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Barack Obama and the Mass Transit Revolution

by Francisco Frias Tuesday, Feb. 03, 2009 at 2:14 AM

An analysis of how a Barack Obama presidency might affect the American society's greenhouse gas and petroleum reduction goals and the struggle to create a first rate mass transit system in Los Angeles and California. Written for both Los Angelenos and a global audience.

In our society, certain goals are acknowledged to be necessary for achieving ecological as well as economic sustainability, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing petroleum consumption. Reducing petroleum consumption would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and since 99% of the fuel that powers American vehicles is oil according to the Department of Energy, transforming the transportation system of the society is fundamental for achieving these goals, as well as other quality of life goals such as reducing traffic and reducing smog.

Los Angelenos are intimately familiar with the undesirable results of compelling the vast majority of the population to drive in order to achieve an adequate level of mobility. They have also taken action: 67.9% of Los Angeles county residents recently voted for a measure(R) that will increase their local sales tax by 0.5% and contribute 65% of the revenue to mass transit. On a statewide level, Californians approved .95 billion of bonds to begin the construction of a bullet train that will connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 1/2 hours(Prop 1A). In contrast to this, Californians rejected .425 billion of bonds to subsidize the purchase of high fuel economy or alternative fuel vehicles(Prop10).

While politicians have railed against foreign oil dependence over the last few years, overall U.S. oil consumption barely diminished until very recently. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2007 American oil consumption dropped by 0.0003% from the previous year. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, whose statistics regarding the U.S. are virtually identical to the EIA's, yet also contains statistics for most countries and all of the continents, and thus composes a global portrait, the total share of the world's oil which Americans consumed in 2007 was 23.9%. The disproportionate consumption of this vital resource by the U.S. is a fact which is becoming increasingly well known, referenced by everyone from Barack Obama to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Although American oil consumption has been steadily rising since 1984 with a slip here and there, in November the Energy Information Administration projected that U.S. oil demand would drop by 5.4% in 2008 due to the U.S. economic downturn, the largest drop since 1980.

Barack Obama has declared that energy is the most important issue that our future economy will face. While his energy plan proposes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 through a cap and trade system, it sets no explicit goal for how much the U.S. will reduce its consumption of one of the two biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and what the Department of Energy refers to as "the lifeblood of America's economy," i.e, oil, in the short or long term.

A numerical figure for how much the U.S. will reduce its consumption of oil under his plan must be deduced from his pledge which he has declared on numerous occasions to eliminate Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil imports within 10 years. The goal in itself is an appeal to the ignorance and prejudice of Americans, and an analysis of his energy plan reveals means towards achieving it, and the greater goal of greenhouse gas emission reductions, which are contradictory, while it largely ignores the most fundamental solution which could have the most profound impact on many parts of the country, including California.

To begin with, the declaration promotes the misconception that the U.S. is dependent on the Middle East for oil, which is not the case. The United States imports more oil from the single country of Canada than it does from the Middle East. It imports more oil from South America than it does from the Middle East, and more oil from Africa than it does from the Middle East. Middle Eastern oil imports, at 2,208 thousand barrels daily, account for 16.4% of total U.S. oil imports according to the EIA. Regarding the "rogue" state of Venezuela, as Barack Obama likes to refer to it, at 1,361 thousand barrels daily, Venezuelan imports represent 10.1% of our oil imports according to the EIA. Such figures would add up to a reduction of roughly 26.1% of our total imports.

However, it is important to place these figures in context. The United States is the third largest oil producer in the world, producing 8.0% of the world's total, second only to Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation which each produce 12.6%. The U.S. produces more oil than Canada and Mexico combined. It produces more oil than the entire Central and South American region, and it produces more than 2.5 times more oil than the country of Venezuela. This means that eliminating 26.1% of our oil imports over 10 years, only translates into reducing our overall oil consumption by 17.3% over 10 years.

To give greater perspective to this figure let us compare it to what other industrialized countries which already had lower per capita oil consumption rates accomplished during the same period of time in which the U.S. reduced its total oil consumption by 0.0003%. The United Kingdom reduced its oil consumption by 5%, driving its per capita oil consumption rate down to 40.9% that of the U.S. Switzerland reduced its oil consumption by 9.9%, driving its per capita oil consumption rate down to 47.9% that of the U.S. Germany reduced its oil consumption by 9.0%, driving its per capita oil consumption rate down to 44% that of the U.S. What these figures demonstrate, as well as the recent downturn in U.S. oil consumption, is that to propose in a costumed manner that the U.S. reduce its oil consumption by 17.3% over 10 years is hardly an ambitious goal. It is emphatically incommensurate with the larger goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

While some of his plan's proposals can work towards achieving his goal such as increasing fuel economy standards by 4 percent per year, other proposals will be largely inane within the timeframe of 10 years; such as getting 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015, which means that there will still be in excess of 250 million conventional cars on the road, and creating a ,000 tax credit for purchasing an advanced vehicle. Regarding increasing fuel economy standards by 4 percent per year, this proposal is largely redundant because corporate average fuel economy(CAFE) standards have been legislated to increase to 35 mile per gallon by 2020 for cars and light trucks.

The primary goals embedded in Barack Obama's energy plan are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce petroleum consumption, and provide economic relief to Americans. Eliminating Middle East and Venezuelan oil imports obliquely serves the goal of reducing petroleum consumption, but does not serve the other two goals as one might imagine. The top five oil exporters to the U.S. are Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria. Eliminating Middle East and Venezuelan oil imports would leave as the U.S.'s primary sources of oil imports Canada, Mexico, and Nigeria. Nigeria is a country that has lived with constant political instability which would make the U.S. economy more vulnerable to a price surge; Mexico is a country with diminishing proved oil reserves, which now stand at 9.6 years of production; and Canada whose proved oil reserves stand at 22.9 years of production, presents a dilemna: oil extracted from Canada's tar sands creates 3 times the greenhouse gases which conventional oil extraction creates. The U.S.'s own proved reserves to production ratio stands at 11.7 years. Potential new sources of oil such as that extracted from shale may create as much as 4 times the greenhouse gases as conventional oil extraction creates. According to Barack Obama's energy plan, he wishes to expedite such a process.

Achieving all of the primary goals outlined in Barack Obama's energy plan is improbable because while he makes proposals to relieve economic pressure, these very same proposals stimulate consumption, such as, stimulating and expediting domestic production. Providing a ,000 emergency energy rebate to American families from a windfall tax profits tax on oil companies will relieve economic pressure, but increase consumption. Swapping oil from the strategic petroleum reserve to drive down prices, would increase consumption.

The plan also calls for phasing in 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels into the fuel supply by 2030. A proposal that will make little difference in reducing oil consumption within a 10 year time frame, but has moderate potential in the mid to long term. Total U.S. gasoline consumption in 2007 was 142 billion gallons according to the Energy Information Administration. Diesel fuel accounted for another 64 billion gallons. We cannot assume that the price of such advanced biofuels will be lower than what the current price of gasoline is now or was several months ago.

Only at the very end of his energy plan, does Barack Obama dedicate one paragraph under the title, "Build More Livable and Sustainable Communities," to the concept that if the vast majority of the population was not compelled to drive everywhere, we would not consume nearly a quarter of the world's oil.

"Over the long term, we know that the amount of fuel we will use is directly related to our land use decisions and development patterns. For the last 100 years, our communities have been organized around the principle of cheap gasoline...They(Barack Obama and Joe Biden) believe that we must devote significantly more attention to investments that will make it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. They are committed to reforming the federal transportation funding and leveling employer incentives for driving and public transit."

The emphasis of his plan is essentially inverted, and building more livable and sustainable communities should be a greater priority than increasing consumption. His plan does not provide details, yet Barack Obama will have the opportunity to demonstrate what he means by "reforming federal transportation funding," soon enough. A federal commission created by congress has recommended that the federal gasoline tax be raised by 10 cents and eventually by 40 cents over 5 years in order to maintain the solvency of the Federal Highway Trust Fund which funds the nations roads and highways, as well as mass transit. This is a far cry from the manner in which Hillary Clinton and John McCain appealed to the ignorance of Americans by suggesting that the federal gasoline tax be repealed, albeit in a temporary manner. Barack Obama, to his credit, did not participate in this, but according to the Associated Press, Barack Obama has expressed concern about raising fuel taxes in our current economic climate. Should one assume that Barack Obama would rather see the Federal Highway Trust Fund go bankrupt within the next couple of years than increase the federal gas tax by 10 cents?

The commission also recommended that states raise their gasoline taxes and that the government devise a different method for funding the construction and maintenance of the nation's highways. While building more highways and roads is often seen as way to relieve traffic congestion, Americans need to consider the value of constructing more roads when our society has reached a stage where dozens of millions of Americans are economically challenged by inevitably high gasoline prices, and dozens of millions of Americans can no longer afford to purchase new vehicles because of the financial crisis and the effects it has had on our economy. Moreover, the state of the economy is directly related to the disproportionate consumption of oil of our society. As the price of gasoline and diesel rose, so did the price of goods and services across the economy, straining American consumers and businesses. Conversely, as the price of gasoline rose, the value of homes in the exurbs, places which are remotely located from other population centers, began to drop. These are symptoms of an exorbitantly expensive transportation model which Americans have done very little to change.

Instead, our society has embarked on a race to develop alternative fuels and high fuel economy vehicles, before dozens of millions of Americans become trapped in their urban and suburban ghettos. Up until now, our society has achieved limited results, and based on Barack Obama's proposals and readily observable realities, we are likely to achieve limited results in the short and mid term future. Yet, there is also the opportunity for transformation. An increase in the federal gasoline tax will automatically make more money available for mass transit because 20% of the revenue is apportioned for mass transit. If the stated goals of our society are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce petroleum dependence, and improve the economy, a greater share of federal gasoline tax revenue should be apportioned for mass transit. Here, Barack Obama will have an opportunity to demonstrate how superficial or how profound the change he has proposed for America is.

Some of the cuts in oil consumption in other industrialized nations may be attributable to a slowdown in economic activity, but what is inescapable is the fundamental role which mass transit systems play in these societies. Mass transit allows these societies to maintain lower oil consumption rates and when the price of oil and its refined products climb, the citizens of the urban areas of these societies have the option to consume less, while still maintaining an adequate level of mobility. In the U.S., vast portions of its citizens simply don't have this option, our demand is inelastic. It is illustrative to point out that within the U.S., the state which has the lowest per capita gasoline consumption rate is New York. What is also inescapable, is that when the price of oil climbs, it disproportionately adversely affects the U.S. economy.

The path towards reducing petroleum dependence outlined by Barack Obama has already been traveled by California, without much success, and in other instances, such as with the aformentioned propositon 10, and in 2006 with proposition 87, which would have imposed billion of taxes on oil producers to research alternative energy, rejected by California voters.

In 2000, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 2076 which required the California Energy Commission and the California Air Resources Board to examine ways that California could reduce its dependence on petroleum. The agencies published a report in 2003 titled, "Reducing California’s Petroleum Dependence." The 19 page report does not discuss mass transit. Its main recommendation was that California reduce its gasoline and diesel consumption by 15% below the 2003 level by 2020 and maintain that reduction for the foreseeable future, relying primarily on vehicle efficiency improvements and the introduction of alternative fuels to petroleum.

From 2003 to 2007 gasoline sales generally increased and the difference between the two years was an increase of .0007% by 2007 in California. The Board of Equalization has not yet reported sales for the fourth quarter of 2008, but for the first three quarters of 2008, gasoline sales dropped by 3.8% compared to the first three quarters of 2007, and dropped 3.3% compared to the first three quarters of 2003. Regarding diesel sales in California, from 2003 to 2007, they increased by 15.5%. For the first three quarters of 2008 compared to the first three quarters of 2003, diesel sales increased by 8%.

The recent drop in petroleum consumption is largely due to the dire effects that .50 an .00 per gallon gasoline has had on our economy. Which is why recommending that California reduce its petroleum consumption by 15% below 2003 levels by 2020 in 2003 was a recommendation that did not seem to have much of a practical application to reality. What is the point of reducing petroleum dependence by 15% below 2003 levels by 2020 if our economy will have collapsed by then, from the weight of that petroleum dependence? The authors of these studies are no doubt experts at making calculations and figuring out what can be produced with available resources and assumed to be available resources, but not everybody can know everything. I doubt that they had the predictive ability to have anticipated the burst of the housing bubble, the financial crisis, that American car companies would be on the verge of bankruptcy, the degree or severity with which climate change occurs, the record high unemployment figures, the degree to and pace at which oil demand increases in Asia and Latin America and the inevitable economic squeeze this creates for the radically car dependent American population. Otherwise, their recommendation would not be logical. Not considering mass transit as a viable option towards reducing petroleum consumption and not pursposefully creating a more sustainable environment was, and is, willful ignorance.

As examples of this willful ignorance consider the responses which I received in 2005 from some of the principle authors of the aforementioned report. Susan Brown wrote, "Based on available research, and our analysis of the potential for public transit in the technical appendices to the AB 2076 Report, we concluded that even doubling use of public transit in California, would have a minor(as I recall about 2 percent effect) on reducing petroleum demand."

Yes, if vehicle miles traveled by mass transit are 1% of total vehicle miles traveled in California, as was determined by the authors in the appendices, doubling use of mass transit would only reduce petroleum dependence by 2 percent or some other small figure, assuming that doubling the use of mass transit would bring total vehicle miles traveled by mass transit to a whopping 2%. Yet, imagine a mass transit revolution that created the type of mass transit systems that Europeans enjoy. California is the 8th largest economy in the world and Californians spent nearly billion on gasoline and diesel in 2007. What is lacking is not resources, but will and imagination.

Gerry Bemis provided me an equally obtuse response: "The Energy Commission sees mass transit as providing only a modest reduction in petroleum demand, maybe 5% or so. Not every city has an efficient transit system…Much of Sacramento is not well served by our transit system due to the length of trips and/or need for multiple transfers."

While California's official policies remain heavily biased and weighted towards alternative fuels, policy makers have opened their minds to the role that mass transit can and will have to play. In response to Assembly Bill 1007, passed in 2005, the CEC and CARB published in 2007 a report titled, "State Alternative Fuels Plan." The plan proposes that a five part strategy is needed to meet California's greenhouse gas emission and petroleum consumption reduction goals. Part of that strategy is to "maximize the use of mass transit, encourage smart growth and land use planning to help reduce vehicle miles traveled and vehicle hours traveled."

In discussing California's gasoline and diesel consumption which has increased nearly 50 percent since 1986, the report cites, "lack of mass transit" among the reasons for this increase.

The report also acknowledges that "alternative fuels alone will not be sufficient to meet California's aggressive 2050 GHG emissions reduction goal." It states that reducing green house gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 could occur by, among other things, "Increasing use of mass transit and public transportation, as an alternative to personal motor vehicle use."

The strategy that California is pursuing is likely over dependent on alternative fuels, and does not emphasize conservation enough. According to the report, "The transportation fuel market is enormously complex...To understand the magnitude of this undertaking, increasing the use of non-petroleum fuels to 20 percent of on-road fuel demand by 2020 is equivalent to 4.8 billion gallons of non-petroleum fuels. Achieving this goal will require the introduction and use of an additional 370 million gallons of new non-petroleum fuel supplies into the California transportation market each year, or about 1 million gallons of new supply each day for the next 12 years."

If California's plan as outlined in the report is successfully executed, it would mean that by 2020, largely due to inevitable population growth, Californians will consume 19.2 billion gallons of petroleum based fuels. This is a small increase in demand on our part, while there may be less supply on the the world market, at the same time that demand in diverse parts of the world will have increased. Based on the observable effects of maintaining such a high volume of consumption in current economic conditions, it is remotely possible that consuming nearly 20 billion gallons of petroleum based fuels in the near future is even sustainable. It is apparent more than ever that mass transit is an absolute economic necessity, apart from being an ecological and cultural one as well.

Since 2003 when "Reducing California's Petroluem Dependence" was published, the state of California has consumed roughly 88 billion gallons of gasoline. Increased taxation of 20 cents per gallon would have resulted in .6 billion that could have been partially or completely spent to fund the world class mass transit California direly needs. If, according to the State Alternative Fuels Plan, "by enacting AB 1007, the Governor and Legislature have established that it is now the clear and unambiguous policy of the State of California to move decisively away from petroleum fuels," then it is logical to discourage the widespread indiscriminate consumption of petroleum fuels, particularly because of the profound ecological damage which they cause. Increased taxation nominally raises the cost, yet over time it can reduce and moderate prices by moderating demand, if such taxes were to be invested in mass transit. Thus, increased petroleum fuel taxation is completely logical.

Standing in the way of this, are Republicans who are philosophically against any and all tax increases, and in the midst of California's budget crisis have signed a pledge not to raise taxes. Due to the fact that a two thirds majority of the legislature is required in California to raise taxes or pass a budget, Republicans, who hold slightly more than one third of legislative seats, can hold the state hostage and impede progress.

Over the years, Democrats have for the most part been ineffective in challenging the absolute irrationality of the Republican position. Among their recent proposals is to eliminate the gasoline tax and replace it with a per gallon fee which would be 13 cents higher than the current tax. As the Los Angeles Times explains, this scheme threatens funding for mass transit on the part of the state of California, because such "fees" may not be able to be used to fund mass transit. Yet, according to the L.A. Times editorial board, Democrats feel compelled to do this because of the absolute refusal of Republicans to consider any tax increase in order to balance the state's budget. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in an acute contradiction to AB 1007 and AB 32, and the general perception of him as a "green" politician, has cut funding for mass transit by billions of dollars while in office. The governor and Republican legislators are part of the American mindset which simply does not see value in mass transit and condemns our society to disproportionate oil consumption and ecological destruction.

Under the current manner which the gasoline tax is apportioned, 20% of the revenue goes to mass transit. Yet, to be consistent with our official goals and laws, it should be higher than this. Mike Fueur who authored AB 2321 which authorized placing Measure R on the Los Angeles county ballot, proposed in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece in 2007 that the state legislature could give priority to mass transit or at least establish parity between mass transit and highway construction and maintenance with a 2/3 majority vote of the legislature. Perhaps Californians will have to recall the current governor or certain Republican legislators, wait to achieve a Democratic super majority in the legislature, use the initiative process, or hope that several Republican legislators see the light.

Los Angelenos have already voted to invest 26 additional billion dollars(65% of the expected 40 billion from Measure R)over the next thirty years to fund mass transit in Los Angeles, yet they can also have a decisive influence on statewide policy, thus generating greater investment in mass transit in Los Angeles. Los Angeles county is neither the most conservative, nor the most liberal county in the state. This, combined with the fact of it being the most populous county perfectly positions it to shift the weight of the state in whatever direction it sways. We have the opportunity to transform our society in a profound manner.

The primary goals which Barack Obama has outlined in his energy plan will be achievable if mass transit plays a far greater role in his plan. When I look out upon the freeways of Los Angeles, a city of nearly 4 million people which has the worst traffic and air quaility in the country, and is part of a county of 10 million people, which in itself is the 17th largest economy in the world, what occurs to me is that what is fundamentally wrong with our society is not Middle Eastern or Venezuelan oil imports, what is fundamentally wrong is that the car is the primary mode of transportation. Ignoring such a fundamental solution leaves Barack Obama chasing ghosts and bogeymen, illustrated by his pledge to "crack down on excessive energy speculation."

The fiscal year 2009 budget of the main local transit agency, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, was .408 billion. Out of this figure, 7 million or 11.6% came from the federal government, 4 million or 28.6% came from the state, but the largest part of the budget, .561 billion or 45.8%, came from Propositions A and C, which each represent a half cent of the local county sales tax, and were approved in previous decades. If the amount of money which the federal government contributes to the budget of the LACMTA does not significantly increase under the Barack Obama administration, with complete justification we will be able to declare that Barack Obama is a farce.

Local officials, expect a better performance from Barack Obama than George Bush. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's press secretary Matt Szabo told the L.A. Times, "We have for the first time in Washington an administration that intends to invest in public transportation." How much remains to be seen. California is experiencing it's worst budget crisis ever, the American economy threatens to collapse, the new President makes public statements that can't be believed; in the midst of all this, there remains, the opportunity to create a mass transit revolution that will not only transform the transportation system, but can also be the foundation of a vast transformation of the socio-economic structure of the society.

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