Something Really Scary

With Halloween season just past, it’s a good time to talk about scary stuff. We’re not talking about Saw or The Grudge, here, but the kind of scare-mongering that our elected officials choose to do. You know, the "yellow alert" kind of scary.

It’s easy for politicians to scare people. A picture of Osama Bin Laden or even Yasir Arafat will do it. Ooh, scary. But the fact is that even on 9/11 your chances of being killed by a terrorist were only one in 88,000, and on any given day you’re a zillion times more likely to have a heart attack or get hit by an SUV.

Despite this, our 2004 election cycle was fixated on terrorism, when the really scary things were going unnoticed. (Even if you agree that terrorism is the issue, why wasn’t the fact that inspection occurs for only two percent of the containerized shipping that arrives at American ports on the radar screen?)

Here’s what I think is scary. The U.S. is ever more dependent on imported oil, which is increasingly only available in the politically turbulent Middle East. I recently visited Denmark, which despite very limited natural resources has become a net electricity exporter, selling excess power to the Scandinavian spot market. One of its secrets is a dynamic and fast-growing wind energy capacity. When the Danes aren’t riding their bikes to work (30 to 40 percent of all Copenhagen commuters) they’re building both on-shore and offshore wind farms. Twenty percent of Danish energy is wind generated, it’s renewable and homegrown, and the percentage is increasing rapidly. Excess heat from power plants is used to warm homes during chilly Danish winters.

Dependence on foreign oil increases our insecurity, but here at home we can’t even offer a dependable wind power production credit, despite the fact that it’s supported by a majority in the Congress. Three reauthorization cycles, boom or bust for wind developers, have caused a serious crash in the development of new wind sites. And the proposed Cape Wind project, the largest offshore wind farm in the world, has become a political football.

Here’s something else I find scary. This wasn’t news in the U.S. I had to read about it in the International Herald Tribune: According to a new report from the University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute, "America’s long and successful ride to prosperity is threatened by a transportation infrastructure incapable of meeting future requirements. The interdependent network of roads, bridges and terminals is growing increasingly antiquated, congested and disconnected and therefore incapable of providing the productivity and prosperity support upon which the nation has depended for the last century and a half."

Now that’s scary, and anybody who has creeped through New York City on the egregious and potholed Cross Bronx Expressway (a major truck route), or tried to commute on Los Angeles" 405 knows it’s all too true. I had a vivid reminder of the intermodality problem when I arrived in Pittsburgh recently on an Amtrak train. The only way to get from the station to any point in the city was a wheezing cab. Sure there were buses, but no nearby bus station (other than Greyhound), no posted bus schedules, no coherent maps. The bus drivers we stopped didn’t even know what bus to take. Pittsburgh has both an innovative dedicated busway system and a subway, but we didn’t have a clue about how to use either one, and nobody we asked could help.

The lack of a coherent transportation policy is costing American jobs. As the report points out, there is new international demand for American metallurgical coal, which is used in making steel. But we’re having a hard time getting it to willing buyers in Europe. The report says, "U.S. transportation systems had been unprepared for an increase in the movement of heavy manufactured goods in the past two years."

OK, listen to this. It’s important. "All forms of surface transportation in the U.S.—road, rail and maritime—are crowded in places and the situation is worsening rapidly," as the Tribune reported. "Yet the U.S. government is paying little attention. And rather than embracing the passenger train as one solution, as Europe has done, the U.S. is starving an already inadequate Amtrak system, members say."

"I don’t see anyone in power doing something about this," said one software entrepreneur quoted in the newspaper story. He added that transportation wasn’t mentioned once in the first two Presidential debates (though it is a major concern of most voters).

According to the Federal Highway Administration, traffic on interstates will increase by 24 percent in the next decade and 53 percent over the next 20 years.

In a statement, the Bush administration tried to defend itself, pointing to its "record level of spending for surface transportation projects." But as any schoolboy knows, this spending is mainly pork-barrel roadway expansion pushed by the well-heeled highway lobby, which makes the problem worse rather than better. "You can’t build out of congestion," says the old adage, and it’s 100 percent correct.

There were some great suggestions in the Denver paper: improve freight terminals and connections between modes there; design passenger terminals to combine all modes of transportation (the Pittsburgh problem), including air, train and bus; reduce short-distance air traffic at congested airports; expand rail passenger traffic and intercity bus service; redevelop military bases as freight hubs.

The really scary thing is that we’re not likely to take any of this advice. While most major American airports lack rail connections, European travelers can get right into a downtown train inside the terminal. Europeans enjoy a superb, high-speed rail network, but I arrived in Pittsburgh (aboard a packed train, I might add) to discover that the city is about to lose one of its important and much-used Amtrak routes. Now that’s enough to give me goosebumps.