Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Tag

Consequences of the Clean Transportation Paradox

Today’s forum on surface transportation funding, held on Capitol Hill (ironically the same room as the Carrots and Sticks Green Bank briefing) highlighted a growing fiscal crisis that spans the country.  Not like we have enough of those already, right?  The forum, hosted by the Rand Corporation, focused on a sour political fact: the old ways of paying for highway funding can no longer meet the monetary demands of our transportation system. 

 What Martin Wachs, the forum moderator and Director of Transportation, Space, and Technology Program at Rand, focused on specifically was the gasoline tax.  When the tax first rose to prominence in the 1930’s, it made an decent amount of sense.  It raised money, rose in proportion to highway use, and most importantly was a “user-fee.”  It taxed most those that used the system most.  Flash forward 80 years and the tax no longer seems like a good idea.  Thanks to high fuel prices and environmental deterioration, cars have become more efficient.  People can now drive more and pay less at the pump, and our roads suffer.

So what’s a country to do?  Wachs offers 4 distinct proposals- raise the gas tax, start funding transportation from the general fund, borrow, or institute a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax.  Of course, raising the gas tax is no longer politically viable thanks to gas prices.  Pulling from the general fund wouldn’t be fair to those that don’t drive often.  Borrowing isn’t sustainable.  So that leaves the VMT tax, which will be a more specific user based fee.

Paul Sorenson, also of Rand Corp., fleshes out the VMT tax with a series of possible implementation plans: distances can be measured through odometer readings, vehicle MPG estimates, GPS monitoring devices, and a RFL monitoring device (much like an E-Z Pass card).  Each method has its own implementation and political challenges, and Sorenson didn’t endorse any one particularly.  A common theme of the second half of the forum was a lack of commitment- all parties seemed to agree that more planning, analysis, researching, and testing was needed before a specific strategy could be endorsed.

As the forum was opened up to a more general discussion, the conversation shifted to two subjects: privacy and politics.  The former is the subject that the political experts- Jim Tymon, Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, and Paul Schmid, Legislative Analyst for Sen. Tom Carper, pointed out as the public’s largest concern.  However, all the members of the forum agreed that such concerns may be allayed via outreach and efforts made at ensuring confidentiality.  Politically, its unclear that all that much will change in the near future.  Even though both the States and Federal government are quickly running out of transportation money, the best reform we can hope for is some sort of Federal pilot program.

There is no doubt that a crisis is brewing, and there appears to be bipartisan support for some sort of tax increase.  Good news aside, it also appears that no real change is coming for a while.  The experts just don’t know enough.  But the forum also seemed to lightly pass over the possible political difficulties of raising taxes via a rather invasive procedure.  The current political climate on the hill is contentious enough, and even a reasonable solution like a VMT fee could prove to be an immensely controversial fee- a fact that Jim Tymon pointed out.  In a discussion of possible tax increases, Tymon displayed a distaste for some of the environmental and community programs that the current tax funds in addition to the highway system.  That does lead one to wonder who we should tax for environmental damages if not drivers, but that’s a debate that will likely be played out many times if this proposal ever makes it into legislation.



EPW Hearing Review: Is The Transpocalypse Near?

In the shocker of the new millennium, Sens. Boxer (D-CA) and Inhofe (R-DeNial) actually agree on something! For a change, Senate Democrats and Republicans in the usually hyperpartisan Environment and Public Works committee are unified in their support for action on infrastructure investment. While I wouldn’t bet my life on it, it may even be possible that the renewed push for a comprehensive and transformative surface transportation reauthorization bill can get it done this year.

Today’s hearing was the first in a series of many EPW will be holding leading up to a markup of a reauthorization of the package currently known as SAFETEA-LU. There’s good news and bad news for sustainable transportation supporters. The good news, and certainly big news is that a realistic roadmap to reauthorization seems to be emerging. Elana Schor at Streetsblog has some detail:

The Senate today took its first steps towards voting on a new long-term federal transportation bill, with environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) vowing to take up a successor to the 2005 infrastructure law before 2011 and indicating she would use the House’s already-introduced version as a framework.

Boxer described today’s hearing in her panel as “the kickoff” of the upper chamber’s drafting of new legislation governing U.S. road, transit, bridge, port, and rail policy. “Our intention is to hold a series of hearings and write the bill while you are still here and while Senator [George] Voinovich [R-OH] is still here,” she told Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), who will retire at the end of the year.

“We’re going to take their bill and work from it,” Boxer said of the House, which has proposed a $500 billion plan that streamlines 108 categories of formula-based federal transportation spending into four and includes dedicated funding for metropolitan area priorities.

The hearing took place as the House prepares to vote as soon as tomorrow on a $15 billion jobs bill, already cleared by the Senate, that would extend the 2005 transport law until year’s end. Boxer and fellow senators asked the witnesses to underscore the importance of that 10-month extension in conversations with the House, where some Democrats remain reluctant to embrace the upper chamber’s jobs package.

Elana is always a great read and her blogging is highly recommended if you care about reforming the way we travel and getting off our fossil fuel addiction in America.

It was really refreshing to see committee Republicans really “rail” against inaction to fix our crumbling infrastructure. Even notorious curmudgeon Inhofe acknowledged that Groucho Bunning’s recent hold that shut down federal transpo funding for a day served to expose a growing problem of funding instability for our highways, bridges and transit systems. So maybe they’re ready to get on board with the arduous process of hammering out a full five-year reauthorization.

And make no mistake, the December deadline the Senate is now pushing is a huge plus. The White House has been advocating a wait until Spring 2011, when the Recovery Act is phasing out and the economy will hopefully in better shape. Problem is, a whole host of other obstacles would likely be present at that point. First, the economy may be in slightly better shape by then, but the chances for dramatic improvement are minimal at best. Second, Republicans are likely to pick up a substantial number of seats in the midterms, meaning it will be much more difficult to enact comprehensive reforms promoting multimodal transportation development. Meanwhile, a necessary revenue-raising measure is probably not feasible as we enter a tough campaign season for incumbents of all stripes. So what does that leave us with as the best option for action? Lame duck. A December 31st expiration would “pave” the way for such a scenario.

Despite the rarely unified tone on behalf of the committee, it wasn’t all strawberries and sunshine for sustainable transpo advocates. Most notably, all of the witnesses represent establishment state DOTs and traditional road and other asphalt interests. Nobody from the sustainability or even public transit communities. So it’s not clear whether the warm and fuzzy atmosphere of the hearing will continue once these crucial pieces of the puzzle are re-introduced into the conversation. The focus by especially Inhofe and Bond on roads and bridges, quite clearly omitting rail, bike/ped and the rest on purpose, only served to reinforce that concern. Furthermore, the gaping differences over the effectiveness of stimulus infrastructure spending, which was tilted towards those non-asphalt priorities like high speed rail, portend a rocky path ahead.


Mass-Transit Oriented Smart Growth

Great article by Jon Walker at FDL Action on Mass-Transit Oriented Smart Growth.

Recently there has been a lot of focus on a possible “blue/green alliance” among the political left in this country. The idea is that union workers would build the new equipment for the green economy. Things like solar panels and wind turbines. Clearly the idea appeals to those who long for the glory days of organized labor, when this country was still a manufacturing powerhouse.

Unfortunately, as long as this country maintains its strong anti-manufacturing policies, I don’t see the blue/green alliance manifesting itself in that way. I suspect the nation’s demand for solar panels will be met by imports from Germany, and our wind turbines will be made in China. There is no reason to believe this green manufacturing jobs will not suffer the same fate as previous manufacturing jobs.

Where I do see the blue/green coalition really coming to fruition is on the issue of smart growth or transit-oriented development. (Arlington VA is a prefect example) The idea is to build a series of walkable communities around a mass transit system. Within each neighborhood, people find it easy to fulfill most of their needs by walking to nearby stores. By connecting many such walkable neighborhoods with a mass transit system, it encourages people to not use cars as their primary means of getting around.

The many environmental benefits of transit-oriented development is self evident. By encouraging people to drive less they produce less CO2. Living in higher density communities allows more land to be left undeveloped. Having people live closer together also promote several types of increase efficiency. Less money and energy is wasted when providing services like water, sewer, electricity, and trash collection in higher density communities.

This is a key example of how you can combine long term needs to build sustainable communities and land use patterns with short term needs to create employment. The public option is an important policy and I’m glad people are fighting so hard for it, but this is an area were we can make a big impact if we really fight for good policy.


A Bumpy Road to Transit Reauthorization

Well, Wednesday is the poorly-timed deadline. SAFETEA-LU expires at the end of September. So in case you thought Congress had enough on its hands, they have to figure out what to do about this ticking time bomb that could halt construction projects nationwide if handled poorly. Naturally, it looks like they will be taking the path of least resistance:

House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and most members on his side of the Capitol contend that a three-month extension is needed to spur an agreement on a long-term infrastructure bill before year’s end.

But given Senate Democrats’ preference for an 18-month delay, the two chambers soon could add a one-month extension of existing transport law to the spending bill that Congress must pass by next week to keep the government funded.

Such a move would effectively postpone until October 30 the deadline for the House and Senate to reach an agreement. Oberstar, speaking on the House floor yesterday, was unmoved by the Senate and White House’s call for a long delay in reforming transportation spending.

Good for Oberstar, digging in his heels. He is fighting an uphill battle against the overwhelming power of inertia, but as a general rule on the Hill, those who yell the loudest tend to get their way sooner or later. And he is clearly yelling the loudest right now.

And like clockwork, House Republican leadership came out in full-throated opposition to the extension, blithely claiming Oberstar is just trying to buy time to build consensus on a gas tax increase. Nevertheless, the three-month extension passed the House by a whopping 335-85 margin. It looks to be DOA in the Senate, but it at least forms a decent starting point in the negotiation process. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess.

The financing piece seems to be the major stumbling block at the moment. Nobody really wants to raise the gas tax, but it is currently being seen in the conventional wisdom as the only viable option in the short term. Granted, the gas tax does solve a lot of problems: easy to administer, discourages use of inefficient vehicles, relatively stable throughout the year, and can be thought of as a user fee. Problem is, as people drive less and drive more efficient cars, they inherently consume less gas. This is clearly a desirable goal, but it also means highways don’t get repaved and rail lines don’t get built unless we find another way to pay for them.

Carrots & Sticks strongly supports consideration of alternative financing mechanisms such as Rep. DeFazio’s tax on oil speculation. We are continuing to get the word out about this idea around the Hill, and I am consulting with a handful of transportation finance experts to examine other possibilities. A visiting professor of mine at George Washington University, Swiss Transport Economist Franziska Borer Blindenbacher, has graciously agreed to share her thoughts with policymakers and relay the European experience in developing innovative transit funding sources.

In other news, the Boxer draft of the climate bill will be released on Wednesday, and we are very concerned it will follow the House bill’s lead in drastically shortchanging clean transportation as a use of cap-and-trade allocations. We will be pushing for adoption of the Carper-Specter CLEAN TEA proposal, a measure that would set aside 10% of carbon revenues to fund transportation projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we have recently added this vital provision to our list of transportation objectives.