At the Mayor and Commission Work session in January, Commissioner Melissa Link asked to redirect some of the state funding (LMIG) that Athens receives for transportation to bike and pedestrian infrastructure instead of reserving it only for road resurfacing as we are currently doing. Manager Alan Reddish dismissed this idea, even though LMIG funds can be used for transportation projects of all modes, saying that there is a backlog of streets needing to be repaved which would consume all of the LMIG funds for the time being. I’m sure this is true, but I feel that there is some context missing from that exchange.
Transportation funding has been a hot topic lately at all levels of government. The Federal highway trust fund has been at low levels for a while now, and there was a major adjustment to our state gas tax just last year because Georgia’s highway fund is also running low. At present, private cars and trucks are certainly our most important and most costly method of transportation. There’s no doubt about that. What is in doubt is if this system is actually working for us in a cost-effective manner.
The US is one of the most car-dependent countries in the world. Americans drive almost 70 percent of the time for trips under one mile, while Europeans make 70 percent of their short trips by bicycle, foot, or public transportation. This takes a sharp toll on our roads that is not completely funded by our gasoline taxes. In fact, only 50-60% of the costs of highway construction and maintenance is funded by gasoline taxes and other user fees. The rest is funded by general taxation and borrowing, placing an undue burden on pedestrians, bikers, and bus riders. While public transportation also does not cover its costs entirely with fares (nor should it, in my view), there are a number of externalities making private cars an inefficient and costly transportation choice for society even if we could all afford to own one.
The first external factor that must be mentioned is climate change. According to the EPA, burning fossil fuels for transportation is the second largest contributor to climate change pollution. However, these emissions can be cut by 40 percent by switching to public transportation. This is because buses with at least 11 passengers emit fewer pounds of CO2 per passenger than does an average car with one driver alone. When full with passengers or when compared to 11 cars with one driver each, buses emit far less CO2. It is difficult to estimate the economic impacts of climate change, but one study has it at $1.2 trillion dollars a year globally and projects that figure to double by 2030. If our policymakers aren’t treating this as a crisis requiring a long-term vision and an immediate response, they don’t quite understand the scale of the problem.
Other externalities and opportunity costs of private vehicle use include noise pollution (reduces property values and hence property tax revenue), land use opportunity costs (land used for roads and parking lots do not generate property or sales tax), and finally the massive public health cost of car accidents. 32,675 people were killed in car accidents in 2014 and another 2.3 million people were injured! On the other hand, riding the bus is 60 times safer than driving a car and produces about half the total fatalities per passenger mile. Due to these factors, private car use has a high social cost that is not often accounted for by urban planners, along with an already high direct monetary cost to all taxpayers whether they own a car or not.
With young people driving less anyway, I think it’s time we started to re-imagine the way we get around as a society. Finding the money for road repaving won’t always have to be difficult – it depends on the choices we make. If we choose to switch from private, gasoline-powered vehicles to walking, biking, and public transportation, we can reduce both CO2 emissions and our need for oil, while at the same time reducing social inequalities and making our communities safer, healthier, more financially-sound.
We need a long-term plan to move Athens forward on alternative transportation. We will need leadership to remove our society from the catch-22 it is presently in: cars and trucks perpetually damage the roads which makes them very expensive and alternatives seem out of reach. As long as we keep driving everywhere and fail to receive major additional infrastructure investment from our Federal government (such as proposed by Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders), our roads and highways will always be too expensive for states and local municipalities to maintain. We shouldn’t accept any longer the answer that there isn’t any money to pursue alternative transportation; what we’re asking for is actually cheaper. Of course, we can’t switch to a new system overnight, but in the long-term, we both need and deserve improved transportation alternatives. There is really no other choice.
April 4, 2016