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Transportation Planning, Liquid Asphalt and the Road Ahead


By Michael Aper

Most Americans begin every workday with a car commute.  On the drive, America’s roadways and the omnipresent automotive industry are some of her most noticeable features.  Embedded in the asphalt and forged in the steel lays the nation’s ethos of hard work and productivity.  Transportation infrastructure: the people’s champion.

Every American can recall fond memories created on a neighborhood street, a dirt back-road or an open highway.   Since their inception, from Ford’s Model T to the Interstate Highway System to the MAP-21 bill, roads and automobiles have always been about the people.

In the midst of smog, decaying transportation infrastructure and increased maintenance demands, it seems that the golden age of roads and automobiles is largely a thing of the past.

Yet, with the emergence of new technology and changing attitudes, a beacon of hope glows faintly in the distance -- illuminated by progressive policy making.  Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012.  MAP-21 is a $105 billion long-term highway authorization act aimed at funding performance-based surface transportation programs.  In lieu of the funding, Americans must collectively ask themselves: Are we making the right policy decisions to leverage our investment?

In 2013, 137 million barrels of petroleum, or about 2 percent of all petroleum consumed in the U.S., were used for asphalt and road oil.  That same year, Americans used an additional 3.17 billion barrels of petroleum for gasoline.

2008 heralded an important message for America when Washington, Wyoming and Utah all experienced shortages in liquid asphalt that affected miles of road maintenance, jeopardizing public safety.  The message: The world economy is growing and, with it, the foreign demand for liquid asphalt.  Too much capital is vested in American transportation infrastructure for the automotive market to be hinged upon one non-renewable resource.  Especially since the production and combustion of petroleum derivatives creates pollution which contributes to adverse climate conditions accelerating the deterioration of the very infrastructure that the entire system depends on.  The situation stands as a seemingly unsolvable conundrum.  Public and private stakeholders are none-the-less taking on the challenge. And as America opens her eyes in this dark 21st century tunnel, it seems that she just might make it to the light.

Tesla Motors delivered more than 10,000 electric cars in the first quarter of 2015.  The company will have to deliver an addition 15,000 in each of the successive quarters this year to meet its goals.  Last month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that the company will reveal a new, non-vehicle product on April 30.

The Golden State is also anticipating about 50 hydrogen fueling stations by next year to accommodate Honda, Toyota and Hyundai’s push toward fuel cell vehicles.  Down in Louisiana, another American company, Sundrop Fuels, is working to create a 15,000-barrel-per-day biogasoline plant.  The company expects directly competitive biofuel, fully compatible with contemporary engines, priced at about $2 per gallon once the process is fully commercialized.  In the Midwest, Avello Bioenergy is evaluating the potential for bioasphalt binder to store bio-based carbon in asphalt pavements and roofing materials.

Yes, pursuing sustainable solutions to today’s climate conundrum is about the environment, but the underlying motive is about collective efficiency and people: making society prosper using the best knowledge and resources available.  In the case of American roadways and automobiles, alternative fuels and alternative fuel-based vehicles are beneficial to the environment, yes, but they can also contribute to more resilient transportation infrastructure by lessening the nation’s demand for gasoline as the global economy grows and the pull of China and India increase.

While Honda, Toyota and Hyundai all chase fuel cell technology and the hydrogen economy, Audi is developing e-fuel that is created by synthetically engineered bacteria.  After being exposed to sunlight, the bacteria inhale carbon dioxide and hydrogen and secrete fuel.  Audi, in partnership with Joule Unlimited, is currently piloting a project in New Mexico to scale up e-fuel production.  In Werlte, Germany the company’s industrial-scale power-to-gas plant produces synthetic methane after a two-part process, which significantly reduces its emissions during vehicle manufacturing.  In fact, the company reports that production of its A3 Sportback model offsets exactly as much CO2 as the vehicle will later emit during motorized operation.

American policy decisions, often times, don’t reflect an understanding of climate change or the best available knowledge and resources.  Policies, like the five-state ban on direct manufacturer sales for Tesla’s vehicles, need to be evaluated with the bigger picture in mind.  On closer evaluation, Americans may find that certain policies restrict the market mechanisms crucial for successful climate change mitigation and in doing so pass-up key opportunities presently available -- all the while consuming more and more precious petroleum.

After revoking a $5,000 tax credit that helped grow the electric vehicle market in Georgia, state legislators are now adding a $200 per year fee for EV owners to offset the loss of gasoline taxes that they would have otherwise had to pay for road maintenance.  It’s important to find the middle-ground in policy decisions so that the alternative-fuels vehicle market can steadily reach maturity, rather than experience surges and lulls due to erratic legislation.

Automobiles and roadways are no longer inextricably linked to petroleum, but they are still, and always will be, linked to the people.  It’s not that the golden age of automobiles and roadways is a thing of the past.  It’s that petroleum is starting down a long road toward being less dominant.  Failure to separate the two -- and collectively find balance in our policy decisions -- means that we have forgotten not only the merit of innovation and the principles of capitalism, but also who the automobile industry and transportation infrastructure serve: the people.

Image credit: Michael Aper

Michael Aper served as a combat Infantryman in the United States Army from 2007 to 2010. During his time in service he deployed to South Korea and Afghanistan. As a member of the 4th Infantry Division, his unit was one of the first to deploy during the troop surge of 2009. During the deployment, his unit conducted route clearance operations and worked alongside Afghan Nationals to improve the local economy in a remote area outside of Kandahar. Upon returning in 2010, he was honorably discharged and began college at Northern Arizona University. In 2013, he graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s in Community Development and Sustainability. Today, he is pursuing his Master of Arts in Sustainability at Wake Forest University, class of 2015.

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