America needs a new mobility and lifestyle strategy

Given the impact of soaring gasoline prices on American life and commerce, it’s astonishing that the presidential candidates have had so little of substance to say on the matter.

Yes, there have been clipped verbal exchanges on John McCain’s plan for a temporary “gas tax holiday” and on his plea to open the Arctic and other sensitive coastal areas to oil drilling — neither of which would have much impact on supply or price.

But the campaigns have ignored the broader and more important challenge: to scrap our 1950s-era transportation policy — one that encourages and rewards maximum driving — and replace it with a new mobility and lifestyle strategy to fit the demands and conditions of a new century.

That is, perhaps, the hardest task we now face as a nation, one that’s made more urgent by the dwindling Federal Transportation Trust Fund. You probably don’t know it because no one’s talking about it, but the fund’s highway account will go broke next year. The fund, dependent on federal gasoline-tax revenues, is the lifeblood of transportation investment in the United States. Why will it run dry?  The answer should sound familiar to Minnesotans. Federal gas-tax revenues, at their current levels, can’t keep up with the demand for new roadways and the cost of repairing the crumbling old ones; the tax has not been raised since 1993.

Complete rethinking is needed

The good news about the fund going broke is that it should force a new president and Congress to come to terms with harsh reality. Simply raising the tax, even if politically feasible, wouldn’t address the fundamental problem: that the world is running out of affordable oil. Especially considering the expansion of Asian economies, the U.S. cannot continue to consume the lion’s share of global transportation fuels. Neither our environmental condition nor our foreign policy can afford such heavy reliance on the burning of petroleum, most of which must be imported from unstable countries. A smarter approach is badly needed — not simply a reauthorization of current practices, but a rethinking of how to sustain the mobility that Americans associate with their basic freedoms.

We are a restless lot. We are accustomed to hopping a plane to Florida or jumping in the car to drive as often and as far as we want. We’ve arranged our homes, our jobs and our shopping habits in ways that presume a low cost for covering the distances between them by private car. But now, as gas heads toward $5 a gallon, we will need more travel options and more compact ways of living.

The Brookings Institution published last week an important report that properly frames the question and offers intelligent solutions. “A Bridge to Somewhere: Rethinking American Transportation for the 21st Century” should be high on the reading lists of McCain and Barack Obama.

What follows is a synopsis of that report, peppered with a few comments.

Through our history, transportation investments have determined the shape and condition of our economic success. The Erie Canal and then the railroads spread commerce and prosperity into the frontier and across the continent. A century later, the Interstate Highway System began dictating the spatial patterns in which we now live and work. To imagine an America without the interstates would be to imagine a country almost without fast food, shopping malls, office parks, urban slums, deserted downtowns and all the other features — good and bad — that make up the American landscape.

U.S. ignored warnings of the ’70s
As a matter of policy, the Interstate act of 1956 formed the first phase of modern transportation investment. Its goals were to enhance commerce and protect the nation from atomic attack. A second phase began in 1991 when a new transportation law broadened the scope to include transit and other modes, but only in a minor way. It’s fair to say that U.S. policy generally ignored the warnings of oil-price spikes in 1973 and 1979, and clung to its 1950s assumption of cheap gas and auto primacy.

Indeed, we didn’t learn a thing. By 2000, cars were getting bigger and fuel efficiency had fallen. Americans now burn 61.2 barrels of oil per person per year. France, Japan and the United Kingdom use half that much on a per capita basis.

U.S. policy failed also to recognize the obvious and important connection between transportation and land use. Cheap gas promotes driving and generates sprawl; but energy can be conserved and costs lowered if development is clustered in ways that reduce driving and promote alternative modes of travel. When Portland tried to make land use part of its transportation policy and, thus, work toward reduced driving, the Federal Highway Administration scolded the Oregon city. “The plan should acknowledge that automobiles are the preferred mode of transport,” it said.

Indeed, it is federal policy to reward those locales that drive the most. The more you drive, the more you get in federal funds. That, perhaps more than anything, illustrates the nation’s need for a third phase of modern transportation policy.

A very different nation
Much has changed since the interstate era began. Household size has dropped dramatically. In 1950, 43 percent of households were couples with kids. Now it’s 23 percent. International trade has expanded greatly during that time, making for congested ports. Families have spread themselves farther apart from one another. Just-in-time delivery has greatly increased truck traffic. Poverty has become more concentrated and immutable. Jobs have spread far from downtowns. Cities and towns have been designed to require a car for every trip, even to the corner store — if there is one.

Add to all of that the reality that economic activity has concentrated itself in a relatively few metropolitan areas. The largest 100 metro areas generate 75 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — and they dominate transportation activity.

Unfortunately, federal transportation policy does not target resources to these larger markets based on efficiency, but distributes resources to states based on equity. Consequently, too much money goes to rural areas where traffic is light and global competitiveness is relatively unimportant. Congressional “earmarks” for pet projects that may, or may not, be of high priority further corrupt the system.

Taken together, the current transportation policy is obsolete, inefficient and poorly fitted to the nation’s economic, environmental and foreign policy needs. Anyone who has traveled in Europe and Japan knows firsthand our transportation shortcomings.

Address sustainability, competitiveness
How to fix things? Brookings proposes a new approach.

• The nation should clearly state its transportation goals. The object shouldn’t be just to distribute the spoils of taxation, but to support the competitiveness and environmental sustainability of the nation.
• Congress should authorize a permanent, independent commission to prioritize federal investments.
• More money should go directly to metropolitan areas. The money should be mode-neutral, giving metros the flexibility to build freeways or transit lines. Road investments should be subject to the same rigorous cost-effectiveness standards as transit investments.
• Road pricing (tolls) should be part of the mix.
• Incentives for more compact land development and for better inter-modal connections (airports with train stations, for example) should be included.
• Regional high-speed rail networks should be expanded beyond the Northeast to augment air travel in busy corridors of 500 miles or less. California, Florida, North Carolina and the Great Lakes region (including the Twin Cities) are top potential markets.
• No serious consideration of financing should be decided until vigorous performance and accountability measures are in place.

The report is part of a larger Brookings effort to assemble a “Blueprint for American Prosperity.” One of the center-left think tank’s researchers, Amy Liu, described the project to the Regional Council of Mayors in downtown Minneapolis last week.

The federal government makes a big mistake, she said, by “managing the process but not the outcomes.” The United States is “not adapting to big changes in the world,” she said.

“This discussion can’t just be about the gas tax. That’s just pouring more money into a broken system. If that’s what we end up doing, everybody loses.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John N. Finn on 06/20/2008 - 12:17 pm.

    Speaking of gas taxes, how does MnDot calculate its future revenue? Do they assume that current fuel consumption, miles driven, and car/truck sales remain constant or perhaps increase at past rates?

    Here in Winona, folks have taken to speculating on the location and grandeur of the new bridge that is to be built in the next decade along with improved accompanying highway interchanges. It’s assumed that the bridge should be four lanes, which would make sense if traffic increases in the future as it has since the current bridge was built back in the 1940’s. Not much point in arguing that that might not be the case or that there might be fiscal restraints on the construction project.

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