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Barack Obama and the Mass Transit Revolution

January 31, 2009

The emphasis of his plan is essentially inverted, and building more livable and sustainable communities should be a greater priority than increasing consumption. His plan does not provide details, yet Barack Obama will have the opportunity to demonstrate what he means by "reforming federal transportation funding," soon enough. A federal commission created by congress has recommended that the federal gasoline tax be raised by 10 cents and eventually by 40 cents over 5 years in order to maintain the solvency of the Federal Highway Trust Fund which funds the nations roads and highways, as well as mass transit. This is a far cry from the manner in which Hillary Clinton and John McCain appealed to the ignorance of Americans by suggesting that the federal gasoline tax be repealed, albeit in a temporary manner. Barack Obama, to his credit, did not participate in this, but according to the Associated Press, Barack Obama has expressed concern about raising fuel taxes in our current economic climate. Should one assume that Barack Obama would rather see the Federal Highway Trust Fund go bankrupt within the next couple of years than increase the federal gas tax by 10 cents?

The commission also recommended that states raise their gasoline taxes and that the government devise a different method for funding the construction and maintenance of the nation's highways. While building more highways and roads is often seen as way to relieve traffic congestion, Americans need to consider the value of constructing more roads when our society has reached a stage where dozens of millions of Americans are economically challenged by inevitably high gasoline prices, and dozens of millions of Americans can no longer afford to purchase new vehicles because of the financial crisis and the effects it has had on our economy. Moreover, the state of the economy is directly related to the disproportionate consumption of oil of our society. As the price of gasoline and diesel rose, so did the price of goods and services across the economy, straining American consumers and businesses. Conversely, as the price of gasoline rose, the value of homes in the exurbs, places which are remotely located from other population centers, began to drop. These are symptoms of an exorbitantly expensive transportation model which Americans have done very little to change.

Instead, our society has embarked on a race to develop alternative fuels and high fuel economy vehicles, before dozens of millions of Americans become trapped in their urban and suburban ghettos. Up until now, our society has achieved limited results, and based on Barack Obama's proposals and readily observable realities, we are likely to achieve limited results in the short and mid term future. Yet, there is also the opportunity for transformation. An increase in the federal gasoline tax will automatically make more money available for mass transit because 20% of the revenue is apportioned for mass transit. If the stated goals of our society are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce petroleum dependence, and improve the economy, a greater share of federal gasoline tax revenue should be apportioned for mass transit. Here, Barack Obama will have an opportunity to demonstrate how superficial or how profound the change he has proposed for America is.

Some of the cuts in oil consumption in other industrialized nations may be attributable to a slowdown in economic activity, but what is inescapable is the fundamental role which mass transit systems play in these societies. Mass transit allows these societies to maintain lower oil consumption rates and when the price of oil and its refined products climb, the citizens of the urban areas of these societies have the option to consume less, while still maintaining an adequate level of mobility. In the U.S., vast portions of its citizens simply don't have this option, our demand is inelastic. It is illustrative to point out that within the U.S., the state which has the lowest per capita gasoline consumption rate is New York. What is also inescapable, is that when the price of oil climbs, it disproportionately adversely affects the U.S. economy.

The path towards reducing petroleum dependence outlined by Barack Obama has already been traveled by California, without much success, and in other instances, such as with the aformentioned propositon 10, and in 2006 with proposition 87, which would have imposed $4 billion of taxes on oil producers to research alternative energy, rejected by California voters.

In 2000, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 2076 which required the California Energy Commission and the California Air Resources Board to examine ways that California could reduce its dependence on petroleum. The agencies published a report in 2003 titled, "Reducing California’s Petroleum Dependence." The 19 page report does not discuss mass transit. Its main recommendation was that California reduce its gasoline and diesel consumption by 15% below the 2003 level by 2020 and maintain that reduction for the foreseeable future, relying primarily on vehicle efficiency improvements and the introduction of alternative fuels to petroleum.

From 2003 to 2007 gasoline sales generally increased and the difference between the two years was an increase of .0007% by 2007 in California. The Board of Equalization has not yet reported sales for the fourth quarter of 2008, but for the first three quarters of 2008, gasoline sales dropped by 3.8% compared to the first three quarters of 2007, and dropped 3.3% compared to the first three quarters of 2003. Regarding diesel sales in California, from 2003 to 2007, they increased by 15.5%. For the first three quarters of 2008 compared to the first three quarters of 2003, diesel sales increased by 8%.

The recent drop in petroleum consumption is largely due to the dire effects that $3.50 an $4.00 per gallon gasoline has had on our economy. Which is why recommending that California reduce its petroleum consumption by 15% below 2003 levels by 2020 in 2003 was a recommendation that did not seem to have much of a practical application to reality. What is the point of reducing petroleum dependence by 15% below 2003 levels by 2020 if our economy will have collapsed by then, from the weight of that petroleum dependence? The authors of these studies are no doubt experts at making calculations and figuring out what can be produced with available resources and assumed to be available resources, but not everybody can know everything. I doubt that they had the predictive ability to have anticipated the burst of the housing bubble, the financial crisis, that American car companies would be on the verge of bankruptcy, the degree or severity with which climate change occurs, the record high unemployment figures, the degree to and pace at which oil demand increases in Asia and Latin America and the inevitable economic squeeze this creates for the radically car dependent American population. Otherwise, their recommendation would not be logical. Not considering mass transit as a viable option towards reducing petroleum consumption and not pursposefully creating a more sustainable environment was, and is, willful ignorance.

As examples of this willful ignorance consider the responses which I received in 2005 from some of the principle authors of the aforementioned report. Susan Brown wrote, "Based on available research, and our analysis of the potential for public transit in the technical appendices to the AB 2076 Report, we concluded that even doubling use of public transit in California, would have a minor(as I recall about 2 percent effect) on reducing petroleum demand."

Yes, if vehicle miles traveled by mass transit are 1% of total vehicle miles traveled in California, as was determined by the authors in the appendices, doubling use of mass transit would only reduce petroleum dependence by 2 percent or some other small figure, assuming that doubling the use of mass transit would bring total vehicle miles traveled by mass transit to a whopping 2%. Yet, imagine a mass transit revolution that created the type of mass transit systems that Europeans enjoy. California is the 8th largest economy in the world and Californians spent nearly $60 billion on gasoline and diesel in 2007. What is lacking is not resources, but will and imagination.

Gerry Bemis provided me an equally obtuse response: "The Energy Commission sees mass transit as providing only a modest reduction in petroleum demand, maybe 5% or so. Not every city has an efficient transit system…Much of Sacramento is not well served by our transit system due to the length of trips and/or need for multiple transfers."

While California's official policies remain heavily biased and weighted towards alternative fuels, policy makers have opened their minds to the role that mass transit can and will have to play. In response to Assembly Bill 1007, passed in 2005, the CEC and CARB published in 2007 a report titled, "State Alternative Fuels Plan." The plan proposes that a five part strategy is needed to meet California's greenhouse gas emission and petroleum consumption reduction goals. Part of that strategy is to "maximize the use of mass transit, encourage smart growth and land use planning to help reduce vehicle miles traveled and vehicle hours traveled."

In discussing California's gasoline and diesel consumption which has increased nearly 50 percent since 1986, the report cites, "lack of mass transit" among the reasons for this increase.

The report also acknowledges that "alternative fuels alone will not be sufficient to meet California's aggressive 2050 GHG emissions reduction goal." It states that reducing green house gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 could occur by, among other things, "Increasing use of mass transit and public transportation, as an alternative to personal motor vehicle use."

The strategy that California is pursuing is likely over dependent on alternative fuels, and does not emphasize conservation enough. According to the report, "The transportation fuel market is enormously complex...To understand the magnitude of this undertaking, increasing the use of non-petroleum fuels to 20 percent of on-road fuel demand by 2020 is equivalent to 4.8 billion gallons of non-petroleum fuels. Achieving this goal will require the introduction and use of an additional 370 million gallons of new non-petroleum fuel supplies into the California transportation market each year, or about 1 million gallons of new supply each day for the next 12 years."

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