Automobile engine exhaust pollutes the air of our cities and contributes ‘greenhouse gases’ to the atmosphere,” the author solemnly declares. “The construction and daily use of sixty thousand square miles of American roads have changed the drainage patterns of our land and damaged our wetlands.” Calling for a dramatic change in transportation policy, the author proposes in an essay that “cars must be made expensive to use” and be made with a new shape and new construction materials.
The quotes above are not from Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance or any of the anti-automobile tracts put out by green groups like the Sierra Club. Instead they are from an essay by Emil Frankel, the man on track to be confirmed by the Senate this week as the Bush administration’s assistant secretary of transportation for transportation policy. The essay was called “Coexisting with the Car,” and was published in a 1997 environmentalist tome called Thinking Ecologically. If the Senate votes Frankel in, he will be one of the top officials in charge of the whole gamut of issues surrounding cars and roads and will have a chance to put at least some of his ideas into reality.
How Frankel, who served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation from 1991 to 1995, got past the vetting process in the Bush administration is a mystery. But his views on roads and the automobile are no mystery. Frankel, until recently, served as a board member of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, which has opposed virtually all new highway extensions with the questionable assertion the more roads induce more traffic congestion. The STPP, for instance, has campaigned against the InterCounty Connector, a road that both Republicans and liberal Democrats in Maryland have pushed for as urgently needed to relieve massive congestion in the Baltimore and Washington areas.
It is only due to fate and parochial politics that Frankel was not confirmed a year ago. Early last year Sen. Joseph Biden (D., Del.), put a “hold” on Frankel and other Bush transportation nominees in order to get the Bush administration to boost funding for Amtrak. When a compromise could not be reached, Bush appointed the nominees, including Frankel, to their jobs during a congressional recess last March. Because recess appointments can only serve for one year, Frankel is again up for confirmation. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee as well as the full Senate are likely to vote on Frankel’s appointment this week. Before they do, they and the Bush administration should give Frankel a thorough grilling on his views.
As assistant secretary, Frankel would be one of the lead figures shaping the administration’s policy on roads and traffic. Pressing issues that he would be dealing with include transportation legislation that’s up for renewal this year that determines what share of revenues from federal gas taxes should go to roads versus transit, and the federal environmental mandates that burden states trying to build new roads such as the ICC.
In “Coexisting with the Car,” Frankel espouses positions in stark contrast with the stated policies of the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers on many issues. The Bush Justice Department, for instance, has filed a brief supporting car makers’ lawsuit to stop an impractical California requirement that a substantial share of passenger vehicles sold in the state achieve zero emissions, meaning the mandating of electric cars. But in the essay, Frankel praises the policy as a way that “government can prod change,” saying that it “will likely induce the auto industry to refine their prototype electric cars and invest in better batteries.” According to Frankel, “we need a super-efficient car with a new shape, construction materials like carbon fiber, and some major change in the power system.”
Frankel claims the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit “reduced pollution and saved resources as well as lives” and criticizes the increase in the mid-80s to 65 m.p.h. for “dramatically increas[ing] the amount of volatile organic compounds huffed into the air by cars.” (In reality after the new GOP-controlled Congress abolished the national speed limit in 1995, highway-fatality rates went down.) Frankel also praised the Clinton administration’s 1993 increase in federal gas taxes for “mov[ing] the United States in the direction of reducing some unnecessary driving.”
But for Frankel, the Clinton gas-tax increase was just a start. While stating that “we can’t ‘regulate away’ the automobile age, nor should we,” he is adamant that cars must pay their “full costs.” He approvingly quotes a statement from an article in The Economist that “cars must be made expensive to use, rather than to own.” He writes that “appropriate emission and gasoline taxes will stimulate an effort to improve the fuels and design of cars.” He advocates “charging emission taxes when a car is registered or inspected” and says that “user charges that must be paid with every mile traveled should be considered.”
Some of the measures Frankel advocates intersect with those of free-market transportation reformers, such as congestion pricing and toll roads. The difference is that while the free-market groups propose these ideas as replacements for existing road taxes, Frankel pushes them as add-ons to make drivers pay more. And according to him, the “full costs” that drivers should pay do not just include those for pollution and “global warming,” but also those related to subjective environmental concepts such as the supposed “habitat destruction” caused by roads. “Charging for the use of roads also opens the way to include in the fee the costs of mitigating the impact of motor vehicles on air quality, habitats and other resources,” Frankel writes. “The integrity of a wetland” should be figured into the costs that drivers must pay, Frankel argues.
But forcing a blue-collar driver to pay hefty fees to subsidize Frankel and environmental groups’ ideal of a pristine universe is a more than a little far-fetched, especially since there are plenty of habitat and wetlands still out there. As Reason Public Policy Institute senior fellow Sam Staley has pointed out, more than 95 percent of U.S. land is still rural and undeveloped. Much of farmland has reverted to forestland in the past few decades as it has been taken out of production. And as Jane Shaw of the Political Economy Research Center noted in the book A Guide to Smart Growth, even “when land is taken out of agriculture for residences, it is not clear that habitat for wildlife is impoverished.” Indeed, many suburbanites can testify to the plentiful presence of deer, raccoons, and other creatures in their gardens.
The most immediate impact Frankel could have as assistant secretary could be over the construction of new roads to help alleviate congestion. States and cities are reeling from federal mandates that delay or prevent the use of state funds and federal gas-tax revenues from building highway extensions that have sometimes been in the planning stages for more than 20 years. But Frankel’s STPP sticks firmly to the position that more roads won’t help with congestion. “Road building is ineffective because adding capacity to highways actually generates additional travel as more people take additional car trips and new development creates even more demand,” states an executive summary of an STPP study.
Heritage Foundation fellow and transportation consultant Wendell Cox calls this the “maternity wards make babies” argument. He has criticized the STPP study for only looking at traffic on freeways and ignoring the effects that highway expansions have at relieving traffic on regular city streets.
A STPP press release was glowing with joy when the Bush administration nominated Frankel to be assistant secretary for transportation policy. “If confirmed, he will bring a much needed voice to the U.S. Department of Transportation.” But should a dominant voice of the Bush administration on transportation policy be one that is similar to that of Al Gore — in some instances, to the left of the average Democrat on roads and cars? This is the question the Senate needs to ask before it confirms Emil Frankel. The Bush administration should also ask whether it should save the Senate the trouble by pulling the nomination.
— John Berlau is a writer for Insight.