Recent Research: High-Speed Rail And California’s Economic Growth, Reducing Transportation’s GHG Emissions & Do Roads Pay For Themselves?

Sacramento's future high-speed rail station

 It seems that each month, we see an increasing number of news stories and blog posts that either champion high-speed rail as the transportation mode of the future or an infrastructure boondoggle wasting money that we don’t even have.

Beyond The Tracks: The Potential Of High-Speed Rail To Reshape California’s Growth (22p. PDF) is a new publication released this month by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Foundation.

This paper explores what it will take to generate a land-use planning and development response to the high-speed rail investment at both a statewide level and in the 26 communities that will receive stations.

In an era of rising skepticism and public projects of all sorts, high-speed rail represents the best of California’s optimism, environmental concern and future orientation.

The reports details how the rail project could have great economic and environmental benefits to the state and those communities slated for rail stations. 

For each of these communities, high-speed rail is a unique opportunity for municipalities to capture new fiscal benefits and to organize growth in a more compact manner, less oriented to automobiles.

However, major investments in land-use changes around the stations are necessary to fully realize the benefits of high-speed rail. 

If such investment does not occur, both the economic and environmental benefits will be significantly reduced.

 Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the U.S. transportation sector account for 27% of all GHG emissions of the entire U.S. economy and 30% of the world’s transportation GHG emissions.

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions From U.S. Transportation (122p. PDF) examines the prospects for substantially reducing these pollutants.

The report points out that without shifts in existing policies, U.S. transportation-sector GHG emissions will grow by about 10% by 2035 and will still account for one-quarter of global transportation emissions by that time.

If there is any hope that damages from climate change can be held to moderate levels, these trends must change.

The report explains that through a combination of policies and improved technologies, it is possible to cost-effectively cut emissions from the transportation sector by up to 65% below 2010 levels by 2050.

This would be achieved by improving vehicle efficiency, shifting to less carbon-intensive fuels, changing travel behavior, and operating more efficiently.

A major co-benefit of reducing transportation’s GHG emissions is resulting reductions in oil use and improvements in energy security.

The report further develops three scenarios that diverge from “business as usual,” based on the assumption that the United States is willing to change:

  • the incentives and regulations that affect the design of vehicles
  • the types of fuel that are used
  • the choices made by individuals and businesses in purchasing and using vehicles
  • how communities and their transportation infrastructure are built and used

 Highway advocates often claim that “roads pay for themselves,” with gasoline taxes and other charges to motorists covering — or nearly covering — the full cost of highway construction and maintenance.

According to Do Roads Pay For Themselves?: Setting The Record Straight On Transportation Funding (45p. PDF), they are wrong.

CALPIRG Education Fund’s new study finds that highways do not — and, except for brief periods in our nation’s history — never have paid for themselves through the taxes that highway advocates label “user fees.”

Yet highway advocates continue to suggest they do in an attempt to secure preferential access to scarce public resources and to shape how those resources are spent.

To have a meaningful national debate over transportation policy, particularly at a time of tight public budgets, it is important to get past the myths and address the real, difficult choices America must make for the 21st Century.

CALPIRG’s new study puts forth how gasoline taxes are not “user fees,”  how highways don’t truly pay for themselves, and how highway advocates use these myths to distort transportation decision-making. 

It explores in detail how highway advocates divert attention from the full accounting of costs and benefits that should be the basis of sound transportation policy.