US President Barack Obama has an unenviable task: helping reverse the current path of environmental destruction, and this involves transforming the way Americans travel. Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, does a good job of talking the talk about bicycling and walking as parts of this transformation, but have Obama and the US Congress started to walk the walk and really begun to change American transportation?
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)
Early in his administration Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – a US$787 billion stimulus bill, US$48.2 billion of which will go towards transportation. Most of that – US$27.5 billion – is dedicated to highways and bridges. The rest gets distributed to various mass transit systems, with almost US$10 billion for state and local public transportation – but only capital projects.
Buried in the ARRA is the US$1 billion “Cash for Clunkers” programme in which car owners with vehicles that get 18 miles per gallon (mpg) or less can exchange their gas guzzlers for US$4,500 towards the purchase of a new vehicle that gets at least 22 mpg. Some environmentalists, however, see this programme as a handout to automakers, rather than a serious way to tackle foreign oil dependence, climate change, or any one of the other dire problems associated with car dependence.
Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE)
In mid-May, the Obama administration announced new automobile fuel economy standards, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), which call for improvements of 5% every year – standards that will require that cars achieve 39 mpg and light trucks 30 mpg by 2016, 40% more efficient than cars are now. The new CAFE standards underscore the irrelevancy of the Cash for Clunkers program, but have their own weaknesses: sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, those humongous gas guzzlers long the favourites of families, have always been classified as “light trucks”. These new mandates also leave the American fleet at 2 mpg lower than the European fleet.
In June, the Obama administration reversed Bush administration policy by granting waivers long sought by California and 13 other states to set auto emission standards higher than national ones. Those emission standards will be higher for about two years – when the new national CAFE standards start to kick in.
American Clean Energy and Security Act
Passed by the House of Representatives in June, the American Clean Energy and Security Act addresses greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources, but it overrides the United States Clean Air Act by permitting the construction of new coal-fired power plants for up to a decade with no additional emission reduction requirements. According to Auto Glass and Insurance Industry News, if the bill passes, the US Secretary of Energy would have to create a large-scale plug-in programme and assist car manufacturers financially in their transition to producing electric vehicles.
Surface Transportation Bill
Work has begun on a half trillion-dollar reauthorisation of the 2005 Surface Transportation Bill. Currently the bill seeks to set aside nearly US$100 billion for public transit. However, in June the Obama administration announced its wish for an 18-month postponement, a decision that has been opposed by many. Jeff Mapes, news writer and author, surmises that Congress will have to raise taxes in order to pay for this bill and that perhaps the Obama administration is just not ready for it. “I do think Obama is interested in change”, says Mapes. “But it’s politically difficult to do… One can argue that the 18-month delay will give his transportation department time to craft a plan”.
GM and Chrysler
Obama appointed a “car czar” to tackle the collapse of auto giants General Motors (GM) and Chrysler. Under this czar, American taxpayers have become majority owners of GM and are likely to end up contributing US$50 billion for its transformation into a leaner manufacturer of smaller, more fuel efficient cars with fewer dealerships. Meantime, Chrysler got US$6.6 billion from the government to finance its exit from bankruptcy and its sale to Fiat. Many more billions in taxpayer dollars are likely to be funnelled to GM’s suppliers and financial supporters. In addition, now that Americans are majority owners of GM, congressmen and women are making efforts to keep dealerships in their own districts open.
GM and Chrysler “were both clearly failing enterprises and the bailouts were done just to… prevent massive numbers of unemployed [from hitting] the claims lines all at once”, says James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere. “I doubt that they will survive in any recognisable form … Personally, I think the whole Happy Motoring paradigm is in its death throes, though most Americans don’t realise it”, he adds.
Does Obama realise it? That is hard to say. If he does, he may not be politically in a position to say so, and he certainly has not been heard calling for similar fuel taxes as in Europe.
By Susan Vaughan