Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How to get to “green taxes” for transportation

Having recently spent a few days meeting with several thousand of my friends and colleagues in transportation (otherwise known as the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board), I wanted to share a few nuggets of information I picked up.
There is a lot of discussion these days in climate change circles about the benefits of “green taxes” (e.g., carbon taxes) for promoting desired behaviors while raising funds for governmental activities.  And of course in transportation circles there is always talk about the need for more money.  So it is not surprising that people in the overlap of those circles are looking into green taxes for transportation.
So, you might ask, what percentage of the American public would support, for instance, a 10-cent increase in the gas tax, with the revenue “dedicated to transportation projects to reduce global warning”?  The answer is 54 percent. 
This question is part of an ongoing survey research project which folks at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University have been carrying out for seven years.  (The report can be found here.)
Despite the noise you hear about Americans hating taxes, the research shows that a majority of Americans support gas tax increases when they are dedicated to transportation goals.  The gas tax option gaining the highest support – 78 percent – is for a 10-cent increase with revenue “spent on projects to maintain streets, roads, and highways.”  And support for gas tax increases has been generally trending up during the seven years for most of the options presented!
A follow-up piece of research  (to be published) dug into the data collected over all seven years of survey data to inquire whether there are any demographic characteristics associated with support for green taxes (the “dedicated to global warning” and two related ones).  The specific research question was whether support for green taxes was related more to “place” (urban vs. rural) or “people” – other identifiers.  The short answer is “people.”  The results showed that “it may not matter as much where you live as who you are.  No matter where you live, you are likely to support transportation taxes if you are younger, female, Hispanic, and identify as a Democrat.”
And one more research update on taxes from TRB: California has had a remarkable history of successful local sales tax referendums for transportation.  These Local Option Sales Taxes (LOSTs!) now generate $4 Billion a year for transportation.  In the 40 years since this phenomenon got started, approval rates have been well over 50 percent.  And under the rules, a two-thirds supermajority is required for adoption!  Thanks to grad students at UCLA we now have a much better understanding of how these things work (to be published).  The main takeaways (my interpretation):
·      People will support taxing themselves for transportation when the objectives are clear (and popular),
·      Approval rates go up over time when the local jurisdiction (counties in California) delivers on the previous program,
·      As a matter of practical politics, the mix of projects in successful referendums is tailored to meet local needs (and aspirations), and of course geographical balance,
·      People are willing to invest much more in transit, even in places where current transit usage is small,
·      Bus transit tends to be a drag on the likelihood of success relative to fixed-guideway, and
·      “Maintenance” is a much better draw than “operations.”

Bottom line: There is a broad reservoir of potential public support for “green” taxes that benefit clean transportation.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Decarbonizing transportation: What state DOTs can do

Having recently spent a few days meeting with several thousand of my friends and colleagues in transportation (otherwise known as the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board), I wanted to share a few nuggets of information I picked up.
What can state DOTs do to advance decarbonization of the transportation system?
First of all, it’s encouraging that this was a prominent topic for discussion, including in a workshop dedicated to it.
Some general thoughts gleaned from various presenters and commentators:
·      The transportation sector is getting increased attention as the electricity generation sector is – in many places – rapidly cleaning up, leaving transportation as the next big challenge.
·      State DOTs need to move beyond their normal limits, getting involved in areas of the transportation space where they may have no direct jurisdiction but which may be critical for decarbonization efforts.
·      Many states have adopted a “toolbox” approach to greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but likely the “big two” tools are promoting electric vehicle adoption (or, more precisely, increasing electric vehicle miles traveled – eVMT) and carbon pricing.  All the other measures are probably only nibbling at the problem.
·      And speaking of those toolboxes, how about evaluating how they are working?  A number of states adopted climate change action plans or energy master plans about 10 years ago or so.  A few have decided (I think it’s a great idea) to go back to those plans and take a look at how many of the proposed measures were actually adopted, how well they worked, and what lessons can be learned for planning the next 10 years.
And a few state-specific notes:
·       Minnesotans are becoming very attuned to climate change issues, as the state is experiencing higher temperature increases than any other state.   Minnesota DOT has set up a “Sustainable Transportation Steering Committee” that plans to publish an annual scorecard (first edition here) based on targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions in MnDOT facilities, fleet, highway operations, roadside management, and construction areas. 
·      In Washington State the transportation sector accounts for a whopping 44% of greenhouse gas emissions (a lot of electricity is provided through hydroelectric power), leading WSDOT to keep climate change issues on the front burner.  In addition to their well-known commitment to the West Coast Electric Highway (being strengthened through deployment of new Fast Chargers), the agency is funding electric buses, looking into the possibility of electric ferries (!), operating a new Active Transportation Division, and pursuing a wide range of partnership initiatives with other agencies and local governments.  The state already has a carbon cap in place, including transportation, but does not yet have a “trade” or “invest” component to the scheme.

·      I think most of us would put California in the lead for dealing with transportation decarbonization, as they are in so many spheres.  Perhaps their most important initiative right now is the carbon cap-and-invest program, which extends to the transportation sector.  But Caltrans is also undertaking a wide range of important activities.  To name a few: GHG emissions from department operations have been reduced by 40 in 6 years; $220 million a year is now programmed for Active Transportation(!); construction and materials (e.g., concrete) are being researched; the highway design manual has been revised to encourage flexilibility for multimodal transportation (called “facilities,” not “amenities”); the new high-speed rail line is planned as the spine of the state’s transportation network.  Lots of good stuff!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Good Morning Mobilitéit!

A little good transportation news (or, good transportation news from a little country?)……..
Yes, we could all use some good news.  How about a brand-new, spiffy-looking tram in Luxembourg!
The new tram – very reminiscent of the Strasbourg tram – connects several major activity centers, including the expo center, university, European institutions, etc.  In a few years the line will extend to the city center, main railway station, and airport.
Two new regional rail stations interconnect with the tram, one requiring a funicular connection.
Of course, being Europe, the plan also includes bus connections, a bikeway, bike lockers, and electric vehicle chargers.  The whole scheme is packaged as “Good Morning Mobilitéit!” (“mobility” in Luxembourgish – website here)
Speaking of Luxembourgish, I love the video (here) narrated in that little-known language.  (The subtitles are in French, and if that doesn’t help, the video works anyway!)  Another introductory video can be found here.
The cars are very sleek and modern and look like they fit perfectly with a city that combines old-world charm and ultramodern institutions (again like Strasbourg).
The modern European tram combines features of what in the US we would call light rail and streetcars. 

Some day maybe we can have good things here too!