Let’s have real debate about transportation fund

Monday, July 19, 2010

From a column by Bill Berry in The Capital Times:

STEVENS POINT — A chorus of voices, orchestrated by the transportation lobby in Wisconsin, is calling for amending the state constitution to prevent raids on the sacred state transportation fund.

Several counties are dancing like good, little puppets, passing resolutions for advisory referendums this fall to pressure legislative candidates. Newspapers have fallen in step with pseudo-patriotic editorials tut-tutting about raids on the transportation fund to support a wobbly state economy.

OK, so let’s have a discussion about the transportation fund. Maybe a constitutional amendment is in order, especially if it addresses the real costs of our transportation system and how to pay for them.

Fortunately, we have new information. The American Public Health Association released a report in May, "The Hidden Health Costs of Transportation.” It addresses how our transportation system contributes to soaring health costs and prevents progress toward improving public health.

Among other things, it notes that U.S. traffic fatalities and injuries remain unacceptably high, about 40,000 a year. Meanwhile, the American Automobile Association says traffic crashes in 85 urban areas cost $164.2 billion a year, roughly $1,051 per person, in 2008.

Jonathan Patz, director of global environmental health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has conducted research that found cutting down on the number of short car trips and reducing the number of miles driven by about 20 percent would save hundreds of lives, avoid hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions, and save billions of dollars in health care costs in the Midwest alone.

Many other costs are often referred to as “hidden,” but they’re really quite visible. They include the toll of physical inactivity, rising asthma and obesity rates in both adults and children, and degraded air quality. In the end, we’re all helping to pay some of those bills.