November 14, 1992
President Bill Clinton
Vice President Al Gore
112 West 3rd Street
P.O. Box 8802
Little Rock, Arkansas 72231
Re: Road Building -- A Big Mistake!
You seem poised to make a grave mistake -- pour more money into road and highway construction. I agree that the economy needs a boost, and that infrastructure is important, but the internal combustion engine is a dead end. We shouldn't pour more good money after bad.
Walking, bicycling, and public transit (especially rail transit) are the only way out of our current environmental and economic morass. If this isn't obvious, consider the following:
Air pollution is destroying the quality of our lives, as well as many of our economic resources, such as our crops and wildlife.
Global warming threatens our economy, our ability to feed ourselves, and many of the species that make up our world. The automobile is the major cause, in the U.S.
Ozone depletion (caused mostly, in the U.S., by auto air conditioners) threatens, and has already initiated, an epidemic of skin cancer, blindness, etc.
Roads are the major factor allowing wildlife to be killed, habitat to be destroyed, logging, mining, and other unsustainable environmental destruction.
Roads cover precious farmland and desirable living space. Freeways destroy the quality of life for everyone who live nearby (or get displaced by their construction).
The construction of mass transit facilities makes far more efficient use of resources than does road construction. One rail line can carry the equivalent of several highway lanes. Transit construction and operation also creates far more jobs, and higher quality jobs, than does road construction and operation.
Motor vehicles burn up billions of gallons of oil that could be put to far more beneficial use. Experts agree that the U.S. has at most 30-40 years of oil remaining (the world, 50 years). Let's make the best use of that oil: save it for making toothbrushes, medicines, and other beneficial items, rather than squandering it in moving millions of metal boxes around the country for no good reason.
When the oil runs out (technically, there will still be some in the ground, but it will cost more to get it out than it will be worth), we won't have enough fuel to keep many of our vehicles on the road: natural gas burns relatively cleanly, so we need to save it for heating our homes; coal is too dirty and causes acid rain; and of course, nuclear power is too dangerous. There will be considerable pressure to rip out most of the roads we are building and maintaining now, since the traffic won't be great enough to justify maintaining them.
At most, let's simply fill the potholes (that alone will soon be seen as too expensive), while we build an electric transit system that will allow us to keep up with more intelligently planned economies such as those of Japan and Germany, where good transit systems are already in place and well supported. It's no accident that the strongest economies are (and will be even more so in the future) those based on a strong rail transit foundation.
As you travel around the country, notice how many people live and work on top of a hill or far from any town center. These people and businesses are totally dependent on the automobile. When the oil runs out, they and our industry and agriculture will be up a creek! We won't be able to compete with countries that have wisely maintained compact cities organized around rail transit.
If the U.S. continues to pour money down the automobile-dependency rathole, we will end up as a second-rate power with a second-rate lifestyle. Let's turn this folly around before it's too late!
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.