With gasoline prices on the rise, reporters are asking almost daily what our national office holders are doing about pain at the pump. Voters are upset that their transportation costs keep going up, and rightly so—as President Obama recently put it, “when prices spike on the world market, it’s like a tax. It’s like somebody is going into your pocket.”
At Fresh Energy, we don’t think tough energy questions should be limited to federal decision makers. Elected officials at the state and local level should also play a role in reducing the burden that high gas prices impose on voters.
Don’t get me wrong. Like the President, there is little that state and local officials can do to significantly reduce the price per gallon—oil prices are set by global supply and demand—and the fastest changing part of that equation, foreign demand, looks set to drive price increases from here on out. So vulnerability to high gas prices is a long-term problem, requiring long-term solutions.
What can state and local officials do to help us get around without buying so many expensive gallons of gas?
SUGGESTION 1: INCLUDE SOUTHWEST LIGHT RAIL IN 2012 BONDING BILL
Here in Minnesota, state legislators can keep the Southwest Light Rail Line on track for its 2017 opening by including the project in this year’s bonding bill.
The planned 15-mile line is expected to carry 30,000 riders a day by 2030—that’s more than 10 million riders annually. It will connect commuters to job centers in Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hopkins, St. Louis Park, downtown Minneapolis and (via the Central Corridor line now under construction) downtown St. Paul.
Light rail transit is not only more energy efficient than car travel, it also uses cleaner fuel: electricity. Assuming the average Southwest commuter rides five miles per trip, the line would enable Minnesotans to travel 50 million miles a year without buying a single drop of gas.
On the other hand, failure to dedicate state bonding this year could delay the line for two years, necessitating the purchase of 100 million miles’ worth of gasoline. Even worse, delay could cause the project to lose its place in line for federal funding and forfeit the 50 percent federal match currently on offer.
SUGGESTION 2: INCREASE LOCATION EFFICIENCY
At the regional level, the Metropolitan Council (the appointed body responsible for large-scale land use planning) can move away from subsidies that promote urban sprawl and instead work to increase location efficiency—the efficiency we gain by being able to walk or bus to work and shopping. Adopting an explicit vehicle miles traveled reduction goal and integrating transportation, housing, and land-use decision making would allow residents to get where they need to go faster, at a lower cost, with more options.
SUGGESTION 3: ADVANCE COMPLETE STREETS
At the city and county level, elected officials can adopt and implement Complete Streets policies, a key step toward making streets safer and more attractive for biking and walking. Apart from reducing gasoline dependence, such steps also produce large social returns on investment and a distinctive sense of place.
State and local governments can’t reduce our collective oil dependence overnight, it’s true. But the sooner they start on that mission, the better. And they can start today.
YOUR TURN: DRIVE LESS
In the meantime, each of us can help make a difference by reducing our driving even a little bit. A recent survey found that 67 percent of Americans have already taken steps to save gasoline such as buying a car with better gas mileage or changing their driving behavior.
Perhaps Americans are heeding the words of noted environmentalist* Bill O’Reilly back in 2008: “If Americans want lower gas prices, cut back, sell those SUVs, ride a bike when you can” (video courtesy of Media Matters):