Transportation & Infrastructure

A Nation Free of Lead? Clinton Says She’ll Do It

Philip Bump examines the viability of Hillary Clinton’s pledge that should she be elected president she will “within five years to remove lead from everywhere.”

“That’s almost certainly impossible.”

“Lead isn’t only transmitted in water through lead pipes. It exists, as Clinton pointed out, in paint in homes. For decades it was added to gasoline — an initiative of the auto industry that once made Flint prosperous. Once in gasoline, it spread throughout the environment, contaminating the dirt around roads and the houses adjacent to those roads … Getting rid of those pipes alone within five years would be hugely difficult and massively expensive.”

“The Centers for Disease Control notes that most housing built prior to 1978 uses some lead paint. According to the Census Bureau, there are nearly 70 million houses in the United States that meet that standard. Seventy million.”

“The problem of lead in the United States is a problem for which there is no easy solution. At best, we’ve reached a stalemate with lead, doing our best to reduce our children’s exposure to the metal, an effort that extends back to the late 1970s.”

Getting a Driver’s License is Losing Popularity in the US

Washington Post: “A new study from the University of Michigan’s Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle tracks data on the share of Americans of different ages who have driver’s licenses. Turns out that among the young, the share has plummeted over the last three decades.”

“It’s unclear what’s behind these longer-term downswings in driver’s licensing. Maybe they have to do with increased urbanization, changes in access to public transit, changes in licensing laws or other forces.”

Flint Water Crisis Underscores the Need for Big Government

Katrina vanden Heuvel argues that “the water crisis in Flint represents more than a catastrophic political failure. It is also a direct consequence of decades of policies based on the premise that government spending is always a problem and never a solution. Long before Flint tried to reduce spending by moving to a cheaper water source, the pipes that ultimately poisoned the water were neglected. Across the country, crumbling infrastructure is a pervasive threat that is creating serious issues in other cities and could produce similar crises . As Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone explained , ‘Flint is an extreme case, but nationally, there’s been a lack of investment in water infrastructure. This is a common problem nationally — infrastructure maintenance has not kept up.’”

“Frustration and distrust of government is understandable when politicians like [Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder] and their cronies are so blatantly unaccountable to the public. Indeed, when government is polluted by officials who put corporate interests above their constituents and cost-cutting above the common good, it too often fails to fulfill even its most basic functions, such as protecting access to safe drinking water. But instead of giving in to anger and austerity, in this election, we should be having a vigorous debate about how government can be truly accountable to the people it serves.”

For the First Time, Guns Kill More Americans Than Cars

Vox: “Cars are no longer deadlier than guns in America. For the first time in modern history, the age-adjusted death rate for both guns and car crashes is identical: 10.3 deaths per 100,000 people.”

“The data, previously reported by the Center for American Progress and Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post, doesn’t show that gun violence is on the rise. Over the past decade or so, gun homicides dropped while gun suicides rose, keeping the rate of gun deaths flat. Instead, the real story is in the dramatic drop in car-related deaths — a trend that continued through 2014, in large part thanks to policy changes meant to make roads and cars safer.”

“Gun violence has been treated much less seriously by lawmakers. Although tough-on-crime laws and mass incarceration policies were in part a response to violent crime, the research shows such measures only partly contributed to the crime drop of the past couple of decades. States and the federal government have passed some gun control measures … but many of the measures are riddled with loopholes, considerably weaker than those in other developed countries with lower levels of crime, or were relaxed or allowed to lapse over the decades, such as the assault weapons ban.”

Is U.S. Driving at an All-Time High?

Eric Jaffe, in City Lab, counter’s Brad Plumer’s claim that “Americans are apparently driving more than ever … Indeed “vehicle miles traveled,” the primary metric for U.S. driving habits, has been on the rise—up 3.5 percent on the previous year, as of September.”

“But when you adjust VMT for the driving population, you get a very different picture. As it happens, Doug Short at Advisor Perspectives did just that last week. Turns out VMT per capita is on the way up in 2015 but remains a full 6 percent off the all-time peak hit in mid-2005. Instead of suggesting that Americans are driving more than ever, Short describes U.S. driving as being ‘about where we were as a nation in June of 1997.’”

“Where Plumer is onto something is his suggestion that cheap gas has led to this year’s VMT surge … Economics obviously play a role in driving habits—perhaps the largest one. Still, the fact that so many U.S. states hit their peak well before the recession is all the more reason to believe that there’s a new normal when it comes to our roads that isn’t entirely bound to financial fortunes, and to respond accordingly.”

The Case for High Gas Prices: Safety

City Lab: “In a sharp post on the topic, Joe Cortright at City Observatory points us to a very instructive study that sheds new light on how safety suffers when pump prices plunge. Or, if you prefer rosier goggles, how higher gas prices lead to fewer crashes.”

“During hard times, or when gas prices surge, people drive less: some shift to cheaper travel modes, some just stay home.”

“For the recent study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers gathered Mississippi crash data from April 2004 to December 2012 on a month-by-month basis. Then they collected gas prices over this period as well to see when safety connections emerged … For every 10 percent increase in gas prices, the lagged effect produced a 1.5 percent decrease in traffic crashes per capita.”

“The researchers extrapolate the findings to estimate what the broader safety impacts would be at either end of the gas price spectrum. If fuel costs had been at their lowest point ($1.81) over the entire study period, the researchers would expect 57,461 more crashes to have occurred—a 5.7 percent rise. But if fuel costs had been at their highest ($4.17) during this time, the expectation would be for 70,655 fewer crashes, or a 7 percent decline.”

The Inequality of Biking

Citylab reports on the cycling gap that has emerged in the United States and attempts to provide answers to apparent inconsistencies.

“Newer data on workers without car access, compiled by Brian McKenzie of the Census Bureau, [show that] between 2006 and 2013, the share of all such no-car bike commuters rose from 2.6 to 3.2 percent. But while the lower-income (up to $25,000) share saw a modest rise from 3.1 to 3.5 percent, the higher-income share (over $75,000) more than doubled, from 1.1 to 2.4 percent.”

“Altogether the figures suggest two very different types of bike riders. One can afford to live in an expensive part of the city so close to work that owning a car isn’t necessary. There’s probably a bike-share station nearby, as a neighborhood amenity, because enough wealthy residents live in the area to sustain it financially. Riding in general is easier because there’s plenty of bike infrastructure in place.”

“The other lives in a more remote part of town and likely would prefer to own a car because their commutes by bike or transit take a very long time … Bike infrastructure is inadequate, if it exists at all.”

“This type of disparity isn’t unique in urban America’s new era of rising income inequality. But it does help explain why the bike advocacy community in some cities is difficult to unite.”

America’s Car ‘Death Belt’ Reflects Its Economic and Political Lines

Citylab: “Startlingly, America’s political and economic divide extends to fatality rates as well, and specifically to where people are killed in their cars. The map below shows America’s Car Death Belt, made up of two distinct parts: the Deep South and the Great Plains states.”

“The map is from a new study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. The study used data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Center for Disease Control to map the death rate from road crashes on a per capita basis in 2013. There were a reported 32,719 traffic fatalities that year—a very concerning number, especially given that these deaths are largely preventable.”

“Montana tops the list of road deaths with a rate of 22.6 road fatalities per 100,000 people—more than twice the national rate—followed by Mississippi, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Alabama … The states with the lowest rate of road crash deaths are Washington, D.C. (which is of course entirely urban), followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. These states are all located along the Boston-NY-Washington Corridor on the East Coast, where mass transit is much more available and widely used.”

The Hidden Costs of Driving

Joe Cortright in The Atlantic: “A report published earlier this year confirms, in tremendous detail, a very basic fact of transportation that’s widely disbelieved: Drivers don’t come close to paying for the costs of the roads they use.”

“The report documents that the amount that road users pay through gas taxes now accounts for less than half of what’s spent to maintain and expand the road system. The resulting shortfall is made up from other sources of tax revenue at the state and local levels, generated by drivers and non-drivers alike. This subsidizing of car ownership costs the typical household about $1,100 per year—over and above the costs of gas taxes, tolls, and other user fees.”

“While congressional bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund have made this subsidy more apparent, it has actually never been the case that road users paid their own way. Not only that, but the amount of their subsidy has steadily increased in recent years. The share of the costs paid from road-user fees has dropped from about 70 percent in the 1960s to less than half today, according to the study.”

The Cumulative Difference Between Public Spending on Highways and How Much Drivers Pay to Use Them

“The fact that user fees are too low not only means that there isn’t enough revenue, but that demand is too high. One value of higher user fees would be that they would discourage excessive use of the roads, lessen wear and tear, and in many cases obviate the need for costly construction projects.”

Larry Summers: A Gas Tax to Fix America’s Roads is a ‘Free Lunch’

Lawrence Summers argues that “maintaining our infrastructure directly benefits American families and businesses because with fewer potholes they have to spend less maintaining their vehicles. This effect turns out to be surprisingly large. TRIP, a transportation research group, estimates that the cost to motorists of driving on roads in need of repair in 2013 was $109 billion. This includes only extra vehicle repair and operating costs, and not the delays caused by driving on poor roads, so it is almost certainly an underestimate. On the other hand, even with proper polices, some potholes would remain. To be very conservative, assume that proper infrastructure investment policies would save motorists half the total, or $54 billion a year.”

This figure “is comparable to total consumer spending of $49 billion on air transportation or $53 billion on personal computers. As another way of seeing its magnitude, it works out to 40 cents per gallon of gasoline consumed in the United States.”

“So if we were able to raise the gas tax by 40 cents and repair our highways and roads, we would create no new net burden on consumers: The benefit in reduced vehicle operating costs would at the very least offset their higher gas bills. In fact, since our cost estimate is conservative, the net effect on consumers would most likely be positive. And as is fair, those who drive the most would both pay the most and benefit the most from reduced repair costs.”

Congress’ ‘Pathetic’ Response to Transportation

Washington Post Editorial Board: “Congress is poised to temporarily patch the country’s transportation funding system — like it has nearly three dozen times over the past several years. Each time this number ticks up it underscores Congress’s dysfunction. Privately, many members of Congress know that raising the federal gas tax is a ready and reasonable way to pay for the nation’s infrastructure. Publicly, most lawmakers are too spineless to face up to this reality. The result has been impasse after impasse as Congress has attempted to find money elsewhere — leaving the country’s investment in roads, rails and bridges on short-term and unsustainable footing.”

“The whole spectacle is, well, pathetic. A sustainable source of funding to maintain and upgrade infrastructure is a basic requirement for any modern nation. Congress had one for decades. But the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t been increased since the early 1990s, and inflation has eroded its purchasing power. Modestly hiking the tax — and indexing it to inflation this time — would prevent Congress from having to constantly look under the cushions in search of money for the transportation budget. It would also make drivers pay for the roads they use. Waiting until 2017, or even until December, won’t alter that logic.”

Which Cities Are the Most Plagued by Traffic Gridlock?

Texas A&M Transportation Institute: “Just as the U.S. economy has regained nearly all of the 9 million jobs lost during the downturn, a new report produced by INRIX and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) shows that traffic congestion has returned to pre-recession levels.”

“According to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, travel delays due to traffic congestion caused drivers to waste more than 3 billion gallons of fuel and kept travelers stuck in their cars for nearly 7 billion extra hours – 42 hours per rush-hour commuter. The total nationwide price tag: $160 billion, or $960 per commuter.”

“Washington, D.C. tops the list of gridlock-plagued cities, with 82 hours of delay per commuter, followed by Los Angeles (80 hours), San Francisco (78 hours), New York (74 hours), and San Jose (67 hours).”

“Cities of all sizes are experiencing the challenges seen before the start of the recession – increased traffic congestion resulting from growing urban populations and lower fuel prices are outpacing the nation’s ability to build infrastructure.”

The Downside to Congressional Budgetary Gimmicks

Jonathan Chait comments on the Republican Congress’ insistence on “paying for” domestic spending only with offsetting measures.

“Obviously, this makes it extremely hard to increase domestic spending. Republicans oppose tax increases for any reason at all, because, as Grover Norquist has taught them, raising taxes even a tiny amount makes the baby Reagan cry. In theory, they like cutting spending, but in practice, the only spending programs they actually specify for reductions are the ones aimed at poor people, which Democrats don’t like to cut, creating a stalemate.”

“The problem for Republicans is that there are some domestic programs they not only don’t want to cut but prefer to expand. The inability to maintain transportation infrastructure has created huge problems for business, which has been lobbying for years to fix it.”

“So the bipartisan solution is to reform the international business tax, create a big onetime tax cut for companies that bring overseas profits home, and then use the windfall to finance roads. This plan would increase revenue in the short-run, then create a permanent long-term drain:”

“But these are the traps Congress finds itself in when it attempts to reconcile practical recognition of the need for government with rules designed to prevent pragmatism in any form. It’s possible to find temporary workarounds rather than confront the irrationality of the Republican anti-tax religion. But there are only so many gimmicks and they only last so long.”