Sunday Train: States Rights to Living Transport

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Cap’n Transit Rides Again wrote about “Getting People Out of their Cars by Not Subsidizing Roads], which perplexed Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic, which draw a response from Cap’n Transit asking whether we want to be serious, or right.

Boiling them down well beyond the point of oversimplification, Yonah argues that transit advocates must go along to get along, and Cap’n Transit argues that if you aint anti-car, you aint doing it right.

The same debate we get anytime the maximum that is politically possible is less than the minimum our society needs for survival. How do we break on through to the other side, where the minimum we must do lies within the maximum that we can do?

The Case For Going Along to Get Along

Yonah Freemark writes:

Here is a matter worth noting: The vast majority of federal subsidies for transit are collected from automobilists who pay taxes on fuel. Revenue sources at other levels of government are more broad-based, many of them relying on sales taxes and the like, but in Washington what matters right now is the fuel tax. Similarly, any future major revenues for transit would likely come from increased tolling on roadways or a vehicle miles travelled fee.

The reliance on the user fee is a reasonable explanation for why it is politically necessary to devote the majority of fuel tax revenue to roads resources rather than transit. … in a country where the vast majority of people drive to fulfill the majority of their transport needs, it would be politically untenable to suggest that most roads money be transferred to transit users.

The Case For If You Aint Anti-Car You Aint Doing It Right

Cap’n Transit writes:

I look at the people killed by cars; the wasted space, material, time and energy devoted to creating, moving and storing cars; the damage done to society by our isolation in cars; the pollution spewed by cars; and the injustice of denying access to jobs, housing and commerce to people who don’t own cars, and I conclude that the problem is cars and we need to get rid of them.

… It’s the absolute amount of car usage that matters, and the way to make a difference in that is through changing the funding formulas. If we keep the same formulas but increase the size of them, we don’t win anything.

This is why the Very Serious People are wrong when they say, “I’m not anti-car.” If you’re not anti-car, you’re not doing it right. It’s up to you: do you want to be Serious, or do you want to be right?

The Case for States Rights To Be Right When the Federal Government Cannot Impose Being Right

This brought my mind back to the quiet little advance for Living Energy when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission clarified its ruling on state-level feed-in tariffs:

In today’s action, FERC said a proposal to employ a multi-tiered resource approach for determining avoided costs, which would set different levels of avoided costs and thus different avoided cost rate caps for different types of resources, could comply with the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act and FERC regulations.

A feed-in tariff is the best way to quickly ramp up sustainable energy production and green jobs in a state, but it gets tangled up in Federal law that caps states abilities to set rates at the level of “avoided cost”.

Depending on how “avoided cost” is interpreted, feed-in tariffs that cut the average cost of power could be OK, or they could be in trouble, because feed-in tariffs that cut the average cost of power work by increasing the cost during low cost period and reducing the cost during high cost periods.

The quiet victory in October of last year was that if utility has to purchase a particular type of power ~ say, because of a Renewable Energy Portfolio standard ~ that means that the cost of compliance with that standard can be considered as part of the avoided cost. So a state that was aggressive enough in setting a Renewable Energy Portfolio standard could, indeed, establish a feed-in tariff that would increase production of Living Energy in the state.

This is not the same as a Federal level feed-in tariff, which would provide nationwide employment and energy security benefits ~ but it means that action can be taken at the level of an individual state. We still need to fight the fight to get some states to take advantage of it, but in the states where we can win that fight, there will be on the ground examples of the benefits of the feed-in tariff, and a growing in-state industry that relies on the feed-in tariff.

And of course, we are far more likely to win the Federal level victory if the policy is a proven success at the state level.

Thinking in the same terms ~ seeking freedom for a state to do the right thing, rather than seeking to force all states to do the right thing ~ where does that lead us in terms of Federal Transport funding, and the opportunities that can be opened up?

User Fee Jujitsu

There’s a point that’s easy to lose track of in the “gas taxes as user fees” mindset. Gas taxes are paid on gas consumed driving on existing roads. No new construction was ever funded on the gas taxes collected from cars driving on the road before it was built.

So the direction that the “user fee” mindset points to is the fix it first position:

Fix it. Instead of using revenue from the gasoline tax to construct new roads, use it “primarily to repair, maintain, rehabilitate, reconstruct, and enhance existing roads and bridges.”

The problem with “fix it first” it that it seems to lock us into the existing system, when there is no guarantee that the existing system is workable over the long haul. However, an extension along the lines of “fix it first” funding could be quite flexible:

  • “Fix it first” funding must be devoted to repair, maintenance, rehabilitation & reconstruction of existing roads and bridges, or
  • to projects that will reduce the maintenance burden on existing roads and bridges.

Now, you got to be careful how that “or” works: it can only by in line with the maintenance savings ~ no saving a penny to justify spending a dollar in fix it first funds ~ and it must be a net reduction in the road maintenance burden ~ no spending “fix it first” funds on projects that will increase the total maintenance burden.

But if you are careful, that opens the way for a state or consortium of states to invest fix it first funds in a range of useful Living Transport projects, with two standing out:

  • Active Transport projects that reduce trips by car in favor of trips on foot and bike have direct road maintenance cost savings, and
  • Steel Interstate corridors would divert substantial heavy truck traffic from creating a maintenance burden on roads to self-funding maintenance on rail,

The second leg of the strategy is to have all Federal capital subsidies for new transport projects compete for funding on a competitive cost/benefit basis, with specific amounts set aside for specific benefits, and any given new transport project able to get up to 20% funding by outcompeting rival projects in terms of each specific benefit:

  • Oil Independence
  • American Employment
  • Reduced Pollution and Greenhouse Gas emissions
  • Transport Choice
  • Travel-time Savings

The level of Federal subsidy could be as high as 80% for intercity transport projects, and as high as 50% for local transport projects.

The third leg of the strategy is actual infrastructure banks. Chartered along the lines of Regional Development Banks, these would allow a state or consortium of states to dedicate state and/or local tax revenue and maintenance-saving fix-it-first funding into up-front finance of projects.

If its available, will it be used?

There are, of course, no guarantees in this approach as to how much progress any particular state will make. As we’ve seen this year, there is a tremendous amount of mischief that the wealthy and powerful can get up to when they set their sites on winning a temporary political advantage and translating it into direct economic benefit ~ especially if they are not squeamish about the longer term political prospects of the elected stooges they have picked to do their dirty work.

However, there is also a flip side to this. While the Koch Brothers and allied oil company and road building interests were successful in getting their stooges to hand back the HSR funding for an Express HSR project in Florida and for two Rapid Rail HSR projects in Wisconsin and Ohio ~ the Californian Express HSR project continues to advance, and the Rapid Rail HSR projects in Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina are also moving ahead.

Winning a framework that permits states to make progress means that rather than one Federal government policy target, there are fifty state government policy targets. Even five or ten states that succeed in planting seeds of Living Transport progress will be reaping the benefit of improved employment immediately, and improved ability to withstand oil price shocks over the rocky decades that lie ahead.

Midnight Oil ~ Power and the Passion


  1. … about canals and gondolas. So that’s something to consider too.

    From Aria: The Origination

Comments have been disabled.