The reasonable road to a clean environment: Avoiding policy potholes

In addition to energy development, transportation policy is another illustration of the damage that radical environmental thinking does to people’s lives and the hope that conservative environmentalism brings for crafting reasonable solutions to environmental problems. And no area illustrates radical environmental transportation policy better than Portland, Ore.

Portland has a long history of, among other things, being the centerpiece for “environmentally friendly” urban growth and transportation policies – sometimes referred to as “smart growth.” In the 1970s, the Oregon State Legislature passed a law establishing stringent restrictions on urban growth. Portland city officials immediately jumped on board with the radical environmental thinking behind this “urban growth boundary” law and began canceling road construction and maintenance projects in favor of public transit projects like light rail (e.g.,  Utah’s TRAX system is a light-rail system).

What has decades of such “eco-friendly” thinking and policy produced for Portland residents? Recently, a local Oregon newspaper chronicled the pathetic state of Portland’s crumbling road system – a city assessment found that nearly half of neighborhood streets and more than a quarter of major roads are in “poor” or “very poor” condition – and the reasons behind its sorry state of affairs. Further, in the face of this dramatic need for road repairs, the Portland Transportation Bureau recently decided to put off any major road paving until “at least” 2017, and the city cut its road services budget (e.g., bridge monitoring, street cleaning, etc.) by $15 million.

City officials blame “an ever-shrinking number of dollars” but, as the newspaper notes, the Transportation Bureau expected to have more discretionary funds than ever, and city evidently had enough funds to spend millions of taxpayer dollars building new bike routes, hiring employees to oversee streetcars, and helping sponsor a “Rail-Volution” conference in California. Bad fiscal management is partly to blame, but behind that poor management was the real culprit, driven by radical environmental thinking: “an intentional shift away from a ‘roads first’ focus.”

The head of Portland’s Transportation Bureau told the newspaper that putting roads first in its transportation policy would be “shortsighted.” Hence, despite the fact that two-thirds of Portland residents in surveys reported “driving alone” as their main form of travel, compared with five percent who report using a bicycle, bureau staff spent only 32 percent of their staff project hours on passenger vehicle-related projects and 11 percent on bike-related projects.

While for most reasonable people this discrepancy would suggest that Portland is not properly serving its residents, in the radical environmentalist mind this is just the right thing to do. After all, from the radical environmentalist perspective, the transportation problem that needs solving is not the poor condition of the roads, but people’s pesky, stubborn desire to drive their air-polluting car. In other words, the people who should be served by the Transportation Bureau are, in fact, the problem.

From this perspective, Portland’s public transit and other “eco-friendly” modes of travel are what cannot be jeopardized, and if that means sacrificing the well-being and even the safety of drivers due to dilapidated roads, so be it. In fact, letting the roads crumble may even have a net-positive effect if it forces people out of their cars and onto sidewalks, bikes, buses and trains. As the mayor of Portland said, “We’ve worked really hard to prioritize our resources.”

Conservative environmentalism, on the other hand, recognizes and respects the reality that not only do most people prefer their car as the way to travel, but that doing so often allows them greater opportunities to move up economically and improve their lives via the free market. A good system of roads allows people the chance to affordably improve their living standards by purchasing a home outside the (usually more expensive) urban areas – in the suburbs or “exurbs” – while being able to commute to work. Further, a good road system allows people the freedom to get the best job possible, rather than be tied down to only those jobs within a reasonable distance of the light-rail line.

This is not to say that conservative environmental thinking leaves no room for a public transportation system. In areas where a train system makes sense, has a reasonable cost, and can actually improve people’s lives, it is worth considering. But short of some extreme and immediate set of mitigating circumstances (e.g., excessive population density making large-scale automobile travel unreasonable), to prioritize a public transit system over the mode of transportation that the vast majority of people use and prefer for their economic well-being is a radical idea that, as Portland illustrates, only makes people’s lives more unlivable and lacks a reasonable, reality-based justification.

Environmental problems like air pollution from cars can be addressed, and are being addressed, with more reasonable policies, grounded in conservative environmental thinking, than those that seek to obtain a radical, unrealistic fantasy by controlling the minutiae of people’s lives (usually to their detriment). Establishing reasonable rules and regulations on automobile emissions, and then getting government out of the way of the free market, is an example that has brought Utah and the federal government some success in limiting air pollution from cars. Governor Herbert’s voluntary UCAIR initiative is another example of conservative environmentalism in action in regards to the issue of air pollution.

If Utah policymakers pursue transportation and environmental policies that view people as the solution and are grounded in principles such as limited government, personal responsibility, and the free market, Utahns will not only continue to see their opportunities for prosperity multiply, but they’ll enjoy a better environment as well.