Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Oil Crossroads: Gold for highways, pennies for public transportation


Gold for highways, pennies for public transportation

Senator John McCain, who would like to suspend the federal gas tax in a way that economists have condemned as a handout to the oil companies, is from a state that will soon inaugurate a brand-new light-rail system for the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix.

McCain is courting independent voters, as he did the other day in his Oregon speech about global warming.

In Brian Fagan’s new book The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations (Bloomsbury Press 2008), about a previous era of global warming that happened about a thousand years ago, the author collates a lot of science that suggests that the coming drought in the Phoenix area—like the century-long drought that ended the Anasazi culture and that destroyed human habitation in what is now southern California—will have been made much, much worse because of all the carbon dioxide pollution produced by burning fossil fuels.

Catastrophic drought, Fagan writes, is coming to big sections of the world. Historically, it happened in the Southwest, the Southeast (where Atlanta is already suffering from water shortages this year), and in the Hudson Valley.

The way those highly populated regions use oil may have to change radically because of the way the water flows. Phoenix’s new light-rail rapid transit system, coming this fall, will help.

But public transportation won’t change much.

Harvard economist Richard Glaeser (the one who wrote that Buffalo and Detroit are economically doomed and should get no new federal money) co-authored a scholarly article entitled “Why do the poor live in cities?” His conclusion: “The urbanization of poverty comes mainly from better access to public transportation in central cities.”

A world shaped by oil

Today, public transportation is where the poverty is. Public transportation in America is racialized.

Public transportation is energy-efficient, cost-effective, and—except in Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco—used mainly by people who cannot afford their own cars. Everywhere else, public transportation equals the city bus.

UCLA’s Matthew Kahn recently concluded that there is huge imbalance in the federal subsidy for highways that far exceeds federal subsidy for public transportation. Highways get $40 billion a year of federal money, above and beyond the federal gas tax and various user fees. Rail has had $25 billion over the past 30 years.

Why? Cheap oil, and time. “In order for a new rail line to draw a significant number of people out of cars,” says Kahn, “it has to be fast enough to beat driving rush hour and extend far enough into the suburbs to reach a significant number of people.”

Fifty years of sprawl have spread the people all over the map—except poor people, who are concentrated in central cities.

Transit systems don’t serve that many people. They take a long, long time to build. Transit systems are extremely expensive.

But calculations change. Objective conditions drive economics. It’s time to ask the federal government to start connecting the dots.

Climate scientists say that population centers in Southern California, the Southwest, and the Southeast will be experiencing increasing stress due to drought in years to come, because whether you believe in anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming or in cyclical, happens-every-millennium global warming, we’re going to have global warming. Drought makes it hard to live in drought-stricken areas.

Here in the Great Lakes region, where we have a large water supply and comparatively little public transportation infrastructure, water gives the region a larger carrying capacity for more population.

Meanwhile, Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs Inc. projects that oil could cost $200 a barrel by next year, which means $5-a-gallon gas. The average two-car household will spend $2,000 to $6,000 more per household for the current commute, which will make the household fuel cost rise to near $10,000 a year. Goldman also says that the global pressures that drive up the price—mainly, expanding demand in China and India—will not go away, so ever-more expensive gas could be the norm. (They pay over $7 a gallon in Norway today.)

Expensive oil, global warming, drought…should those factors combine in the minds of Great Lakes leaders, and in the minds of federal officials, such that some level of government starts planning to build rapid transit systems in the Great Lakes cities?

The Census data say that, except for Detroit (the home of the worst highway planning in America) and Chicago (where there’s excellent public transportation), commute times are short, so there’s no immediate crisis that would command a crash program in public transit.

But by 2020 or 2030, the long-term drought that has already been underway for several years in Atlanta, Charlotte, Phoenix, and Los Angeles will be in its second or third decade.

How much will gasoline cost by then?

Oil companies drive American policy

Every day, thousands of Congressional staffers use the Metro stop that is directly behind the Longworth House Office Building. Every day this spring, the many Congressional aides who use the quiet, clean Metro subway system are exposed to the oil industry’s lobbying, in the form of a pie-chart display that is both painted on the floor of the station and posted on the walls:

“Look who owns America’s oil industry,” the posters say. The pie-chart explains that 14 percent is owned by IRAs, 23 percent by individual investors, 27 percent by pension funds, 29.5 percent by mutual funds and “other firms,” five percent by institutional investors, and 1.5 percent by corporate management.

“Millions of Americans, most of them middle class, have a stake in America’s oil companies. Chances are you’re one of them.”

It’s blatant. It’s also much less expensive than the recently begun $100 million television advertising campaign.

The oil companies are delighted to cite economists like Kahn and Glaeser. Kahn reports that, between 1970 and 2000, the federal government invested over $25 billion in new rail transit lines, but that during that time, “the fraction of metropolitan area workers commuting using public transit has declined from 12 percent in 1970 to 6 percent in 2000.”

But there’s another side to the story.

There is evidence now that affluent, educated young people, and the companies that employ them, are starting to break the connection between poverty and public transportation.

In a 2007 study, UCLA’s Kahn showed that, in the 14 cities that got the big federal bucks for rail systems, real estate gets more valuable where folks can walk to the train. The appreciation in urban real-estate values that is called “gentrification,” it seems, comes as a consequence of new public transportation if and where those systems connect to walkers, much more so than when they are park-and-ride systems.

The average transit pass costs about $750 per person per year. A four-person household with transit passes will spend $3,000 a year, compared to gas, oil, repair, insurance, and car payments that today cost on average $10,000 a year per car—a cost that is going to go up. And up.

But there’s a problem with this calculation.

Until the federal government invests in making transit reach father into the far-flung suburbs, white folks will keep driving their cars—because they’ll have no real alternative. In most suburbs, you simply cannot get to a store or a school or a doctor or to a friend except in a car.

Urban re-development and gentrification could well be the economic stimuli for braking further sprawl.

But neither $5-a-gallon gas, nor even $7-a-gallon gas, can structurally change the layout of American urban regions so long as the federal subsidy for highways so completely overmatches the federal plan, support and commitment to public transportation.

Maybe global warming will drive the next American wave of population growth to occur up in the old, cold North. But growth will only come to a city near you if the federal government is led by somebody who connects the climate-change dots with the oil dots and the public-transportation dots.

Bruce Fisher has been a campaign press secretary, a speechwriter and a consultant for Democrats including the late Paul Simon, Joseph Biden, Carol Mosely Braun and Bill Clinton. He left the campaign trail to raise kids in Buffalo and served eight years as deputy county executive for Erie County.

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