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Does the climate/energy bill's failure also doom transportation? A chat with James Corless of 'T4America'

It seems like only yesterday that a crisis was a terrible thing to waste. The financial meltdown, although tragic, was supposed to be the wake-up call we needed to shed some of our destructive habits and turn toward a more sustainable version of prosperity. Surely this crisis would prompt the kicking of our carbon habit, for example, and the beginning of a cleaner, greener, more efficient economic future.

But apparently not.

Almost no one noticed last week when the Senate pulled the plug on the comprehensive energy/climate bill. (Overshadowed, perhaps, by the Lindsay Lohan thing.) Congress is so afraid of clamping down on climate-changing pollution and so fearful of cleaner alternatives that killing the bill wasn't quite enough; now some members are trying to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its limited administrative powers to cut carbon emissions on its own.

The only conclusion to draw is that we're in love with our addiction to fossil fuels. We cherish our roles as stooges for the coal barons, the oil tycoons and the mullahs. We're happy to send kids to fight and die in faraway wars to protect our right to drive to the mall anytime we want for a reasonable price. And we don't mind pushing the consequences of our addiction to future generations.

OK, maybe that's a little harsh. But surely there's a reasonable explanation for why the Senate and the public would cut and ran from a challenge like this. It couldn't have been the science; overwhelming evidence shows that global warming is no hoax. It couldn't have been the economy either, despite dire warnings from the business lobby that higher fuel costs would choke the recovery and send jobs overseas. To the contrary, phasing in small increases in the price of carbon would give investors a better fix on where to put their money and how to grow jobs. Putting a higher price on destructive behavior has got to be part of the cure.

Politicians are running scared
Political fear is a more plausible answer. The energy and business lobbies put out the word in the Senate (and on the talk shows) that a vote for the bill was a vote to raise taxes and bolster big government regulation. And, as anyone who watches Fox News knows by now, it was big government, not an unregulated Wall Street, that caused the financial collapse in the first place. So, if we want economic recovery we must ignore all the best evidence about future trends and go back to the way things were pre-crash, which requires burning as much fossil fuel as possible because that's what makes America great. Not even the fouling of the Gulf of Mexico should deter us from this patriotic task.

That the inmates are now running the asylum doesn't seem to bother President Obama, who just weeks ago declared, with no noticeable irony in his voice, a "national mission" to end the nation's dependence on oil. Not only is he unbothered by the Senate's failure on energy/climate, he shows no stomach for the bill's companion, the transportation reauthorization crafted by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn. It continues to languish without the president's support and without the necessary votes in Congress.

Oberstar's bill is designed to turn the corner on transportation. It would rebuild the crumbling infrastructure, add jobs, stimulate the economy and begin shifting the country away from its singular focus on driving. Its key aim would be "livability," Oberstar says, meaning that it would encourage communities to redevelop in ways that provide more proximity in people's daily travels between home, jobs, shopping and other activities.

Finding the money is the problem. Adding a mileage fee or raising the federal gasoline tax — actually a user fee – is probably the best approach. We've all experienced nickel-a-gallon spikes in fuel prices from time to time. Gas goes from $2.71 to $2.76 and we get nothing for it except higher oil-company profits. Oberstar's bill would invest the difference in remaking the transportation system — and getting the oil monkey off our backs.

(Gasoline prices varied across the Twin Cities this week from $2.59 to 2.89, the equivalent of a 30-cent-per-gallon tax.)

Transportation as a national security issue
Only now, with the failure of the energy/climate bill, has the transportation lobby discovered that it must recast the Oberstar bill (and one being crafted by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.) in broader terms if it hopes to gain support in public and in Washington. I talked last week with James Corless, senior planner for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in San Francisco and campaign manager for Transportation for America (T4America), a coalition working to pass a transportation bill. Here are excerpts:

MinnPost: Twenty months ago Rahm Emanuel (Obama's chief of staff) was telling us that a crisis was a terrible thing to waste and we assumed that the nation was on its way to a whole new approach on transportation. What happened?

James Corless:
Money. On the way to the signing of the bill, we ran out of it. More than that, we as a transportation community now realize that we lack the compelling vision and a broader rationale that people are looking for. Maybe the implications of the Gulf oil spill will start to sink in with people, and maybe they'll figure out that they have to use less. Maybe they'll wake up to the national security implications, or even the terrorism implications, God forbid. Remember that when Congress passed the interstate highway act in 1956, it was sold as a national defense imperative.

MP: Yeah, recently Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" had clips of every president going back to Nixon saying we needed to reduce our dependence on oil.

James Corless
James Corless

JC: Yes, I think we need more leadership from this White House. There's a vacuum on this issue, and we may have to sink lower before people start to realize it. We need to marry the transportation and energy issues and create a more overarching bill. I think the regions and metropolitan areas are far ahead of Washington and a lot of the national interest groups on this.

MP: Is it all about finding the courage to raise the federal gasoline tax?

I used to think that that's all we needed to do. But it may take a broader approach — some kind of a tax on energy, or on a barrel of oil or a removal of subsidy from the oil companies; some way to take if farther away from the pump.

MP: How do you explain the crisis in transit operation?

  The federal program is heavy on capital equipment, and local jurisdictions, because of the recession and state cutbacks, have less sales tax revenues to operate transit. The worst example was St. Louis, which bought new hybrid buses with federal stimulus money but couldn't afford to put them on the street. It's sad what's happened to transit; we had the highest ridership in modern times in 2008 with high fuel prices, then came the service cuts and fare increases that wiped out the gains we had made.

MP: With construction at a dead stop, what should cities be doing now to plan for the future?

It's funny. We always plan for the next 40 years as if they'll be like the last 40. Cities should take advantage of the down time to set the table for what they want to look like in the years ahead. So the Twin Cities should now be getting everything ready for the Southwest light rail line to make sure all the zoning and planning is in order, so that when builders decide they want to put projects near stations everything will be ready to go.

MP: That's an interesting point. I was asking a banker the other day if and when building resumes, will banks be loaning money for complex projects, like mixed-use transit oriented development, or will they go with the same old auto-oriented projects on the edge of town, which tend to be a lot easier. He said they'd be going with the easy stuff.

Good point. I hadn't thought much about that.

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Comments (5)

Incredible post, tying together so many substantive current events. So glad you're back and active at MinnPost, Steve!

MinnPost: Twenty months ago Rahm Emanuel (Obama's chief of staff) was telling us that a crisis was a terrible thing to waste and we assumed that the nation was on its way to a whole new approach on transportation. What happened?

Do you think that a time of CRISIS is the proper time to make an inteligent decision or is it the proper time TO JAM AN UNPOPULAR HOAX DOWN THE THROAT OF THE AMERICAN PUBLIC.

if you want to ride the train around - be my guest - but DO NOT FORCE ME TO GIVE UP MY CAR AND RIDE WITH YOU.

There is no global warming and there is no need to change from the energy source that has given us the highest standard of living in the history of mankind.

"There is no global warming..."

Don't anyone tell David about this Earth-goes-around-the-sun thing. He's just not ready yet.

The most important thing that a liberal needs to know in talking to conservatives about public transportation is not to use liberal arguments. You can’t argue for transit on the basis that the poor need it. Conservatives aren’t particularly interested in that. On the other hand, when you start talking about things like promoting and shaping economic development and redevelopment, that’s a big interest to conservatives. When you talk about offering transit that is of a quality that conservatives would actually want to use–which usually means rail transportation–they’re interested, because conservatives are just as tired as everybody else of sitting stuck in traffic.

There is nothing inherently liberal about trains or conservative about automobiles. It’s simply the way it’s broken out in this country. Because most conservatives tend to be rural or suburban, they have had less reason to ride a train of any sort than liberals, who tend to be more urban and concentrated on the two coasts, where you have a lot more rail service.

The current dominance of roads is due to massive subsidization by government which through most of the twentieth century competed with privately owned, privately operated railways including streetcar systems that had to pay taxes. Every conservative understands very quickly what happens when you tax one mode and subsidize the other. The taxed mode disappears and the subsidized mode becomes dominant. Nothing about our current imbalance in transportation is a free market outcome. Not in the slightest.

The notion that the gas tax covers all highway expenses is a notion that will send any state Governor into fits of laughter. The highways require enormous support, local state and federal, that goes well beyond what gas taxes bring in. So it’s not a question of a subsidized mode versus an unsubsidized mode.

What should be done and what should have been done in the seventies is that the gas tax should be designed so that the price of gas goes up a predictable amount every year.

Not only have roads and driving benefited from huge government subsidies, as Richard Schulze says, a big part of the U.S. economy has grown up around the Interstate interchanges. There would be no fast-food industry, no big-box retail, no office park proliferation without that subsidy. Think of the transportation options we might have had if, in 1956, Congress had levied a small real estate tax on businesses benefiting from the new freeway system and dedicated it to the "rebalancing" of the transportation marketplace. No one I know advocates "forcing" David Granneman or anyone to give up cars to ride trains. They just want a more even playing field so that consumers can fairly choose.