Transportation

Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Squandering the Stimulus

America’s dependence on oil has become increasingly painful. Two thirds of oil in the United States goes to transportation, with the largest share consumed by cars and trucks. As the rising price of gasoline makes driving more expensive, Americans have sought alternatives by driving a little less and riding public transportation more. 

Unfortunately, government policy does too little to help Americans drive less. Energy experts generally agree that the era of cheap gas is over. Scientists likewise agree that road-based global warming pollution must be reduced. But lawmakers have not taken enough steps to help Americans consume less at the pump. On the contrary, overall government policies continue to encourage more driving at the expense of alternatives, leaving Americans poorer, stuck in worsening traffic, and emitting dangerous levels of global-warming pollution. 

Nothing illustrates how the lack of transportation options hurts consumers and our economy more than the fact that, since approval of the tax rebates in February, Americans on average have already spent the amount of their stimulus checks at the pump. The standard stimulus rebate check for American families with a joint filing couple and a child is $1,500. As of this week, the average family household will have already spent over $1,500 at the gas pump since February 13th when President Bush signed the tax rebate checks into law.  

The situation is akin to families signing over their rebate checks to big oil companies like Exxon Mobil or sending them to oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia. We can reduce our crippling dependence on oil through long-term solutions that will make it easier for Americans to drive less. Modern buses, light rail, commuter rail and other forms of transit more efficiently move passengers with less fuel. 

Transit also reduces traffic congestion and encourages more compact development patterns which, in turn, further reduce the amount Americans must drive. Existing public transportation already reduces America’s oil dependence. Analysis by Georgia PIRG shows that net oil savings from public transportation totaled 3.4 billion gallons in 2006, the last year for which full data on transit agency and ridership is currently available. These oil savings are enough to fuel 5.8 million cars for an entire year and to save about $13.6 billion in gasoline at today’s prices. 

In metro Atlanta, public transit saved 88 million gallons, the equivalent of $359.2 million at today’s gas prices. Comparing spending on transportation in neighborhoods with different access to rail and bus routes underscores the gas-saving benefits of public transit, according to newly released analysis by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) as part of a Brookings Institution project. Based on analysis of 2000 Census data in 52 metro areas, neighborhoods with the best access to transit routes spent an average of $728 monthly on all transportation costs, including gas, insurance, upkeep, and transit fares. Households in communities with the least access to transit, by contrast, spent an average of $925 per month.  Public transit solutions can do far more. 

At present, underfunded transit agencies are struggling to keep up with the record volume of riders. Despite the success of new rail lines and bus routes around the country, a long line of new transit projects remains stuck on the drawing board due to lack of funding. Federal, state, and local governments must invest in solutions to oil dependence through more and better public transportation. 

Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

A Better Way To Go

America’s automobile-centered transportation system was a key component of the nation’s economic prosperity during the 20th century. But our transportation system is increasingly out of step with the challenges of the 21st century. Rising fuel prices, growing traffic congestion, and the need to address critical challenges such as global warming and America’s addiction to imported oil all point toward the need for a new transportation future.

This report shows why rail, rapid buses and other forms of public transit must play a more prominent role in America’s future transportation system. America has grown more dependent on car travel with each passing year. America has more cars per capita than any other nation in the world. The number of miles driven on America’s highways has doubled in the last quarter-century, and our reliance on cars for transportation is at the root of many of America’s most intractable problems. For example, with two out of every three barrels of oil the United States consumes each year used to fuel our transportation system, our economy is hindered by oil price spikes and our national security vulnerable

This report shows that every American can benefit if we expand the reach and improve the quality of transit in the United States. By making a bold, national commitment to expand and improve transit, the United States can address many of our greatest challenges and create a transportation system built for the needs of the 21st century. Existing public transportation already plays a key role in addressing key problems faced by America:

-In 2006, transit saved an estimated 3.4 billion gallons of gasoline in the United States—enough to fuel 5.8 million cars for a year. In monetary terms, transit saved more than $9 billion that would otherwise have been spent on gasoline.

-In 2005, transit prevented 540.8 million hours of traffic delay, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, equivalent to more than 61,700 people sitting in traffic for an entire year. The monetary value of those savings was $10.2 billion.

-Transit reduced global warming emissions by nearly 26 million metric tons in 2006. In New York state alone, transit avoided 11.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution—more than was produced by the entire economies of Rhode Island, Vermont or the District of Columbia.

For every dollar invested in transit, America saves nearly two dollars in avoided costs on top of the economic development benefits. In 2005, federal, state and local governments spent $30.9 billion to provide transit services (not including fares). These investments yielded at least $60 billion per year in benefits from reduced vehicle expenses, avoided congestion, global warming emission reductions, reduced road expenditures, reduced spending on parking, and avoided traffic accidents. In other words, investment in transit more than pays for itself even before accounting for its direct economic stimulus.

Despite transit’s many benefits, America has historically underinvested in transit. The paper lays out a plan for expanding America’s transit network paid for by more efficiently allocating costs among those who will reap the benefits.

Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Road Privatization

Privatization of toll roads is a growing trend. During 2007, sixteen states had some privatized road project formally proposed or underway. In the last two years Indiana and Chicago signed multi-billion dollar private concession deals for public roads for 75 years and 99 years respectively. As a result of these deals, toll rates on these roads will increase steadily and revenues will be paid to private company shareholders rather than to the public budget.

Encouraged by the enormous anticipated profits that private road operators will reap from these deals, Wall Street investors and high-priced consulting firms have promoted similar deals to other states and local governments. Although offering a short-term infusion of cash, privatization of existing toll roads harms the long-term public interest. It relinquishes important public control over transportation policy while failing to deliver the value comparable to the tolls that the public will be forced to pay over the life of the deal.

Proposed deals to construct new roads or bridges that would be privately operated are a more complicated matter. There may be instances where private companies can deliver services that the public sector currently lacks and can not efficiently create. However, private deals for new construction should also follow the principles outlined below to adequately protect the public interest. Any potential advantages of privately construction should be weighed against the disadvantages of private financing and control.

Governments have a long history of outsourcing service delivery on public thoroughfares. Private companies, for instance, operate gas stations and food service at public rest stops. But the public interest is best served by outsourcing only those functions where public capacity is lacking and where continual competition exists for privately provided service.

In general, privatization makes sense only for activities where the private sector has a clear comparative advantage over public provision of those same services. The common characteristics of road privatization deals are that they enlist a private intermediary to borrow large sums of money backed by a schedule to collect multiple decades of steadily increasing toll rates. Private proposals should thus be judged according to the relative costs and benefits of enlisting this intermediary to borrow and to hike tolls. Governments can borrow upfront sums at substantially lower cost than can private companies. Government is also more democratically accountable than private companies when it comes to setting tolls. (In fact, according to a chorus of investment analysts, a chief contribution of the private intermediary is precisely that it can diminish public accountability for future toll hikes). Thus toll road concessions are a bad idea precisely because they outsource activities where the private sector is less capable of serving the public.

In addition to an inability to ensure that the public will receive the full value for its future toll revenues, privatization of toll roads entails a number of additional problems. Over the long-term, these may be of even more serious concern:

• Loss of public control of transportation policy due to a fragmented road network, and an inability to prevent toll traffic from being diverted to local communities, or to change traffic patterns on toll roads without paying additional compensation to road operators.

• An inability to ensure fair or effective privatization contracts due to leases that last for multiple generations and therefore can not fully anticipate future public needs.

• The upfront privatization payoff is a short-term budget fix that does not address long-term budget problems and requires drivers and taxpayers to pay more over the long term.

For both existing toll roads and new construction, the safeguards to protect the public interest against bad privatization deals can be expressed in seven basic principles:

Public control retained over decisions about transportation planning and management;

Fair value guaranteed so future toll revenues won’t be sold off at a discount;

No deal longer than 30 years because of uncertainty over future conditions and because the risks of a bad deal grow exponentially over time;

State-of-the-art maintenance and safety standards instead of statewide minimums;

Complete transparency to ensure proper process;

Full accountability in which the Legislature must approve the terms of a final deal, not just approve that a deal be negotiated; and

No budget gimmicks because a deal must make long-term budgetary
sense, not just help in the short term.
 

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