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Sick Transit

The president's new budget is predictably bad for mass transit. Alas, the Democrats aren't all that much better on the issue.

This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.

As Jim Webb noted in his response to the 2007 State of the Union Address, “this is the seventh time the president has mentioned energy independence in his State of the Union message, but for the first time this exchange is taking place in a Congress led by the Democratic Party. We are looking for affirmative solutions that will strengthen our nation by freeing us from our dependence on foreign oil.” To be nitpicky, the actual number is technically six times, but the point stands. President Bush, and, for that matter, Democrats in Congress, have repeatedly emphasized the need to reduce our oil consumption for reasons of national security, economic health, and environmental protection.

But actions speak louder than words. And the president’s actions, as proposed in the budget he released last week, are sorely disappointing. Alas, on one key plank the Democrats’ are only marginally better. With all the focus on, in Webb’s words, “alternate energy programs,” too many are ignoring a long-existing technology that, unlike, say, ethanol, already has the power to radically reduce our oil consumption. I’m speaking, of course, of mass transit.

Americans drive more than any other society, using automobiles for 88 percent of all trips. This is a major reason why we contribute 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming.

Meanwhile, America has taken almost all of its trolley systems out of use. Subway and light rail services struggle to cope with budget shortfalls, while Amtrak constantly raises prices and while providing passengers with sub-par service. As anti-sprawl author James Howard Kunstler says, “We have a railroad system in America that the Bolivians would be ashamed of. There isn’t one thing we could do in this country that would have a greater impact on our oil use than restoring the American rail system to something like a European level of service.”

But President Bush, in his budget, proposes to cut the federal Railroad Administration budget by 19 percent, from $1.32 billion to $1.07 billion. Meanwhile, he proposes an equally large percentage increase to the already enormous Federal Highway Administration budget, from $31.48 billion to $37.18 billion. He cannot plausibly claim to take carbon emissions seriously while making such counterproductive budget recommendations. But neither can the Democrats in Congress, whose own proposal last week suggested keeping railroad funding steady at $1.3 billion for Fiscal 2008 — not even enough to keep pace with inflation, never mind improving and expanding service or making tickets more affordable.

Granted, those broad numbers do not necessarily tell the whole story. James McElfish, director of the Sustainable Use of Land Program at the Environmental Law Institute, who just released a report on the impact of suburban sprawl, spoke with the Prospect about the impact of federal spending on sprawl and auto use. He hastened to point out that highway funding can actually be used effectively: “If you were to put bike lanes or redesign cul de sac neighborhoods to create through streets, those would have major effects on sprawl…That being said, we tend to spend most of the budget on new roads that open up areas to sprawl.”

Indeed, another frustration of McElfish’s with how federal spending encourages sprawl and excessive auto use is our chronic under-funding and poor maintenance of existing infrastructure, be it roads or sewers. The quality of life for residents of existing cities and towns is diminished and money gets spent on building new infrastructure in farther flung exurbs– thus creating more sprawl.

McElfish’s wish list for the federal budget includes more appropriations for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (a loan program to maintain sewers and water tunnels) and mass transit, and a “strong statement of ‘fix it first’ on highway expenditures,” he says.

It’s true that at a time of war, with Congress’s domestic spending ability crippled by tax cut-fueled revenue decline, getting significantly more funding for local mass transit and inter-city rail would be difficult. But the issue is not just total numbers, but how that money is appropriated. “What happens,” McElfish explained, “is that with a scarcity of domestic dollars sometimes you end up with people simply fighting to get domestic dollars, less [concerned] about making sure those are devoted to smart development and livability of existing communities.”

But why have Democrats been so remiss in making any effort to change American driving habits and construction patterns? One explanation is that there is insufficient interest group pressure. Though smart-growth and mass transit advocacy organizations have been gaining strength on the local level, there are no powerful national organizations devoted to those issues. The leading coalition on the issue, Smart Growth America, has only a dozen staffers. Compare that to the lobbying power of NARAL or the AFL-CIO (which includes, of course, the United Auto Workers) and you begin to see why Democrats in Congress are asleep at the wheel.

Don Chen, executive director of Smart Growth America, agrees that the federal budget is both influential and problematic from a sensible planning perspective. “The federal government does have a lot of influence over land-use at the local level. And that’s why the budget matters.” Indeed, Smart Growth America’s press release in response to the budget complains about funding cuts to public transportation, Community Development Block Grants, water infrastructure projects, public housing renovation, land conservation programs, and a brownfields redevelopment fund.

But a broader progressive reaction to these issues is lacking. Chen acknowledges, “I wish there was more support among progressives on the issue that we work on.” Although major environmental organizations including the Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council have formed divisions specifically to work on transportation and regional planning, they haven’t mustered the same unified resilience among congressional Democrats on mass transit funding as they have on specific conservation issues, like protecting ANWR from oil drilling.

This makes some sense. As McElfish points out, “the genesis of many of these groups is concern for wildlife, natural areas, clean water, and the like, so that may be what their constituents want.” And he posits another explanation: “It may be that it’s less easy to communicate a win or a loss [on reducing sprawl], than ‘we bought 100,000 acres,’ or ‘we defeated a bill that would rollback the Endangered Species Act’ or some other traditional environmental claim.”

But from a broader environmental perspective, these dynamics add up to a profound political and institutional myopia. The impetus to drill in ANWR, after all, would decrease if we reduced oil use by taking some of that giant highway budget and re-allocating it to mass transit and inter-city rail. And if allowed to continue unabated, global warming promises to do more harm to arctic regions than even drilling would.

Taking on Americans’ love affair with the automobile might not be as politically infeasible as it sounds. Poll results show that Americans want to walk more. Over-reliance on driving causes other problems — not only traffic but 40,000 deaths annually in auto accidents. One might even say that proposing a policy to reduce that number would be consistent with the technocratic, politically cautious approach that has generally defined Democratic domestic spending proposals in recent years. Senator Chuck Schumer proposes in his new book, Positively American, that Democrats attempt to reduce cancer deaths and increase reading scores (he’s also for puppies and kittens); wouldn’t “reducing car traffic and accidents” fit right in on that list?

One hopes that smart growth advocates will organize effectively to push Congress to appropriate transportation funding more wisely. A good way to go would be to regularly tie transit funding to global warming, which both chambers of Congress will be holding hearings on soon. Politicians should realize that when it comes to curbing auto emissions, they don’t need to merely make promises of future salvation by yet-to-be determined new technologies. We can easily begin to reduce emissions with the technology we have today.

Ben Adler is editor of Campus Progress at the Center for American Progress.

This article is available on The American Prospect website.

© 2006 by The American Prospect, Inc.

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