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Our Trebly Broken Highway Funding System

9:24 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

Over the balance of this year, you are likely to hear more and more about our broken Highway Funding system. For instance, William Moore, of the consultancy group Vianovo and member of the Transportation Transformation Group, wrote at Infra Insight this last 13 March that:

Absent swift action by Congress, state departments of transportation will begin to have cash flow problems that could delay payments to vendors and slow projects. Without action by the fall, new projects may have to be shelved until Congress can resolve the funding crisis that confronts the Highway Trust Fund.

However, this is just the most visible layer of pending crisis in our highway funding system. Even if we were to fix the threat to engage in spending at status quo levels,status quo spending has been falling behind the damage done by cars and trucks to our roads for decades, and even if we were to fund our transportation to address the massive shortfall in maintaining our current highway system, we have not seriously begun in addressing the fact that our current transport system is one of our principle contributor’s to our economy’s present climate change suicide course.

We have a trebly broken highway funding system, and there is no guarantee that we will actually address the simplest of the problems.

The good news is that we do not need massive technological breakthroughs to fix this triple layer cake of crisis. The bad news is that what we do need is a political movement with both the focus and the clout to push the existing available solutions onto the table, in the face of determined status quo resistance … and those who have at least glanced at our political system over the past decade would be aware that building such a movement is a “to be solved by reader” kind of problem.

The Road Funding Crisis You Will Hear About: The Highway Trust Fund

The nature of the road funding crisis that you will hear about is straightforward. We have federal fuel taxes that pay into the Highway and Transit trust funds, and then projects and other funding are approved that draws upon those trust funds. Back in the 90′s, when we last set the rates of Federal gas and diesel taxes, they were set in nominal terms without an inflation index.

So every year, the federal gasoline tax rate of 18.4 cents per gallon and the federal diesel tax rate of 24.4 cents per gallon sees a reduction in the real tax burden on motorists and truck freight … slower, when inflation is slow, and faster when inflation is fast, but, from the CAP fact sheet on the issue:

  • In inflation-adjusted terms, the gas tax is worth only 11.5 cents today.
  • In 1993, the gas tax represented 18 percent of the cost of an average gallon of gasoline. Today, it represents only 5 percent.
  • If gas and diesel taxes had been indexed to keep pace with inflation, today they would be 29 cents and 38 cents per gallon, respectively.

But the ongoing, slow and hidden cuts in fuel taxes, year after year and decade after decade, is only half of the story. After all, if the indexing was the only problem, then the funds could be restored by simply enacting an “index plus”, such as adding 0.1 cents plus an index correction each quarter, until the gas tax caught up to its original value of 29 cents a gallon in 2014 dollar.

The gas tax never actually covered any part of the costs of burning gasoline, which as we now know includes not just the pollution of dumping poisons into our atmosphere, but also includes the more insidious but, it turns out, more dangerous dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere … which is essential to life on our planet, but which in ever increasing concentrations in the atmosphere as we dump millions of years worth of naturally sequestered carbon is highly likely to cause sufficiently severe climate change that it will wreck our ability to have a national economy and national society.

Instead, what the gas tax covered was a fraction of the costs imposed by cars and trucks on public and semi-public right of ways. That damage is done by the vehicle relative to the weight of the vehicle ~ the vehicle axle load and the number of axles ~ and so if vehicles were to become more efficient, then there would be a reduction in the gas tax per passenger mile (for cars) and per ton-mile (for trucks) even if we were to restore fuel tax levels in real terms. And that is, indeed, the fourth point in the Center for American Progress dot points:

  • The corporate average fuel-economy standards will rise to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025. This will approximately double the efficiency of vehicles compared to current levels and dramatically reduce the amount of tax revenue flowing to the HTF, crippling federal surface transportation programs.

To make things still worse, a large part of the electorate harbors the fantasy that gas taxes “pay” for the costs of roads, when the reality is, as Washington Cycle points out:

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Is Dirty Ethanol Here to Stay?

8:19 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

The AP Reports (courtesy of Yahoo!):

The failure so far of cellulosic fuel is central to the debate over corn-based ethanol, a centerpiece of America’s green-energy strategy. Ethanol from corn has proven far more damaging to the environment than the government predicted, and cellulosic fuel hasn’t emerged as a replacement.

“Cellulosic has been five years away for 20 years now,” said Nathanael Greene, a biofuels expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now the first projects are up and running, but actually it’s still five years away.”

The administration defended its projections, saying it was trying to use the biofuel law as a way to promote development of cellulosic fuel. But the projections were so far off that, in January, a federal appeals court said the administration improperly let its “aspirations” for cellulosic fuel influence its analysis. Even with the first few plants running, supporters acknowledge there is almost no chance to meet the law’s original yearly targets that top out at 16 billion gallons by 2022. “It’s simply not plausible,” said Jeremy Martin, a biofuels expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “2030 is the soonest you can anticipate it to be at that level.”

Green Ethanol still “Five Years Away” … just as they were when I first blogged on this topic in 2007 … while Dirty Ethanol is the mainstay of the US Ethanol mandate. So how long are we to accept Dirty Ethanol as a “bridge” to a Green Ethanol seemingly always right on the five-year horizon? 

Dirty Ethanol Now, “Clean” Ethanol Later

The AP has recently been doing an investigation into the “dirty” side of Dirty Ethanol … which seems just about right, since I was not the only blogger sounding the alarm about Dirty Ethanol in 2007, and the AP over five years behind the blogosphere seems as baked in as “Clean” Ethanol fixed at “Five Years From Now”.

You can find the AP write-up of the “Unfulfilled Promise” side of their investigation at the WaPo, if citing the same article from “yahoo” doesn’t strike your fancy. And you can find the results of the “Hang on, it seems like Corn Ethanol is Dirty Ethanol!” part of their study all over as well. There’s this from the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

The hills of southern Iowa bear the scars of America’s push for green energy: The brown gashes where rain has washed away the soil. The polluted streams that dump fertilizer into the water supply. Even the cemetery that disappeared like an apparition into a cornfield.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and contaminated water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found. Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have been converted on Obama’s watch. Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil. Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, polluted rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.

We have, after all, a massively destructive system for raising food, and so it stands to reason that relying on food crops for fuel will also be massively destructive.

However, this is not just a matter of lax environmental enforcement, so this is not a problem that can be solved by overcoming obstacles to constraining environmentally destructive practices in US Agriculture. The problem with Corn Ethanol is baked into the core process, in which we take a product that represents a small fraction of the total solar energy power captured by the plant, and then use substantial additional energy to convert it from a cereal grain into a liquid fuel.

As engineer-poet noted in 2006:

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Steel Interstate Revolution

8:21 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

The Steel Interstate is a proposal to pursue dramatic gains in the energy efficiency of long haul freight transport in the United States, resulting in:

  • Substantial reductions in Petroleum Imports;
  • Substantial reductions in Greenhouse Gas emissions;
  • Substantially improved protection from Petroleum Supply interruptions;
  • Improved productivity for North American manufacturing; and
  • Substantial reductions in damage to the existing Asphalt Interstate System

How can it promise all of this? By mining gross inefficiency. The United States has one of the most energy inefficient systems of moving freight long distances available under current technology, and we combine that with an economy that relies heavily on moving freight long distances.

Some of the specific sources of energy efficiency are:

  • Moving cargoes in linked electric freight trains offers less air resistance than moving cargoes in individual trucks, because the freight car ahead provides a slipstream for the freight car immediately behind;
  • Steel wheel on steel rail has less rolling resistance than rubber tire on asphalt road;
  • Electric motors are more efficient than diesel or gasoline internal combustion engines; and
  • When braking, electric trains can put a load on their electric motors and generate power, feeding it back onto the line

Overall, long haul electric freight is around 15 times more energy efficient than long haul diesel semi freight. I tend to express this as over ten times the energy efficiency, to allow leeway for possibly longer routings when taking advantage of the Steel Interstate.

Long haul electric freight trains are also more space efficient than long haul truck transport. Freight demands that would require multiple lanes each way just for truck traffic can be readily accommodated on a two track mainline route. This can be done while accommodating a mix of 60mph heavy freight and 100mph fast container freight by including regular extended sections of passing track: the difference between passing track and sidings is that on-schedule faster and slower trains using the passing track remain in motion, rather than one sitting still in a siding waiting for the other to pass.

Finally, the operating cost per ton-mile for electric freight for both 60mph heavy freight and 90mph fast freight is enough lower than the operating cost of long haul trucking that the government can fund a National Steel Interstate with interest subsidies alone, with Access Fees and User Fees refunding the original capital cost of the system ~ initially, funding expansion of the system, and finally funding retiring the bonds.

If Its Such A Great Idea, Why Don’t We Have Steel Interstates Yet?

So, if there are so many substantial reasons for pursuing Steel Interstates, why aren’t we doing it yet?

Part of the issue was expressed by the Machiavelli:

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