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Drennen Considers Travel Impact

An article on MSN Travel looks at the two Presidential candidates and the impact the outcome of the election will have on how Americans travel. Tom Drennen, associate professor of economics and chair of the environmental studies department, was interviewed for the article as an energy expert.

In looking at McCain’s idea of spurring private investment in transportation by awarding “a $300 million prize for developing the next generation of battery technology for plug-in electric vehicles,” the article cites Drennen as saying it’s not the first time the government has used such incentive – it was done to “motivate the creation of greener refrigerators,” the article says. “It’s very effective at getting companies, universities and individuals competing to build the best new technology,” it quotes Drennen as saying.

A member of the HWS faculty since 1995, Drennen earned a B.S. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Public Affairs from the University of Minnesota, and a Ph.D. in resource economics from Cornell University. In 2006, he received the Hobart and William Smith Excellence in Teaching Award.

Drennen is the author of a new book, “Pathways to a Hydrogen Future,” which seeks to untangle competing visions of a hydrogen economy, explain the trade-offs and obstacles, and offer recommendations for a path forward. The results are based on “The Hydrogen Futures Simulation Model,” developed at Sandia National Laboratories, where he is senior economist.

The full article on the candidates’ potential impact on travel appears below.


MSN Travel
“Would Obama or McCain be Better for Travelers?”
John Rosenthal • October 2008

The 2008 presidential election will have a significant impact on how Americans travel in the future. Here’s how the two candidates stack up on a range of transportation issues.

Consumer travel doesn’t usually get a lot of press in presidential election years. The nominees of the two major parties typically rank transportation in about the same place as the Oval Office does: slightly above energy and slightly below housing and urban development.

But with travel and security now inextricably entwined, and with more people flying than ever, issues that affect the way we move around the U.S. are taking on paramount importance. For many Americans, travel is not a luxury, but merely the way we get over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. We’re all affected when oil prices cause airfares to skyrocket or when restrictions on traveling violate our civil liberties. And we all feel the congestion on our roadways when airport hassles and delays persuade more people to drive distances that are no longer efficient or economical to travel by plane.

Moreover, because transportation is also linked to other hot-button issues such as energy policy, investment in green technology and the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, it’s useful to examine the two presidential candidates’ positions, with an eye toward how they would affect the travel experience of Americans.

Where do McCain and Obama stand?

Neither campaign was forthcoming about its candidate’s policies on a range of travel-related issues, including airport congestion, our antiquated air traffic control system, highway safety, declining international visits to the U.S., or the increasing number of hassles that now accompany flying and cross-border travel. Democrat Barack Obama’s camp answered some of our questions, while Republican John McCain’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for information.

More than one transportation expert we interviewed suggested that might be a sign that McCain has given little thought to transportation issues.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence that McCain has any policy whatsoever regarding transportation,” said George Donohue, director of the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “He’s been chair of the Senate Commerce Committee for a long time and should know these issues in some depth.”

Robert Puentes, who created the transportation policy index for the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said he too has a hard time discerning McCain’s platform. “Obama has been talking about a range of different proposals … from an infrastructure bank to energy independence to rail investments to upgrading the air traffic control system,” said Puentes, while McCain has talked about eliminating transportation pork, “but not much more than that.”

Energy-efficient alternatives

By examining their voting records and public statements, it’s possible to learn more about the two candidates’ policies. Both candidates, for example, support increasing fuel-economy standards for automobiles, adopting programs to cap and trade carbon emissions and enacting measures to prevent rampant speculation on oil prices.

But they disagree strongly on rail transportation. In fact, on this issue, the battle lines couldn’t be more clearly drawn. On one side is McCain, a former naval aviator who for 26 years has represented Arizona, whose transportation needs are served almost entirely by federally funded highways and airports. Throughout his Senate career, McCain has not supported rail transportation, voting on numerous occasions to reduce federal funding for Amtrak. His running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, is the wife of a pilot and travels through her home state primarily by small plane.

On the other side is Obama, whose Chicago constituency is well-served by subways, light rail and long-haul passenger trains. Obama favors investment in high-speed rail transportation as an energy-efficient alternative to air and highway travel, especially in densely populated corridors like the Midwest, the Eastern seaboard and California. And Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, is suddenly the nation’s most famous Amtrak passenger.

“All of these cities … they basically take in the air about 45 minutes to an hour to fly,” Obama told a Youngstown, Ohio, crowd on Aug. 5. “But by the time you get to the airport, take off your shoes, get to the terminal, realize that your flight’s been delayed two hours … get on the plane, you’re sitting on the tarmac for another 25 minutes, you finally take off, you’re circling above the city for another half-hour, when you land they can’t find your luggage, and then you get to where you’re going – by the time it’s all done it’s a five-hour trip! So the time is right now for us to start thinking about high-speed rail as an alternative to air transportation, connecting all these cities and think about what a great project that would be in terms of rebuilding America.”

Obama proposes creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand federal support for transportation projects. High-speed rail, already a reality in Europe and Asia, whisking passengers at speeds of up to 250 mph, is likely to be one such project receiving funding under an Obama presidency.

McCain hopes to spur private investment in transportation as well, by awarding a $300 million prize for developing the next generation of battery technology for plug-in electric vehicles. It’s an idea the government has used in the past to motivate the creation of greener refrigerators, says Thomas Drennen, associate professor of economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. “It’s very effective at getting companies, universities and individuals competing to build the best new technology.”

Will Cuba’s borders open up?

The two candidates also disagree on travel to Cuba, which has become much more restricted since 2004, when the Bush administration reduced the number of visas issued for religious and educational purposes, and lowered the amount of money Cuban-Americans could send to relatives back home. The new rules also cut the frequency with which Americans could visit blood relatives in Cuba, from annually to once every three years. (Most U.S. citizens are not allowed to visit Cuba as a result of a half-century-long economic embargo against the country.)

McCain supports the 2004 restrictions. In a speech in Miami in May, he said he would not lift the economic embargo against Cuba until the government released all political prisoners, legalized all political parties, endorsed a free press and scheduled internationally monitored elections.

Obama, meanwhile, proposes rolling back the 2004 restrictions and allowing unlimited travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, calling them “our best ambassadors of freedom.”

“It’s time for more than tough talk that never yields results,” Obama said in a May 23 speech in Miami. “It’s time for a new strategy.”

Why travel matters

Even after they’re elected, America’s chief executives have usually treated transportation policy as an afterthought. Perhaps not since Dwight D. Eisenhower and the creation of the interstate highway system has a president put his stamp on the nation’s transportation network.

“Travel issues haven’t amounted to much on the landscape in previous elections, says Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of public affairs for the Travel Industry Association. In general, when the economy is good, people have more discretionary income to travel, and the industry as a whole benefits. When times are lean, money for airfare, hotels and theme parks gets spent on food and clothing.

But even in today’s economic climate, more and more people are flying out of necessity. Freeman says travel has become “such an integral part of our economy that Washington has to address it.”

With difficult problems to face both at home and abroad, travel concerns may not be at the forefront of the next president’s agenda – or at the top of voters’ minds. But how the candidates plan to deal with these issues will have a significant impact on how you travel in the years to come.

John Rosenthal, a frequent contributor to MSN Travel who’s based in Santa Monica, Calif., hopes the next president will overturn the liquid ban at airports.