Final Word

Have you hugged a tree hugger today?

Maybe it’s time you do. This September Congress is supposed to reauthorize the six-year federal transportation program that puts some $40 to $50 billion per year back into the transportation construction industry.

Roadbuilders will say they need more money for asphalt and concrete. Environmentalists will fight for fewer roads, more bicycle paths and public transportation. This Kabuki dance will go on until somebody bangs a gavel and passes a bill that, if history is any guide, will contain half the money needed to fix our highways and a pittance for bike paths and public transit.

Ray LaHood, the new head of the Department of Transportation in the Obama administration, however, says he favors continuing the current program for 18 months until everybody can figure out what to fund and how to fund it. This 18-month period could very well become an opportunity for the roadbuilders and environmentalists to sheath their swords and craft a bill that would be a huge improvement over these ancient and unproductive grudges.

First we need to get rid of the demagoguery. Conservatives have so demonized government and taxes that no politician will dare support a gas tax increase. So our roads continue to crumble and roadbuilders, their suppliers and subcontractors, nearly all of whom are conservatives, are getting hammered more than almost any other any other sector in the economy. Not too smart.

The second bad argument is that public transportation will never pay for itself. Well duh. It doesn’t pay for itself anywhere else in the world either, but without it Europe’s cities would be unlivable.

For its part the environmental community needs to realize that attacking the roadbuilding industry isn’t going to usher in a new green Valhalla; that achieving a less congested, less polluting transportation system will require decades of work and commitment. In all likelihood we’ll need to reconfigure our cities along corridors where automobiles get you to a certain point and then interlocking subways, bus routes and bike paths take you the rest of the way. And that means construction – lots of it. Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, has already launched such an initiative. Check out what Time magazine said about it on the web at: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1904187,00.html.

The roadbuilding industry isn’t going to do it alone, nor are the environmentalists. But if the two combine forces and go back to Congress in 18 months with a unified plan then we might stand a chance of getting the funding needed to do the job right. If enough people supported it, we could double the money going to the highway program, quadruple what we’re spending for bike lanes and public transportation and fund this with a new federal fuels tax that would add less to the cost of a gallon of gas .or diesel than market forces have added in just the past four weeks.

The key word here is consensus. United, everybody gains. Divided we all fail.