Legislators Fiddle While Earth Warms

By Steven Hill, August 3, 2007, San Francisco Chronicle

Crazy weather patterns have appeared recently in the form of humidity in usually foggy San Francisco, California-like weather in Washington, D.C., torrential downpours and massive flooding in Britain and torrid temperatures in the Mediterranean. These and other episodes such as Hurricane Katrina add more evidence to the scientific studies that say we are at the outset of an era of blowback, environmentally speaking. Human activities have pumped massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the bill has come due.

Governments around the world are trying to figure the way forward, with the European Union leading the way. Recently, the EU agreed to cut its carbon emissions by 20 percent, and to make renewable energy sources 20 percent of its energy mix by 2020. California’s government also passed landmark legislation in 2006 to decrease carbon emissions, though troubling signs of retrenchment have emerged during the implementation.

But that was nothing compared to the outright foolishness that has emerged in Sacramento. Assembly members voted to slash $1.26 billion from the public transit budget and to permanently chop the largest state fund for public transit in half — and the Senate, mired in a budget impasse, shows no inclination to restore the funding. According to Steve Blackledge of California PIRG, this will likely result in even more cuts to service, delays in new lines and rider fare increases and what makes this even harder to swallow is that the Assembly simultaneously voted for new tax breaks for oil companies and airlines.

If we are to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions that are contributing massively to global warming, getting more people out of our cars and riding public transit is certainly part of the solution. State government should be putting more funding into public transit, not slashing its funding. Given the realities of global warming, cutting public transit is akin to a self-inflicted wound.

Not only is public transit in California and the United States lagging, so is the rest of our CO2-belching transportation infrastructure. For example, American autos have engines that are nearly double the average size in Germany, Britain or France. While Europe and Japan have raised their fuel standards to 45 miles per gallon, bipartisan policy in the United States has allowed Detroit to cruise along with fuel standards of 27.5 mpg for cars and

22 mpg for SUVs and trucks, even allowing outrageous tax deductions for buyers of gas-guzzling SUVs.

Says Diana Farrell of the McKinsey Institute, a highly regarded global business consultancy, “To travel 1 mile in the United States requires 37 percent more fuel than to travel 1 mile in Europe or Japan. And with current use, that gap will increase to 42 percent by 2020.”

While the California Legislature, like the Bush administration, dithers, Europe is spearheading other transportation innovations. Congestion zones requiring motorists to pay a toll to enter city centers have been implemented to reduce carbon-belching traffic jams. In London’s congestion zone, traffic has declined more than 20 percent and clogged streets have opened up. About 100,000 people pay $8 each day via cell phone, the Internet or at retail shops across the city. The tolls raise approximately $200 million per year, most of it plowed back into public transport, which more people now are happy to ride.

The jewel in the European transportation system is their trains, whether between cities or within cities. Famous for their efficiency and speed, Europe’s trains run on time, they’re comfortable and they’re affordable.

Europe has shown that high-speed trains can compete with air travel not only in terms of travel time, but also impact on the environment. Trains emit an estimated 66 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger compared to 187 pounds per passenger for air travel, a difference of more than 6 tons per 100 passengers.

The EU has earmarked $27.5 billion to finance trans-European networks, even as the California Assembly votes to cut the mass transit budget, and U.S.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s plan for a Sacramento to Los Angeles high-speed train remains on hold.

As a result of a well-planned and well-funded transportation infrastructure, nearly 6 of 10 Europeans take less than 20 minutes to get to work. No wonder BusinessWeek has written that Europe is “the best buffered from (oil) price increases” that we inevitably face, as surely as melting glaciers will cause the sea to rise.

The recent action by the California Assembly is akin to sticking its head in the sand. Our state legislators not only should restore the funding for public transit, they should look for ways to massively invest in the state’s transportation infrastructure with a goal of reducing greenhouse gases. Now is a time for leadership, not the same old politics.