Taking the Wheel: Achieving a Competitive Transportation Sector Through Mobility Choice

A year ago this week I helped launch a new coalition, Mobility Choice. The group has now grown to almost 20 experts on transportation, energy, national security and economics. We have a consensus blueprint that if adopted would help reform U.S. transportation policy, cheaply and effectively. While this plan doesn't include all of NRDC's priorities for a new transportation policy, let alone those of another coalition we drive, it has bipartisan backing and could get more of the same.

For example, I think it would interest the incoming House Transportation Committee Chair, Rep. John Mica who hails from Florida's seventh district (which includes Daytona as you'll learn if you watch this Colbert show interview which the Congressman gamely granted). Chairman-elect Mica is making waves by questioning current transportation policy and investments, making reasonable statements such as this one: "I'm a strong advocate of high-speed rail, but it has to be where it makes sense." He would specifically target the Northeast Corridor, where potential ridership would guarantee decent return on the investment. As we consider tightening our fiscal belt as a nation, the massive transportation program is indeed a good place to look for savings by better targeting resources.

And the Mobility Choice coalition is especially interested in targeting those resources so they reduce our oil dependence in two ways: First, more of us should have options for meeting their daily needs which they can opt into should a spike in oil prices make that necessary. Second, we should drive down the oil intensity of our transportation sector further than what's being accomplished by raising vehicle standards by offering more mobility options for consumers in order to insulate us from sustained price hikes. This is the double-benefit more mobility choice in the transportation marketplace can give us: Increased capacity to save gasoline in a hurry, and overall reduced gasoline bills due to less traffic congestion on the roads.

For more detail, see the press release re-printed below, including a link to the new report.

Transportation Options Could Reduce Oil Dependency, Government Waste

New Coalition Analysis Says Improved Technology, Telecommuting and Other Policy Changes Can Play Role

WASHINGTON (November 23, 2010) – By increasing competition among transportation modes, making transportation pricing transparent and tying transportation spending to energy and economic performance, America could cut oil demand by as much as 779 million barrels a year by 2030, according to a new analysis released today by the Mobility Choice Coalition.

As the holiday driving season approaches, and at a time when national transportation infrastructure policy is up for revision and improvement, policy makers must take a fresh look at transportation, the 19-member coalition says.

The analysis “Taking the Wheel: Achieving a Competitive Transportation Sector Through Mobility Choice,” details the benefits of 10 specific policy options that would level the playing field among transportation options. If all were adopted, U.S. oil demand would fall by as much as 462 million barrels of oil per year by 2020 and 779 million barrels a year by 2030. Right now, the country uses about 6.8 billion barrels, or nearly 300 billion gallons, of oil annually. (There are 42 gallons of oil per barrel.)

The report’s recommendations aim to reduce economic disruptions from oil spikes, cut wasteful government spending and provide Americans with economical and convenient transportation options.

“Taxpayers have made their anger over wasteful government spending clear, and we know there are ways to re-introduce accountability for how the federal government spends tax dollars, specifically as it relates to transportation,” said report co-author Anne Korin of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS ). “When it comes to transportation, Americans need to get what they pay for and pay for what they get.”

For the first time, environmental and security organizations in the Mobility Choice Coalition analyzed the specific effects on oil demand from telecommuting, improved transportation technology, transit vouchers and other transportation policies, and makes recommendations on how to implement them to reap the oil savings.

As an example, the report said government agencies can set a good example by encouraging telecommuting and a compressed workweek for its workforce. Barriers to telecommuting in state and local tax codes should be eliminated, and tax incentives can be provided for telecommuting infrastructure setup, Internet connectivity and maintenance costs; similar to the tax-free benefits currently provided for other workplace transportation costs. The oil savings that result can be found in the report.

“More Americans should be able to avoid traffic by taking the broadband superhighway to work.” said Chuck Wilsker, President and CEO of the Telework Coalition. “Telecommuting would save energy, money and reduce traffic congestion for all of us.”

The report also includes new recommendations such an oil-security fee and transit vouchers for low-income riders, along with more familiar policy ideas such as use of high-occupancy toll lanes, intelligent transportation systems and bus rapid transit.

“As long as the playing field is level, modern buses can save energy and compete with any mode of transportation as a cost-effective and efficient alternative,” said  Peter J. Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association.

The report also calls for an increased federal investment in transportation technology to save drivers time and money and increased transportation system efficiency and services.

“Improving technology in transportation – everything from synchronized stoplights to real-time traffic, transit and parking information on your smart phone – is critical for minimizing traffic congestion, reducing fuel consumption and saving money,” said Paul Feenstra, vice president of Government Affairs at ITS America.

The report emphasizes having options means not only that people will have greater transportation choices, but also that the nation will have greater flexibility if confronted with oil price spikes or supply restrictions.

“Our country cannot afford to continue barreling along its current transportation spending path, which strands too many consumers due to few travel choices,” said report co-author Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This will only lead to an increase in oil dependence. Putting some of these long-overdue reforms in place would create more transportation options and cut our overall oil use.”