Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Answer: We Must Stop Driving

(from the November Editor's Note of AsphaltPro Magazine)

Shortly, you will see how simple it is. The answer to our country’s economic problems lies in the fact that we all own cars. What selfish pigs we are to expect freedom.

Let me delve into reality for just a moment. At press time, Congress had voted to extend the currently expired SAFETEA-LU program another seven weeks. That means, by the time you receive this in the mail, we’ve got just more than a month (through Dec. 18) for legislators to come up with a new plan to get funding in place to keep additional monies flowing for federal highways, to accept an 18-month extension, to accept a six-month extension, to accept an extension to Dec. 31, or to accept Oberstar’s approximately $500 billion six-year bill.

At first blush, it seems like a lot of options are on the table and we should be swimming right along with keeping infrastructure up to par. Unfortunately, when the last bill expired Sept. 30, states felt a jolt. Money was rescinded. Some people in this country who have a difficult time understanding the very real need for a healthy and safe highway and roadway system have suggested this is for the best because we shouldn’t be driving cars anyway.

A byproduct of the current rescission of $8.7 billion in federal transportation funds that I don’t think anti-roads lobbyists expected is the cancellation of green projects. For instance, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) reported that officials at the Tennessee Department of Transportation (DOT) pulled $30 million out of its coffers for enhancement grants. That means:
* no restoration of old train stations
* no new bike trails and
* no new sidewalks.
AASHTO also reported that Nevada DOT officials are cutting $8 million from transportation enhancements. They’re also cutting $4 million from their federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) projects and another $4 million from the Safe Routes to School Program.

These are not positive developments, but state money movers have little choice. Back in 2007, Congress decreed that when state officials make cuts (rescind funds) from programs, they have to do so proportionally. That means if you take a little from this road, you have to take a little from that CMAQ project, too.

Even with the worry building around whether or not Congress understands the process involved in realistic transportation, there’s some ray of hope for motorists. Note that states can still let state projects (if there’s a state budget for that). Counties can still let county projects (if there’s a county budget for that). Cities can still work on city projects (if there’s a city budget for that). You catch my drift.

The problem is everyone gets nervous when you talk about cutting his or her budget for next year in half. And rightly so. What’s worse is we’re talking about cutting the budget in half for “who knows how long?” Folks suddenly worry about all their projects.

I’m a proponent for cautious creative funding (I’ll call it CCF). If you’re a state DOT official, you’ve got to get creative with your project funding. There are interstates and bridges that need repair. There are asphalt roadways that might not need repair yet, but by performing preventive maintenance on them, you extend the pavement’s life. You make a small investment now to keep a larger investment from happening 10 or 20 years from now. But if your budget’s just been slashed, what on earth is going to compel you to run out and perform anything but the absolute worst-case reconstructs?

Some municipalities have raised their own bond measures, sales taxes and property taxes to pay for everything from specific road projects to maintenance of specified areas of the grid. What this leads to is shiny streets and well-kept utilities right up to the federal-funded interstate that’s causing high car-maintenance bills for those folks who just voted to have their taxes raised. I bet those citizens won’t be too keen on another tax hike next election season.

Some counties have seen toll measures pass. Funds for future repairs, enhancements and preventive maintenance start rolling in, but motorists unwilling to add $5 to $10 to their weekly commute take alternate routes not built for the increased traffic loads. Safety problems, repair costs and user delays rise on the parallel routes.

The solution to all of this has been suggested already. We must stop driving. Anti-roads lobbyists have actually suggested that people in both rural and urban settings must get out of their cars and into buses (although I’m not sure what the buses will be driving on), trains, trolleys and other people movers. While I can see a logical pattern to mass transit in city situations, it boggles the mind to think this would work in rural areas. But this is the suggestion put forth to clear cars from roadways, thus getting us “off” that horrid road and oil dependency we have.

Obviously, we have to raise taxes and spend inordinate amounts of money to build a metallic people-moving infrastructure. While we’re at it, I suggest we train ourselves to be lackadaisical about deadlines and meeting times because, coming from a purely cynical point of view, I don’t think these things are going to run in a timely fashion. They’re being created by legislative action, after all.

If we recycled our cars into something else (and I’m sure there are people in Canada and Switzerland working on that “something” now) and all moved into cities where the mayors have magically raised the funds to build superfragicagilisticexpialodociocidous (I changed it so as not to get sued) mass transit services to move people around, why, there would be no need for cars or roads or road R&D or safety or innovation or jobs or any of those crazy things that the Federal Highway Fund has been encouraging.

All our goods would be delivered by train because trains never have accidents thus don’t require funding to find ways to make them safer or more efficient or to ensure none of their operators (remote or otherwise) have sleep apnea. And we can conduct all business meetings by teleconference and Internet now so we no longer need airplanes. No one actually has to see their loved ones in person when we have Webcams. Besides, once the current generations kick off, people will be living in those insular inbred cities anyway. There’ll be no need to travel far…

So why is it important to renew funding for transportation? Why think of CCF ideas to supplement a gas-tax-based funding program? Why worry about a road that needs repair? Why worry about bridges that crumble into the waters beneath them? Why make plans to resurface and keep asphalt pavements in pristine condition for maximum safety and perpetual life? I mean, isn’t the world ending December of 2012 anyway?
Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender, Editor (sandy at theasphaltpro dot com)

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