Denial – It ain’t just a river in Egypt

As I’ve written about before, confronting the scale of our oil addiction – 21 million barrels consumed daily, and increasing – requires many steps. Congress and the President signed an energy bill that makes a dent via boosts in fuel-efficiency and shifts to substitutes. But it’s just a start, since it will save less than ten percent of projected oil consumption in 2020.

And this week there’s evidence that denial is once again flowing through Washington.

As required by the pork-barrel $300-billion transportation bill passed in 2005, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission released its report on the future of the system of roads, rail and bike/pedestrian paths supported with your federal tax dollars. This is the first major salvo in the transportation bill debate.

There are laudable ideas in the report including creative ideas for financing transportation and a commitment to oil-efficient trains, as noted by the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) in a statement, and as my friend Michael Replogle of Environmental Defense (ED) rightly states the report attempts to grapple with the fact that the “system is broke and broken” in part by supporting fundamental reforms as well as innovative ways of financing the system which would reduce pollution.

But in terms of the environmental implications – most notably heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions due to oil consumption – it misses the mark. First, the report claims to cover three legs of a stool. The first leg? Speeding up environmental reviews, so-called “streamlining” or as I call it, “steamrolling”. This issue came up during transportation bill fights in 1998 and 2005. Based on my research on this issue -- I testified about a streamlining bill back in ’02 -- I can attest to the fact that project delays are mostly due to other factors (inadequate funding and poor project design among others), and that the way to steer clear of environmental controversy is to get the public MORE involved by investing in more outreach as well as high-tech tools for showing what a completed project looks like. The fact that this is one-third of the proposed legislative reform program is, frankly, ludicrous.

As noted by NARP and ED the other two legs have redeeming traits including innovative pricing mechanisms (tolling, congestion pricing) that should help reduce pollution, a commitment to intercity passenger rail, a recognition of the need for tackling freight movement, some additional funding (but only two percent more than in the current program) explicitly devoted to environmentally beneficial programs, as well as important (albeit vague) promises to address metropolitan area concerns and the dearth of solid performance standards for transportation programs.

But the report has already been tarred for its most controversial recommendation buried towards the end of the report (but not missed by the press): a 40-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike. And this recommendation bookending those for environmental streamlining, neatly sum up what’s wrong with the entire thing. Streamlining assumes that faster is necessarily better. A big gas tax hike assumes that more is necessarily better. Both assumptions are wrong.

I agree with the commission that we need a leap of progress beyond the last two “echo-TEA” bills, which stuck with the framework of 1991’s landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). To achieve it, the next bill must address the climate challenge, which is barely mentioned in the report. It must address the oil-addiction challenge, which is only mentioned as part of an energy security partnership with the Energy Department to develop alternative fuels. It must address the challenge of suburban sprawl, which chews up open space, threatens water quality, and puts a strain on public infrastructure budgets. And it must provide Americans with more transportation choices, so that when you and I walk out our front doors to run an errand or commute we aren’t constrained to one option – driving our car or truck -- as is the case in the vast majority of U.S. neighborhoods.

To do this, the bill must commit to a key metric, which is a must-have if we are to kick the oil habit and solve the climate threat: It must slow, stop and reverse the growth in vehicle miles of travel, which have been inching steadily upward for decades now.

Can’t be done without negatively affecting consumers and the economy? Not so. Portland, Oregon, a thriving metropolitan area, is doing it. And there’s an analogous feat that seemed impossible, or at least improbable, just a few decades ago: Decoupling energy consumption from economic growth. National energy intensity of the economy has been dropping since the 1970s. And some states – notably California – prove that this trend can (and should) be accelerated using public policy, without ill effects for the economy.

The transportation law expires next fall. Now is the time to sift the wheat from the chaff in reports like this, and use the former to help build a new, better, transformative program.