Is the Goal to Reduce Emissions, Fuel Use or Mobility?

One of the most troubling ideas gaining a head of steam as we approach reauthorization is that a key transportation performance measure should be reducing vehicle miles traveled —either in total or per capita. The logic behind this idea is that using petroleum fuel is bad, and emitting CO2 is bad, so transportation funding and programs should deliberately aim to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT), in order to advance those other goals.

This idea has been percolating at the Brookings Institution and among any number of environmental groups, and it’s also being heavily promoted by the America 2050 project. But what really caused alarm among transportation people was the release last month by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) of their Federal Surface Transportation Policy and Planning Act of 2009 (S.1036). The first of its major goals for federal transportation policy is “Reduce national per capita vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis.” It also calls for government-set targets for shifting freight from road to rail.

Putting these idea into legislative language has started to arouse transportation interest groups, as well it should. First out of the box was the American Highway Users Alliance, which sent a strong letter of opposition to every member of the Commerce Committt, including Chairman Rockefeller. I’m expecting all sorts of transportation related groups – AAA, ATA, ARTBA, AASHTO, and others – to join in the opposition, once they realize the implications of this proposal.

I’ve written about VMT restrictions at greater length in my May column for Public Works Financing.

Suffice it to say that if the goal is to reduce CO2 or petroleum use, Congress should target those things directly. The idea that reducing Americans’ mobility is a sensible or cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gases has no empirical support. Indeed, I challenge any proponent of the idea to come up with evidence that it would cost less than the $50/ton of CO2 removed ceiling as a benchmark for “affordable” greenhouse gas reduction measures. (My guess is that it would cost thousands of dollars per ton.)

Mobility is the purpose of transportation. Its benefits, both for individual well-being and the health of the economy, are enormous.

As we head into reauthorization, our watchword should be: “Reduce CO2, not mobility.”