» Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talks the right talk. But the American government seems fated to be unable to deliver on his promises.
The pie chart above puts in context the limited degree to which the Obama Administration and the U.S. governing structure in general have committed to advancing alternatives to our nation’s current over-reliance on the automobile. The image comes from France’s national transportation infrastructure plan, which was introduced to public consultation earlier this month. With €170 billion in funds for transport planned to be spent over the next twenty to thirty years, the report articulates a vision in which 95% of public spending goes towards modes other than road and air — with more than fifty percent of funds earmarked for intercity passenger and freight rail projects. Though the program, promoted by a conservative government, has yet to be approved and lacks a funding source, it represents a sea change in what kinds of transport are prioritized in France.
Under the supervision of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the Obama Administration has been making a big deal of its efforts to promote livable communities where people don’t have to drive to get everywhere. At the Netroots Nation conference last week in Las Vegas, Mr. LaHood was especially vocal about his goals. “Americans like their automobiles,” he said. “One of the reasons they like ‘em is because it is in some places in the country the only form of transportation, particularly in rural America.”
He promotes an alternative. Americans would act more like Europeans and Asians when it comes to transportation choice, the Transportation Secretary implied, had President Eisenhower made a commitment to high-speed rail when he advanced his Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. “That’s the kind of vision that President Obama and Vice President Biden [now] have for America,” he said. Mr. LaHood suggested that after 25 years of spending, “80% of America will be connected” to intercity rail.
Yet all evidence suggests that despite Mr. LaHood’s statements — the most honest (and exciting) about the future of American commuting by any U.S. transport secretary ever, as far as I know — there is no way that his goals will be implemented unless there is a massive transformation in the way American politicians think about transportation.
There are two principal explanations for this problem: one, a lack of long-term planning in favor of alternative transportation options; and two, a lack of funding.
From that perspective, the recent announcement of the French long-term transportation plan by Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development, and Sea Minister Jean-Louis Borloo is particularly striking. Mr. Borloo, a member of President Sarkozy’s conservative administration, has advanced what the plan itself argues is “a drastic change in strategy, a major rupture in resolutely privileging the development of alternatives to road-based transport modes.” The result: Two million tons of carbon dioxide economized each year, part of a nationwide commitment to reducing greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020. In France, transportation consumes 68% of the nation’s gas and produces 28% of all emissions.
The plan, which is worthy of a read for French speakers, has four principal goals: Optimizing the existing transportation system to limit the creation of new infrastructure; improving the performance of the system in serving areas far from major metropolitan areas; improving the energy efficiency of the system; and reducing the environmental impact of the network. These priorities have resulted in what is a clear emphasis on improvements in the country’s already well-developed rail system. Not only will 2,300 kilometers (1,429 miles) of new (true) high-speed rail be under construction or complete by 2020, but two major north-south freight railroad corridors will be developed simultaneously to ramp up the country’s use of trains to transport goods.
In addition, €53 billion will be pointed towards the creation of new works of public transportation operating in fixed guideways, about half of which will go to the massive Grand Paris scheme. The doubling of congested highways such as the Paris-Lille autoroute have been eliminated from consideration, since road infrastructure projects will be kept to the absolute minimum. The program is likely to be approved by the government at the end of this year.
Though the state lacks a long-term funding source for the commitment, the plan suggests that whatever money that is available will go almost entirely to non-automotive modes of transport. Even if the government loses power in 2012, the plan’s goals won’t die off, since the opposition Socialists, in pseudo coalition with the Greens, are just as interested in advancing a similar transportation paradigm.
The U.S. lacks a similar long-term plan to develop transportation alternatives. National transportation efforts are not guided by an effort to respond to any particular problem, like climate change or metropolitan congestion, and, in reverse of France’s new priorities, they currently overwhelmingly favor investment in roads over transit and intercity rail. Even if the U.S. Congress ever gets around to approving a new transportation bill — a piece of legislation meant to pinpoint six years of federal funding — it will still spend up to three times on highways that it does on other modes. There is no national plan to articulate why it is important to spend more on rail than on the roads, and the Obama Administration does not seem particularly interested in developing one that has the strong backing of the powers that be.
Moreover, the momentum that seemed to be coming last year for a huge down payment for high-speed rail (on the order of $50 billion or more) has disappeared: A few weeks ago, the U.S. House indicated that it would be supporting a transportation allocation this year with only $1 billion for intercity rail (less than the $2.5 billion from the year before), and more spending on highways than ever.
Mr. LaHood is fond of comparing his administration’s support for high-speed rail to the Eisenhower Interstate project, but he always neglects to mention that that program came with a dedicated revenue base to sponsor it — the fuel tax. There is no similar proposal to reliably fund intercity rail or increase spending on public transportation.
The U.S. Senate’s structural bias towards suburban and rural populations is a constant source of problems for altering investment schemes. The decision by the Republican Party to make transportation investment a partisan issue means that the Obama Administration is faced with mounting opposition to a long-term high-speed rail program. Just as important, the complete unfamiliarity of many Americans towards the importance (or even function) of public transportation or intercity railways makes it difficult to convince their representatives at the local, state, and federal levels that it is worthwhile to stop spending so much on roads. The same is not true of the French population, which is used to using transit.
I don’t want to be the eternal pessimist here — proponents of alternative transportation must remain optimistic about the prospects for future change no matter the obstacles in the way — so I’ll conclude positively. Before becoming the Secretary of Transportation, Mr. LaHood was a Republican with little transportation background. Yet no matter the intransigence of Congress, as a member of the administration he has been steadfast in his advocacy for a transportation system that prioritizes getting around by means other than the car. Perhaps we can content ourselves for now by hoping that he’ll be the example to follow in the future.
Image above: Distribution of French spending priorities in transportation infrastructure long-term plan, from French government