Almost from the moment of its collapse, the I-35W bridge took on a symbolic meaning larger than the tragedy itself.
It was first seen as an alarm going off, alerting Americans to the decrepit shape of their public infrastructure. Testifying before Congress, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak reminded lawmakers that the fallen bridge was not an act of God but an act of human neglect. Failing to invest has consequences, he said.
Then, over the next 12 months, as gas prices soared and the impact of oil dependence and global warming came into sharper focus, the fallen bridge served also as a reminder of the nation’s obsolete transportation outlook and policy — especially our reliance on burning fossil fuels and on driving for nearly every trip. Minneapolis’ insistence that a new bridge accommodate not only cars but light rail was part of the new and broader picture.
Indeed, more people began to realize that to get a better handle on climate change, to halt the propping up of terrorists and petro-dictators around the world, to restore the dollar’s value against foreign currencies, to find equilibrium in the world’s food supply and to solve our own traffic congestion problems, we must find ways to wean ourselves from carbon fuels, including motor fuels. Many of our deepest problems — whether economic, environmental or social — are rooted in our over-reliance on gasoline. But burning less of it will require forging a more coherent and sensible policy for moving people and goods from place to place.
Roadblocks to a new paradigm
The transition to a new transportation paradigm won’t be easy, however. Since frontier days, Americans have defined freedom in terms of space and time. More elbow room is an American value — and the ability to drive anywhere as cheaply, as rapidly and as often as possible seems an American right. Convincing Americans that freedom might also include the ability to choose other modes, like transit, or the ability to arrange our lives in ways that minimize the need to drive, will take a major rewiring of hearts and minds. Retrofitting our communities to accommodate less driving, more density and more mixing of homes, shops, jobs and other functions will take courage, foresight and money.
Current transportation policy isn’t geared up for that task. It is still wedded, for the most part, to moving cars, not people, and to designing sprawling cities. Moreover, human nature resists change, and resistance to new energy, transportation and land-use policies will be massive. News reports are filled nowadays with those who consider global warming a hoax and who, with more than a hint of desperation, contend that drilling offshore or in Alaska will cause oil prices to fall so that our old habits can resume.
The harder truth is stated most eloquently by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist: We don’t have a gasoline price problem; we have a gasoline addiction problem. And, as with narcotics addiction, the cure won’t be cheaper drugs or, in this case, cheaper gas, but a clean energy future.
This may be a pivotal moment. Curtis Johnson, the urban affairs writer and former chairman of the Metropolitan Council, spoke last month to the Metro Council of Mayors. We’re moving from an era of extravagant, high-impact living to an era of efficient, low-impact living, he said. Driving an SUV 60 miles round trip to work is not a sustainable activity, for example, and shouldn’t be the primary driver of transportation policy.
A cascading decline in miles driven
Indeed, the statistic that concentrates the mind nowadays is “vehicle miles traveled,” or VMT in policy lingo. VMT declined again in May by 3.7 percent over May 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The drop is part of a cascading decline in miles driven. Auto-traffic volume declined fastest in the Midwest — 4.5 percent this May over last.
Meanwhile, transit ridership, while a tiny share of total trips, was up 3.42 percent in the first quarter, part of a general upward trend nationally. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, train and bus ridership rose faster — by 7.9 percent in the first half of 2008 — making transit more popular now than at any point since 1982.
Encouraging those trends are likely to be part of any new federal transportation law. The current law expires next year, and the federal Highway Trust Fund goes broke. No one will have more influence in shaping the new transportation law than Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House transportation committee. The Minnesota Legislature, meanwhile, has begun to formulate a second phase to the major transportation package passed last February over Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto.
Considerable advice to lawmakers
That’s why federal and state lawmakers are just now getting plenty of advice. Among the best:
• The Brookings Institution’s new report, “A Bridge to Somewhere: Rethinking American Transportation in the 21st Century.” Its salient points were discussed in detail in Minnpost on June 20. Brookings, among other recommendations, proposes that a major amount of federal transportation money bypass state legislatures and go directly to metropolitan regions. Local governments could then decide whether the funds should be applied to roads, transit or other modes. The aim is to target scarce federal dollars to places where they are most needed, and to recalibrate federal formulas that currently reward additional driving and gasoline consumption.
• The University of Minnesota’s new report, “A Smaller Carbon Footprint.” Minnesota can meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in 2025 only if it starts now to alter transportation policy. Among changes needed are higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars (as in California); a shift toward biofuels, preferably those distilled from switch grass and corn stalks (not from corn kernels); a shift toward rail for the transport of people and freight, and a reduction in the need to drive, potentially through greater efficiency in land-development patterns.
That last recommendation — seeing efficient land use as a cheap and clean mode of transportation — has great potential for reducing carbon emissions, but it carries great uncertainty, said Robert Johns, director of the university’s Center for Transportation Studies. “It’s still unknown whether we’ll go back to the old patterns and lifestyles,” he said, “or whether we’re at a significant turning point.”
• The Minnesota Legislature’s transportation/energy agenda. This week’s recommendation by DFL leaders on improving bridge safety is only the first of several initiatives. Others will include placing higher fuel-efficiency standards on cars and finding money for transit operations.
A greater challenge, perhaps, will be to realign the broad range of state decisions to meet the carbon-reduction goals passed last session. How could that be done in the transportation sector?
Cities might have to account for the additional driving brought about by sewer and water extensions. Smaller parcels of land might be mandated for school sites, making it more likely that new schools could be rebuilt in older areas. Carbon emissions might be added to environmental impact statements for new developments. Tax subsidies (like tax increment financing) might be conditioned on whether new developments require an increase in driving. State tax credits may be sought for the re-use of older buildings. More money may be sought for Livable Communities grants in the metro and planning grants outstate. Incentives for adding jobs and homes near transit stations might be considered. Those are just some of the ideas being discussed.
Said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, “The whole question of how the state can reduce its carbon footprint has come to the forefront.”
Steve Berg reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He is a former Washington bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune. Berg can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.