Shifting Gears

The road to a better transportation infrastructure is long, but we're heading in the right direction. Here's a snapshot of progress to date from The New York Times "Wheels" columnist.

Public transit in the United States has been starved for funding for nearly a decade. But President Obama’s stimulus plan will put nearly $48 billion into transportation programs. As a country, it’s incredibly important that we use that funding strategically, not just for highways (the traditional cash magnet) but also for pedestrians, cyclists and straphangers.

Road Weary

Without question, Americans are driving less—Minnesotans included.“We saw close to a 4 percent drop in vehicle miles traveled in Minnesota last year, and it’s been going down for something like 14 months straight,” says Lynne Bly, transportation connections director at Fresh Energy.

Minnesota mirrors the nation as a whole, which has also experienced a 14-month VMT decline. It’s not hard to understand why VMT started to recede: The National Household Travel Survey found that the average cost of fuel for Minnesota families alone doubled between 2001 and 2006. So motorists were already suffering by the time $4 a gallon gas arrived in summer 2008, which propelled people out of cars, says Bly.

One might have expected the miles traveled to go back up when fuel prices dropped again, but they didn’t. Most likely because the recession took over from expensive gas as the major motivator, says Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration. The loss of millions of jobs also got a lot of commuters off the roads (and caused not a decline in transit use, but a decline in its rate of growth).

The Reckoning

The fact that people are driving less has reduced carbon emissions to an extent that no government policy—including the Kyoto treaty—has yet been able to accomplish. But the number of vehicle miles traveled is likely to go up again when the recession eases. According to a new study by a team of University of Minnesota transportation and public policy researchers, actions to meet the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent in 2015 have to start now if they’re going to succeed.

The team’s report says a combination of increasing fuel efficiency, reducing the carbon content of fuel, and cutting consumption could result in a 30 percent reduction by 2025. “The emission reduction goal is achievable if action starts today,” says Robert Johns, director of the U of M’s Center for Transportation Studies.

“The technology to make this happen exists, it is just a matter of using it,” says David Kittelson, a professor of mechanical engineering who worked on the study. Among the revelations of the report: Biofuels could contribute 27 percent of Minnesota’s climate goals by 2015, and heavy trucks simply slowing down and using low rolling-resistance tires could add another 13 percent.

Back on the Rails

In April, President Obama released a strategic plan to jump-start rail lines across the country with an allocated $8 billion. “This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It’s happening now. The problem is, it’s happening elsewhere,” Obama said, citing superior high-speed rail travel in countries like Japan, China, France and Spain.

Right now, the Amtrak station in St. Paul, Minn., offers access to the Empire Builder, a passenger train that plies the route between Seattle and Chicago. The prices are sometimes roughly compatible with air travel, but long train rides lead most people to fly.

The Chicago-St. Paul line would even things up. Part of the Chicago Hub Network, the line is one of 10 corridors designated to receive funding in the plan. Best-case scenario, passenger trains traveling at 110 miles per hour could run to and from St. Paul, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and several other cities within about four years.

Excitement over the national rail network is palpable, and with good reason: Building a mile of high-speed rail would cost $1 million, compared to $41 million for a mile of interstate. And one rail car takes 50 cars off the road.

Going Clean

The economic stimulus package also includes $25 billion to boost American production of electric cars and battery packs. The funding has set off an intense competition to break ground, with many of the applications coming not from the Big Three, but from ambitious startup companies—many of them based in or looking at the Midwest.

An example is Indiana-based Bright Automotive, a carmaker spin-off of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, which announced its new four-wheel drive, plug-in hybrid utility truck in mid-April. John Waters, the company’s president and chief executive officer, developed the battery pack for General Motors’ first production electric vehicle, the EV1. Waters aims to develop a car factory to build environmentally friendly plug-in hybrid vans somewhere in the Rust Belt, where available skilled labor and proximity to Detroit are big pluses.

Tomorrow’s auto industry is likely to be decentralized, with dozens of automakers spread out all over the United States. Could clean cars roll out of Minnesota factories in 2012 and beyond? You betcha.

JIM MOTAVALLI is a journalist, professional blogger, author and radio personality who lives in Fairfield, Conn. He’s a regular contributor to The New York Times and has a weekly syndicated “Wheels” column. He has written several books with environmental themes, including Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future.

Minneapolis by Metro


Photo: Chris Andersen

Taken Metro Transit lately? The transportation division of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council operates the 14th largest transit system (based on ridership) in the nation, with 268,000 rides on an average weekday.

The local bus service has already made sustainable strides with 67 diesel-electric hybrid buses and 10 percent biodiesel content in its fuel. Metro Transit uses 10 million gallons of diesel annually, so it’s good to hear that it was the first transit operator in Minnesota to use low-sulfur fuel since it provided an incredible 68.7 million local bus rides in 2008, up 4.8 percent from 2007.

Metro Transit also operates the Hiawatha light rail corridor, which has enjoyed steady ridership growth. In 2008, there was a 12.3 percent ridership increase and more than 10 million individual rides. In fact, every Metro service other than dial-a-rides was up last year.

Further expansion includes the central corridor light rail line, which will connect the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul and pass through the University of Minnesota campus. And the Northstar Commuter Rail Line will soon parallel Highway 10 from Big Lake to Minneapolis, where it will connect to the Hiawatha Line.

Rejoice transit fans. Ridership on all modes is at a 40-year high and shows no signs of being derailed.