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Sustainable Inroads for National Transportation Policy

Presidio Economics | Friday November 4th, 2011 | 0 Comments


3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Macroeconomics course on a blogging series about “the economics of sustainability.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Ben Horowitz

Setting the agenda for America’s mobility future shouldn’t be left to the whims of political capriciousness, because we know what that looks like: Congested highways, crumbling bridges and the crowding out of bike lanes, trails and urban green spaces. But the battles being waged on Capitol Hill over the latest transportation bill, as wonkish as they can be, will effectively drive the livability, or lack thereof, of our cities and neighborhoods for years to come. If you enjoy biking, walking, breathing clean air or being on time to work, now’s probably a good time to turn on and tune in!

In political circles, making space for pedestrians, cyclists and nature falls under the purview of “transportation enhancement” activities. Last year, enhancement investments totaled close to $900 million, funds that drove the creation of urban trails, open space parks and the one of the largest build-out of bicycle lanes the country has ever seen. Unfortunately, it seems the future of all enhancement funding now hangs in the balance. Should certain members of the Senate reign supreme in the transportation budget negotiations now taking place in Washington, the 2012 resolution could see enhancements disappear entirely.

While there is a very real need to balance federal transportation budgets, doing so at the expense of enhancement investments, what has historically amounted to less than 2 percent of total spending, is misguided and wrong.

Infrastructure and GDP

Last year more than $40 billion was spent maintaining the U.S.’s network of infrastructure assets like highways, bridges and tunnels. That may sound like a lot, but compared to other developed nations, the Unites States has been under-investing in its infrastructure for decades. As a share of GDP, the U.S. invests only 2.4 percent per year; Europe is spending twice that and China invests nearly 9 percent of GDP. Blinded by its unrelenting bias for raw economic growth, America hasn’t quite figured out that new growth in transportation projects must be balanced against the need to invest in the maintenance of the old: According to the OECD International Transport Forum, the U.S. spends nearly twice as much per person as most European nations on new construction, while at the same time investing 25 percent less on maintenance.

Now, after years of neglect, the consequences of our aging infrastructure have finally caught up with us. In its latest “infrastructure report card,” the American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the nation an overall “D” average for the state of its infrastructure, concluding that the declining condition of U.S. roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, parks and transit and energy systems now pose significant threats to public health and economic security.

The public provision of critical social goods like this is an agenda-setting job befitting governments and governments alone. The Obama Administration understands this, which is why it laid out a 6-year $556 billion budget proposal earlier this year to prevent these priceless infrastructure assets from becoming full-on liabilities. However, in an era of ballooning deficits and a frail economic recovery, $556 billion over six-years is a hard sell on Capitol Hill. So while it contained a range of viable solutions for solving the U.S.’s veritable transportation crisis –including provisions for enhancement projects and transit alternatives like high speed rail- as expected, that bill has since been gutted and whittled down to a $285 billion offering from House Republicans which still stand little chance of passing.

Making Sustainable Inroads

Since the 1960s, the trajectory of our nation’s transportation network has been on a growth path largely antithetical to sustainability, bolstered by what has been perhaps the world’s largest public-works project ever: the creation of more than 2.6 million miles of paved roads nationwide. As many ecological economists are fond of doing, here it seems logical to bring forward the question of optimal scale: At what point does the size of a system outweigh the benefits delivered? At what point does economic growth become uneconomic growth? That point seems to have come and gone. Public sector financiers at the Congressional Budget Office have concluded that $20 billion more needs to be spent annually just to maintain that passing “D” average; and $80 billion more per year must be spent to operationalize projects that would have “positive economic returns.”

Business as usual on our highways simply isn’t working. Meanwhile, there is a tremendous case to be made for transitioning a commuter workforce from one that is reliant on personal auto-mobility to one that is reliant -where possible- on cycling, walking and other forms of resource efficient transit.

Consider the fact that every year Americans spend nearly 4 billion hours of their lives stuck in traffic; that’s 500,000 years worth annually. Worse, according to Tom Vanderbilt’s must-read Traffic, congestion is estimated to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 billion each year in wasted fuel and lost productivity. Improved fuel efficiency standards, though certainly good news coming out of the Obama White House, will do little to remedy this sorry situation.

The power to make a shift away from the wastefulness of personal auto-mobility rests in the pages of the federal transportation bill. What we need is a fundamental redesign at the scale of an entire system. With the legislation currently on the docket, lawmakers have that opportunity; they can make a left hand turn. It is up to them whether as nation we continue to prop up business as usual on aging American highways, or whether we move into an era of truly sustainable transit and transportation.

[Image credit: nznomad, Flickr]


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