Most of the leftist Anti-Prop 1 arguments have been environmental. I know it sounds heretical for a supposed pro-environment, pro-transit, progressive to argue about the topic of global warming, but I think the effect of global warming in this package is overstated for the following reasons: many of the new roads are for freight and transit, huge new roads are being built anyway with little or no discussion from the left, and the fact of the matter is the oil argument is unconvincing for the reasons I lay out below.
The roads themselves
This is not a huge expenditure on roads as far as roads expenditures go. Washington state approved a bigger roads bill than this just two years ago, and a bill about half the size just two years before that. Also, two years ago President Bush signed a $286 billion dollar highway bill, and China will build more than 30,000 miles of highways this decade, most of those three lane express-ways. When you compare the literally hundreds of thousands -if not millions – of highway-lanes being built all around the world, the 156 miles of new highway lanes (not new roads, but new lanes) doesn’t seem like much at all. In fact, even in those estimates many of the new lanes are rebuilding existing lanes, or re-routing traffic onto highways from “street” roads.
If you look at the graffic at the left, only 15% of the Roads and Transit spending is so-called “bad roads”, those that are not transit, HOV lanes or freight capacity (that’s the Sierra Club’s own definition of good roads, by the way). Compare that number to the WSDOT projects linked to above, or the proposed State Highway 2 expansion – which would become unnecessary with 405 expansion, or Sierra Club donor, and Eastside real-estate (and fasion?) mogul Kemper Freeman’s I-605 proposal (aka the Snoqualimie Valley freeway).
Even with the 15% bad roads that would be built, not building them does nothing to ensure those fossil fuels don’t get burned, or that those roads won’t get built later.
The oil will get burned by someone no matter what
This article is pretty techincal from an economics stand point, but the message is important:
If Americans buy less oil but all the oil will end up sold in any case, demand simply has been redistributed rather than lowered. Instead the key is to get that oil to stay in the ground.
You could replace the argument with “Puget Sound Residents” and it still stands. Suppose we choose not to burn oil, or rather, we choose not to build roads because we fear it means more oil would get burned. The sad fact is that all the cheap oil left will be burned one way or another. Much of it will be burned in Asia, where massive militaries are being built to protect their own oil interests now that the sun is setting on our Empire. As the dollar declines, we will be able to afford ever less and less oil, and that leads to the next point.
There isn’t enough oil, it will take a new technology one way or another
If oil supplies were so small, and we could simply burn them all away and that would be the end of the fossil fuel era, then we shouldn’t really mind building the roads other than they’d be a waste of money since no one would be able to drive on them. If we use up all the oil, we’d have no fuel to burn, no one would drive, the roads would go unused and it’d be a huge boondoggle. Us transit folks wouldn’t even be troubled tremendously, since none of us drive, at least not that much anyway.
We’ve hit peak oil, and it will take a new technology one way or another to move those cars anyway. Sadly, the problem is not that we have too little fossil fuels, but that we have too much:
The trick in the argument is to equate oil with fossil fuels in general. This is plausible enough for natural gas, which commonly occurs in the same places as oil, and is also in fairly limited supply. But the elephant in the corner in these arguments is coal. The US has enough easily accessible coal to supply hundreds of years of consumption at current rates, and the same is true of the rest of the world.
The Salon article mentions coal only a couple of times in passing. Yet coal and coal-fired electricity already compete directly with oil in all major uses except personal transport. If current oil prices are sustained for long, we can expect to see electricity displacing oil in home heating, and electrification of rail transport at the expense of diesel, reversing the trend of recent decades when diesel has been cheap. This is already happening.
As for cars, there are at least three well-established ways in which they could be fuelled by coal. First, there are electric cars. Second, there is coal liquefication, used on a large scale by South Africa in the sanctions period. Third, gasification could be used to replace liquid petroleum gas. All of these options have problems, but none are insurmountable given a high enough price; they might be competitive if oil stays above $60 a barrel long enough, and they would certainly be competitive at $150/barrel. Then there are more exotic options, like fuel cells using coal-based methanol.
But even in the worst case scenario it will take many years and some technological change to switch from oil. Luckily, we have some of the world’s best scientists looking at alternative energy sources. This is about a Tokyo Institute of Technology (my alma mater) scientist’s attempt to turn solar energy into magnesium which could be used as car fuel. Another scientist in Pennsylvannia is working on burning water for propulsion, which obviously requires a separate power source, but that could be a solar energy generated battery, or through cold fusion, whose research seems to have made a number of advances in just the past year. My point is, there’s no gaurantee that new roads means new fossil fuel burning onto eternity. And as a species if we are not able to keep from burning fossil fuels we are doomed anyway.
I know that’s not a heart-warming argument, that we are doomed if we don’t come up with an alternative. But that’s the facts as they stand today. I don’t mean to be flippant about global warming; it’s the biggest challenge facing mankind. But whether we move to other fossil fuels or move forward and find an alternative, it’s going to take a technological change to effect the climate one way or another.
As for the current vote, if we don’t drive, then RTID won’t have the money to pay for its roads projects, which are mostly funded by an increase in the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. And some we’ll likely end up paying for anyway. So if we think that our driving days are numbered, why should we care about a roads package funded mostly by taxes on cars?
In summary, RTID isn’t a lot of roads. It’s also mostly good roads, and in the future driving doesn’t necessarily mean fossil fuels. Even if you think we need to oppose all roads because of global warming concerns, you are better off making that choice with your feet literally and stop driving. Well, I am ready for you to rip me apart on this, as a pro-environment progressive, but I guess I’ve opened the door.