Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mark Anders, of Bennington, who is a transportation planner with the Bennington County Regional Commission. The opinions expressed herein are his own and are shared by the Bennington Bike Committee. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the BCRC or its commissioners.
Why would a rural governor approve a policy that raises gas prices? This is Gov. Phil Scott’s quandary as he mulls whether to enlist Vermont in the Transportation Climate Initiative, now under consideration by 12 Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. TCI is a cap-and-invest plan for transportation fuels. Allowances are auctioned for each ton of pollution, up to a cap based on current emissions levels, to be reduced 20-25% over 10 years. Proceeds go to making our transportation system cleaner and more efficient: better public transit and sidewalks, bike paths for commuters, electric vehicle and e-bike rebates, etc. How the money is spent will be determined by each state. But the goal is clear: to reduce pollution from transportation, Vermont’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Some oppose TCI because depending on cap reduction targets, it may add 7-29 cents a gallon at the pump by the year 2032. But rejecting TCI would be penny wise and pound foolish. The point is not what we pay for gas; it’s what we pay for transportation, including the hidden costs incurred by the modes of transportation we use. To reduce transportation costs, we must drive more fuel-efficient vehicles and reduce the amount we drive. We spent billions building a sprawled-out country where most families now need two cars. Since the 1970s we doubled the amount of roadway, and the American family doubled the percentage of its income spent on transportation – from 10% to 20%. Since 1983, miles driven in the U.S. have outpaced population growth eightfold.
Our expensive, inefficient, and dirty transportation system is the result of taxpayer-funded subsidies, not market forces. All taxpayers – whether they drive or not – indirectly subsidize drivers through building and maintenance of expensive roadway, general-fund bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund, subsidies to oil companies, and by ignoring the external costs of burning fossil fuels, which all of these subsidies promote. That we ask those who pollute less to subsidize those who pollute more is a perverse economic incentive to pollute.
Vermont is working hard to retain and attract a younger generation, but without walkable, bikeable, and vibrant downtowns, we are never going to get them in the numbers we need to revive our moribund towns. According to a recent study, 63% of millennials want to live in a place they don’t need a car, and 77% say they want to live in an urban core. Educated millennials are not moving to Brooklyn and Seattle to buy cheaper gas. They don’t want to buy any gas. They want to take public transit, ride their bikes, or walk. It’s no surprise that there is a clear correlation between walkability and home value.
Our car-centric transportation system also drives up health care costs. We engineered physical activity out of daily life and obesity ballooned. In the 1970s one in 10 American adults was obese. Now it’s one in three. Annual medical costs for someone with obesity are $1,429 higher, on average, than for someone who is not obese. The CDC also estimates that injuries, death and loss of productivity from motor vehicle crashes cost $75 billion in 2015. It is estimated that TCI would prevent 1,000 premature deaths per year due to air pollution. That alone is reason to pass it.
In Vermont, we can cut our own firewood and generate our own electricity from wind and sun, but we don’t have our own oil wells. Each year, more than $1 billion (over $4,000 per household) leaves Vermont to purchase petroleum for transportation. To prosper – and to protect ourselves from future oil price spikes – we need to keep that money in Vermont by transitioning to a 21st century transportation system, which includes innovative walking, biking, and public transit; better land-use planning; new affordable and market-rate housing in our downtowns; and vehicles powered by renewable electricity.
Of course, the biggest cost of our wasteful fossil fuel use for transportation is climate change. The world’s scientists are practically screaming at us to pay attention before it’s too late. Depending on how we react, outcomes range from grim to apocalyptic.
To evaluate TCI and whether it is good for Vermont, the real cost of our wasteful, dangerous, dirty, and dated transportation system needs tallying. Obesity, asthma, car crashes, expensive infrastructure, struggling downtowns, money sent to oil barons that would otherwise support Vermont businesses, loss of rural landscape and productive agricultural land to sprawl, loss of time to driving, loss of independent mobility for children, loss of educated millennials, and climate change. There is a better way. If we take the time to tally the real costs and benefits, it’s clear TCI is a nudge in the right direction.