A Sim City-like case study in conflicting dynamics is playing out these days in Winona County, where mining companies want to start digging up silica sand in three locations for hydraulic fracking extraction of oil and natural gas in faraway places. We need the fossil fuels to heat our homes and power our motor vehicles. Trouble is, trucking all that sand from the proposed mines is likely to wreck the roads we drive over with the energy resources the sand produces.
Does this sound like a dog chasing its tail?
The complex connection between fossil energy and transportation has been with us since the days of the coal-fired steam locomotive. It’s grown to where vehicles emit nearly one-third of the carbon dioxide linked to potentially catastrophic climate change, with the U.S. share estimated at half the entire world’s.
But just try to chip away at this gas-guzzling problem with options that sip or totally abstain from polluting fuels — transit, fast intercity trains, bicycling and walking — and you’ll run into no-holds-barred opposition. In recent weeks, for example, conservative U.S. senators have mounted several efforts to eliminate federal funding for bike paths, walking trails and other transportation enhancements, using arguments most charitably described as misinformed.
These include repeated claims that taxpayer money has gone to refurbishing a giant roadside coffee pot structure in Pennsylvania (it didn’t; private funds paid the cost), a movie theater in Kentucky (actually a driver-training simulator) and $6 million “turtle tunnels” in Florida (culverts that divert all sorts of critters from endangering traffic on U.S. Hwy. 27 and actually cost less than $3 million).
The usually straight-down-the-middle Associated Press branded these allegations by Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul of Kentucky as “tall tales … exaggerated or misrepresented.” Paul even said that such boondoggles consume 10 percent of federal transportation dollars. The correct figure is actually 2 percent of just highway spending for projects to promote biking and walking, which burn no fossil fuel.
According to the AP, the senators also tried to pass off stories about federal taxpayers ponying up for a lighthouse renovation in Ohio, a battleship restoration in Texas and landscaping to screen a junkyard in South Carolina, none of it true. Wisely, the full Senate rejected three separate attempts to kill the funding that hasn’t gone to any of those things.
Meanwhile, congressional conservatives have gotten off their misguided crusade to cut a third of federal transportation funding amid related crises in construction employment and road and bridge maintenance. But one way they’ve suggested to make up for declining fuel tax revenues would involve another troubling intersection of energy and mobility policies.
House Speaker John Boehner said revenue from expanded oil and gas drilling could make up a projected $75 billion to $100 billion shortfall in the highway trust fund over six years. Environmentalists quickly denounced that idea, saying a better approach would be a carbon tax, anathema to most right-wingers.
But even conservative policy wonk Gabriel Roth at the Independent Institute called Boehner’s proposal “extraordinarily bad for the long term” because it “is likely to destroy the traditional ‘user pays’ principle that has governed U.S. infrastructure financing for many years.”
That objection could be satisfied with a simple solution — raising the federal fuel taxes that have been stuck in neutral since 1993, losing at least a third of their buying power and shrinking even more as a percentage of pump prices. These levies work as a kind of carbon tax as well as user fees for roads. For the past two years, groups ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the trucking industry to organized labor have urged hiking the rates — 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline, 24.4 cents for diesel.
But they haven’t budged the political opposition stretching from Capitol Hill to the White House. The bipartisan way around highway trust fund default has been tens of billions in general fund bailouts, deficit-inflators with no connection to road users.
Back in Winona County, officials are taking a hard look at the potential impact of frac sand mining on transportation. “This additional traffic would take a much higher amount of life out of the road in a short time period,” County Engineer David Kramer told the Winona Daily News. “Essentially, that would leave the rest of the road users to pick up the tab,” as much as $200,000 to fix each mile.
County commissioners are considering a moratorium on new mining operations as well as stepped-up enforcement of aggregate removal permit collections, although at current rates they wouldn’t cover the cost of damage to the roads. Nearby Buffalo County, Wis., is mulling an increase of $3,250 in mining permit fees in the face of a similar rush of frac sand applications.
It’s likely that many of these proposals will eventually be approved and megatons of sand start rolling over the roads. Our needs for energy as well as jobs demand it. Policymakers just have to make sure we don’t subsidize fossil fuel production by degrading the transportation infrastructure that both supports and relies on it.