Opinion: Don't Sacrifice Transit for Roads

Amid much fanfare, U.S. President Barack Obama has begun rolling out ambitious new economic stimulus measures for the U.S. economy, including a proposal for a new high-speed rail network. The aim behind such plans – less use of carbon-intensive road and air travel – may be admirable, but questions are starting to be raised about its financial wisdom. After all, doesn't America have an existing and long-neglected rail network that could be upgraded rather than building thousands of miles of new tracks to accommodate shiny new trains?

A similar disconnect has dismayed environmentalists in Central and Eastern Europe for years. While environmental groups here acknowledge the need for road improvements and for some well-planned, environmentally sensitive new construction, the facts are indisputable: Over the last 15 years a disproportionate share of transportation spending in Central and Eastern Europe has gone to roads; carbon dioxide emissions from transportation have surged by 35 percent over the last 10 years; and a build-at-all-costs mindset and general disdain for environmental values prevails, aided by opaque procurement and public consultation tendencies.

More generally, but nonetheless still noteworthy, here are the elephants sitting atop the four-wheeled combustion engine:

Railways and other public transportation consume less energy and emit on average three times less carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than cars.

In the case of freight transportation, trains create five times less carbon dioxide emissions per ton-mile than trucks.

Buses and trams use 20 times less scarce urban space per passenger than private cars.

The number of people seriously injured or killed per driven passenger-mile is 10 to 20 times lower for mass transportation than for cars.

One of the few positive legacies of the communist era is the region's public transportation. Yet transit and railways have suffered from chronic underinvestment, leading to higher fares and a lack of funds for improvements. Partly as a result, they have lost ground to cars and trucks. Urban congestion may be rocketing east of Berlin, yet the growing presence of SUVs and "high performance" luxury vehicles on our roads still often registers as an important indicator of progress in the reportage of Western media correspondents when they venture east.

In spite of these trends, the share of freight moved by rail and of passengers riding public transportation is still considerably higher in the new EU states than in the old ones. Central and Eastern Europe still has a chance to make prudent transportation choices where Western Europe got it wrong. And, of course, Western exemplars can show the way. Thanks to careful urban planning, high-quality service, and appropriate pricing, residents of Freiburg, Germany, make 60 percent of their trips by public transportation, cycling, or walking.

How then to reduce noise and air pollution, urban sprawl, and chronic congestion? With the help of smart investment from the EU.

Which is where things get interesting. In the current crisis period, investment in the region has all but dried up, with the exception of the billions of euros available via EU funds, the European Investment Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But the crisis has created understandable pressure to deploy this money quickly, possibly at the expense of good choices. And in this region, environmental and value-for-money considerations tend to get it in the neck first.

Indeed, an analysis done by my organization, CEE Bankwatch Network, of transportation spending by these public funders in recent years has often left us bemused when the carbon trail attached to the bulk of financed projects in the region is set against the EU's official sustainable development strategy. This strategy insists on reducing the growth of transportation and shifting it from road to rail, and modernizing public transportation.

Of the Central and Eastern European EU states' 55 billion euros of union budget money earmarked for transportation from 2007 to 2013, about 55 percent will go for roads. That's twice as much as for rail and more than five times as much for urban transit. The EIB's investments have been even more biased in favor of roads in recent years; about 68 percent of the bank's funding for transportation projects in the region went for road and air travel from 1996 to 2005.


Our most recent map of controversial projects in line for EU and EIB funding identifies 55 that could be done with a lot more consideration for the environment as well as value for money.

Almost a third of the projects on the map involve motorways and expressways, ineptly routed through residential areas or valuable natural sites in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Poland, and Slovakia. The total cost of these problematic road sections is 9.4 billion euros, with the EU funds expected to account for 5.5 billion euros.

Bucking the trends, a major breakthrough in Poland – for the environment and because of the example it could set – was finally realized in late March when the Polish government decided to modify the route of one critical section of the Augustow bypass in northeast Poland, part of the Via Baltica expressway.

The Rospuda Valley is a renowned Natura 2000 site – part of the EU's commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010 that also involves other natural sites across the region threatened by road developments. The valley has been saved thanks primarily to the efforts of Polish environmental groups who strived to uphold EU environmental law in the face of vitriolic attacks.

Although many serious questions regarding the Via Baltica remain, the final acceptance of an alternative for the Augustow bypass should serve as a compelling example of how to reconcile transportation development with nature protection.

All the same, the bigger question of road bias in Central and Eastern European transportation planning remains – as does the amount of time wasted due to national and regional authorities' unwillingness to consider alternative routes that respect environmental law at a much earlier stage. This only leads to aggravation for local communities, though officials are never slow to place the blame on "green" meddlers.

As the Rospuda case illustrates, timely observation of EU law can save taxpayer money as well as inconvenience for affected communities. It also demonstrates that, in light of the emphatic new role for EU financing as part of Europe's economic recovery, countries in this region cannot afford to make reckless investment choices. The European Commission – a key player in the deployment of EU funds – must ensure more transparency and stringent compliance with EU environmental law.

Most of the projects that feature on the recent Bankwatch map have yet to receive funding, which means that the environmental harm and money wastage can still be prevented. Above all, the economic crisis should not be used as a reason for deploying EU money for environmentally unsound, socially unacceptable, and economically dubious projects.

This article is one of a series from the TOL Special Report: Transportation.