By CAP’s Lee Hamill and Valeri Vasquez.
What happens when military leaders and CEOs join forces? A nation gets a plan for action. In their February 9th report released by Secure America’s Energy Future, or SAFE, the Energy Security Leadership Council, or ESLC, follows through on a muscular statement of purpose and minces no words:
Hostile state actors, insurgents, and terrorists have made clear their intention to use oil as a strategic weapon against the United States.
Ok, we’re listening.
The report, “Transportation Policies for America’s Future: Strengthening Energy Security and Promoting Economic Growth,” ticks off solutions systematically, with a strategic efficiency characteristic of its authors and their day jobs. Policy recommendations zero in on basic economic principles, drawing a direct connection between Americans’ dependence on foreign oil and our national energy security. Uppermost among the proposals is a focus on using oil reduction as a key criterion for transportation policies and investments.
Ours is a Cadillac nation. Transportation alone accounts for 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption, making it an obvious target for oil reduction. The report warns that infrastructure design is not in line with demand, and calls for a significant overhaul:
According to USDOT statistics, physical highway capacity since 1980 has remained essentially unchanged while total miles traveled on the U.S. highway system have almost doubled. The Texas Transportation Institute reports that drivers in metropolitan areas experienced 4.8 billion hours of delay in 2009, wasting 3.9 billion gallons of fuel.
So besides promoting the implementation of final and proposed fuel efficiency standards, and an increased use of alternative fuels, the report lays out several policy options to further reduce oil demand by bolstering investments in infrastructure that lower oil use.
Rather than fund new projects, the report calls for a “fix it first” strategy. Half the nation’s states are guilty of poor infrastructure management, and there are currently projects being funded that build upon these deteriorating roads and highways. In order to see measurable improvements, the report recommends fixing what’s broken before building something new. This benefits American drivers, since 30 percent of fatal accidents are caused by old roads and unsafe highway conditions. Vehicles driven on repaired roads also achieve better fuel economy.
The Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMT, fees proposed as a replacement to current fuel taxes are an interesting proposal. Applying above revenue-neutral fees could save between 45 and 180 thousand barrels per day. What differentiates VMTs from fuel taxes is that instead of taxing gas, VMTs tax the number of miles traveled. Just as they were with fuel taxes, the revenue from VMTs would be invested in transportation infrastructure. As biofuels begin to play a bigger role in the energy market, states with fuel taxes will suffer as their investment funds fall with the falling consumption of fuel. The challenge of a VMT task is to ensure that it does not punish drivers with more fuel efficient vehicles, which the existing tax gas favors because drivers who use less gasoline pay less tax.
Other policy suggestions drawn from the report include reducing road congestion via federal funding and demand-side management. Consolidating federal transportation programs and eliminating duplicate efforts would free a percentage of annual federal transportation funding to be redirected towards congestion-management initiatives like public transportation. The authors also propose a plan for state congestion pricing, or charging travellers for road usage during periods of peak demand. Funds would be redistributed every two years based on factors such as congestion levels and the fuel wasted by idling in traffic. Already proven effective in London, this method has helped clear up traffic while reducing the amount of wasted gas”” not to mention road rage. Here at home, the policy could save an estimated 4.8 billion barrels of oil over the next two decades.
High speed rail (HSR) already has a high-level campion in Vice President Joe Biden. SAFE and the ELSC support it as well. The report suggests that 20 percent of total infrastructure funding be allotted to intercity highways and passenger rail. The ELSC analysis clearly shows rail as a viable option that’s becoming steadily more popular as gas prices rise. Both 2007 and 2008 experienced the highest volume of rail passengers in over 50 years.
While there are several intercity rail systems already in place, there is only one HSR service in the country: the Acela Express. It knocks 1.5 hours of travel time off the commute between Boston, DC, Philadelphia, and New York. As the Center for American Progress noted in the article “It’s Easy Being Green: Rail Transport Picks up Speed,” there are enormous environmental and oil savings benefits to HSR. The proposed California HSR system alone would save 12.7 million barrels of oil by 2030 and “remove 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide per year by 2030 because it uses electricity generated from wind, solar, and other renewable resources.”
The three objectives when it comes to rail funding are improving the operating efficiencies of existing systems, renovating current systems, and expanding rail in areas where it makes economic sense. The report supports HSR with the business-minded qualification that it should be implemented where demand exists. And there is demand in some metropolitan areas. The American Recovery Act of 2009, which set aside $8 billion for HSR, was a great promotion for HSR and other intercity rail systems. Since then, $50 billion has been requested by 24 different states for HSR project funding. As of November 2010, $7.9 billion had been used to fund nearly 80 projects across the country. The governors of New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin would be well advised to reconsider their rejection of HSR, given the jobs this system would create in
the planning, design, and construction of track and station infrastructure as well as the management, design, and manufacturing of high-speed trains. A study by the California High-Speed Rail Authority found that building their proposed HSR system””which would run from Los Angeles to San Francisco and voters OK’d in 2008″”will create 150,000 construction jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs.
The U.S. can and must reduce its oil consumption. “Transportation Policies for America’s Future: Strengthening Energy Security and Promoting Economic Growth,” represents some refreshing proposals to the debate. By focusing on “fix it first,” Vehicle Miles Traveled, and high speed rail strategies, the report provides a guide to improving our transportation sector, more efficiently connecting our population and cutting our oil use in the process.
Read the full ELSC report here.
– By Lee Hamill and Valeri Vasquez of the CAP Energy Policy Team.