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December 13, 2012

Smarter Choices for Climate Solutions

Each year, $200 billion of our federal, state,and local tax dollars are spent on our transportation system. That money goes for everything from highways and bridges to public transit and bike lanes, and spending it wisely is one of our most powerful tools for fighting climate disruption.

Currently, our transportation system is heavily dependent on oil, which is our largest source of climate pollution -- roughly one-third of all U.S. carbon emissions. If we want to cut carbon pollution fast, moving beyond oil for transportation is an obvious strategy.

What's more, it's something Americans already support. More than 80 percent of us are in favor of improving bus and rail service, as well as more funding to make biking and walking safer. Actually, that's not so surprising when you consider that one in three Americans doesn't drive at all.

Yet even though the number of vehicle miles traveled in America has gone down every year since 2004, the automobile still receives the lion's share of transportation funding. Bike commuting, meanwhile, grew 40 percent nationally between 2000 and 2010. In fact, biking and walking now account for 12 percent of all trips in the U.S., but they get only about 1.6 percent of federal transportation spending.

Transit ridership is up nationwide, too, but cash-strapped transit agencies are being forced to reduce service and raise fares. Meanwhile, low-income families without access to public transit can end up spending more than half of their budget on transportation.

By disproportionately spending our transportation dollars on roads and highways, we're creating hardship for people who can't or don't drive, while also subjecting those who do drive to unpredictable gas-price spikes and horrendous highway commutes. The simple solution is allocate our transportation dollars more sensibly. That means more funding for projects that improve and expand access to transit and alternative transportation -- and less for projects that will prolong our reliance on oil.

This week the Sierra Club released a report called "Smart Choices, Less Traffic: 50 Best and Worst Transportation Projects in the United States." It calls out both good and bad ways of spending our tax dollars. We've also put all 50 transportation projects on a Google map -- so you can see for yourself what's happening in your part of the country.

Examples of "smart" choices include:

  • Expanding and electrifying light-rail systems across the county.
  • Funding bicycle and pedestrian pathways.
  • Repairing the tracks and improving the route of Amtrak in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont.
Some "not so smart" choices:
  • A 100-mile gravel road in pristine Northern Alaska that's being built to allow year-round access for oil and gas exploration.
  • A highway in Virginia (the "Coalfields Expressway") that is essentially an excuse for a strip mine.
  • A  two-mile long tunnel under downtown Seattle.

Bottom line: We already know how to build the kind of transportation infrastructure that will help America meet the challenges of the 21st century. Many communities -- highlighted in the "best" examples in this report -- are already doing exactly that.

But old habits die hard, and plenty of oil-intensive projects are still sucking up dollars that could be put to better use. Luckily, states now have more control over how federal transportation funds are spent. Write to your state's governor to demand a better transportation future that helps move us beyond oil.


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Michael Brune

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