KRC Participates In Conference On Sustainable Transportation Policy

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Panel On Energy and Environmental Policy and Emerging Sources of Transportation Fuels
October 28, 2008

Presentation by Tom FitzGerald, Director Kentucky Resources Council, Inc.

I've been asked to address environmental issues associated with energy policy and its role in promoting sustainability in transportation. When Don Challman asked me to speak, he noted that I have been somewhat skeptical about the desirability of pursuing a coal-to-liquid fuel strategy, and certainly we will discuss that, but initially I think it important that we, and the larger “we” that are assembled here for these two days, develop a common understanding of where we are, and a common definition of what it is to have a sustainable transportation framework and a transparent, standardized and adequate set of indicators for measuring the base case and progress towards sustainability, and for driving (no pun intended) the collection and interpretation of data to measure both.

According to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, for Louisville in 1999, in the metropolitan area that has what is probably the most developed transit system in the Commonwealth, 91.7% of the workforce got to work by driving, while 4.4% took transit, 2.1% walked, .1% bicycled and 1.6% worked at home. In the 4th poorest state in the nation, a state with an aging population and an aging transportation infrastructure, facing significant volatility in gas pricing and with a transportation infrastructure that has disproportionately invested in roads to the detriment of a more balanced strategy, the discussion of how to transition to a more sound transportation policy is welcome, and long overdue.

I'd like to begin by suggesting that we define the environmental and energy aspects of sustainable transportation policy in the context of a broader consideration of what constitutes transportation sustainability. As noted by Litman and Burwell in a 2006 article for the International Journal of Global Environmental Issues, sustainability originally focused on a few resource consumption issues, but is increasingly defined more broadly to include economic and social welfare, equity, human health and ecological integrity. A narrow definition of sustainable transportation tends to favour individual technological solutions, while a broader definition tends to favour more integrated solutions, including improved travel choices, economic incentives, institutional reforms, land use changes as well as technological innovation.

I have searched wide to find a comprehensive framework for defining sustainability in transportation, and a good set of indicators, and would recommend to each of you the white paper developed by the Transportation Research Board. The TRB is one of the six divisions of the National Research Council, which is the principal operating agency of the National Academies, and is one the web at

In the paper, entitled Sustainable Transportation Indicators: A Recommended Program To Define A Standard Set of Indicators For Sustainable Transportation Planning, published on January 10, 2008, and drawing from the European Council of Ministers of Transport, the TRB defines a sustainable transportation system as one that:

  • Allows the basic access and development needs of individuals, companies and society to be met safely and in a manner consistent with human and ecosystem health, and promotes equity within and between successive generations
  • Is affordable, operates fairly and efficiently, offers a choice of transport mode and supports a competitive economy, as well as balanced regional development, and
  • Limits emissions and waste within the planet’s ability to absorb them, uses renewable resources at or below their rates of generation, and uses non-renewable resources at or below the rates of development of renewable substitutes, while minimizing the impact on the use of land and the generation of noise.

I particularly like that equity, balance and living within our means, ecologically, figure prominently in the definition, since Metro Louisville is one in which affordable and timely access to public transportation to reach employment centers remains a problem for many middle-class and poor residents, and where major car-centered transportation projects are the “giant sucking sound” that consume available funding that could be instead invested in more equitable and comprehensive transportation planning and projects.

In defining a sustainable transportation policy, what are the indicators?

The TRB recommends these issues as components of sustainable transportation:

  • Economic issues, including accessibility quality, traffic congestion, infrastructure costs, consumer costs, mobility barriers, accident damages, and depletion of non-renewable resources
  • Social issues, including equity and fairness, impacts on those who are “mobility-disadvantaged, affordability, human health impacts, community cohesion, community livability, and aesthetics
  • Environmental issues, including air pollution, climate change, noise pollution, water pollution, hydrologic impacts, habitat and ecological degradation, and depletion of non-renewable resources.

Looking at the questions of mobility and transportation planning through potential environmental screens, such as reducing total vehicle emissions and emissions from vehicle and infrastructure manufacture, improving ambient air quality, and reducing climate change contributions, must occur in the context of achieving sustainability in the social and economic context as well.

One thing that for me is particularly important, given who KRC represents, is that particularly as it affects fuel choices, a meaningful and honest discussion on sustainability must consider not only impacts that occur immediately or can be readily monetized, but also those impacts that occur at distant locations and times. As the TRB noted, sustainability requires lifecycle analysis considering all impacts over the entire life of a product or activity, including resources used and pollution produced during extraction of a fuel, production and disposal of the fuel, the vehicle and the transportation infrastructure, and disposal of wastes – the so-called “embodied” resources and pollution that attend a transportation mode or fuel choice. Don has noted that I have issues with coal-to-liquid fuels, and I do, in part because of the significant CO2 footprint associated with the gasification and liquefaction processes and the cost and ecological impacts relative to technologies that would utilize electricity for propulsion rather than fossil fuels, but more so because of the devastating impact that coal extraction has on the coal-bearing regions. The prospect of significantly ramping up coal production to support a coal-based liquid fuel would accelerate the destruction of land and water resources associated with mining.

That the transportation sector has a significant environmental footprint on the landscape cannot be seriously disputed, whether measured in terms of fuel consumption, air pollution impacts from combustion of fossil fuels and release of a range of greenhouse gases, air toxics, particulates and other pollutants, adverse health responses to CO, ozone and other air pollutants; or in terms of water pollution from contaminated runoff or groundwater pollution from fuel storage and distribution, or ecological damage from offshore drilling, marine transportation, and on-shore processing of fuels. Continued growth in vehicle miles traveled, according to the 2008 Report from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute captioned “A Bridge To Somewhere – Rethinking American Transportation For the 21st Century” is projected to cancel out both the benefits gained from advances in vehicle efficiency and fuel alternatives.

Against this backdrop, KRC believes that any investment of public monies in the transportation sector should ask, based on a comprehensive set of indicators, whether it moves us towards or away from the goal of a more rational, sound, just and equitable transportation policy. The so-called well to wheels analysis must begin with the raw materials and end with the waste disposal, consider all inputs and outputs of the various processes in between, and view the environmental impacts of our fuel and mobility choices and investments in the context of overall sustainability of our transportation policy.

There is a substantial gulf between sustainable transportation planning and the current political mechanisms by which we prioritize, select and fund transportation. What project-scale planning and analysis of ecological, social, economic and other impacts of transportation projects that does occur currently under the National Environmental Policy Act, occurs in the context of facially satisfying the requirements to consider alternatives and to predict and study the effects of those choices, while inexorably leading to some variant of a politically predetermined income. If we are to move from the current situation, one where focused federal, state and local transportation planning policy is sorely lacking, as noted in the 2008 Brookings report, we must develop and adopt the guiding principles of sustainable mobility that will advise our planning, standardize the indicators for sustainable mobility, collect and assess quality data to measure our progress, and (perhaps most importantly) infuse these principles into the political process so that they guide and advise funding and legislative policy choices.

As the Brookings Report noted, i an era of declining revenues, of continued transportation problems, and a fiercely competitive global economic environment, American transportation policy should be about more than just dividing the spoils.

In developing a new framework for transportation planning, we must strive for a framework that will yield a system that is durable, equitable, responsible, and which meets our needs in a way that unites community.

We have our work cut out for us.

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By Kentucky Resources Council on 10/28/2005 5:32 PM
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