EUA ENFRENTA DOS PROBLEMAS FUNDAMENTALES DE TRANSPORTACION. Primero, las emisiones de automóviles, camiones y aviones representan serias amenazas a la salud publica y el ambiente. Segundo, los ‘commuters’ se quejan de retrasos por el trafico que se ponen peor cada año.
En el frente de las emisiones, nuestro pais alterna entre negacion del problema(por ejemplo, dice que el calentamiento global es una invencion) y alabanza a las soluciones tecnologicas al problema, principalmente a traves de nuevas tecnologias para el combustible, tales como vehiculos hibridos y de hidrogeno. Para manejar el trafico, el portavoz de la Asociación de Usuarios de Carreteras y los constructores sugieren la necesidad de mas construccion de carreteras para mantener su crecimiento conforme al incremento de trafico, mientras que los ambientalistas critican nuestro fracaso en mejorar el transporte publico.
El debate dominante en EUA ignora un grupo de soluciones que, aunque no son glamorosas, han probado su eficacia en disminuir tanto las emisiones como el trafico. Estas soluciones aprovechan el poder del mercado para la asignación de recursos y nuevas tecnologias para administrar la demanda de transportación. Haciendo esto, ofrecen oportunidades de progreso en el corto plazo, eficientes en costo, tanto para el trafico como las emisiones que van mas alla de lo que dicen que la economia del hidrogeno podria ofrecer en las decadas por venir.
The Trouble with Cars
With soaring health care costs in the spotlight, many now consider automobile transportation a major source of public health problems. For decades, it has been acknowledged that motor vehicle exhaust contains known or suspected carcinogens. But recent studies show these pollutants can reach dangerous concentrations near many heavily traveled highways, presenting cancer risks at times an order of magnitude higher than established federal thresholds that require mitigation. According to a 1999 Department of Transportation study, the annual health costs of smog and fine particle air pollutants from motor vehicles were estimated at $40-60 billion. That amounts to an additional health care cost of $600/year per household, concentrated among the one hundred fifty million Americans living in poor air quality areas. And that doesn’t include the costs of other toxic pollutants from cars, or the over 40,000 deaths annually in U.S. motor vehicle accidents.
Transportation remains the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for a third of such U.S. pollution. For automobiles, these emissions are a function of miles driven and fuel economy. Even if recent declines in average motor vehicle fuel economy are reversed by a sharp rise in use of hybrid vehicles and alternative fuels, the United States—the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter—will still fall short of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by the 60 percent needed to stabilize the climate and slow further global warming. That is especially true because other transportation modes with severe impacts on greenhouse gas emissions are expected to grow—total truck mileage is forecast to double in the next twenty years, spurred by global trade, while commercial aviation, which has the highest rate of greenhouse emissions and air pollution per-person-mile traveled of any transportation mode, is growing rapidly, encouraged by subsidies, excess capacity, and consequential low fares. In other words, unmanaged U.S. traffic growth means continued failure in both air pollution and climate control strategies.
Meanwhile, traffic congestion continues to grow. The Texas Transportation Institute’s 2005 Urban Mobility Report found that annual delay per rush hour traveler has grown to 47 hours—that means nearly two days sitting in traffic for the average American driving at rush hour. That figure has tripled since the survey started in 1982. Annually, 2.3 billion gallons of fuel are wasted by cars sitting in traffic jams.
A Hydrogen Solution?
Motor vehicles today contribute considerably less pollution thanks to the Clean Air Act, which limited emissions of a range of key pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide. Since 1970, pollution-per-mile driven has fallen over 90 percent. However, today’s motor vehicles still account for a third or more of smog pollution.
Recently adopted U.S. motor vehicle emissions and fuel standards are expected to cut the rate of smog-related pollution-per-mile even further—by four-fifths—over the next several decades. But from 1980-99, vehicle-miles traveled grew 87%. If this growth continues, the extent of motor vehicle emissions that contribute to smog, particulate pollution, and cancer, may decline by 2020, but only by a little more than half, as rising vehicle miles traveled reduce the impact of the cleaner technologies that result from these new regulations.
Rising long-term oil costs, spurred by growing demands for motor vehicles in China and elsewhere, will likely spur more investment in efficient vehicle technologies, including hybrids, fuel cells, biofuels, and encourage the use of lighter, stronger materials. Hydrogen-fueled vehicles remain a distant prospect as high costs and substantial impracticalities pose major barriers to their practical commercialization. Additionally, major questions regarding how to produce hydrogen remain unanswered. And available substitutes for limited oil reserves are not all good for public health and global warming— new carbon-based fuel sources like gasified coal or continental shelf methane reserves promise ample transportation fuels for decades to come.
The Limits of Public Transportation and Smart Growth
From 1996-2001, U.S. transit ridership growth outpaced the growth rate in driving for the first time in almost a century. This was largely because of the transportation and Smart Growth reforms of 1990s. New federal transportation laws in 1990-91 reduced a longstanding bias that prioritized investment in new highways over transit, walking, and cycling. These reforms brought new accountability for the environmental impacts of transportation decisions, more flexible funding that could be spent improving public transportation, and greater opportunities for public involvement.
A new federal transportation bill passed in August 2005 boosted federal road and transit funding by a third for the next six years. Congress rejected proposals to rollback long-standing environmental protections and instead dedicated more funds for bicycling and planning while requiring greater consideration for resource conservation, public health, and strategies for reducing environmental impacts. Recent spikes in fuel prices may even prompt some states to rethink post-9/11 transit funding cuts and their plans for new highways.
But recent administrative, regulatory, and judicial actions have weakened many of these reforms. The assault on Smart Growth continues as a well-financed lobby reframes the debate to focus on property rights and deregulation. Nationally recognized growth management programs in Oregon and elsewhere have been threatened by initiatives requiring taxpayers to compensate land owners for development restrictions. America’s national railway, Amtrak, faces collapse under the White House’s threat to end subsidies and the recent firing of David Gunn, a turnaround artist who had brought strong new management to the railroad. And some are using high fuel prices, evacuation concerns, or other issues as a smokescreen to press for more roads and the suspension of environmental laws.
Managing Travel Demand with Market Incentives
Smarter growth and more investment in transit will be a vital part of addressing America’s transportation problems, but these alone will not do the job. Neither will technology fixes to vehicles and fuels, as essential as these remain for curbing environment and public health problems caused by pollution. These strategies need to be combined with smarter transportation operations and pricing policies if we are to address the continued growth in demand for travel.
Programs that use transportation pricing to manage demand for travel first gained prominence in the U.S. through the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which opened the door for experimentation with market-based incentives such as “congestion pricing”, which sets road tolls at higher costs during rush hours, while giving off-peak discounts. Federal law has continued to expand opportunities for using federal transportation funds to introduce toll traffic management, most recently in the August 2005 transportation law which offers several new programs encouraging toll-based road financing and toll-lane-financed public transportation improvements. A number of local initiatives in the U.S. and abroad have shown transportation pricing’s effectiveness at reducing traffic and emissions.
In New York, the 2001 introduction of higher peak tolls with a modest off-peak toll discount on Hudson River crossings into Manhattan shaved 7 percent from peak traffic volumes. Forty percent of toll revenues support Port Authority Trans-Hudson, a rapid rail service between New York and New Jersey. In San Diego, since 1996, single occupant vehicles have been able to pay a fee to travel on I-15’s High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, which are free for carpools. These toll revenues support new express bus services. The system has achieved 80 percent approval from corridor residents, who can save 15 minutes or more in these managed lanes. As a result of its success, the system is being expanded. Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, Maryland, Colorado and other states have recently opened or advanced related initiatives to create toll-managed lanes.
Perhaps the most-watched transportation pricing reform in the world is London’s congestion-pricing system. Since 2004, to enter a core area of central London on any route, motorists must pay a daily “cordon charge” that pays for improved public transport. As a result, congestion and traffic volumes in the central area decreased by 30 and 15 percent, respectively. Bus use increased by 38 percent, while traffic emissions of nitrogen oxides and fine particulates dropped 12 percent. The initiative’s success resulted in the reelection of London’s mayor and expanded reforms. Business leaders in New York and other U.S. cities have begun promoting similar initiatives.
Pay-as-you-drive (PAYD) insurance is another promising market incentive to cut traffic congestion by 10 percent or more. PAYD converts a portion of the annual insurance fee into a per mile fee, giving consumers a chance to save money if they drive less. Now offered in some form in four states by GMAC Insurance, in England, Israel, and in several state-based pilot projects across America, PAYD insurance shows strong promise to help curb congestion, pollution, and safety problems in coming years.
Public transportation improvements combined with marketing and demand management, even without pricing measures, have shown considerable power to reshape travel demand. During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, for example, Atlanta adopted measures that reduced downtown morning traffic levels by 21 percent. This resulted in lowered peak ozone levels by 28 percent and decreased hospital visits by over 40 percent for children with asthmatic-related incidents. When such improvements are combined with Smart Growth and pricing incentives, even bigger changes result.
The success of these programs in reducing traffic from 7 to 30 percent, reducing emissions, and improving public health has drawn considerable attention from policymakers throughout America and the world. Transportation pricing is an idea whose time is come, mainly because recent developments in technology and financing have made its efficient, unobtrusive use possible.
The Technology and Economics of Transportation Pricing
New technologies, like cheap electronic toll transponders, high-speed readers, and computerized data, support the efficient implementation of pricing incentives with little intrusion on the driving experience. They make it possible to adapt schemes to address local objections, eliminating toll booth back-ups and creating discounts for certain driver categories. Thanks to these technologies, states are now able to consider tolling in areas where political realities have prevented progress in the past.
Such technologies also have made transportation pricing more financially attractive—so much so, in fact, that the private sector is becoming interested in entering the market. In 2004, the City of Chicago garnered $1.8 billion by leasing the Chicago Skyway, an 8-mile, 6-lane elevated toll highway in a 99-year private concession. The revenues retired project debt, supported investments in libraries and home heating assistance programs, and will help support the city’s operating budget for years to come. The concession contract limits toll increases and sets various requirements for operation of the road. Many proposals for tolling projects are emerging – potentially amounting to $40 to $50 billion in new private investment in highways.
In many places, the question is not whether decision-makers will increase reliance on tolls to finance infrastructure investment, but how those tolls will be imposed and what their revenues will pay for. Will tolls be used simply to build more lanes, maximizing revenues and traffic? Or will they be designed to better manage existing lanes and traffic growth while financing improved transit and roads? Will the concession deals include community benefit agreements to protect the environment, public health, labor, and neighborhood concerns or will such deals sacrifice long-term public interests to balance short-term budgets? Transportation finance is at a crossroads: tolls will either finance massive new road expansion, or will moderate and manage traffic demand while financing a wider spectrum of transportation choices.
Time for Transportation Pricing
Studies show improved public transportation, walking, and bicycling and support for smart growth, together with time-of-day road pricing, pay-as-you-drive car insurance, and employer commuter incentives, could support robust job and housing growth while slowing growth in motor vehicle traffic in coming years. Experiences from Arlington, Virginia to Portland, Oregon, from Bogotá to the Netherlands, effectively show how this can be achieved.
It is time for America to apply the tech fix not just to vehicles and fuels, but also to traffic management. An unusual coalition of road and transit industries, environmental, and government representatives now seek common ground to advance market incentives to better fund and manage America’s transportation systems. Will new tolls and congestion charges be used just to finance more highways, resulting in more sprawl and pollution, or will they provide a constructive response to our pressing public health, equity, and environmental problems? Only time will tell.