Leader Blues

Monday, November 19, 2007

TOP STORY >>Metroplan: Road projects in jeopardy

Leader senior staff writer

More efficient cars, wider highways and ethanol production alone won’t alleviate traffic jams and foreign oil dependence or assure a viable future in the global economy, Metroplan Director Jim McKenzie warned Thursday, challenging the area’s Transportation Advisory Council to think bigger in crafting the new long-range plan rather than simply building more highways.

Mass transit and finding new revenues are two of the issues facing the architects of the next long-range transportation plan.
If central Arkansas residents want roads like they’ve become accustomed to, new revenues—probably gasoline taxes—will be required, according to McKenzie. Otherwise, there could be more and more people and more congestion on increasingly in-efficient, decaying roads and bridges.

Because of construction inflation—based in part on rising petroleum costs—already there will not be enough money to widen and build all highways that Metroplan and the state Highway and Transportation Department committed to five years ago in the federally mandated 2030 Long Range Transportation Plan.

Not even completion of the North Belt Freeway or the Hwy. 67/167 widening is assured, McKenzie confirmed Friday.

Both are big-ticket items without funding identified to complete them, and construction inflation is being projected to be two or three times greater than the projected increase in revenues, McKenzie told the board.

“Given the construction costs inflation, it’s certain that there’s not enough money, without new revenues, to do everything on the list,” he said.

A new Federal Highway Administration rule requires that the costs of projects be figured to include inflation, so by 2010, the highway plan must forecast the cost, for instance, of building an on-ramp or a mile of transit track and right-of-way that’s planned for 2035, McKenzie scoffed.

The state Legislature has authorized regional mobility authorities but has yet to give them the authority to raise taxes. Once they do, counties and regions can require that the money they raise be used within their borders, McKenzie said.

State Highway Department analysts have identified $19 billion worth of needs over the next 10 years, but revenues sufficient to pay for only about a quarter of that. Routine maintenance and resurfacing alone would cost twice the $4.4 billion in anticipated revenues, according to McKenzie.

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” said McKenzie, quoting noted futurist Yogi Berra.

“If you double gas prices in real terms, that significantly impacts everything in society,” McKenzie said, including land-use patterns, demand for highways, demand for transit, fuel efficiency for vehicles and work patterns.

“But we have no modeling,” McKenzie said. “Our challenge as planners is to ferret out what would likely change.”

The average American pays roughly $3 a gallon for gasoline and gets about 21 mpg from that gas, he said.

But in Europe, where gas is $6 a gallon, the average vehicle gets 36 miles per gallon and in Japan, where gas is $4 a gallon, vehicles average 31 mpg.

The Thursday meeting, held at Pulaski Technical College, was intended as a heads up for the Transportation Advisory Council, which bears some of the responsibility for updating the 2030 plan by August 2010 into the 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan for central Arkansas.

By 2035, the youngest of the baby boomers will be in their mid seventies and many will not be able to drive, increasing the need for some sort of mass transit, he said.

McKenzie has said in the past that the interstate highway system, started by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, was built out of federal coffers. Since then, the federal government has severely cut highway funds, which states used to depend upon for much of their highway needs.

As gas becomes more expensive, mass transit may become more acceptable to commuters, but without sufficient population density, mass transit is not very cost effective and it takes many years of planning to create a mass-transit system.
Corridors for light rail or dedicated bus service would have to be identified and purchased.

Even if all the farm land in the United States were dedicated to growing corn for ethanol, it would replace only 10 percent of the gas burned in cars and trucks.

McKenzie said some experts think that it takes a gallon of gas to produce a gallon of ethanol, making it an inefficient way to cut dependence on foreign oil.

He quoted a former OPEC official as saying that oil was “too important to burn” for fuel. It is used in making plastics, fertilizer and even important drugs.