Americans Can’t Afford a Highway-Centric Transportation Bill

If Congress passes a transpo bill that skimps on transit and safe streets, they'll force more Americans to shell out at the pump. Image: ##http://apps.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=31886##EDF##

Gas prices, you may have heard, are on the rise again. And so is pandering about pain at the pump. Four years after $4 a gallon gas spawned “Drill, Baby, Drill” and insane political gimmickry on the presidential campaign trail (remember the “gas tax holiday” favored by John McCain and Hillary Clinton?), gas price populism is back with a vengeance.

To hear House Speaker John Boehner tell it, oil drilling and highways are all it takes to liberate American families from the tyranny of the pump. The Republican presidential candidates are also promising to reduce the price of gas through the magic of drilling. Even Ron Paul — the guy who supposedly gets how markets work — posits that he could bring about dime a gallon gas.

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are flailing away at phantom price gougers and Wall Street speculators. Even President Obama, who never fell for the gas tax holiday while campaigning in 2008, is exaggerating the potential of alternative fuels to substitute for gas.

As Dave Roberts has noted on Grist, just about everyone in Washington seems scared to come out and face reality. Gas prices are set largely by the global oil market, and the only sure way to protect Americans from high prices at the pump is to make it easier to use less gas.

Even with the House and Senate neck deep in the process of updating national transportation policy, few in Congress are willing to point out the obvious: The next transportation bill is a golden opportunity to save Americans money by giving them more affordable ways to get around.

A 2006 study found that working families in 28 American metro areas spend, on average, 29 percent of household income on transportation — even more than they spend on housing [PDF]. And a two-person adult household that uses transit saves an average of $6,251 per year compared to a household with two cars and no transit access, according to the Complete Streets Coalition [PDF].

In other words, by investing in transit and safe streets Congress can help Americans unlock huge savings — much more than the typical family saw from the most recent round of tax cuts.

Instead, Boehner and the House GOP leadership put out a bill that doubled down on car dependence, yanking away dedicated funding for transit, biking and walking. While it looks like the House GOP is going to abandon their outright attack on transit, early indications are that their Plan B will shortchange investment in more affordable transportation too. Boehner still thinks “drill and drive” is a winning message.

So someone’s got to say it: John Boehner’s transportation policy is a recipe for impoverishing people. Americans can’t afford a transportation bill that forces families to burn fuel every time they want to go somewhere.

  • A remarkable amount of money is spent keeping Americans dependent on their cars. The public transit we do have in this country is often infrequent and unreliable. It can also be crowded, dirty and unpleasant. Not too hard to convince the multitudes it’s a terrible option that doesn’t deserve support. The fact that many other countries have had reliable, efficient and pleasant forms of public transit for over a century appears to be a well-kept secret. The fact that before WWII the US had a rail system that transported people hither and yon about the nation and that most of our cities had a well-used network of streetcars or trolleys seems beyond our recall.

    We have a powerful myth of what the American dream is all about. The rugged individualist. The open road. The unspoiled frontier. Suburbia is our Eden; the SUV is our fortified tank to subdue both nature and the soccer field. Not owning a luxury car invites pity; not owning a car at all invokes shame. Though it’s painful to acknowledge, the antics in Congress in a very deep way reflect the attitudes of the American people.

    We are going to have a very, very hard time with the transition ahead of us.

  • Kev

    One gallon of gas for a “silver dime” aprox $3.50 – love / fear Ron Paul

    I love public transit but it doesn’t go everywhere. Gas is going nowhere but up; I hear 5$ this summer and wouldn’t be surprised by 8$ by next. As this happens there will be more people choosing alternatives such as car pooling (slugging ), biking and public transit.
    To prepare our nation we will need Bills that focus on our future needs. Hopefully the polices will not force us to Drill till the last Drop.

    I figure worse case senerio 40 years i’ll be floating above a sunken city sailing after the fish that have reestablish them selves after the age of cheep energy is over. (Kidding, hopefully anyway)

  • I agree that the culturally ingrained American Dream has resulted in people across the country irrationally fighting against transit projects and dedicating large portions of their salary to depreciating assets and oil companies. There are other people, though, who get it. Who refuse to be shamed for not owning a car. Who don’t compare themselves to their SUV driving neighbor, and understand the significant, and sometimes unseen, benefits of auto independence.

    These people are the “silent minority”, and even though they vote, they are not considered part of mainstream American society. And with the dismal condition of many transit systems in U.S. cities, the perception and reputation of transit (and its riders) may not change without significant funding to improve and expand systems.

  • I think it’s too easy to think of ourselves as an embattled minority. Although highway projects can be astoundingly popular (see e.g. the failure of the attempt to ban the Seattle tunnel), the same is even truer of transit projects. In places you wouldn’t expect to be transit meccas, including LA County and Salt Lake City, transit sales taxes win referendums, sometimes by two-thirds majorities. The problem is not the voters; it’s those little regulations that matter that voters don’t really have a say in, which can make a difference between a $30 million project that gets 5,000 riders a day and a $100 million project that gets 1,000.

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