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Driven to Despair

Aug 19, 2008
Americans drove nearly 10 billion fewer miles in May 2008 than they did in May 2007.1 We still burned through a goodly pot of nonrenewable energy driving 254.7 billion miles. Let’s see, figuring a generous 20 miles to the gallon, that’s around 13 billion gallons—just in May! Our grandchildren are going to be appalled at our profligacy.

Meanwhile, what should be cause for some celebration has suddenly morphed into an accompanying catastrophe. In an article on Stateline.org, we learn that “States worry about dwindling road funds.” States use funds from gasoline taxes to pay for road, rail, and bridge work, sometimes supplementing those funds with taxes from new car sales. With both driving and new car sales down, their departments of transportation are beginning to feel—in the immortal words of Tom Lehrer—like Christian Scientists with appendicitis. The panic that has set in has reached Congress, where they are trying to grab $8 billion from the General Fund to make up a shortfall in this year’s Highway Trust Fund. Bush, of course, is opposed, as he is opposed to all measures to benefit anyone but America’s wealthiest. Key interest groups, such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, say 400,000 jobs could be at stake should funding expected from Washington be delayed.

This “perfect storm” of bad news for the transportation sector strikes me as a golden opportunity. Higher gasoline prices have done what no amount of palaver, handwringing, and fancy think tank reports have been able to accomplish—we’re driving less, carpooling and busing more, and buying smaller, more energy-efficient vehicles. And what’s happened because of that in the last couple of weeks? The price of gas has plummeted. Hip-Hip Hooray! Now let’s keep up the momentum, and raise federal and state gasoline taxes proportionally to a sufficient level to fund our infrastructure maintenance. This will keep the price of gasoline up there around $4 a gallon; people will, at that rate, continue to drive less and make smarter new car purchases; and the price of gasoline may be stabilized—right at that threshold of pain that encourages us to do the right thing.

And out of a perfect storm of bad news comes a bright new day. Whaddaya say, Barack?

Update: We dropped even more miles in June, driving 12.2 billion miles less—a 4.7 percent decline—from June 2007.2
1Nearly 10 Billion Fewer Miles Driven in May 2008 Than May 2007, U.S. Department of Transportation (Accessed August 12, 2008)
2Fewer Americans hit the road in June, by Martin Zimmerman in the LA Times, August 14, 2008 (Accessed August 14, 2008)
tags: Oil and Gasoline | Transportation

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