Electric vehicles or mass transit -- which option will lead to a more sustainable future? Follow the money in the U.S. and it looks like federal favoritism leans toward electric vehicles, even though improved mass transit would make the nation more competitive and cleaner.
The allocation of federal spending in both the 2010 budget and the economic recovery act shows where the weight of current policy thinking is in the U.S. There's an allocation of $2.4 billion in stimulus funds for developing the plug-in infrastructure electric vehicles are going to need. There's also $8.3 billion available to electric vehicle manufacturers through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, and another $30 billion for improving or building roads and bridges -- to keep them fit for automotive travel.
Mass transit, on the other hand, got a total of $13 billion. Which begs the question: Do the hype and money going into EVs equate to a commitment from the government to an automobile-dominated future?
Comparing where the recent emphasis has been on government spending in the US versus China is an eye-opening exercise. The long-term future starts to come into view.
Marc Geller, co-founder of Plug-In America, says it doesn’t have to be an either or scenario. While greater support for mass transit, and better land use policies to make it accessible are both essential, he says the automobile isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so we need to look at making it less polluting.
“We have created a nation that is dependent, for the foreseeable future, upon the automobile,” he says. “And the world’s inhabitants aspire to automobile ownership. China has opened up high-speed rail lines while the U.S. ponders. Yet, simultaneously, China has overtaken the U.S. in the number of automobiles sold annually.”
What about high-speed rail?
But there may be more to it than that. Automobile sales are skyrocketing in China indeed, but it is also true that the country leads the world in high-speed rail, with 4000 kilometers already built. The Chinese government is plowing far more money into building out 16,000 kilometers of high-speed track than it is spending on roads or a plug-in infrastructure for electric vehicles.
China’s full high-speed rail system is scheduled for completion by 2020 and will cost $300 billion, and at the same time, the government is instituting tighter auto emissions restrictions and providing incentives for hybrid and electric vehicles.
In the United States, high-speed rail got the largest chunk of the stimulus funding earmarked for mass transit, but it amounts to a relatively paltry $8 billion spread across three systems in California, Florida and Illinois. To put that amount in perspective, consider that the total projected cost of the California high-speed rail system alone is $42.6 to $45 billion. More importantly, not all of the $8 billion has ended up going to high-speed rail projects after all.
“Over the course of many pieces of legislation, billions of dollars have been directed toward the intention of implementing a high-speed-rail infrastructure,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wrote in a recent opinion piece. “But most of the money has gone to subsidizing the sub-par system already in place.”
Young added that billions in stimulus funding that were to go to high-speed rail have gone instead toward maintenance of the country’s existing train network.
“As a country that is currently beholden to foreign countries for its oil supply, [reducing our oil needs] should serve as an incentive,” Young concluded. “Additionally, though some may worry about the high costs of implementing such a system, high-speed rail represents the kind of long-term infrastructure investment that pays dividends for decades.”
Where’s the DOE money going?