Thoughts on Transportation Following the Kaine Meeting

After the energetic but victorious campaign waged by Tim Kaine for the Virginia governorship, nobody could have faulted him if he’d simply gone on vacation for a few weeks. Instead, to his credit, he wasted no time in fulfilling a campaign promise by beginning a dialog with our citizens about transportation, an issue he says will be “the major theme of the 2006 legislative session.” The enthusiastic, standing room only crowd in Roanoke where Kaine held his first session underscored the importance citizens feel as well.

When you consider this data, it’s no surprise: during the decade of the 1990’s, vehicle miles driven statewide grew three times as fast as population, a trend which has continued in the new decade. We’re overwhelmed by traffic, causing frustration, rage, danger, and pollution. Thousands of collective hours and millions of gallons of gasoline are wasted each year in immobile vehicles.

Citizens at the Roanoke session espoused a smorgasbord of issues, ranging from the mundane – too few rest stops on the Interstates and too much trash on rural roads – to the profound – too many trucks and too many deaths on nearby Interstate 81, dubbed locally the “NAFTA expressway.” Conventional wisdom says if we have too much traffic we need more roads, so much discussion focused on what new roads we’d need and how we’d pay for them. However, those in attendance saw furtive glimpses of the notion that in the twenty years since the Commonwealth last presented a comprehensive transportation plan, the conventional wisdom may have become an inappropriate relic.

Fifty years ago, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system gave traction to the automobile as the dominant transportation mode. Cheap gas, unlimited land, and emerging affluence fueled a conversion of our landscape never before seen in the history of the planet. Americans eagerly sacrificed their land, their communities, and their environmental health to the convenience and mobility of the private automobile. Happy motoring reigned!

The first chink in the armor, the hint that this system couldn’t last forever, befell us in the 1970’s when OPEC levied two oil embargoes on us. In those days, we imported 30% of our oil, yet the miniscule deficit was enough to send our nation into prolonged recessions. Today, we import 60% and are astonishingly and inexcusably vulnerable to often hostile and unfriendly suppliers.

If this weren’t enough to make us stop and take notice, a growing consensus of geologists, mining and petroleum engineers, economists, and yes, even politicians, are grappling with the emerging concept of Peak Oil, the point at which the exponential growth of petroleum demand can no longer be met by the finite resource of petroleum supply. We face a point, perhaps as soon as months away but likely within this decade when the amount of petroleum the world’s wells can place on the market will begin to diminish inexorably forevermore. The coming years will likely bring skyrocketing prices and reduced availability of gasoline, the lifeblood of our economy. The lack of adequate preparation in the Gulf States for a storm like Katrina is analogous to our inability to prepare for an oil-starved nation. Should we not wean ourselves from petroleum, nature will do it for us.

The reason traffic has grown three times as fast as population is that we have re-engineered our communities around the needs of our automobiles. Our schools, workplaces, restaurants, and stores are no longer accessible via any other means than our cars. The Wal-Martization and McDonaldization of America are part and parcel of a car-based economy. Sprawl is the development paradigm of choice. We sit mired in traffic in malled, franchised, soulless communities we hate; no amount of new roads will help.

An old adage says if you’re sinking into an unwanted hole, the first step is to stop digging. The key to a secure transportation future of Virginia is in needing fewer miles to travel. Re-engineering our communities around the needs of people and not around the needs of cars will improve our health, revitalize moribund downtowns, clean our air, and quieten our public spaces. Active support to transportation alternatives is essential.

There are many ways the state government can encourage the efficient and penalize the profligate. A revitalization of our national passenger rail system would be a valuable first step, both symbolic and real. To follow is a commitment to viable transit, bicycling, and pedestrian amenities.

Rather than measure our progress over the Kaine administration by tallying the dollars spent on new roads, we should measure it by how much energy we’ve put in place to save. Let’s make our state a national leader in petroleum conservation.

While we’re investing in a viable transportation future, let’s make sure we implement a system that has a future.