Transportation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Nationally, nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions are released from transportation-related activities (see figure below). Since 1990, transportation-related emissions have grown by more than 18 percent. Over 50 percent of emissions from the transportation sector come from private vehicles such as passenger cars, SUVs, small trucks, and minivans. Freight trucks account for 22 percent of emissions, followed by other transport types, including aircraft, ships and boats, and rail. The rapid increase in transportation related emissions can be attributed largely to the ubiquity of the automobile. Since the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate System in the 1960s, Americans have driven nearly three trillion miles each year. At the same time, freight trucking has also increased. In 2005, trucks carried 70 percent of US domestic cargo by value and 60 percent by volume. More than 90 percent of food is hauled by freight truck. Trucking deregulation over the past 30 years has reshaped the industry, saving shippers and consumers freight charges. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) projects the volume of freight carried by trucks in the US will nearly double by 2035.
Status of Transportation in Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s successful industries, including those in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors, are dependent on a strong transportation system that allows for the free flow of people, produce, goods, and services. Today’s system is focused on highways. This system comes at a price—significant carbon emissions and a network of highways that have eaten into valuable farmlands, wetlands, and forests; created urban and suburban sprawl; increased air pollution; and fragmented wildlife habitat. Wisconsin has invested heavily in its highways over the years, and created a mature road network that now takes hundreds of millions of dollars a year to expand, operate, and maintain (figure below). This has created a largely one-dimensional transportation network that depends on people using cars—and that fosters inefficient, low-density development.
Strategies for Cleaner, Innovative Transportation
Most transportation emissions come from burning gasoline and diesel—which have high levels of CO2 and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions in addition to nitrous oxides and harmful particulate matter. Although the federal government has mandated stricter emission standards for new cars, we must continue to use cleaner fuels to achieve greater carbon emissions reductions. Some public transit fleets have already been retrofitted to run on compressed natural gas; others are increasing the use of electric or hybrid vehicles that are powered by renewable fuel sources and/or using low carbon emission biofuels. The Madison Metro transit system has invested in several hybrid buses that emit less carbon dioxide and use less fuel than conventional buses.
Achieving significant emissions reduction from the transportation sector requires a multi-pronged approach that takes into account where people live and how they are provisioned food and other goods, and the modes of transportation they use to get to work, leisure, and other activities. Most of these seemingly “personal” factors are actually influenced by bigger things such as land-use and zoning regulations, transportation funding decisions, available transportation options, and technology. A transportation network that prepares us for our climate and energy future is one that gives greater priority to the movement of people and goods rather than their vehicles and allows for increased accessibility—backed up by efficient land-use patterns.
Despite best efforts to relieve congestion by building more lanes, congestion continues to be a problem in metro regions where it reduces fuel efficiency, causes drivers daily stress, and is a safety hazard. While truck traffic represents only five percent of total vehicle miles, the freight sector experiences 27 percent of all congestion costs in the form of additional wages, wasted fuel, and missed appointments. Congestion also increases accident risk for truckers, which can result in higher insurance costs, more stressful, dangerous, working conditions for drivers, and high driver turnover.
Even as congestion continues to be a challenge in metro areas, passenger per capita and total VMT have been trending downward. Among urbanized areas across the country, those that include Milwaukee and Madison saw the second and third biggest drops in per capita VMT—21 percent and 18 percent, respectively. The decreasing trend in passenger VMT is likely due to a mix of a slower economy and changing demographic preferences. As Baby Boomers retire, they are expected to have reduced driving needs, and Millennials (born in the early 1980s to early 2000s) are showing a preference for living where they can walk, bike, or take public transportation. These trends aren’t expected to change even as Millennials age (they are driving less now than their parents did at their age). However, our transportation system planning and funding mechanisms are based on an assumption of continued increase in VMT and the need for more highway capacity instead of investments in maintaining infrastructure and developing alternative transportation choices.
For years, we have followed a cycle of expanding highway capacity by adding lanes to alleviate congestion. Research has shown that this is only a short-term solution and even contributes to increased traffic congestion and consequent carbon emissions due to a phenomenon known as induced demand: additional lanes with faster flow attract those who were not considering using a highway in the first place. Soon, the additional lanes are clogged, as before, leading to calls to install even more capacity, and spawning sprawling land-use patterns that are auto-centric and wasteful. There are several examples of this happening in Wisconsin—the Madison Beltline, which was once a four-lane road, is now six lanes and there are renewed plans to expand capacity and even extend it to the north of the city. Wisconsin State Highway 23, connecting Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties, is scheduled to be doubled in size, despite the downward trend in vehicle miles traveled.
Some possible measures to reduce congestion and driving are to install carpool lanes, support ride-sharing programs, increase the frequency of public transit service on heavily trafficked routes, encourage work-from-home initiatives, and implement congestion pricing, such as a road toll for travel at peak times. Public transit has consistently been proven to reduce traffic volume, and is more environmentally efficient than driving. Investing in a strong, public, high-quality transportation system will expand transportation choices, encourage a large-scale change in travel behavior, and motivate people to drive less.
Reduced funding for public transit, such as bus systems, over the last decade, has led to route cuts and limited many people’s access to jobs, schools, hospital visits, and leisure opportunities. Although transit funding has not been fully restored, transit demand in Wisconsin remains strong—with several bus systems in Wisconsin posting record ridership numbers over the last two years.
The creation of Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) would enable communities to generate funding for public transit through sales taxes for the maintenance and operation of transit systems that connect cities, towns, and villages, and can be sustained amidst ups and downs (or uncertainties) in state or federal funding. Such systems are especially important in Wisconsin with its large but dispersed rural population, which is currently almost entirely dependent upon autos.
Transportation engineers often design to the highest levels of their code books—in the mistaken belief that wider and faster highways help prevent crashes. This has led to several over-designed systems that are used during peak rush hours but remain empty during the rest of the day.
Recent research, however, shows that there is no statistically significant correlation between highway widths and automobile accidents. Instead, highways that are designed to fit in with existing natural features enable drivers to use these “contextual cues” to navigate, resulting in lower crash rates. They are also more environmentally friendly as they do not require large areas of clear-spaces for oversized shoulders or lanes. In addition, we must continue augmenting highway corridors to allow for multimodal use—such as bike lanes, public transit lanes, and pedestrian facilities—that reduce dependence on cars and encourage more environmentally sustainable uses.
Already, Wisconsin’s Pedestrian and Bike Accommodation Law, passed in 2009, requires the inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle facilities in new road construction or road reconstruction where state and federal transportation funds are used. The law aims to ensure the creation of “complete streets” where pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit users of all ages and abilities are able to safely and comfortably move along and across a street. As this approach takes hold, it will provide children, the elderly, the economically disadvantaged, the disabled and those unable to drive—who have little or no access to the state’s car-based transportation system—other ways to get to goods, services, work, and school.
Complete streets laws, which often include construction of sidewalks, also foster decreased driving and reduced emissions. A 2009 survey found that 39 percent of all trips in metropolitan areas are no longer than three miles, and 17 percent of all trips are no longer than one mile. Many of these trips could be made on bike or foot if one could do it safely—and complete streets legislation allows for the necessary infrastructure to support these options.
After decades of neglect, intermodal freight service, especially for domestic shipping, is rapidly growing. “Intermodal” refers to freight that can be easily transferred from one transport mode to another, such as a container ship or barge to rail car or flat-bed truck. The increased popularity of intermodal is, in part, a response to increased fuel prices, truck driver turnover, highway congestion, and increased regulation of freight trucking.
In Europe, the break-even point for miles between intermodal terminals is between 250 and 600 miles; in the US it falls between 500 and 1000 miles. Increasing the intermodal service in rural areas in the US is a challenge, particularly with recent unprecedented growth in rail’s portion of intermodal freight movements taxing the capacity of rail networks. Even with railroads currently investing billions of dollars in capital improvement and rolling stock, rail lines in many Midwest locations are at or near capacity. Railroads are reluctant to build new infrastructure without long-term contracts from shippers that ensure an adequate return on investment.
One solution is to encourage major shippers in the region to take the lead in anchoring rural terminals. An example of this is Menard’s, a home improvement business headquartered in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, that operates 285 stores in 14 states. Menards has taken the lead as a dedicated intermodal shipper in the Chippewa Falls–Eau Claire metro area. It guarantees sufficient cargo volume to support this rural intermodal terminal.
Recent studies show that marine transportation has the lowest energy consumption, air emissions, and social costs of all modes of transportation. Marine transportation has significant positive environmental and economic benefits for Wisconsin. Hundreds of millions of tons of cargo move on the Great Lakes and Mississippi River as part of Wisconsin’s marine transportation system (MTS). Wisconsin’s commercial ports handle over 30 million tons of cargo a year, and the Lake Michigan ferries transport thousands of passengers for an economic impact in the billions of dollars. Existing and future Wisconsin rail and highway systems could not accommodate the waterborne freight if there were an MTS system failure. The Wisconsin MTS has the potential to move even more cargo and passengers with minimal cost by upgrading river locks and other infrastructure. The Baltic region, which has weather and water conditions similar to Wisconsin’s, uses its marine transportation system to a far greater extent as an alternative to road and rail.
In an effort to reduce air emissions associated with marine transport, the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute (GLMRI), a consortium of the University of Wisconsin–Superior and the University of Minnesota–Duluth, has been working with the US Maritime Administration and industry to convert Great Lakes vessels from heavy fuel oil to natural gas. GLMRI has prepared feasibility studies for steam vessels. They have brought international experts on natural gas fueling of vessels to public meetings in Wisconsin and Ohio. GLMRI is working with development agencies in Wisconsin and Minnesota to establish natural gas liquefaction plants to provide LNG for multiple user groups. Interlake Steamship Company, which makes regular vessel calls at Wisconsin ports, has announced plans to convert vessels to LNG fuel.