Sunday, August 21, 2011

For the 12-year PennDOT plan

This is my submission to PennDOT's 12-year long-range plan.

* * *

My comments more concern policy than any particular project. Since the stated purpose of the transportation program is "to produce and maintain a more efficient and effective transportation system that facilitates the movement of people and goods," (1) looking forward 12 years, long-range policy will be my focus. Large policy changes require many years to bring about, but have to start somewhere. I hope, right here.

For three generations, at least, we have built roads: more roads, big roads, wider roads. Always, we expected that more, bigger, wider roads will bring about that efficient, effective transportation system we care so much about. Always, we expected that fuel will be plentiful and inexpensive. Pennsylvania, birthplace of the petroleum industry. And ribbon cuttings are fun! Are you with me so far?

That's changing.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) is the part of our federal Department of Energy which functions as our watchdog for energy supply. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is a consortium of 28 countries' watchdog agencies on energy supplies. Each produces an annual report predicting future petroleum supply. Also, for well over 10 years, various conservationists and other tree-huggers have warned of the possibility of "peak oil" (2), the idea that our ability (every country, collectively) to produce oil would reach a peak. Many, including both the EIA and IEA, ignored or debunked these concerns. That has changed. In 2010, both the EIA (3) and IEA (4) said not only that peak oil is a possibility, but that it has already happened.

We may not be running out of oil anytime soon, but we cannot pull it out of the ground any faster.

However, developing countries like China, India and Singapore are adding huge numbers of cars to the world fleet, 10 to 20 million a year (5). Understanding what will happen as a result does not require a college degree: Flat to declining supply, increasing demand. Over the long term -- say, the 10 to 12+ years of this PennDOT plan -- fuel prices will rise. Sure, you can drill as many wells you care to in the Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands, etc., but that only stabilizes supply, and only for a few years. We have no control at all over world petroleum demand.

Fuel prices tripled from 30 cents a gallon in 1970 to $1 in 1980, and tripled again between 2001 ($1.30) and today's close to $4. If fuel realistically can approach $12/gallon in today's dollars, unquestionably people are going to drive less. Suburban expansion will cease. Freight shipment via interurban trucking will become less cost-effective. We will no longer require continued expansion of interurban and intra-suburban roads, as we've done for the last 65 years.

The game is changing. Do not deny this.

Policy changes requested:
(A) Stop building big roads, and stop widening existing highways.
(B) Concentrate instead on fixing the existing infrastructure.
(C) Make it possible to get around using anything but a car.

It is your job to set policy recommendations. The status quo of the last three generations cannot be expected to continue. Long-term changes have to start somewhere, sometime. Here and now would be wise.

Thank you for listening.

Stuart M. Strickland

(2) Udall, Randy. "When Will the Joy Ride End? (1999)"
(3) "EIA: Hard Core Peak Oil Forecast"
(4) "International Energy Agency says 'peak oil' has hit."
(5) "China contributes nearly half of global auto increase last year"