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Menace to Mobility

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Comparing the administration’s new transportation plan to a Soviet ‘five-year plan’ would be unfair to the Soviets.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently published its “Strategic Plan for FY2010-FY2015” and invited public comment. One might be tempted to compare it to a Soviet-style “Five-Year Plan,” but this would be unfair to the Soviets.

Missing from the DOT draft are any references to the benefits of travel—such as helping the unemployed find jobs—or the preferences of American travelers. Also missing are hard data on costs and benefits, on amounts of travel now and in the future, or even an acknowledgment that one of America’s great strengths is the mobility of its people. There is also negligible discussion of the private sector’s role in providing roads or airports, and little discussion of the appropriate division of labor among different levels of government.

The plan reveals that it is the policy of this administration to force us out of our cars. Even while the government all but owns an automobile company, General Motors, in this document it has declared war on the auto.

While the government all but owns an automobile company, General Motors, it has declared war in this document on the auto.

The DOT plan focuses on five areas: safety, maintenance, economic competitiveness, livable communities, and environmental sustainability. In a far-flung and growing country, expanding existing capacity barely merits an asterisk.

So what are the administration’s claimed priorities?

Safety. The plan declares that “Improving safety is DOT’s top priority,” yet the administration is tightening federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, requiring new cars to average 35.5 miles per gallons by 2016. A 2001 study by the National Research Council concluded that the standards legislated in 1975—which required new cars to average 18 miles per gallon (mpg) in 1978, increasing to 27.5 mpg in 1985—were responsible for 2,000 additional highway deaths per year, as manufacturers downsized vehicles to increase fuel efficiency, making the cars less crashworthy. DOT’s top priority “to reduce transportation-related fatalities and injuries” apparently doesn’t extend to those of us foolish enough to drive cars.

Maintenance. The plan says it is essential “that we be good stewards and apply asset management principles proactively to maintain and modernize our critical infrastruc-ture to maximize its productivity and performance and minimize full life-cycle costs.” Yet federal funding policies, with their emphasis on grants for capital improvements, favor new investment over maintenance. The best way to encourage good stewardship of “critical highway, bridge, transit, airport and railroad assets” is through private ownership, because private owners have compelling incentives to keep income-producing properties in good repair.

DOT’s top priority ‘to reduce transportation-related fatalities and injuries’ apparently doesn’t extend to those of us foolish enough to drive cars.

Economic competitiveness. The plan claims that “achieving the maximum net economic benefit from our transportation investments is essential.” But the federal government—which provides no analysis to justify its proposed investment in high-speed rail—has no yardstick with which to compare investments. Private investors use profitability for this purpose. The World Bank preaches the virtues of benefit-cost analysis. But the DOT uses neither criterion. And, to make it easier to spend federal funds on transit and bikeways, it has actually relaxed transit investment criteria used by previous administrations.

Livable communities. The plan gives high priority to what Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls “livability,” which he recently defined as “being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car." This is a dream world. Some people may wish to live this way, but most Americans don’t—and can’t. They need cars to get to work, shop, visit friends and family, attend classes and church. The administration seeks to discourage this alternative. More ominously, the strategic plan seeks to make federal transportation funding dependent on federally acceptable arrangements for land-use planning. Such planning, if desired by voters, should be a function of local government, not Washington. Federal control over local land-use decisions would constitute an unacceptable centralization and usurpation of power and expose members of Congress to pressure from still another special interest: land developers.

More ominously, the strategic plan seeks to make federal transportation funding dependent on federally acceptable arrangements for land-use planning.

Environmental sustainability. To speed the transition to this “New Generation” America where cars are a nostalgic non-necessity, the DOT plan seeks to reduce “carbon, other harmful emissions, and the consumption of fossil fuels” and to “advance transportation investments that reduce energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions.” The plan does not seek to reduce such emissions inexpensively. One of the proposals is to “begin development of a national network of high-speed rail corridors by investing in an efficient, high-speed passenger rail network of 100–600 mile intercity corridors that connect communities across America, beginning with the $8 billion down payment provided in the Recovery Act and a proposed high-speed rail grant program of $1 billion per year.” But the costs of avoiding a ton of carbon by investing in high-speed rail are huge. Portland, Oregon’s North Interstate light rail would save so little carbon that it would take 172 years for the savings to cover the construction costs, assuming construction is completed on time and on budget. DOT’s plan seems to assume that any environmental saving, however small, justifies any expenditure, however large.

The DOT strategic plan, when all of the rhetoric is stripped away, is a bold-faced assault on personal choice and rational decision making. The administration has a vision and it intends to force it on us.

DOT’s plan seems to assume that any environmental saving, however small, justifies any expenditure, however large.

Rather than increasing Washington’s power over our mobility decisions, we should be limiting its power. A good place to start would be by dissolving the federal Highway Trust Fund, which was created in 1956 to finance the now-nearly 47,000-mile Interstate Highway System. For all practical purposes, the interstate system was completed decades ago. But the tax and the so-called trust fund remain—more than a quarter of it explicitly siphoned off each year for purposes unrelated to highway construction or maintenance.

The federal fuel tax needs to be reauthorized before March 2011; Congress should end it instead. Eliminating it would result in federal fuel taxes being phased out and give the states—which own the interstates—full responsibility for highway financing. States would have strong incentives to improve the highways in their jurisdiction, spawning innovation. Successful innovations, such as contracting out some or all of their operations to private firms, would be copied in other states.

The Duke of Wellington once objected to railroads because they “will only encourage the lower classes to move about needlessly.” Now, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, considers it his job “to coerce people out of their cars.” Such disdain for travelers is regrettable. The administration needs to rethink its priorities.

Gabriel Roth worked for 20 years on five continents as a World Bank transportation economist. He is a research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and editor of Street Smart—Competition, Entrepre-neurship and the Future of Roads.

FURTHER READING: Read THE AMERICAN’s automotive columns by Ralph Kinney Bennett here. Dustin Chambers and Dan Ervin discuss “The Green Con Job.” AEI’s Kevin Hassett says “Obama Discovers One More Crisis for a Toxic Tax” on gas, and Jonah Goldberg explains “Oil: The Real Green Fuel.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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