Ben Buchwalter

Right (correct) Turn Signal for Emissions
January 26, 2009, 10:33 am
Filed under: Environment, Supreme Court, Transportation | Tags: ,

This morning, President Obama will pave the way to increasing fuel efficiency standards in California and thirteen other states that have repeatedly petitioned the U.S. government for such emissions restrictions. 

While working for an environmental organization in northwest Michigan in 2006, I wrote about a Supreme Court case in which the State of Massachusetts (and 12 other states) sued the Environmental Protection Agency for neglecting to regulate automobile emissions. At that point, the EPA said that it would not regulate greenhouse gasses “until more is understood about the causes, extent, and significance of climate change, and the potential options for addressing it.”

Since this time, everyone who is respected in the scientific community has confirmed that climate change is facilitated by human activity, including the harmful effects of automobile emissions. This led to the Supreme Court’s decision – in April 2007 – that the EPA does, in fact, have the authority to regulate greenhouse gasses. Still, the EPA under the Bush administration dragged its feet and refused to support the states asking for higher emissions standards.

Obama’s directive will likely result in the reversal of Bush’s rejection of higher emissions restrictions. In the 13 states included in the California-led petition, which includes Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania (pretty much the entire readership of this blog), the average mile per gallon will increase from 27 to 35 in cars and light trucks.

This is an enormous improvement and will certainly help the larger goal of reducing the impact of global warming. But I hope that we will see more environmentally-minded directives from President Obama specifically designed to increase the United States’ public transportation infrastructure. But so far, it looks like this isn’t likely. 

To make a permanent impact to reverse the trend of global warming, increasing automobile efficiency must go hand in hand with lowering the number of people who use personal vehicles.


Don’t Let the Mandate Stale
January 9, 2009, 4:50 pm
Filed under: Barack Obama, Congress, Economy, Environment, Transportation | Tags: , , ,

Have you ever noticed how bread does not last long enough? You’ll buy a loaf, use four slices immediately, and then let it sit on the shelf for two weeks. By the time you try to use the remaining slices, its stale, or even worse, moldy. Well this loaf is a lot like Barack Obama’s political capital if it is not used quickly and correctly. In his first 100 days, President Obama could make delicious tuna and PB&J sandwiches. But recently it looks like he’ll let the bread mold grasping for bi-partisanship.

It’s clear that Obama’s economic stimulus plan doesn’t cut the mustard. By trying to get 80 votes in the Senate, he risks losing too much trying to appease Republicans. Obama doesn’t have to do this. The stimulus plan will pass easily with the 59 Democrats and a handful of moderate Republican Senators who support it.

But Obama is making good on the promise to be the President for everyone, not just liberals. While this is a laudable goal, Obama risks wasting his mandate even before his first term begins. When you have political capital, use it to make big advances on important issues, not to grab 15 unnecessary votes that will only weaken a desperately needed economic stimulus plan.

Obama’s popularity complex worries John Judas, too. He is concerned that “the president elect is underestimating the problem he and the country faces.” Judis calls for a much more extensive stimulus plan that includes funds to increase high speed public transportation. The closest equivalent we have to Europe’s impressive example is Amtrak’s Acela line, which is limited largely to the northeast corner of the country and is very expensive. But the extension of high speed transit would require a massive investment, which Congress has not even come close to supporting. 

Judas continues:

Investing in high-speed rails would be very expensive, but unlike tax cuts–the benefits of which can be siphoned off in the purchase of imported goods–the money spent would go directly to reviving American industry and improving the country’s trade balance. That doesn’t just mean jobs creating dedicated tracks or new rail stations: Though the U.S. abandoned train manufacturing decades ago to the French, Germans, Canadians, and Japanese, this kind of production could be undertaken by our ailing auto companies or aircraft companies–if the federal and state governments were to place orders. And building trains that would run on electricity would be a paradigmatic example of the “green jobs” that Obama often touts.

In short, its worth the investment. Krugman agrees. $800 Billion is a lot of money, but if it funds an incomplete and insufficient plan, then it is wasted. I’d rather see a more expensive stimulus plan that serves as the final word and gets us back on track. We can kill two birds with one giant, expensive stone. Build a much-need U.S. high-speed transit system and stimulate the economy. This is possible without pandering to Senate Republicans.

Congressional Democrats are rightly frustrated by Obama’s concessions, and they are not afraid to show it. The stimulus issue was the final and most important disappointment in a week of Democratic division which included the Blago/Burris Illinios scandal, the Panetta/Fienstein miscommunication, and the choice of TV star Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General. 

Obama is the President of all Americans, red, blue, and purple. But he won a huge mandate in November’s election, supported by large majorities in the House and Senate. Obama needs to use that advantage to pass a working stimulus plan, even if it squeaks by with 61 votes.

Otherwise, he’s wasting perfectly good bread. 

VP Calls for Rail Transit
December 2, 2008, 6:05 pm
Filed under: Environment, Transportation | Tags: , , ,

Yglesias brings up a good point about today’s Governor’s Association meeting in Philadelphia. Biden issued a speech laying out some reasons that we should promote public transportation, specifically rail transit. Focusing Obama’s stated desire to promote public works projects on public transportation would be incredibly smart. There are still many American cities that have sub-par transportation systems within the city and almost non-existent rail options from the ‘burbs.

Jumpstarting a massive rail construction program would kill many birds with one giant, expensive stone. It would prompt suburbanites who live outside the city to visit and spend on urban businesses and entertainment; it would provide cheap, public transportation for urban workers who live outside the city; and most importantly, it would drastically reduce the number of people who commute in personal vehicles, and thereby benefit our degraded, asthma-ridden natural environment.

Seattle is a good example of the need for more rail-centric public transportation. Within the city, it is fairly easy to get around using the bus system. But there is no rail transit besides the monorail that goes about three blocks and was created as spectacle for the World’s Fair in 1962.

But a Light Rail will be completed next year to transport people from SeaTac airport to downtown Seattle and back. I’m very glad that this is happening, but its impact will not reach its potential unless complemented by a more extensive rail program becuase traffic west into Seattle from the Eastside is awful for hours every morning and evening. And the same goes for along I-5 north of the city center. Both are areas that the Light Rail will not service.

Biden’s suggestion for developing more rail transit would help cities like Seattle develop their rail programs to benefit workers, drivers, and the environment.