Commission wrestles with long-term transport problems

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As flooding from a foot of rain stranded motorists and shut down most commuter trains into the city, a 12-person commission gathered Monday, June 26 in Washington to talk about transport problems.

One presenter at the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters, trade analyst Praveen Dixit, told the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission: “I’m especially glad to be here, because the air-conditioning unit of the Department of Commerce is underwater.” When Sandra Bushue, deputy federal transit administrator, took her turn before the commissioners, she immediately was asked: “Is the Metro open?”

The commission, created by Congress in 2005 and meeting for only the second time, has the momentous job of examining the condition and future needs of the nation’s surface transportation system and coming up with alternatives to fuel taxes for highway funding. Its deadline for submitting recommendations: July 1, 2007.

“Transportation investments must be wise investments,” Rick Capka, federal highway administrator, told the commission. “Whatever we do, a significant portion of the nation’s wealth will be wrapped up in it.”

“What we’re being asked to do is reform this system,” said Commissioner Rick Geddes, a faculty member at Cornell University’s Department of Policy Analysis and Management.

“It’s not more of anything we’re looking for, but something completely different,” said Commissioner Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission. For example, “We do not have a national freight policy, and it seems to me we ought to have one,” Heminger said.

“This is not just a highway rubber stamp or a rail rubber stamp, but all of these things need to be considered,” said Commissioner Paul Weyrich, longtime rail-transit advocate and co-founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

After a daylong parade of speakers told the commission about a laundry list of transportation problems, Commissioner Frank Busalacchi, Wisconsin transportation secretary, solemnly summarized the feeling of the group. “The finish line here is not going to be pretty,” Busalacchi said. “It’s going to be ugly. This is not going to be an easy lift for Congress.”

The various interrelated challenges discussed at the June 26 meeting included:

Congestion. “Congestion is not temporary, and the adding of capacity alone is not going to solve this problem,” said Jeffrey N. Shane, undersecretary of transportation for policy.

Congestion costs the U.S. economy $168 billion a year, said Jack Wells, the DOT’s chief economist. Congestion costs have grown 8 percent per year since 1982, more than double the rate of growth of the economy. At this rate, 20 years from now the annual cost of congestion will be $890 billion, Wells said.

Much of that congestion will be truck traffic, said forecaster John Conti of the U.S. Department of Energy. In the past 25 years, the number of miles traveled by heavy trucks has increased an average of 3.1 percent a year, Conti said. In the next 25 years, those miles will grow by about 2.3 percent annually, Conti said.

“That’s 70 percent more trucks on the highways!” cried Commissioner Matt Rose, chief executive officer of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.

“Where are they going to go?” asked Commissioner Frank McArdle, managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York.

Trade. Total U.S. trade, exports plus imports, doubled in the past 10 years, Dixit said, from $1.3 billion to $2.6 billion. “More trade means more domestic freight movements in all forms of transportation,” Shane said.

By 2020, our international trade will have increased dramatically, largely in the form of shipping containers, Shane said. By 2008, more than 150 cargo vessels that hold 8,000 to 9,200 containers apiece will be in regular service, and ships that can hold 11,000 containers are on the drawing boards.

All those containers will be hauled by rail or truck across the United States, and huge new ports being built in Mexico and Canada will increase and worsen bottlenecks at border crossings.

“We’re going to have a shortfall in West Coast port capacity under any scenario you can imagine,” Shane said. Moreover, the environmental impact of round-the-clock port operations “can’t be overstated,” he said. “The consequences for the poor people who happen to live near the port complex are catastrophic.”

Population growth. This fall, the U.S. population will surpass 300 million, said demographer Howard Hogan of the U.S. Census Bureau.

The U.S. population grows each decade by a number equal to the population of Canada, said longtime transportation consultant Alan E. Pisarski. Needless to add, the United States does not add the infrastructure equivalent of Canada each decade.

Yet, “If we build more than today’s growth, we’ll be accused of inducing growth,” said the commission’s chair, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

Oil. Transportation is overwhelmingly petroleum-dependent, more so than any other sector of the economy, and the current gap between domestic oil supply and domestic oil consumption only will grow, Conti said. “If we want to get serious about reducing oil imports, there’s a big bull’s-eye on the transportation sector,” he said.

Conti said that when calculating the economic benefits of alternative oil production – for example, the conversion of coal into oil – he sometimes assumes a 2030 oil price of $57 a barrel, sometimes of $96 a barrel. Asked what happens to his model when the price reaches $150 a barrel, Conti replied, “It breaks.”

Funding. “The Federal Highway Trust Fund is no longer sustainable in its current form,” Capka said. “States are looking for more reliable alternatives, and there is an opportunity for the private sector to get involved.”

In the next 25 years, federal fuel tax revenue will drop 50 percent in real dollars, Conti said. “That doesn’t count the penetration of alternative fuels that are not taxed,” he added – a significant penetration, since he also expects alternate-fuel vehicles to be a quarter of all vehicles sold by 2030.

And given the political realities, “In which direction would the fuel tax go, if we did talk about changing it?” Conti asked.

Ultimately, the commission must ask what the federal interest in transportation really is, and does it need re-evaluating, Capka said. He quoted an old saying: “The federal interest is that which the federal government can afford.” The commission needs to explore user-fee options, such as tolls, that will not merely reflect demand, but affect it, he said.

Geddes agreed. “If you just adjust the user fee, you can influence demand,” said the Cornell professor. The expansion should be guided by people’s willingness to pay for it, he said. “That’s the difference between markets and a Soviet-style planned economy.”

When McArdle speculated aloud about selling off the system “bit by bit,” Mineta bristled. “There is no selling off of anything in public-private partnerships,” Mineta said. “I want to emphasize that over and over again. None of the assets are being sold.”

Lack of data. Pisarski, who chairs the Transportation Research Board’s data committee, reported that DOT had done “a poor job” through the years in gathering and updating data, leaving planners ill-equipped. The transportation achievements of the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations were triumphs of data-gathering before they were triumphs of earth-moving, Pisarski said.

Very early in DOT’s history, Pisarski said, Congress sent the department “a very nasty letter” decrying the dearth of data.

“They sent the same letter three weeks ago,” Mineta replied. “It’s the same problem. If we don’t have the money, we can’t do it.”

Another problem, the commission was told, is that American lives change more quickly than data-gatherers realize. For example, although commuter issues have dominated transportation discussions for years, commuters now make up only 20 percent of local passenger travel, Pisarski said.

Many American travel patterns other than commuting simply are not being studied and measured, Heminger said. “For many families, the trip to the day-care center is the most important trip of the day, not the commute. We don’t even have words to describe those trips.”