By Michael A. Rivlin
AAA "Good Roads" official, 1912
© CORBIS, A.L. Westgard, 1912
I'm a member of AAA. I've belonged for years. They've towed me from the scene of a wreck.
And jump-started the wrecks I usually drive. AAA -- it dropped the name American Automobile Association a couple of years ago -- is my friend on the road and the purported voice of all us American motorists, the self-styled "traveler's champion," the trusted folks 43 million people rely on for maps, insurance, and all things related to travel. It is the second largest membership organization in the country. The only thing bigger is the Catholic Church.
So why do I feel sheepish admitting that I belong?
Because, using its members as collateral, AAA, its local affiliates, and its partners work to influence national law and policy, and not to the good of the planet. AAA weighs in on highway funding, suburban sprawl, mass transit, car design and safety, air pollution, and global warming. Almost without exception, critics say, it advocates policies that damage the environment and endanger health.
"A lot of people belong to AAA because they think it's a nice place to get Triptiks and traveler's checks," says Daniel Becker, director of Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "What they don't know is that AAA is a lobbyist for more roads, more pollution, and more gas guzzling."
When AAA was founded in 1902, its main business was putting up road signs. Then it started advocating construction of more and better roads. Eventually, it was lobbying in support of the interstate highway system. All the while, AAA was building its franchise, along with the insurance businesses operated by executives of many of the eighty-five independent clubs that make up the AAA federation.
But as America turned its attention to environmental problems, AAA started lobbying to keep the funds raised through gas taxes and tolls -- funds once used exclusively for highway construction -- from being stolen away for public transit or land conservation. Eventually, its mission expanded to the point where the organization was promoting a full-scale transportation policy agenda, one that brings it into direct and frequent conflict with environmentalists.
For example, AAA weighed in against the 1990 Clean Air Act, one of the most important environmental laws of the decade. A press release from its government and public affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., claimed that the bill would "threaten the personal mobility of millions of Americans and jeopardize needed funds for new highway construction and safety improvements."
When New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman proposed raising the state gasoline tax by 7 cents a gallon in 1998, in part for land conservation, the New Jersey AAA affiliate voiced opposition to any gas tax hike. Pamela Fischer, a spokeswoman, told the Associated Press, "Yeah, I'd like to preserve open spaces, but I'm a motorist."
On the subject of highway congestion, AAA can be found on the opposite side of the fence from both environmentalists and urban planners. In recent years, land-use planners have asserted that new roads actually worsen congestion because they open up more land to real estate development, which in turn puts still more cars on the roads. But AAA's position has not substantially changed from the late 1980s. It argues that bottlenecks are a major cause of automobile pollution -- so more roads must be built to eliminate them. Its 1988 "six-point strategy" for relieving congestion relied principally on new highways and outer loops around metropolitan areas. Twelve years and many miles of new road later, with congestion so bad that "road rage" is now part of the national vocabulary, AAA's byword is still "increased roadway capacity." Comments Paul Billings of the American Lung Association, "Building more roads to solve an air pollution problem is like buying a larger pair of pants to solve an obesity problem."
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Michael A. Rivlin's (email@example.com) geriatric Toyota Camry is expertly cared for by Walter Corcoran and Tom Kelly-owners of the AAA-approved Complete Tire & Auto, in Hazlet, New Jersey. This article was made possible by NRDC's Josephine Patterson Albright Fund for Investigative Journalism.
The Amicus Journal. Winter 2001
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council
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