Highways of Pork and the Greener SUV

It's always interesting to watch Congress debate a highway bill. During recent lectures, I've waved around a page from the New York Times juxtaposing two stories. In the first, Senators were bemoaning cuts from the proposed transportation budget. They were being forced to make do with only $40 or $50 billion for the year. In the second, they were happily forcing through massive cuts to the Amtrak subsidy.

The sinkhole named Amtrak soaked up a budget-busting total of $13 billion from its debut in 1972 to 1997. "Why can't Amtrak pay for itself?" the senators thunder. Well, why can't roads pay for themselves? Worldwatch points out, "Few people realize that direct taxes on automobiles and gasoline barely cover two thirds of the cost of road building, maintenance, administration and safety."

Why can't airlines pay for themselves? Federal subsidies to the airline industry totaled $13 billion in 2002 (the same amount as the entire Amtrak cost, one notes). The current highway and mass-transit bill (which has precious little of the latter), already passed by the Senate, would cost $318 billion over six years. Congress wouldn't even think of passing it in an election year were it not for the enormous highway construction contracts that land like fat golden goose eggs in lawmakers" districts.

In a time of ballooning deficits, it seems hard to justify, but Senator Kit Bond (R-MO), a big supporter, says, "Transportation is critical to our economy and it is our way of life." Our way of life? We love being stuck in traffic? Traffic congestion costs us $70 billion a year, not to mention the aggravation and road rage. When coupled with dramatically awful Bush administration proposals to abandon the current CAFE fuel economy rules in favor of a irresponsible weight-based system that both the Sierra Club and the United Auto Workers think is dangerous, it's a recipe for ever-larger deficits, plus more gridlock and more air pollution.

Who's the Greenest?

The latest edition of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy's Green Book Online is available at www.GreenerCars.com. The ratings don't change much from year to year. Once again, Honda's natural gas-powered Civic GX is the greenest car, followed by the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius hybrids. The Toyota Echo also makes the top five. Several new hybrids are on their way from Lexus, Ford and Nissan, but they're all SUVs and unlikely to make the highest green scores. The "meanest" car for the environment these days is the diesel edition of the Volkswagen Touareg SUV. What makes a car or truck "mean"? Mediocre fuel economy coupled with dismal tailpipe emissions.

Many of the SUVs on the market today do dismally in the ratings, but the industry says it's trying to change that by building a better SUV. By this summer, Ford and Toyota will both be selling hybrid (gas-electric) versions of popular SUV models. The front-wheel drive Ford Escape hybrid, already repeatedly delayed, is expected to get 35 to 40 miles per gallon in city driving and a less exemplary 29 to 31 on the highway. That isn't all that great, but it's much better than the standard Escape (19/25 mpg). Toyota's entry is a version of the Lexus RX330.

Hybrid SUVs are a stopgap measure until the nation comes to its senses and dumps the whole concept of the overweight, lumbering "sport-utility vehicle" into the wastebasket as one of yesterday's bad ideas.