Kirk Landers: The other front

| January 1, 2008

The other front

By Kirk Landers

With presidential politics moving into its full-contact phase, the media is abuzz with analysis and speculation about campaign strategies, swing voter blocs, wedge issues and the like.

      As irritating as this coverage is, it is also a reality check: the big three imperatives in American politics today are money, strategy and message.

      There is a message here for highway and bridge interests in the United States. Even as we seek out candidates with progressive positions on solving our chronic transportation deficiencies, we should be trying to educate, inform and influence the agendas of the various groups that traditionally have the greatest influence on the direction the country takes. As we have seen in the past year, it is not enough to have moderates and liberals supporting the pursuit of solutions to the road crisis; we need to convince conservatives that the mission is just, too.

      And, in fact, the support of some of those moderate and liberal politicians is based more on the desirability of bringing home some bacon than any deep-seated belief that we have to solve our transportation problems.

      Last month, Todd Alexander Litman of the British Columbia-based Victoria Transport Policy Institute issued an interesting reminder of how tenuous the support of the environmental left wing might be. He sent out a letter reporting on an energy forum he attended. Sponsored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the forum brought together North America’s leading energy analysts for a discussion of tactics to use in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

      Litman noted that the forum was biased against strategies that increased transportation system efficiencies.

      “Current analysis gives little consideration to benefits such as congestion reduction, road and parking facility cost savings, consumer savings, reduced traffic accidents, and improved mobility for non-drivers,” wrote Litman, “even though these benefits are often larger in total value than emission reduction benefits.” He added that mobility management strategies are often among the most cost efficient for reducing greenhouse gases because they reduce costs while reducing exhaust emissions. In contrast, engine emission reductions come at the cost of more expensive engines.

      Analysts also seem to believe that mobility management emission reductions are hard to predict, reported Litman, even though VTPI and other institutions have a library of case studies and models available for this very purpose.

      So there is an education and information gap among North America’s leading environmentalists. Is it worth addressing?

      With a substantial majority of the U.S. electorate expressing concerns about global climate change, not to mention the high cost of fuel, the greenhouse gas debate in the next Congress could be an enormously influential factor in the transportation bill that will be coming up for renewal. If the tree-hugging left is convinced that improvements in roads and transit are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem as many believe, it can only be good for the highway bill. Similarly, road interests can curry favor with regulation-hating conservatives by showing them how aggressive improvements in roads and transit can help us reach emissions reduction goals with fewer commerce-strangling limitations on businesses than would otherwise be required.

      Transportation interests could finally have support from the left and the right for taking aggressive action on roads and bridges — action that requires the first increase in the fuel tax in more than a decade.

      Is it worth the investment of time and energy to educate the leaders in the emissions reduction debate about the benefits of an efficient transportation system?

      Of course it is.

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