by David Coyte, edited by David Morse
Our business community needs to take a deep breath and face the economic realities that now, and for the foreseeable future, will grip our economy. It is time to detach ourselves from the obsolete policies of Greater Louisville, INC (GLI) and examine what will truly serve us in this century. No where is this more important than in our consideration of the Bridges Project.
Today’s message from the international stock markets and our own economic forecasters is that the United States is an economy on the brink of disaster. A pivotal weakness in our economy is the inefficiency and oil dependence of our transportation sector. Americans use twice as much energy per capita as Europeans. This wasn’t a big deal when oil was $20 per barrel. It is a very big deal now. Transportation consumes 2/3 of the oil we use and this is the sector where we have the potential to dramatically change our oil consumption levels and reduce our staggering infrastructure costs, and improve our international competitiveness. The next three statements summarize our problems:
State and Federal governments are looking at significant raises in the fuel taxes and tolls to pay for highway upkeep. This is not a solution. Rising tolls and taxes will result in less driving and more efficient vehicles. This translates into less revenue and the tax and toll cycle continues until no one can afford to drive.
We must recognize the foolishness of investing in infrastructure that is so costly to maintain, so expensive to use, that promotes oil dependence, is usable by fewer and fewer citizens, and contributes significantly to environmental degradation. The Bridges Project and other highway mega-projects are obsolete. There is absolutely no way we can sustainably expand the automobile/trucking economy of the 20th Century. Attempts to do so will further erode our wealth and independence. But we must insure the mobility of our population and the flow of goods. Fortunately there are viable alternatives and they are being touted by the most unlikely sources.
In 2003 the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, (AASHTO), released the Freight Rail Bottom Line Report. AASHTO is probably the most pro-highway group in the nation. Yet their study recommends that we make a major public investment in the nation’s freight railroads. The report outlines the economic necessity of expanding rail capacity to save the highway system. The facts that matter here are: 1) Freight trucking is doing devastating damage to our highways; 2) We can not afford to keep our highways in repair given the projected increase in trucking, rising fuel costs, skyrocketing maintenance; and diminishing resources; and 3) Increasing freight rail’s market share will save energy, reduce congestion, save road repair costs, and reduce shipping costs. Recognize that this report came out before oil prices began rising and you will realize how desperate this situation has become.
Locally we should review our regional transportation plans with these issues in mind.
Instead of new highway bridges we should consider a new rail bridge in the East End. This would solve many problems. It would support the necessary move from freight trucking to freight rail, it would support moving hazardous cargo away from population centers, it would not encourage suburban sprawl as a highway does, and it would reduce our oil consumption while increasing our mobility options. Rights-of-way costs would be a quarter that of a highway, yet a two-track system can carry as much as 16 lanes of interstate while costing about 1/50th as much to maintain. Now that we can afford.
Transit addresses personal mobility which is the other side of this issue. Light rail with bus support is the way to go for convenience, speed, safety, and cost. As with bridges, investment in light rail is not cheap – though far cheaper than building interstates and bridges. The big advantages are in long term maintenance and operational costs – and these are the issues that have bankrupted the highway system. A light rail system is actually 27% cheaper to operate than a bus system, and rising energy prices will increase that advantage.
Louisville’s business community will do well if shipping costs can be contained and if workers and consumers can access jobs and markets easily and cheaply. Wages are stagnant and energy costs rising. With highway dependence there is less money to spend and a greater need for higher wages. Transit investment can reverse this trend, and keep more money in the local economy. Energy money tends to leave the community.
We must change our transportation and energy economics. It cannot be done by building more highways. Louisville sits at the crossing that will take us into the competitive economy of the 21st Century, or not. More highways can’t get us there. Rail investment can.
Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation