Building a Bridge to Somewhere

Spaghetti Junction

"We built a really inefficient environment with the greatest efficiency ever known to man." -- Andy Karsner, Asst Sec for Energy and Efficiency and Renewable Energy at Department of Energy, as quoted in Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded

Driving our economy and our nation forward requires that we glance in the rear-view mirror to take stock of where we've been, and Karsner's words regarding our land-development practices sum it up well. Our infrastructure development was not the product of laissez-faire; policy was the engine that got us here.

And where are we, exactly? We're in a nation where traffic and the distances we drive keep growing- in large part as a result of our neighborhoods being built in a way that leaves no choice but for us to drive our car for even the most mundane of errands. We've built our way into oil addiction and ever-increasing pollution from a growing fleet of cars and trucks, thanks to impressive infrastructure like this intersection of two Interstate highways in Atlanta, Georgia appropriately dubbed "Spaghetti Junction" (Thanks to USGS for the image).

How did we get here? Fifty years ago we embarked on a huge national project: building a world-class interstate system. President Eisenhower worked with leaders in Congress - interestingly, the key Senate leader was none other than Al Gore, Sr. - to enact new policy aimed at building a "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways" made up of more than 40,000 ribbons of asphalt criss-crossing the country. That project was completed almost twenty years ago.

Congress then enacted the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991. "Intermodal" is a fancy name for "not just highways" ("modes" is a wonky way of referring to means of transportation, auto or rail for example). This landmark bill gave more power to regions as a counterbalance to state highway agencies, provided more funding for transit and other alternatives that improve air quality, created a huge pot of money that could be "flexed" away from highway-building to other modes, such as light rail, etc.

While a recent GAO report found that most states have not taken advantage of this provision with a paltry 13 percent of available funds actually being "flexed" for building transit between 1991 and 2006, there were some exceptions such as Pennsylvania where rail systems have been bolstered with this new funding (California and New York are standouts too). The bill was also bound by powerful amendments to the Clean Air Act, which required that regional and state transportation plans not undermine state plans to implement federal clean air requirements.

Current law expires almost exactly a year from now, on September 30, 2009. As I said in testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in June, the new law absolutely can't be just another lame "echo-TEA" bill, meaning we need to focus more on providing people with more transportation options. Although the ISTEA bill drove some changes, including more transit lines, bike paths and improved compatibility of clean air and transportation plans, it didn't do enough. By most measurements, we're in the same fix as before: We have world-class interstate roads complemented by remedial-class public transportation. We need some serious policy reform that moves us  towards a balanced system that provides an array of real choices for businesses and consumers so we won't be forced to burn a gallon of gas every time we need a gallon of milk.

NRDC is proud to be a founding member of a coalition that is focused on building such a high-performance system: Transportation for America. This growing coalition of developers, housing advocates, transportation experts and conservation groups is tired of business as usual.

 What would serve America better? Transportation for America demands policy that will:

1) Build to compete. I just got back from a two-week tour of England, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden and have seen transit-friendly projects like this, this, and this that show we have fallen woefully behind.

Just take a look at the Copenhagen Metro (Thanks to Gadgetbox for the photo):

Metro rail car

Among the remarkable features of Metro is that the wait between trains is a mere three minutes, it has a 98 percent on-time departure record, the trains are driverless and the whole system actually turns a modest profit! As with other international cities, this is just one means of public transportation. It is complemented by regional as well as intercity rail systems (One of which is integrated into the bridge between Denmark and Sweden), along with a bus network.

Not to mention the commitment to rail made in the Far East, especially Japan and China. All these countries are attracting top-notch employers and development in part because they take transportation seriously. Rail, buses, bikes - you name it, they've got it, and they are building more.

2)      Invest for a clean, green recovery. We can build our way out of the economic downturn. There are ready-to-go rail and rapid bus projects in 78 metro areas across the country, investing in them creates almost seven million good jobs.

3)      Fix what's broken. This is a no-brainer, especially after the disastrous Minneapolis bridge collapse. Too much of our infrastructure is in poor repair. And guess what? A thorough restoration program would generate almost 15 million good jobs.

4)      Stop wasteful spending. Many road projects in the pipeline should be reviewed and ultimately cancelled. That's exactly what the Pennsylvania and Tennessee transportation departments have done in recent years, saving scarce taxpayer dollars.

5)      Save Americans money.  Building more public transportation will give consumers the option to skip costly trips to the gas station and spur economic development that expands the tax base in communities (by asking private developers to contribute towards new service) across the country.

In short, we need a 21st-century transportation policy that drives down our oil addiction, cuts pollution and makes us economically competitive again. We need a bill without wasteful "bridges to nowhere," and that instead builds a multi-modal bridge to somewhere worth the trip.