John-Michael Cross is Policy Associate, Transportation and Communities Program at EarthShare member charity Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI). With gas prices and transit hot topics in the news lately, we asked him to demystify how transportation decisions get made in the U.S.
What is the Transportation Bill and why should it matter to Americans?
The Transportation Bill sets national policies and priorities for surface transportation programs including highways, bridges, rail and public transportation. It authorizes federal spending on transportation infrastructure projects, paid for primarily by the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. While state and local governments generate the majority of revenue for most transportation projects, federal dollars are critical to cover the broad scope of work needed, including maintenance, repair, and expansion of our national transportation infrastructure. We should want the country’s infrastructure in good repair for our own personal use, but it also serves as the backbone of our national economy by allowing free-flowing movement of goods.
What does the Transportation Bill have to do with environmental issues?
The Transportation Bill determines the amount of federal dollars that go into both roads and public transportation systems. Roads currently receive four times as much funding as transit. If this ratio were to change, it would affect the availability and viability of transit systems across the country, for better or worse. More public transportation systems mean more riders and fewer cars on the road, lowering oil consumption and carbon emissions. Separately, the bill sets the environmental review process for transportation infrastructure projects. There is a push to accelerate the project approval process, and there is a danger that potential environmental impacts could be given less consideration.
Both the House and Senate have proposed their own versions of the Transportation Bill. How are they different?
The Senate’s two-year, $109 billion bill was developed through a bipartisan process, culminating in the bill’s recent passage by a vote of 74 to 22. The bill introduces a variety of reforms, compromises and priority shifts while still maintaining a balanced approach.
The House’s five year, $260 billion bill, however, has been a much rockier, divisive process. Controversial elements of the bill riled different factions of the House, leaving the bill without a clear path forward. These included plans to raise revenue through increased off-shore and Arctic drilling and by increasing federal employees’ share of contributions to their pensions, as well as a plan to eliminate dedicated federal funding to public transportation projects and to reduce Amtrak funding by 25 percent. Eliminating transit funding would be devastating. Thankfully, that plan has been scrapped for now. (For a more in-depth comparison of the two bills, see EESI’s recent fact sheet.)
What parts of the recently passed Senate bill is EESI most encouraged by?
Positive items in the Senate bill include establishment of a national freight program, a competitive grant program for projects of national significance, and funding for research to make infrastructure more resilient to climate change. But beyond individual components of the bill, EESI is most encouraged by the bipartisan manner in which the bill was developed and debated. Hopefully this approach can be replicated more often, especially for issues like transportation that should not be partisan.
What is the biggest myth about gas prices?
The biggest myth may be the idea that the federal government can dramatically impact gas prices in the short or even medium-term. Oil is a globally traded commodity – the United States cannot unilaterally lower prices. According to the Congressional Budget Office, increased domestic oil production would have only a very modest impact beginning many years after new drilling began; it certainly is not the panacea that some claim. It is also important that the public better understand how the gas tax is structured. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon. That is a flat fee, not a constant percentage of what you pay at the pump. It was nine percent when gas was $2 a gallon; it is less than five percent now. That flat fee has not been raised in 20 years, not even for inflation. Everything the government spends the gas tax on, including infrastructure maintenance and repair, is getting more expensive and reducing our purchasing power. Americans might be more receptive to a small increase in the gas tax if they understood the issue, but elected officials are seemingly too afraid to even have the conversation. Our national transportation system is in danger of going bankrupt because of it.
The transportation sector accounts for three-quarters of our national oil consumption. The United States transitions off oil by moving to highly efficient vehicles and alternative fuel vehicles, increasing mass transit and other transportation alternatives, and by redesigning our communities to be less car-dependent. Until recently, American fuel economy standards sat unchanged for 20 years. The Obama administration will soon officially set fuel standards through 2025, effectively doubling passenger car average efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon. The administration has also set the first fuel efficiency standards for heavy trucks and buses through 2016. These standards promote production of vehicles that use no oil at all, including electric vehicles. Continuing to push these standards higher will be critical to developing alternative technologies and breaking our oil addiction.
EESI’s goal is to educate Congress on efficiency and renewable energy. What methods do you use to do that? What have you learned about communicating these issues to legislators?
EESI is perhaps best known for its Congressional briefings, where we organize a panel of experts to discuss a particular issue in a Congressional meeting room. This allows staffers and the public to learn more about various energy and environmental topics and to engage with leaders in those fields. Our briefings often highlight the economic co-benefits of environmentally-friendly policies, such as our recent event on the value of public transportation investments. We also produce publications and hold private meetings and workshops with policymakers to discuss issues in greater depth. By acting as a source of quality, nonpartisan information, EESI is viewed as a trusted resource by policymakers on both sides of the aisle.
What do you like/dislike about the transportation options in your own community?
Living in D.C., the Metro system is obviously great. I know the gripes against the system, but I think they are small compared to the economic benefits it provides to this city and the quality of life it provides for its riders. Many of the problems are the result of inadequate funding for transit systems as a whole, leaving shoe-string budgets for maintenance and repair. The Capitol Bikeshare system is a fantastic addition to city, as are the miles of new bike lanes. I look forward to both expanding further, continuing D.C.’s transformation into a bike-friendly city. As a fan of inter-modal connectivity, I hope that we eventually see Bikeshare stations next to every Metrorail entrance.