NRDC's Lovaas discusses new report on efficiency strategies

With the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee pushing for a transportation authorization bill this fall, proponents of a major infrastructure overhaul are weighing in on how best to move forward with improvements. During today's OnPoint, Deron Lovaas, the federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, discusses a new report that explains how implementing bundles of transportation efficiency strategies can reduce emissions by up to 24 percent below baseline levels by 2050. Lovaas, gives his take on the upcoming transportation reauthorization debate and explains how Congress can reconcile the political difficulties of implementing a gas tax.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Deron, thanks for coming on the show.

Deron Lovaas: Good to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Deron, NRDC was recently involved in the release of a new report on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. The report has the support of several members of Congress, including Jim Oberstar. What's different about what you're recommending in this report versus what we've been hearing on the Hill and from the administration?

Deron Lovaas: Well, for years now, and I've actually been part of this work, we've all focused on the vehicles component of the transportation sector's consumption of fuel, because it really drives our oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions from the sector. And also what kind of alternative energy we might use in our vehicles, whether it be electricity through plug-in hybrids or biofuels in the tank. Those have been a real big focus for all of us, but there's really an analytical chasm out there in terms of looking at what some call the third leg of the stool, which is travel activity, how many miles you drive, how many trips we take, and what kind of transportation choices we have. So this study is meant to fill some of that gap and to hopefully drive even more analysis so that we have more knowledge in that area, just like we have currently in vehicles and fuels.

Monica Trauzzi: Congress is gearing up for a fight on the transportation authorization bill, and many of the items addressed in the report would be taken up in this reauthorization. If the reauthorization is pushed to 2011, as may very likely happen in the fall, what will that mean for many of these programs that you're talking about in the report?

Deron Lovaas: Well, I think there is time to consider providing incentives and setting up programs that would encourage the deployment of a lot of the measures in the report. And let's be clear, it's an extensive report that looked at almost 50 measures and then looked at ways in which they can be combined to save fuel and to reduce emissions and to save consumers money. More time means that there's more opportunity to consider ways to draft the bill so that it will help states and localities to actually implement as many of these measures as possible, thereby achieving national objectives like reduced oil dependence.

Monica Trauzzi: So you think it's a good thing if we hold off on the reauthorization?

Deron Lovaas: Well, I'm not sure I would go that far, because we have looked at Chairman Oberstar's bill, which he's pushing very hard, and directionally, it looks quite good. There's a lot in there that would actually encourage deployment of some of these measures, which is why he's spoken very positively about the study, and I think it makes sense to take the time to get this bill right. So I think no one disputes the fact that we face an extension of current law; the question is how long the extension is and how much advantage we take of that time to build on the foundation that Chairman Oberstar has laid out.

Monica Trauzzi: Are the Obama administration's plans for a transportation infrastructure in line with the report? He's talked a lot about developing a high-speed rail system, revamping the infrastructure. I mean, is what he's saying in line with what you're talking about in the report?

Deron Lovaas: Well, when we released the report, Deputy Secretary John Porcari actually spoke very positively about what's in there, and this president, it's pretty amazing how deep his knowledge goes in terms of transportation. He not only has been out there pushing for high-speed rail investments, which is an already wildly oversubscribed program. There are requests from across the country for that funding that vastly outstrip how much money was actually in the Recovery Act for high-speed rail projects. But he's talked about in the past ways to reform regional planning in order to reduce energy use and to save fuel. So he really seems to get it, which is terrific, and that means, I think, what's in the report is very much in line with what the administration wants to accomplish.

Monica Trauzzi: There's this larger discussion happening within the auto industry about winning and losing technologies. Does the report speak specifically about the types of auto technologies that we'll need in the future to reduce emissions? I mean do you at all try to pick winners and losers?

Deron Lovaas: Well, what's in the report is actually specifically a look not at technology, because there's been a lot of studies that have looked at technology in the past, so we have a lot of knowledge about that already. The question is, what can you accomplish through more tolling? If you wanted to institute congestion pricing in cities, what would that accomplish? If you want to change land-use policies, what would that accomplish? If you want to build more infrastructures, whether it be highways -- and highways were looked at in the report -- transit or bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure, what would that accomplish? And then how would combining these different categories of measures be effective? What effects would it produce? And the effects that the report looked at were how much greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced, how much fuel would be saved, and how much would consumers save because of less wear and tear on their vehicles, fewer trips to the gas pump, to the repair shop, that kind of thing.

Monica Trauzzi: Pricing and taxes are two strategies that are outlined in the report, and there has been talk about implementing a gas tax in order to reduce consumption. How do you reconcile the political difficulties that are associated with that, though?

Deron Lovaas: Well, I think, unfortunately -- and that would change if policymakers took a lot of the recommendations in the report to heart -- a lot of policymakers are putting the cart before the horse when they talk about increasing revenue to the transportation program. I don't think there's a lot of faith among the general public in this program. I think when people think about federal transportation policy, they think about the bridge to nowhere, they think about pork-barrel projects. What we need to do is design a program that will achieve big national objectives, that's very clear in terms of how it benefits the nation, and then go out and make the case to the public, you know, this is worth more investment. This is worth all of us putting more money into. But right now, unless the program is overhauled, I just don't see a revenue increase along the lines of what's recommended in the report.

Monica Trauzzi: As you alluded to, you do need the public support. How much of what you're suggesting would rely on consumers changing their behavior? And do you believe that there's a willingness in the U.S. to do that?

Deron Lovaas: Well, there's latent demand, I'd say, out there for the kind of measures that are covered in the report right now. So if you took what's in the report and deployed it, you know, doing a lot of these measures in combination with one another, you'd get some changes in consumer behavior, that's true. And I don't think you're fighting an uphill battle in terms of those changes. On fuel prices especially, now, thank goodness, it looks like the economy is finally rebounding, are bound to go back up, and what we saw when they hit $4 a gallon just last year is a lot more people were taking transit, a lot more people were interested in these lower-carbon, more fuel-efficient ways of traveling. So I think we have the wind at our backs in terms of providing options for consumers, and I don't think this is fighting an uphill battle to offer them other choices, and I think you'll see a shift in consumer behavior that I think actually has already begun happening, and we'll see more of it in the future.

Monica Trauzzi: How concerned are you that by making all of these improvements, improving efficiency, improving the infrastructure, that increased demand and population will cause emissions to either remain stagnant or continue to climb?

Deron Lovaas: Well, that's why we looked at combinations of measures, the additional infrastructure investment that allows people for more opportunities to travel needs to be complemented by these different pricing measures and by land-use changes and by a host of other measures that are examined in here to make sure that traffic is flowing efficiently and to make sure that people are using more energy-efficient transportation options like public transportation, for example. So there's no conflict between continued economic growth, continued population growth and reducing our emissions from transportation through measures like those studied in the report. In fact, for economics, if we invest a lot more in infrastructure you get a 2-to-1, 3-to-1 or even higher return on that investment. Studies are pretty clear about that, so the additional investments that the report recommends would actually give us more economic growth in the future, not less.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there. Thanks for coming on the show.

Deron Lovaas: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.



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