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.

14 Replies to “Global Warming”

  1. Excellent piece. Two other points:

    1) Nothing, except improvements to particular corridors, is set in stone with the RTID vote. As we all come to our senses on the need to reduce global warming pollution, and as we see more light rail go into service, there is a very good chance the electorate and their elected representatives will decide to shift some resources now dedicated to roads to transit instead.

    The worst RTID project in terms of producing increased emissions is the I-405 expansion. One new lane in each direction will surely be built if RTID passes. However, construction of the second new lane doesn’t get started until 2021. Factor in the inevitable cost overruns and some neighborhood resistance and there is a good chance that some of that I-405 funding gets re-programmed to transit. This would require a vote of the legislature, but not a new RTID vote. As the public’s attitudes about transportation evolve (see Walt Crowley’s piece in the Seattle Times), the attitude of elected officials will change too.

    2) The Sierra Club would not likely object to the RTID road projects if there was a guarantee that these corridors would be priced. While there are no guarantees in RTID, there is language that encourages policymakers to price these corridors if they under-perform (i.e., fall below 45mph average speeds at peak hours).

    While there does not seem to be much popular support for congestion pricing (variable tolling) today, it is one of those rare things that opinion leaders on both the right and left seem to agree on. As we get more experience with pricing in this region (Tacoma Narrows Bridge, SR 167 pilot project, SR 520 bridge, and probably I-90 bridge as well), it will be politically easier to implement pricing on, at least, the new lanes on I-405, SR 509 and SR 167.

    What this all means, I believe, is that the Sierra Club is going to get virtually everything they want (and I and other enviros want) – lots of new transit and very, very little new, un-priced GP capacity.

    Bill LaBorde

  2. In the context of all global warming pollutants, this decision is indeed small. It could not be otherwise. But that applies to virtually every local, regional or state decision that affects greenhouse gas emissions.

    That is the nature of the challenge, to get action worldwide that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and consumption of fossil fuels. The richest nation on earth, the U.S., must lead. I hate to say it, but your post is a very long rationalization that we might as well “get ours” because it really won’t make much of a difference.

    On a related point, the highly Urban Land Institute just relesed a study about global warming from transportation. They conclude it is impossible to get reductions in global warming pollution in the face of rising vehicle miles traveled. Expanding 405, I-5, 509, 167, 9 and a new cross base highway lead to growth in VMT, that is their very purpose.

    As for tolling, which is essential, it could be used to make existing lanes work more efficiently, rather than spending billions on new lanes which create a higher baseline of traffic to reduce. For some reason, we have never embraced the concept of conservation in transportation the same way we have required it in energy and water use. Which is why we cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles are currently doomed to be washed away in tide of rising vehicle use. Not my opinion, this is the opinion of the Urban Land Institute, and the Gregoire’s Climate Action team (check out the Option t-2 from the transportation subcommittee of that group)

    The bottom line is that we should invest in good transit, and not invest in highway expansion. Yes, there is an inertia to bad road projects. But if we don’t stand up, we are doomed to regional politics that say we have to take climate changing highways in order to get rail. This is just a recipe for failure. The magnitude of the global warming challenge requires bold action on all fronts, not business as usual. This joint ballot measure is a test, and there are many more to come. Unfortunately, this post, and others like it, demonstrate that the truth is just too inconvenient, even for many progressives.

  3. I generally look at any investment in freeways as a waste of money, because lanes always fill up, etc.

    On the other hand, this means that with a split package like RTID, transit ultimately wins–the new lanes will not help traffic one bit, but you’ll get an actual working transit system out of the deal, that become more and more effective over time.

    Just look at the road portion as a necessary evil, something you have to swallow to get something good, just like paying taxes on your salary.

  4. I basically am of the opinion that roads are always a waste of money.

    But I’ll still be paying some for RTID because of the .1% sales tax increase for it.

    Didn’t think of that did you?

  5. Good write-up, but you missed (at least one) major factor. Increased roads adds sprawl. People balance commute time and housing cost. Housing location is largely dictated by commute times – there will always be cheap housing 2 hours from cities, and if you speed up traffic that pushes these houses further.

    One of the major reasons this is important is that single occupant vehicles driving on rubber tires are inherently inefficient. If you increase the driving distance then you increase the energy used – whether this is from gasoline or coaloline (mythical future coal-based fuel), sprawl still hurts. Another major issue with sprawl is that you need to bulldoze wilderness to build new houses further from cities. This is probably the Sierra Club’s issue.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m probably voting for 1 in the hope that rail will be so much more efficient that it counteracts these other factors. But I don’t think its a great idea to sugar-coat the issues.

    -Matt the Engineer

  6. I think it is very important to note, as you do, that some of the much-maligned roads are actually good for the environment. Fixing the Mercer Mess, for example, can only be considered a good thing since it means fewer cars sitting idle, doing nothing but polluting. Replacing the South Park bridge and the 520 bridges? Essential. I don’t understand what the nattering nabobs think we should do instead? Let them crumble? And many of the projects are pure good. Busways, HOV ramps and lanes. All of those encourage carpooling and increase safety. If you’ve ever commuted on 405 in general purpose lanes, like I did, and then switch to commuting in the HOV lanes, you know its a huge improvement. But the system has big gaps, many of which RTID will fill. Oh, and allow for the Bus Rapid Transit for all the fanatics of that system.

    It’s facile to say something simple like “roads increase sprawl.” HOV lanes, bridges, and better interchanges certainly don’t. They do just the opposite: making urban living more sane, and keeping people from moving to the ‘burbs.

  7. Yes, HOV lanes probably help more than they hurt, especially when we add a second or third lane to a corridor. The first lane is much more likely to merely soak up traffic off the existing lanes. That’s the real tragedy of I-405 — if the new lanes had merely been HOV, a whole lot of damage could have been avoided.

    But the problem is that RTID is not friendly to HOV lanes. Only 30 HOV lane miles compared with 152 general purpose lanes. That’s nothing short of an environmental disaster.

  8. A new HOV lane is still another lane of carbon spewing vehicles.

    The real solution is congestion pricing, so the existing lanes can flow freely. You don’t need to build new lanes at all then, HOV or otherwise. It is called efficiency, a good thing for business and the environment. That is why our economy has grown even though we use less energy per capita. Congestion pricing will cause use to use our roads better, saving us all money, and helping the environment.

    As for the comment about roads being the price for new transit, this completely misses the point. New clogged lanes mean more global warming pollution. I want transit too, but not if it means making global warming worse.

  9. I love Sightline but let’s be clear, even they admit that they’re take is not a look at the whole measure. Good hard numbers, yes. But on only one aspect of the measure. It only looks at the impact of new road miles and doesn’t take into consideration the new transit, the possibility that carbon will be capped in this country or the economic impacts of any of it.

  10. The opponents of Prop 1 keep going on and on about Congestion Pricing. It’s not a proposal or a plan, just a catch-phrase. Here’s the thing. There are NO cities in the United States that have ever tried it. It’s not clear what it would mean here. Put tolls on all roads going downtown? Put tolls on all the freeways? There’s no plan there. Just the catch phrase.

    Still, let’s consider it. What would it mean, to be effective? Charging a fee for using every congested road in the Puget Sound region would be a political non-starter. You’d need toll booths, electronic fast-pass readers, and enforcement all over the region. Never going to happen. Seattle is liberal, but not that liberal. And certainly not the region as a whole.

    Second, until we have an integrated mass transit system that provides a real alternative to driving, congestion pricing would do nothing except collect revenue and move the congestion from roads with fees to roads without them.

    Think about the places that have tried congestion pricing. Thinking about all those examples? Do you even know where they are, or are you just parroting back what you’ve been told?

    Okay, so the places where there is something sometimes called “Congestion Pricing” are very instructive. Two cities on the entire planet. Stockholm, and London.

    Look at Stockholm. They have a light and heavy rail system that they started building in 1933. In constant expansion ever since, it has staggering capacity now. Just *one* of the three main lines carries 450,000 riders every day. All told, the system carries 793,000 every single day. I shouldn’t need to tell anyone on this blog, but London’s rail network is even bigger. They started building it in the 19th century. It carries 3 million people a day! So yeah, they can use fees on cars to get people on trains. But you need the trains, first!

    People in Lynnwood and Everett are going to continue to drive Seattle for work. People in Queen Anne, going to eastern Redmond. People in Kent, up to Bothell. All driving, all the time. As long as we have no fast and reliable alternative to roads, congestion pricing won’t solve anything.

    Prop 1 will give us 50 miles of rail as an alternative to cars. We need to pass it, and badly.

  11. I forgot about Singapore. They also use congestion pricing. A massive network of electronics that tracks every car, everywhere. A non-starter anywhere in the U.S.

    And to make it work, they have a transit system that carries 1 million people a day by rail, and 3 million a day by bus.

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