Here's a striking chart from Eric Sundquist of the State Smart Transportation Initiative. For the past decade, state and federal governments have consistently overestimated future growth in U.S. road travel.
Vehicle miles traveled, forecasts vs. actual:
On Friday morning, I flew on an airplane, and it was amazing. And there's no reason Congress can't make every flight exactly that amazing, as well.
"Amazing" is not how you're supposed to feel about flying on airplanes. Flights are supposed to be day-long humiliations, preceded by a tedious and intrusive two-hour prologue of TSA scans and killing time at the gate, often followed by sundry delays and missed connections, and culminating in a physically and emotionally wrenching voyage featuring a screaming, virus-ridden infant, not-completely-unfrozen ravioli and "Legen d of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole." Business Insider's Henry Blodget is probably the master of the airplane-memoir-as-survivalist-tract genre, if you're into that kind of thing.
Cars and light trucks sold in the United States hit a new record for fuel efficiency last year — 23.6 miles per gallon, on average — in response to still-high oil prices and strict new fuel-economy standards.
That's a big step up from the 22.4 miles per gallon average for new vehicles in 2011. And overall fuel economy is expected to increase to 24 miles per gallon in 2013, another record.
The current conventional wisdom is that plug-in electric vehicles will be the clean, sleek cars of tomorrow. Think of Tesla's Model S or Chevrolet's Volt. These cars get most of the media attention, and policymakers tend to toss tax breaks their way.
Not all automakers, however, are persuaded that plug-ins are the only way to go. This month, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai all announced plans to produce hydrogen fuel-cell passenger vehicles in the next few years. These cars will run on compressed hydrogen — and emit only water vapor as exhaust.
There are lots of airplane regulations that don't make much sense at first glance. Why do passengers need a demonstration of how to use seat belts? Do travelers really need to keep their seats upright during take-off? Or reminders not to smoke in the bathroom?
Many of these rules were crafted decades ago by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — and the agency rarely loosens them.
When the Obama administration first proposed its "cash for clunkers" plan in 2009, the reaction was generally favorable. Congress would spend $2.85 billion to encourage drivers to swap their old gas-guzzlers for newer, more fuel-efficient cars.
The program had something for everyone: It would lend a hand to the ailing U.S. auto industry. It would tamp down on oil consumption. And, once launched, the program proved so popular with consumers that it burned through $1 billion in its first five days. Sure, a few critics argued that the program wouldn't be very cost-effective, but no one was really listening.
Some day in the near future, cars will drive themselves. Traffic jams and deadly accidents will become obsolete. Morning commutes will evolve into less-stressful affairs, as riders can sit back with their coffee and let computers handle the trip.
That's the dream of many a transportation visionary, at least. And it's not totally implausible. Google is developing "autonomous vehicles" that are improving rapidly each year — Sergey Brin thinks they could hit the road within five years. Nissan and Volvo are planning to add a few self-driving features to their cars by 2020 to help minimize accidents. A future of completely self-driving vehicles doesn't seem too far off.
This is a fun 23-minute presentation from Tom Vanderbilt on the often-bizarre psychology of driving and why traffic jams happen:
Obviously one way congestion can happen is if there are too many cars and not enough road. But there's more to it than that. Eric Jaffe of Atlantic Cities has already done a nice job summarizing the talk, but I'll pull out a few more interesting tidbits:
Airlines are always obsessing over fuel costs. It's a crucial aspect of their business, after all, and accounts for one-third of their operating expenses. So you might think that all the major airlines do roughly the same things to minimize their fuel use.
But that doesn't seem to be true — there's actually a surprising amount of variation in how airlines burn fuel. That's one takeaway from an interesting recent report (pdf) by the International Council on Clean Transport, which ranked the 15 biggest U.S. airlines by fuel efficiency and found very large disparities:
In 2005, there were nine major airlines flying inside the United States. Today, there are just five: Delta, United, Southwest, American Airlines, and US Airways:
More recently, US Airways and American Airlines are trying to combine forces, bringing the total down to four. And that seems to be a step too far for antitrust officials at the U.S. Department of Justice, who filed a lawsuit Tuesday to block the $11 billion merger, which would create the largest airline on the planet.
In a post yesterday, I was mildly skeptical of the Hyperloop — Elon Musk's wild proposal for public transportation that involves shooting people through tubes at high speeds. Musk claims the system could replace California's proposed high-speed rail line for a tenth the cost, or just $6 billion. That seemed unlikely, for a variety of reasons.
This is surprising news: The U.S. Department of Justice and several states just sued to block the proposed merger of American Airlines and US Airways, arguing that the new $11 billion airline would reduce competition for commercial air travel in key markets.
The lawsuit comes after months of negotiations between the two carriers and the Justice Department's antitrust division over the merger, which would create the world's largest airline. In Europe, regulators had recently approved the deal after the companies agreed to give up two daily slots at London's Heathrow Airport.
Elon Musk, the head of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has unveiled his wild new idea for public transportation: The Hyperloop.
You can get the technical details from Musk here or read Andrea Peterson's summary here, but the basic idea involves pushing people in pods through long tubes at extremely high speeds. Is it feasible? Eh maybe? No one really knows yet.
Ever since the recession hit in 2007, Americans have been driving less and less. And, as we've discussed before, a big chunk of that decline has been due to the fact that kids these days don't seem to drive as much as their parents did.
Case in point: Back in 1983, about 87 percent of 19-year-olds had drivers' licenses. But in 2010, only 69.5 percent did.
When it comes to ethanol, the United States appears to have reached its limit — at least for the time being.
Back in 2007, Congress passed a law that would essentially require the nation to use more and more ethanol and other biofuels each year. But for reasons of chemistry and economics, those targets are becoming increasingly difficult to fulfill. That helps explain why, on Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency took the rather unusual step of announcing that it would look into ways to adjust those targets in the years ahead.
On a cool September night in 1859, campers out in Colorado were roused from sleep by a "light so bright that one could easily read common print," as one newspaper described it. Some of them, confused, got up and began making breakfast.
Farther east, thousands of New Yorkers ran out onto their sidewalks to watch the sky glow, ribboned in yellow, white and crimson. Few people had ever seen an aurora that far south — and this one lit up the whole city.
Here's a simple math puzzle that the vast majority of people get wrong:
Dylan decides to get rid of his Toyota Corolla, which gets 29 mpg, and buys a shiny new Prius, which gets 50 mpg.
Sarah, meanwhile, is selling her hulking Chevrolet Suburban, which gets just 12 mpg, and buying a nearly-as-hulking Cadillac Escalade, which gets 15 mpg.
Assuming they both drive the same amount each year, who just saved more gas by upgrading?
Some notable news in the electric-car world: Better Place, the Israeli company that once hoped to revolutionize the auto industry with its innovative battery-swapping stations, has filed for bankruptcy.
The idea behind Better Place was always intriguing to many people. The knock on electric vehicles has long been that the batteries are too expensive and charging them up can take 30 to 90 minutes or more.
Back in August, the Obama administration announced strict new fuel economy standards for all new cars and light trucks. By 2025, automakers in the United States will need to sell passenger vehicles that get, on average, 54.5 miles per gallon.*
But those rules only apply to new cars. There will still be millions of used cars out on the roads. And, as it turns out, the fuel regulations may have an unintended effect on that used-car market. A new study suggests that older, gas-guzzling vehicles will likely stay on the roads even longer — and reduce the effectiveness of the fuel rules by 13 percent to 23 percent.
Not surprisingly, the collapse of a bridge along Interstate 5 in Washington state yesterday has revived the long-standing debate over whether Congress should spend more to repair the nation's aging roads and bridges.
It's worth being very clear upfront that the I-5 bridge in question wasn't considered "structurally deficient" in any way — the bridge collapse is being blamed on a truck bumping an overhead girder. All we do know is that the bridge was sort of old. (Fortunately, no one died or was seriously injured.)
The United States is sitting on a vast reserve of cheap natural gas. And oil has become rather expensive in recent years. So the logical thing to do would be to start running many of our cars and trucks on natural gas, right?
Energy experts and folks like T. Boone Pickens have been speculating about this option for years. The idea of liquefying or compressing natural gas and using it to power everything from 18-wheelers to automobiles has a powerful allure.
Good news for people thinking about ordering groceries online from stores like Safeway and getting them delivered to their doorsteps. A new study from the University of Washington finds that grocery delivery can be greener than driving from home to the supermarket and back.
How can that be? The basic intuition here is that a truck or van packed with groceries delivering to eight different houses can, in theory, use a lot less fuel than eight different cars all driving from home to the store and back again. Here's an illustrative map:
It's time for another round of scrutiny over the Obama administration's clean-energy programs. On Wednesday, House lawmakers held a fractious hearing over federal loans that had been made to struggling electric-car manufacturer Fisker Automotive.
There's no doubt that Fisker is in serious trouble. The Anaheim-based company hasn't built a vehicle since last summer after running into battery-supply issues and other problems. To date, the company has sold just 2,000 Karmas worldwide — a plug-in hybrid sports sedan that retails for $100,000. The Karma never really found a mass audience beyond Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a handful of other A-list drivers.
On Tuesday, Tesla Motors unveiled what it called a "revolutionary new finance product" that, the company said, would allow people to get a mid-range Model S electric car for less than $500 per month.
So does that mean Tesla has found a way to make its pricey electric cars affordable? Well, not exactly. A closer look at the fine print suggests that mid-range Model S will more realistically cost around $1,000 per month — not nearly as cheap. Still, the financing scheme is interesting and worth exploring.
One of the big reasons why electric cars have been slow to catch on is that batteries are still hugely expensive — usually around $12,000 to $15,000, or one-third the price of the vehicle — and can provide only limited range.
So, will these batteries ever get better? That's the big question. Some analysts are deeply skeptical that improvement will be quick or easy. In the newest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Fred Schlacter has an essay on why batteries are fundamentally different from things like mobile phones or computers:
Self-driving cars are all the rage these days. Companies like Google are building vehicles that can drive themselves with sensors and algorithms. Futurists are raving about how this will revolutionize transportation: fewer accidents, easier parking It's reached the point where even Newt Gingrich is offering a "short course" on driverless cars.
This week, the National Academy of Sciences put out a massive — as in, 395-page — report on how the United States can cut gasoline use in half by 2030. And, beyond that, how to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation 80 percent by mid-century.
Those are audacious goals. But if the United States ever plans to deal seriously with climate change, the transportation sector will have to change drastically. And the National Academy of Sciences report concludes that no one single policy or technology will do the trick.
Suzy Khimm and I discuss a new report card that gives U.S. infrastructure a D+. Things aren't quite so bleak as they sound! Also, there's some discussion of immigration and the ups and downs of America's "virtual fence" at our border later on in the segment:
By the way, you can subscribe to the podcast version of our Wonktalk segments from iTunes here.
--A longer look at the "public-private partnership" model for building roads, highways, and rail projects.
There's bad news and surprisingly good news in the latest report card on U.S. infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The gloomy bit: America's infrastructure only warrants a D+, with the ASCE estimating that we'll need to spend an extra $1.6 trillion between now and 2020 to patch things up.
We've noted before that cars and trucks in the United States have starting becoming more fuel-efficient in recent years — after decades of stagnation — in response to high oil prices and strict new vehicle standards. That's one reason why U.S. oil imports have plummeted.
But a new report (pdf) from the Environmental Protection Agency offers the most detailed breakdown yet of this trend. The EPA is a particularly helpful source on fuel-economy because the agency tests how cars and trucks actually perform in the real world — rather than simply looking at what the laws say.
Some 69 percent of adult drivers in the United States admit to talking on their cell phones while behind the wheel, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As Sara Johnson of Atlantic Cities points out, this is much, much higher than the rates in many other developed countries:
Back in 2008, when oil prices were soaring and experts were pondering how best to make electric cars a reality, one company was frequently heralded as the industry's savior — a small firm called Better Place.
Better Place's founder, Shai Agassi, had a simple but potentially revolutionary idea. The knock on electric cars has always been that the batteries are too pricey and take hours to charge. Agassi had a way around this: Customers would buy the cars, but Better Place would own the batteries. When drivers needed to recharge quickly, they could simply swap out their batteries — in five minutes — at a Better Place station.
The average commuter in the United States travels about 25 miles each way to work. But that's an average. And as a new Census report details, the average can obscure a lotof seriously grueling commutes.
About 1.7 million Americans have "extreme" commutes that take 90 minutes or more each way. About 2.2 million workers have "long-distance" commutes that span at least 50 miles in each direction.
Amtrak is coming under heavy scrutiny these days. The passenger rail service needed $1.4 billion in subsidies from Congress in 2012, and many Republicans are skeptical that the government should be losing so much money on train travel.
But, as it turns out, there's a fairly straightforward way to put Amtrak on a financially sustainable footing — it mostly involves dealing with the system's 15 little-traveled longer routes that lose nearly $600 million each year. That's one upshot of a big new report about Amtrak from the Brookings Institution, out Friday.
If you're in charge of a city plagued by snarling traffic and endless congestion, one idea is to build a light-rail system for public transportation. More people will ride the trains, leaving fewer cars on the road. Less congestion, less air pollution. What's not to like?
At least, that's the theory — and cities like Seattle have often tried to sell light-rail expansions on precisely these grounds. But as Eric Jaffe explains in an interesting post over at Atlantic Cities, researchers have had trouble finding evidence that urban light-rail systems really do curtail traffic congestion.
Politicians have a love-hate relationship with the gas tax. On the one hand, it's a simple way to provide funds for roads and bridges — paid for by drivers. On the other hand, the per-gallon tax often fails to keep up with inflation, and lawmakers are loath to raise it.
Over the past month, lawmakers in Virginia have devised a novel way around the latter problem. The General Assembly's new transportation bill would eliminate the state's existing tax at the pump, worth 17.5 cents per gallon, and replace it with an array of sales taxes. Wholesale gasoline would now be taxed at 3.5 percent. Diesel fuel would be taxed at 6 percent. The levy on car sales would be raised from 3 percent to 4.3 percent. There's a new $100 tax for hybrids and electric vehicles. And the general sales tax would be bumped from 5 percent to 5.3 percent.
What's the best way to curtail gasoline consumption? Economists tend to agree on the answer here: Higher gas taxes at the pump are more effective than stricter fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks.
Much more effective, in fact. A new paper from researchers at MIT's Global Change program finds that higher gas taxes are "at least six to fourteen times" more cost-effective than stricter fuel-economy standards at reducing gasoline consumption.
The good news is that cars and trucks in the United States have been getting much more fuel-efficient in recent years. The bad news is that gas prices are rising so quickly that Americans are now spending a bigger share of their income on gasoline than at any time since the early 1980s.
That's according to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which found that the average household spent nearly 4 percent of its income on gasoline in 2012, the most in nearly three decades:
It's not too much of an exaggeration to say the U.S. economy was powered by car sales this year. Auto companies are now expected to have sold 14.5 million new vehicles in 2012, according to Kelley Blue Book. That's a 13 percent rise over last year and the highest number of sales since the financial crisis hit.
That sleek new fuel-efficient car you bought? It may not be as efficient as advertised. On Friday, the government announced that Hyundai and Kia have been overstating the fuel economy of many of the vehicles they've been selling since 2010.
After receiving a number of complaints from drivers, the Environmental Protection Agency went back and investigated the fuel-economy claims of various Hyundai and Kia models. EPA tests showed that the actual mileage often fell short of what was advertised, usually by one or two miles per gallonbut in one case by as much as six miles per gallon.
Last night, the Daily Caller unearthed a 2007 speech by Barack Obama in New Hampshire that was deemed a “bombshell.” You can watch the speech here and judge for yourself, but we were struck by one line that the Drudge Report has been highlighting, in which Obama said, “We don’t need to build more highways out in the suburbs …”
One of the more intriguing—and controversial—parts of the 2009 stimulus bill was a $2.4 billion provision to kick-start a domestic battery industry in the United States. As Michael Grunwald described in his book, “The New New Deal,” the Obama administration was hoping that these battery funds could help make the widespread adoption of electric cars a reality:
Over the next seven years, the federal government will spend $7.5 billion on policies to boost the U.S. electric-vehicle industry. But a new report from the Congressional Budget Office raises questions about how quickly these programs will achieve many of their intended goals.
In particular, the report scrutinized the $7,500 tax credit that the government is now offering to consumers who purchase plug-in hybrids like Chevrolet’s Volt or all-electric vehicles like Nissan’s Leaf. This credit, the CBO estimate, will cost $2 billion between 2009 and 2019.
For decades, Congress and the states have largely funded roads, highways and bridges through a tax on gasoline. And the system has worked reasonably well. But there are just a few hitches. For one, the tax is politically difficult to hike, even when infrastructure starts wearing down. And second, as cars get more fuel-efficient, gas-tax revenue starts plummeting, even though people are still using the roads.
During the depths of the financial crisis, the U.S. government spent some $85 billion to rescue Chrysler, GM, and a few of their suppliers, in order to prevent the two large automakers from imploding. According to the latest U.S. Treasury report, taxpayers will now lose $25.1 billion on those auto bailouts. That’s $3.3 billion more than previously estimated. And it’s not even the final price. So how costly could the bailout get, anyway?
Over the past decade, traffic and pedestrian fatalities have been on a slow, steady decline. Fewer drivers have been crashing their cars each year. And fewer walkers and joggers have been getting run over. At least, until recently.
In 2010, there were 32,885 traffic deaths in the United States, according to a new brief (pdf) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Roughly 13 percent of those, or 4,280, were pedestrians. That’s down considerably from a decade ago, but it’s also up slightly since 2009. As NHSTA puts it: “On average, a pedestrian was killed every two hours and injured every eight minutes in traffic crashes.”
Last week, we took a look at Amtrak’s $151 billion proposal to convert the heavily trafficked Northeast Corridor into true high-speed rail. Under this vision, the Acela train would no longer average a plodding 70 mph across the system. A trip from New York to Washington, D.C., would take just 94 minutes instead of three hours. Boston to D.C. would take just three hours instead of seven.
At the moment, Americans aren’t exactly dashing out to dealerships to buy electric cars. The plug-in Nissan Leaf, which runs 75 miles on a single charge, has seen sales plummet since June 2011. Chevrolet’s Volt, which contains both an electric motor and back-up gasoline engine, has been faring slightly better, but still sold a mere 8,817 units in the first half of this year.
Whenever gasoline prices in the United States spike, some people flip over to mass transit. Bus and subway ridership goes up. But most Americans can’t easily make this switch. And a new Brookings report (pdf) explains why: Most major transit systems in the United States don’t do a very good job of bridging the gap between where people live and where they work.
The race to build high-speed rail in the United States is on! Er… sort of. California has plans to build a high speed line from San Francisco to Los Angeles by 2028. Amtrak, for its part, has a grand vision to transform the Northeast Corridor into a high-speed system by 2040. The problem? Both dreams require a lot of cash to see to completion. And it’s still not clear that the money’s there. Let’s take a look at the competitors:
Building a massive highway or bridge or subway in the United States takes a lot longer today than it did back in, say, the 1950s. Why is that?
One popular scapegoat is environmental regulation. In 1969, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires all federal agencies to review the potential impacts of their actions. A very large transportation project that gets money from Congress often has to file an “Environmental Impact Statement” and gather input from the public, which can take years. And, as this chart from Nate Berg over at Atlantic Cities shows, completing those reviews seems to be taking longer and longer as time goes by:
Tim Lee offers up a brief history of New York City’s subway system, based on Clifton Hood’s book “722 Miles.” Private companies had been building above-ground lines in the 19th century on their own. But there was no way to build an underground system without public subsidies:
In the early 20th century, there was widespread skepticism of government subsidies for transit projects. But city planners found they couldn’t convince private firms to create subways without sweetening the pot. For example, when the government sought bids for private firms to construct a subway line without subsidies in 1892, they didn’t receive a single serious proposal. This despite the fact that the 1892 franchise would have offered the winning bidder favorable terms, with minimal regulatory oversight, and run for 999 years.
Public transportation in the United States has faced a perverse situation these past few years. Thanks to high gas prices, more and more Americans are riding buses and trains. But thanks to budget crunches, transit agencies are actually cutting services at the exact same moment.
Over at Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark has a post highlighting one particularly dramatic example of this in Pittsburgh. Due to a $64 million funding shortfall, the city’s Port Authority is threatening to close roughly 40 percent of its routes in the city this year. The before and after maps are really stunning. Here’s what Pittsburgh’s system looks like before the cuts:
In this era of pricey gasoline, fuel-efficient cars are getting attention. A subcompact Chevy Sonic that gets 40 miles per gallon? Intriguing! But many drivers have found that a car’s advertised mileage is often quite different from how it actually performs on the road. So how big a problem is this?
In Europe, at least, it’s a huge problem. A new study from the International Council of Clean Transport looks at brand-new passenger cars out of Germany and finds that the gap between advertised fuel-economy and real-world performance is growing rapidly. In 2001, the gap was about 8 percent. Last year, that had leaped to 21 percent. That’s right: The average new passenger car out of Germany is now 21 percent less fuel-efficient on the road than the dealer’s brochure claims.
It’s no secret that America’s roads need fixing. Of the nation’s highways, 17.4 percent, or some 164,000 miles, were in poor or mediocre condition in 2008, according to the Federal Highway Administration. They needed repaving or more substantive repairs. But how big a deal is this, really?
Here’s one way of looking at it, courtesy of Bloomberg’s Andrew Zajac. Poor roads increase the cost of owning a vehicle. They can tear up suspensions, wear out tires prematurely, and increase fuel consumption. The numbers are fairly dramatic. Careful modeling work by Karim Chatti, an engineering professor at Michigan State University, has found that poor roads cost U.S. drivers an extra $15 billion to $25 billion each year in vehicle damages. (Other groups have pegged the number even higher, at $49 billion per year.)
Tom Vanderbilt has a new series in Slate on “the crisis in American walking.” As it turns out, Americans walk far less than anyone else. And it’s not just those dinky European countries. We walk just half as much as car-loving Australia:
The United States walks the least of any industrialized nation. Studies employing pedometers have found that where the average Australian takes 9,695 steps per day . . . the average Japanese 7,168, and the average Swiss 9,650, the average American manages only 5,117 steps.
Where a child in Britain, according to one study, takes 12,000 to 16,000 steps per day, a similar U.S. study found a range between 11,000 and 13,000.
This wouldn’t be worrisome if walking didn’t have all sorts of beneficial health effects — from lowering blood pressure to reducing obesity rates. So why don’t Americans walk more? You’ll have to read Vanderbilt’s piece, but in short: “As with many forms of physical activity, walking has been engineered out of existence.”
There’s less than a week left for Congress to agree to a highway bill of some sorts. Otherwise, come March 31, all federally funded roadwork will grind to a halt. The U.S. government will no longer collect $93 million per day in gas taxes. And construction workers will get laid off en masse. Chaos.
In theory, it shouldn’t be too hard to prevent this apocalyptic scenario from coming to pass. On Monday, the House is planning to vote on a clean, 90-day extension of the current transportation law. Simple enough, right?
Except, as Politico reports, time is running out, so the House bill is being considered under a suspension of the rules. That means it needs a two-thirds majority to pass. And that’s still far from assured. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats would prefer the House just take up their own two-year highway legislation, though the Senate has quietly conceded that it will consider a short-term extension instead to avoid mass layoffs. But that still leaves the risk that even a short-term bill could get caught in the snags, delays, and cloture motions the Senate is famous for.
Yesterday, I pointed out that Rep. Paul Ryan’s GOP budget proposal would require the federal government to spend less and less on transportation over time. Reihan Salam asks whether this is really such a bad thing. Can’t state governments just pick up the slack?
That’s possible, sure. But it hasn’t happened so far. As a recent report (pdf) from the Congressional Budget Office detailed, the federal government’s share of infrastructure spending has already been shrinking since the 1960s and 1970s. And the states, which still provide the vast majority of spending on roads and highways, haven’t made up the difference. The end result? There’s less infrastructure spending overall as a percent of GDP:
Who wants to hear about pensions? No one. But that’s sort of the point! Yesterday, I noted that the Senate’s two-year highway bill used a few gimmicks to paper over shortfalls in gas-tax revenue. And one of those was a little-noticed tweak in pension rules that could end up being quite important.
Recall that, because gas-tax revenues are dwindling, the Senate needed to raise an additional $12 billion or so from other sources to keep funding for roads and transit at current levels for another two years. You can see a full list of pay-fors in this report from the Joint Committee on Taxation.* Much of the shortfall was filled by moving money from import tariffs and leaking fuel tank penalties into the Highway Trust Fund. But there’s also a provision to raise billions in the short term by fiddling with the rules for private pension plans. And that move has some experts alarmed that Congress is setting itself up for future pension headaches and bailouts.
When it comes to transportation, we're facing a short-term crisis and a long-term disaster. The Senate’s two-year, $109 billion highway bill addresses the first. Unless it — or something like it — becomes law, all federal spending on roads, bridges, and transit will screech to a halt on March 31.
But what happens after those two years are up? It looks like the federal government will simply run out of money to fund the country’s transportation needs. The Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for by the federal gas tax, is rapidly dwindling. Americans are buying more fuel-efficient cars and driving less. And the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax isn’t indexed to inflation. That means that, right now, there isn’t enough money to maintain transportation spending at current levels. The Senate bill, which passed on a 74-22 vote on Tuesday, had to resort to a bunch of side-measures to make up the shortfall. But the Senate could only stretch things out so far. When 2014 rolls around, the trust fund will be broke.
One of the odd features of U.S. transportation policy is that, by and large, there isn’t an overarching national policy. States generally get money according to a set formula. Congress tends not to prioritize those projects that advance key economic or environmental goals.
But on Wednesday, the Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill that tries to change all that — at least in a few modest ways. The bill itself is critical because funding for roads, bridges and transit is set to run out on March 31. But there are a few notable reforms tucked away in the legislation itself. For one, the Senate bill actually articulates major national goals for U.S. transportation policy — things like managing congestion, improving road conditions, reducing environmental impacts, improving the reliability of freight, and increasing access to transit. These goals don’t really affect the way funding is handed out, but at least they finally exist.
In the beginning, House Republicans wanted a six-year transportation bill for highways, bridges and transit. Something long-term. Something to end Congress’s addiction to short-term spending bills that leave states unable to plan. (Congress has passed eight such stopgaps since 2009.)
But that didn’t work out so well. The House GOP’s original six-year highway bill would have cut overall spending levels on roads — in part because it relied solely on shrinking gas-tax revenue. That caused much unhappiness. So the GOP went back and expanded the bill using money from hypothetical future drilling exploits. That also caused much unhappiness. So now John Boehner is suggesting that the House may throw up its hands and vote on the two-year extension the Senate’s now considering. And if that doesn’t work, then Congress can always just pass yet another two-month extension before all highway funding runs out March 31. So how much chaos are these stopgap bills causing?
Here's a sign of how fractious the debate over Congress’s highway bill has become: Arguments about horse trailers, of all things, are helping to bog the bill down.
Over the past few weeks, Republicans have struggled to put together a highway-spending bill that can pass through the House. The original five-year proposal wasn’t acceptable to the party’s rank-and-file — partly because it was too expensive for fiscal conservatives, and partly because of disputes over transit funding and drilling. A newer, slimmed-down version hasn’t passed muster, either. So we’re still waiting to see what they come up with. But this tidbit about horse carriages from Politico’s rundown was eye-catching:
The National Transportation Safety Board recommended this morning that all states and the District ban cellphone use behind the wheel. That, as my colleague Ashley Halsey III reports, makes it the first federal agency to call for an outright ban on telephone conversations while driving.
“No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving.”