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Under the Pavement

The only rational way to get us driving less are stronger gasoline user fees, but instead our nation spends tax dollars to make driving more attractive by building and improving highways.

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"We can utter a sentence rarely heard,” President Barack Obama told the U.S. Department of Transportation in April. “This government effort is coming in ahead of schedule and under budget.”
Unfortunately, this government effort is yet again a short-term solution that will make long-term problems worse. This effort already has released $28 billion in stimulus funds for 2,000 highway projects, which, the data indicates clearly, will lead to more driving, which will lead to more demand for foreign oil and more pollution and global warming and a less healthy nation.

Though Obama backs sustainability and wants to get American troops out of the last major undeveloped oil fields on the planet, the short-term, create-jobs stimulus of making driving easier will erase positive actions in those fields. Even though he's for better health care, making driving easier will cajole more people, especially school children, to abandon muscle-powered transportation for the ease and convenience of four-wheeled air conditioning.

Indeed, this governmental effort will lead to greater congestion. Some 90 percent of new urban freeways are overwhelmed in five years as the perception of decreased travel times leads more drivers to get on those freeways, which in turn produces higher annual vehicle miles traveled, which produces more delays, more pollution and requires more oil.

According to the biennial “Urban Mobility Report” from the Texas Transportation Institute, America would have to build 16,203 miles of new road annually to hold the congestion line — albeit a line of 4.2 million lost hours and 78 billion lost dollars — through highway construction. In 2005 the average American lost $710 and 38 hours being stuck in traffic, a 300 percent increase since 1982.

In the road-construction business, if you build it drivers do indeed come, multiplying all the problems created by driving.

Atlanta, after 40 years of freeway growth, including the merger of three main interstate highways and an expansive, eight-lane loop, is, for example, the world's most inefficient transportation city, requiring 782 gallons of fuel per capita for its people to get around.

Rather than address America's addiction to oil simply by expanding the gasoline tax to decrease our driving, President Obama is trying to counter his stimulus spending by building the politically easier cap-and-trade carbon system. Such a system will fail to address the worst greenhouse cause while requiring the construction of another federal bureaucracy with all the inherent potential for inefficiency and corruption that regularly shows up in bureaucracies.

We driving voters hope the cap-and-trade system would force industry to improve its emissions enough to solve America's global warming problem. But during the past 20 years, greenhouse intensity — the ratio of emissions to gross domestic product — has declined by 23 percent. Industry and commerce, in short, have been mitigating carbon dioxide emissions. More governmental regulations will simply move more heavy industries to underdeveloped, less-regulated countries and make our trade deficit and unemployment worse in the process.

To be truly effective, the cap-and-trade system would need to be applied to the nation's 300 million people, a political and practical impossibility. With more cars than drivers, Uncle Sam would either have to know where every car is at every moment or would have to piggyback on the auto-fuel distribution system — in effect, raising the gasoline tax.

Transportation, which accounts for about 60 percent of America's oil consumption, also produces the most greenhouse emissions — more than industry, more than commerce, more than housing. With 4.5 percent of the world's population, the United States produces 45 percent of the entire planet's automotive carbon dioxide — about 1,600 million metric tons — in our driving of almost 3 trillion (yes, with a T) miles every year. With one in 20 of the world's people, America uses more than a quarter of the world's annual petroleum production.

So if politicians are concerned about the greenhouse effect, the trade deficit, congestion or energy independence, making driving easier is a losing proposition.

Forcing General Motors to build greener cars, as Obama similarly desires, also sounds like a great solution. But if suddenly Chevrolet could produce the new Volt cheaply enough to make money on it, it would still take almost two decades to turn over the 251 million gasoline and diesel vehicles in America (only one in 19 of our cars are junked annually) and we'd be burning more coal, or nuclear energy, to charge that many electric cars.

Even before that new electricity demand, Australian professor Ted Trainer analyzed best-case scenarios for wind, solar, biomass and hydrogen. He concluded in a book titled “Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society” just that. This speaks volumes to a consumer society that uses only half as much carbon as the typical American burns today.

Further complicating the higher mileage solution is the history of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. It indicates clearly that building more fuel-efficient vehicles cajoles buyers of those higher fuel-efficiency vehicles to drive more. We — and I'm one who learned by personal experience — compensate for our lessened pollution per mile by driving more miles.

Over the 30-year lifetime of CAFE, economists report that this rebound effect has prompted new, higher-mileage car owners to increase their annual driving by at least 2 percent. With congestion already causing each American to waste 26 gallons of fuel annually, higher mileage cars put more drivers on the road for more miles.

Hydrogen fuel cells, meanwhile, suffer the same problems with the added issue of an absence of hydrogen fueling stations along the roadways.

And by now the four-year-old ethanol dodge should be exposed. After driving food prices higher, hurting everything from foreign trade to school lunches for the underprivileged, ethanol refineries already are going bankrupt as gas mileage decreases relative to the amount of grain alcohol in the fuel tank.

The only rational mitigation of so many of our national problems is for Americans to drive less. The only rational way to get us driving less are stronger gasoline user fees, but instead our nation spends tax dollars to make driving more attractive by building and improving highways.

“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself,” Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her 2006 shocker, “Field Notes from a Catastrophe,” “but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” S

Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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