How the Stimulus Screws Commuters

The American public is currently focused like a laser on the nation's economic struggles, to the exclusion of all else. That's perfectly understandable; livelihoods are at stake, and the situation is grim. But behind this economic crisis lurks the continued threat posed by global climate change. Eight years of delay has made the situation urgent, and while public opinion clearly indicates that economic recovery should come first, any opportunity to address both problems at once -- to both support the economy while reducing emissions growth -- must be seized.

But as stimulus legislation has progressed through the Congress it has become increasingly clear that the environmental failures in the bill are also economic failures. In making the stimulus dirtier, we're also making it worse. Wrangling over the legislation has produced a bevy of changes that have irked progressives. House leaders bowed to Republican pressure in dropping funding for family planning and adding in tax cuts, only to have the GOP unanimously oppose the final product. But in the Senate, where the legislation has grown to over $900 billion in total, the changes have been most upsetting, particularly where transportation priorities are concerned.

The initial breakdown of transportation funds in the Senate version of the bill was unhelpfully unbalanced, allotting $27 billion to highways compared to $8.4 billion for transit and $3.1 billion for rail. In part, this pro-road tilt was unavoidable. The automobile-oriented nature of our current transportation network means that there are more shovel-ready highway projects available than transit projects.

But subsequent amendments have defied reason. Attempting to address calls for greater infrastructure spending, Sens. Patty Murray and Dianne Feinstein sought to add $40 billion to the plan, divided between highways, transit, and other projects, but the amendment fell two votes shy of passage. Subsequent activity has been exclusively highway oriented. Sen. Barbara Boxer has inexplicably partnered with climate-change denier James Inhofe to prepare an amendment increasing highway funding by $50 billion. And Missouri's Kit Bond is seeking to redirect $2 billion in money for high-speed rail and $5.5 billion from a pool potentially available for transit (as well as highways) to highways alone.

This is a setback for green interests. Capital spending on highways above and beyond the initial $27 billion is unlikely to go to projects that can quickly be brought on line, which will limit its effectiveness as stimulus. We might be able to tolerate this if such spending advanced our long-term goals, but this balance of funding clearly does not. Spending to repair existing road infrastructure should be balanced with investments in greener transit, rail, and bus systems if we're to efficiently reduce fossil-fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the Senate has agreed to plug in $11.5 billion in tax incentives for automobile purchases. Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski defended the measure by saying, "Everyone wants to save auto manufacturers, but no matter how much government aid we give to the Big Three automakers, they can't survive if consumers don't start buying cars," which may be the most offensive statement -- politically, economically, and logically -- to emerge from the Congress in some time.

The attempt to support automobile purchases is regressive -- if you're comfortable enough to buy a new car in these economic times, you probably aren't among the most in need of scarce government assistance. It will also fare poorly as stimulus. It's unclear how many sales might be generated by the plan or whether the number will be large enough to increase production or will merely serve to draw down the massive automobile inventory overhang already sitting on lots. We do know that the wealthy are less likely to spend any government money they receive. This measure will mean extra cash in the pocket of new car buyers, which might have gone to food stamps or unemployment benefits.

And of course, legislators failed to take the minimum green step we might have expected of them -- limiting the assistance to fuel-efficient automobiles. A "cash for clunkers" provision might have at least ensured that the new cars replaced old, highly inefficient ones, but even that well-supported idea was omitted.

Perhaps worst of all, the Senate, like the House, declined to specifically direct funding toward operating costs for transit systems. While capital spending to repair and enlarge transit systems is absolutely necessary to meet long-term environmental (and economic goals), those investments do nothing to keep trains and buses running right now. With gas tax and general budget revenues plummeting, systems nationwide are cutting service, increasing fares, and sacking employees. And while grants to state governments may be used to cover some of the shortfall, state officials will face strong pressure to plug other holes first, stimulus concerns aside. Multi-jurisdictional systems in particular may be out of luck, as governments prove reluctant to devote money to systems that serve non-constituents.

This is an inexcusable failure to effectively address multiple priorities. Vehicle miles driven by Americans have been falling, as have automobile sales -- dramatically -- while transit ridership has increased. Congress' priority, as reflected in proposed spending, is to reverse these trends, by spending on highways, subsidizing automobile sales, and permitting massive transit cuts. This is absurd.

From an environmental perspective, it makes sense to reinforce the shift toward greener choices. But nudging Americans further in a green direction also makes for good stimulus. Transit operating subsidies put money directly in riders' pockets, while highway subsidies force consumers to direct more income toward gasoline (progressives who support Buy America provisions because they fear stimulus "leakage" on import spending would do well to note the billions we send abroad for oil). Our automobile dependency means that should recovery produce higher oil prices, disposable income will fall, potentially short-circuiting output growth. Any steps we can take to reduce per capita gasoline spending will help.

And money for transit systems keeps households with limited access to automobiles -- primarily lower-income families -- working and shopping, helping them, and helping the economy.

It is remarkable that so soon after the high oil prices of last summer sapped consumer spending, outraged the public, and focused attention on our climate and energy crises, we would be willing to double-down on highways, despite a lack of adequate economic justification. If we can't make these easy decisions in the stimulus bill, I fear that we'll also struggle to make them when, or if, climate policy takes center stage.