Keep the truth in circulation
By Kirk Landers
In early January an organization called the Earth Policy Institute released a report noting that the automobile population in the United States declined in 2009 for the first time since World War II, thanks to a precipitous drop in new car sales.
The group concluded that America’s vehicle fleet will continue to decrease in the coming years as the citizenry abandons automobile travel for more prudent forms of transportation.
“The coming shrinkage of the U.S. car fleet also means that there will be little need to build new roads and highways,” said Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute president. “Fewer cars on the road reduces highway and street maintenance costs and lessens demand for parking lots and parking garages. It also sets the stage for greater investment in public transit and high-speed intercity rail.”
When you see this kind of balderdash published in the op-ed section of your local newspaper or advanced on a local news broadcast, take the time to send a short email or letter that rights the record.
In the fog of war surrounding the national debate on transportation infrastructure, this is a left-wing fantasy. The right-wing fantasy is that the cost of road and bridge maintenance can be turned back to the states. The centrist fantasy is that the problem can be solved without increasing the fuel tax.
Here’s what’s wrong with the Earth Policy Institute’s scenario:
• Public transportation is not economically sustainable in the United States. It is heavily subsidized by the federal fuel tax and by state and local government general revenues. None of those sources is in a position to take on more financial burden.
• Public transportation works best in high-population density areas, and not at all in low-population density areas. It accounts for a tiny percentage of America’s current transportation profile; it would take decades – and tens of billions of dollars of new funding – to increase public transportation’s share of U.S. daily mobility to a double digit percentage.
• The number of vehicles in the U.S. fleet has no direct impact on highway usage. We have had many more vehicles than drivers for decades – currently, 18 percent more vehicles. They are collectors’ items, backup vehicles, and specialty vehicles for commerce or recreation. The key number for highway usage is vehicle miles travelled. John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, notes that VMT numbers dipped 3.5 percent in 2008 with the onset of the recession, but actually grew slightly (0.2 percent) in 2009. Significantly, transit ridership dropped 3.8 percent in 2009.
• Intercity high-speed rail has the potential to relieve airport congestion, but its potential to relieve highway congestion is negligible, especially in the short term.
The point of all this isn’t to vilify pro-transit, left-wing interests. It is to make sure those of us who are stakeholders in the transportation/tax debate keep the debate honest. When you see this kind of balderdash published in the op-ed section of your local newspaper or advanced on a local news broadcast, take the time to send a short email or letter that rights the record.
Here’s the truth: We haven’t increased the federal fuel tax since 1990. In the 20 years since then, vehicle miles travelled have increased about 40 percent and lane miles have increased about 6 percent. That adds up to a terrible deficit in transportation investment – and a threat to our economic well being. EW