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Not a silver bullet, “We need silver buckshot”: Oil, American Power, and future of funding transportation

The surface transportation system in the United States is financed in large part by the gasoline tax, though for years the tax has been insufficient to cover the costs of the entire system. Still, the more fuel American drivers consume, the more money goes to the cost of maintaining and expanding our roads, tunnels and bridges, which will cost something in the neighborhood of $500 billion over the next six years. Consuming the same fuel that generates those funds contributes unsustainable levels of Green House Gasses (GHG) into the atmosphere – the transportation sector produces 31 percent of CO2 emissions and is responsible for 70 percent of our country’s oil use — and, as the recent oil spill shows us, can lead to environmental catastrophe. How do you control the carbon that finances the system?

This was the central question at the panel discussion, “Transportation Carbon Fees: Is Kerry-Lieberman the Answer?” hosted by at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Friday.  Moderated by the Endowment’s David Burwell and featuring Vicki Arroyo of the Georgetown Climate Center, the panel was notable because it included friendly but candid contributions from John Horsley, the executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO,) and Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC,) who was representing Transportation for America.

Here’s video from the event:


What’s in the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act?

As David Burwell explains in a Q & A on the Carnegie Endowment site, “the critical element of the legislation is that it puts a price on carbon and thus discourages carbon emissions, which cause global warming.”  Two-thirds of all revenues generated by carbon pricing would either be returned to consumers in various ways or help pay down the national debt. Section 1711 of the bill directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to establish GHG reduction goals, assess progress every 6 years, and improve transportation planning models. The transportation sector would receive funding split among the Highway Trust Fund, the TIGER grant program, and a new competitive grant program for state and local GHG reduction plans.

Pick your metaphor

AASHTO’s John Horsley said that he could not support the bill in its current form because it essentially taxed the transportation sector too much and returned too little. In an acknowledged (and exquisite) mixed metaphor, Horsley commented that transportation is being treated as the forgotten step-child, while revenue from the sector was considered a cash cow. If, however, all of the funds from the carbon fee in the transportation sector were returned to the sector the bill would have “no better friend” than AASHTO, Horsley said.

AASHTO is concerned that the carbon fee would “suck all the oxygen from the room” for a needed gas tax to make the Highway Trust Fund solvent. To which NRDC’s Lovaas replied, “There is no oxygen in the room.” Suggesting that the only thing less popular than incumbent elected-officials right now is a gas tax, Lovaas said, “we need a new product, because we’re not making a sale” on a gas tax.

In any event, Lovaas argued, every possible approach for addressing environmental and transportation needs ought to be taken seriously: “we don’t need a silver bullet; we need silver buckshot.”

Gulf spill game changer?

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

A refrain too often relevant in recent years has been not to let a good crisis go to waste.  Though no one was sure of the exact impact of the oil spill on the fate of the American Power Act, there was general agreement that it would highlight the need to address our oil addiction. To illustrate the scale of our current dependence on oil, Lovaas put it this way: every day Americans consume 1,000 times the amount of oil that is being pumped into the gulf.

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