Thursday, June 26, 2008

A good problem to have

It looks as if we're driving less (at least according to the US Department of Transportation). The more miles people drive, the more tax revenue the DOT collects from gasoline taxes. Here's the part that gets me. The secretary of transportation Mary Peters is saying this is a bad thing because "History shows that we're going to continue to see congested roads while gas tax revenues decline even further."

Hmm, people are driving fewer miles. Fewer miles means fewer cars. Fewer cars means more congestion? I got lost somewhere. To avoid being completely disingenuous a point is also made that people are choosing more fuel efficient cars, which have the potential to keep the number of cars similar while decreasing tax revenue. That's fine, increase the federal gas taxes for private use. It shouldn't have the downside that a private and commercial tax would have (except of course for tourism) and it appeals to me because roads are essentially being subsidized by the worse pollution offenders (thirsty SUVs would pay more per mile than a little smart car). This fits because in addition to cranking out more CO2 emissions, they put far more wear on the road.

Here's my favorite part of this whole discussion. The "walk away price" for gasoline at the pump. Where a consumer decides to not pay and try something else instead. According to the Louisiana Oil & Gas Commission that price is $7.50. I think you'd need to be the mayor of crazy town to think that still holds true. It's obvious that we're at the front edge of the "walk away price" right now. And think about the context too. Our whole life is structured around car travel. For most of us our housing is miles away from where we work and public transportation is not at all convenient. I live right on a free bus route that takes me pretty much door to door I'd say I have to walk a total of about 20 yards, and my travel time is about 15 minutes including wait time. But I'm a huge anomaly and my schedule fits perfectly. The average American commuter is spending about 100 hours a year in their car. So I think given how much of a life change this represents for the average commuter, a 4.3 percent year to year drop in miles driven means the "walk away price" for gas is here right now.

The question is what are we going to do about it? The message from the DOT is blind panic about lost tax revenues for a system that we should be looking towards replacing with public transit options. The message from oil companies is a not so subtle Jedi mind trick "we're not the problem you're looking for . . . move along." Here's my message. This is a fantastic problem to have. Many Republicans have appropriately called this a supply and demand problem and want to start drilling offshore. Well, that takes a fair amount of time--and why would you only work on one side of the equation anyway? Why is increasing supply the answer--how about decreasing the demand. Bush's statements about gas, cars, and the commuter culture being an "American way of life" and status-quo approach to our economy have finally made a decision for us. We can't go indiscriminately drilling in protected areas because it won't help us in time--we have to decrease demand now and the American consumer is starting to do it for us.