The Agenda

Transportation Investments in Kerry-Lieberman

Brad Plumer has a round-up of proposed transportation investments in the new Senate climate proposal. Because I’m not terribly sympathetic to the proposal, I wonder if some of the better ideas embedded within it can become part of a separate, smaller proposal. Brad mentions a promising reform of the Highway Trust Fund:

Another third would go toward the Highway Trust Fund. The catch here is that money would specifically have to go toward projects that decreased greenhouse-gas emissions. So the money couldn’t just be used to build gobs of new highways out to the exurbs. This is a good idea, by the way, since as Robert Puentes likes to point out, the Highway Trust Fund keeps running out of money—partly because people are driving less and gas-tax revenue is declining.

One assumes that this could be financed through a gas tax increase or a VMT, a very unpopular idea that nevertheless makes a great deal of sense.

Brad mentions some of my favorite ideas in passing:

One-third would go toward federal grants for big transportation projects. This could include anything from new freight rail lines to, say, a marine highway system that could replace existing truck infrastructure—something that California got $130 million to build in the stimulus.

The proposal generates $7 billion in revenues from selling carbon permits to extractive industries. We could raise far more by paring back farm subsidies, and then plow some of the savings into freight rail expansion that would prove beneficial to the agricultural sector over the long term. Phil Longman has described some of the extraordinary economic benefits of a new Steel Wheel Interestate.

Looking to future, the potential of a 21st-century rail system to improve national life is truly astonishing — including a near zero-emission, zero-oil freight transportation system. In a peer-reviewed study recently presented to the Transportation Research Board, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of a $250 billion to $500 billion expenditure on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 83 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation’s highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail. If high-traffic rail lines were also electrified and powered in part by renewable energy sources, that investment would reduce nationwide carbon emissions by 38 percent and oil consumption by 17 percent. By moderating the growing cost of logistics, it would also leave the nation’s economy 10 percent larger by 2030 than it would otherwise be.

I’m less enamored of passenger rail than Phil, but a much smaller investment — on the order of $8 billion — could generate significant economic and environmental benefits in congested Virginia.


A study sponsored by the Virginia Department of Transportation finds that a cumulative investment over 10 to 12 years of less than $8 billion would divert 30 percent of the growing truck traffic on I-81 to rail.

That would be far more bang for the state’s buck than the $11 billion it would take to add more lanes to the highway, especially since it would bring many other public benefits, from reduced highway accidents and lower repair costs to enormous improvements in fuel efficiency and pollution. Today, a single train can move as many containers as 280 trucks while using one-third as much energy — and that’s before any improvements to rail infrastructure.

This certainly looks like a promising use of public money, provided we fund it through savings in other domains.

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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