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Transportation Experts Call for Renewed Investment in Highway and Mass Transit Infrastructure
Richard Harris, Greg Cohen, Joshua Schank and David Burwell
Americans love their cars. With more than 250 million registered motor vehicles taking us everywhere—to work, to soccer practice, or just around the corner for a gallon of milk—the nation has more automobiles than licensed drivers.
While cars have vastly improved access to jobs, connected small towns with big cities, and bolstered the economy, the increase in automobile use without corresponding increases in road capacity has clogged highways and city streets, and the nation's tailpipes have released tons of excess greenhouse gas due to traffic congestion.
Due to people's use of automobiles to get to most places, three top transportation experts speaking at AAAS headquarters called on local and federal governments to increase investment in transportation infrastructure by constructing new highways and improving existing roads to reduce congestion.
In addition, they called for improved access to alternative methods of transportation by building transits modes that work in a variety of environments including metropolitan subways, light-rails, bike lanes, and bus lines, as well as increased business incentives for employers encouraging employees to carpool, use mass transit, or bike to work.
David Burwell, a consultant to several organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund, said that to address congestion and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, governments do not have to overthrow the way Americans travel by forcing people out of their cars and off the highways.
Rather, Burwell encouraged local and federal governments to create more choices for individuals by developing alternative methods of transportation and crafting public policy that encourages their use.
"This is not about social engineering by changing behavior," said Burwell. "It's about giving people a choice about how to get from one place to another, while at the same time addressing environmental issues."
Held 6 October in the AAAS auditorium, the panel discussion featured Burwell alongside Joshua Schank, director of transportation research at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance. Sponsored by Georgetown University and the Smithsonian Institution, the discussion titled "Merging Climate and Transportation Policy" was moderated by award-winning National Public Radio correspondent Richard Harris. It was the second in a series of four Science and Society: Global Challenges seminars.
"Climate change and transportation policy are some of the toughest issues to deal with due to the millions of point sources of cars, trucks, and other vehicles in the United States," said Harris, adding that over 35% of carbon dioxide emissions produced in the U.S. comes from the transportation sector.
As an example of the problem's complexity, Harris cited a recent article in the Washington Post reporting that local businesses are using larger fleets of vehicles to ship products and serve clients due to increased travel time from traffic congestion. This increases the number trucks on the road, and in turn, increases traffic congestion.
Burwell cited several examples of misguided policies slowing efforts to reduce vehicle emissions and traffic. He said that in some states, businesses are allowed to deduct the cost of building employee parking lots, while not allowing them to deduct the costs associated for bicycle storage. In addition, when most states undergo highway construction, they generally receive 80% of the total funding from the federal government, while only receiving 50% if they build a municipal transit system.
[As part of its $700 billion financial rescue plan approved earlier this month, Congress included a provision allowing employers to deduct the cost of maintaining bicycle storage from their corporate taxes.]
"It's like government is saying 'We'll accommodate you if you want to drive to work, but you're on your own if you want to do anything else,'" said Burwell. "We need to fix that."
Schank said that in addition to increasing investment in alternatives to highways, governments can adjust taxes and fees associated with driving, including new fuel taxes and driving tolls, in order to maximize the capacity of the roads.
The bulk of the federal transportation revenue currently comes from a gas tax, not from charging drivers for the use of the road, which Burwell compares to "running a movie theater and charging customers for the popcorn and not the use of the [theater]."
Schank said that by raising the cost of driving through price signaling—the process affecting consumer habits by changing the price of a commodity—governments can make it in the consumers' best interests to use mass transit and leave their cars in the garage.
The revenue collected by the government would then be used to maintain the highways, but more importantly, could be used to develop more mass transit systems. While some opponents of price signaling contend that the new fees would place an undue burden on some who cannot afford the new costs, Schank said that money spent on transit systems would overwhelmingly help citizens with lower incomes that disproportionately use mass transit.
"There is broad agreement in transportation policy circles that price signaling benefits those with lower incomes," said Schank. He added that it is important to develop the alternative transportation before you change the cost of driving to accommodate those who are removed from the highways.
Cohen's nonprofit group serves on behalf of the motoring public, balancing transportation needs with climate and safety. He said he supports price signaling, but warns that governments need to be clear about the intended outcomes. While some programs geared towards reducing congestion and raising money for mass transit would be widely supported, Cohen said that any effort to overcharge motorists would "appear to be a money-grab for special interests" and would likely lead to widespread public opposition.
"We need to avoid creating a new revenue stream for government that goes beyond the goal of achieving a utilitarian aim," said Cohen. "Before supporting a price signal, the public needs to ask officials if it's a way to raise revenue for wasteful projects, or if it's to achieve a social or transportation aim that benefits those paying the bill, such as reducing wasted fuel, congestion, and carbon dioxide."
Some forms of price signaling are referred to as congestion pricing, which can be used to raise money for road and public transit improvements while reducing congestion and encouraging people to use public transit. Congestion pricing schemes charge individuals for driving into crowded, urban areas. Burwell said that Berlin has a "green zone," which charges individuals for driving in certain areas and requires the cars that do to meet stringent emissions specifications. In addition, all green zone residents are guaranteed to live within 100 yards of a subway stop, reducing their need for vehicles.
Cohen added that beyond the clear benefit of reducing congestion on the nation's roads, raising money for new and improved highways is important to drive economic growth and quality-of-life and would increase the nation's prosperity.
In the United States, Cohen said that he sees an important role for regional rail services like Amtrak, especially between cities in California, the upper Midwest, the Northeast Corridor (between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Mass.), and other densely populated areas.
But Cohen added that because Amtrak's budget must be approved by U.S. House and Senate, where supporters must garner 60 votes for a filibuster-proof supermajority, the government highly subsidizes the price of an Amtrak ticket in places where rail is financially unsustainable, causing ticket prices for passengers in densely populated to rise.
Instead of putting rail lines where they work best such as cities with over 10,000 people per square mile, Cohen said that rural states get lines that are almost always empty and have tickets subsidized by up to $500 dollars to maintain the legislative coalition to approve Amtrak's budget.
Kathryn Clay, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's Program on Science in the Public Interest, said that new and emerging technologies could be employed to reduce the impact of automobiles.
"Several solutions to bring down transportation emissions further—changing the fuels we use and changing the cars we drive—require strong support for research and development," she said. "We've made great strides over the past decades towards increasing fuel efficiency and cleaner energy, but it's going to take a sustained effort across many scientific and engineering disciplines to get to where we need to be."
3 November 2008