit projects, much of it for an extension of the city's subway and light-rail lines. But that revenue comes in over 30 years, which means additional decades of congestion and pollution that the projects are designed to relieve. Villaraigosa wants to build the funded projects in 10 years by getting the federal government to lend the transit authority the money up front (to be repaid as the local tax revenue comes in).
No. 7: Establish a private-public national infrastructure bank to fund 30/10 initiatives in Los Angeles and other cities willing to provide the long-term revenue to repay the loans. Provide federal financial assistance to state infrastructure banks on the same model.
No. 8: Invest $2 trillion over the next 15 years to enhance rail transportation, adding electrified intercity high-speed rail lines for both passengers and freight. Too expensive? During World War II, though more deeply in debt as a proportion of its gross domestic product than ever before, the United States, having no choice, went deeper into debt and retooled and expanded its manufacturing base to produce the equipment that helped it win the war and lay the foundation for two generations of prosperity. We need to behave as if the current situation equals the emergency faced in 1941. Because it does. Transportation's use of fossil fuel is one of the largest contributors to climate change. Rail transportation is already extremely efficient, but taking it off diesel, speeding it up and building new lines that compete with air travel will make it even more so.
The short version: Steel Interstates would be publicly owned, electrified upgrades to the Department of Defense's Strategic Rail Corridor NETwork, or STRACNET. Freight trains would travel on both existing and new track up to 100 mph. This would "provide better loading dock to loading dock transit time than a direct long haul truck." Carrying cargo by electric rail is 90 percent more energy efficient than by diesel trucks, providing another reduction in the amount of oil we use and the pollution we cause.
Electrification of these lines could be from any sources, but obviously they should be green. Using ultra-High Voltage Direct Current transmission lines from remotely located solar and wind power installations would solve the "leakage" problem. Unlike existing transmission lines, HVDCs lose only about 5 percent of their electricity for every 1,000 miles.
Building the Steel Interstate should be viewed not as a cost, but a long-term investment, with financing eventually paid off through user fees.
No. 9: Implement federal mileage-based user fees. The social costs of highway use differ based on the type of vehicle. Passenger vehicles cause more congestion; trucks cause more pavement damage. If motorists were required to pay for all the costs their driving incurred, they would pay a lot more than they do now. In other words, they are being subsidized. Perhaps policymakers would want to continue some level of subsidy. But well-designed MBUFs would go far to increasing highway efficiency by encouraging motorists to consolidate trips and discouraging trips in which costs of driving exceeded benefits.
No. 10: Encourage densely populated cities to impose "congestion fees." London was the first city (in 2003) to enact a congestion fee of £10 for motorists who choose to drive their cars into heavily trafficked downtown areas that are supplied with adequate public transportation.
No. 11: Encourage cities by means of federal incentives to reduce the amount of parking required when new buildings designed. Today, whether for highrises or shopping malls, how much parking will be provided is frequently a major issue of contention. This produces acres of asphalt that not only cannot then be used more productively and that also adds to urban heat in the summer months.
No. 12: Provide federal matching dollars to deliver high-quality municipal and rural broad-band nationwide. One means of cutting down transportation congestion and fossil-fuel addiction that helps it thrive is telecommuting. Although this has yet to become quite the juggernaut that was once predicted for it, an increasingly large cohort of the population does "work from home," and more would no doubt do so if they were encouraged in various ways. One way to encourage them is to encourage the companies that hire them to make telecommuting more employee friendly.
Other policies should be developed as well. For instance, bike lanes should be an integral part of all new street construction. There's an obstacle, however. Such policies are the sole province, or almost so, of state and local authorities. Zoning is an important example. It has a powerful impact on transportation, but it's always been for counties and municipalities to determine what gets built where. Growth management policies that promote development in areas with high-quality transit service not only make sense, they are also crucial for 21st century transportation. But these are typically areas in which the federal government has had limited influence since the end of "urban renewal" schemes of the 1950s and '60s. The outcome of those schemes was often disastrous, particularly for poor and minority communities. We don't want to repeat that.
Some changes do not come from new policies but changes in attitude. For example, much of what we buy, particularly when it comes to food, comes from hundreds or more miles away. Buying local produce saves oil in the same way that riding a bike or walking to the grocery store does. Eating what comes from local harvests, however, means reducing sprawl that eats up farmland. Achieving that is a good deal harder to make happen than leaving the car keys on the table instead of driving two or three times a week. And yet far too few Americans are willing to ditch the car and walk, ride a bike or take public transit. Persuading them to do so, and to support policies that encourage other people to do so, will be, like so many other tasks progressives face, no easy task in the face of habit and propaganda.
Especially these days with Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives, we’re told no-can-do when even the mildest new policy proposal is suggested. Can’t-do-it, can’t-get-enough-votes, got-to-be-practical, we’re told. But innovative ideas, in transportation and other arenas, shouldn’t wait to be presented until we have the power to implement them. Promoting these ideas can itself help us gain the political clout to make them happen.