I work in a downtown Phoenix office building, where the city’s air pollution is the worst, and every afternoon I get up from my desk to take a 15-minute walk. I usually hike the several stories of our parking garage in order to stay out of the sun. I often pass by the parked cars of my coworkers. Sometimes I like to write “WASH ME” with my finger in the grime on the back windows of their vehicles. It makes the end of my finger filthy black.
I had another air pollution reminder after we had a couple of days of rare rainy weather last week. The air was so clean that I found it remarkable how clearly I could see the surrounding mountains. It reminded me that it had been that way for thousands of years before mankind started generating energy by burning fossil fuels.
Modern urban dwellers have become so used to air pollution that we’ve practically forgotten how bad it is, and what it’s doing to us and our planet. That makes it easier for the corporate oligopolies, and the politicians they control, to distract us from the fact that one of our primary goals should be putting an end to air pollution as soon as possible.
Alex Epstein, the president and founder of a for-profit think-tank called the Center for Industrial Progress, claims he’s seeking to bring about a “new industrial revolution.” The manifesto on his organization’s website claims that, “For the last 40 years, so-called environmentalists have held back industrial progress around the world.”
Epstein also wrote a book titled the The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels wherein he claimed that all recent human progress is the result of the availability of cheap energy generated by fossil fuels. He backs up his theory with statistics showing how the quality of life for people across the globe has dramatically improved in the last couple of centuries – all because economies were powered by fossil fuels.
His clever argument is flawed, however, because he didn’t factor in all of the external costs created by the production of fossil fuel energy. They include respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, mercury contamination in lake waters, acidification of the oceans, depletion and contamination of groundwater aquifers, mountaintop removals, coal miner deaths, crude oil spills, poisonous coal ash spills, destruction of wildlife habitat, and wars in the Middle East. And, of course, there are the enormous problems being caused by climate change.
The environmental regulations that are being imposed by the federal government on the companies that generate energy from fossil fuels are an attempt to internalize these costs by requiring these companies to include them in their retail energy prices, thereby making the prices more accurate and our energy markets more efficient. Therefore, complaints that enactment of these regulations would raise energy prices aren’t true, because these costs are already spread throughout the nation’s economy, instead of being internalized in fossil fuel energy prices – as they should be.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton recently announced the formation of a municipal transportation advisory committee to focus on increasing the public transportation services available to working class and young people by expanding the light rail system and extending bus routes.
The light rail system opened in 2008 and has been a tremendous success. Its ridership has exceeded all expectations. Billions of dollars have been invested in development projects along the rail corridor, and it’s provided transportation for people who can’t afford a car, or don’t want to have to buy one. It’s also helped to reduce air pollution from automobiles.
The goal of the Phoenix committee is to draft a municipal transportation plan that can be sent to the city’s voters to approve a new sales tax to fund its implementation. Although Phoenix has an existing voter-approved transportation sales tax in place as a result of the passage of municipal Proposition 2000 in March, 2000, it expires in 2020 and the revenue it’s generated has fallen short of expectations by about $1 billion due to the Great Recession.
Phoenix also receives transportation funding from a sales tax approved by Maricopa County voters when they passed county Proposition 400 in 2004. But only 17% of this money can be spent on buses, and only 15% on light-rail. The majority of this money, about 57%, must be spent on freeway construction. Loop 303 on the west side of metro Phoenix, however, is almost complete. And the only other local freeway that still needs to be built is the South Mountain Freeway, which will significantly reduce congestion and air pollution on the urban portions of Interstate 10 by allowing commercial truck traffic to bypass downtown Phoenix.
I suggest that another initiative should be drafted to allow more of the Proposition 400 funds to be allocated to alternative transportation. Everybody living and working in Maricopa County would benefit from a better public transportation system, so the burden of paying for it shouldn’t fall disproportionately on Phoenix residents.