I spent last Tuesday night sprawled out in a Dallas hotel, watching the president's State of the Union address. I believe one can live a happier life, if one is only willing to lower one's expectations, and it was in that mood that I found myself that evening. A room-service cheeseburger, a couple of brews, and no expectations regarding our hapless decider-in-chief.

I'm fibbing a bit. I'd tuned in because there was something about which I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear what the president was going to say about energy. After all, it was just last year that I, in another hotel room in another city, heard him scold us on our addiction to oil.

This year I'd heard rumors that something just as portentous was afoot.

He didn't fail to deliver.

State of the Union

The president called for a 20 percent reduction in the nation's gasoline consumption, and in just 10 short years. A remarkable mandate, given that the nation's population is scheduled to increase by over 10 percent in the same period.

Thirty million more people and we'll still manage to cut our gasoline consumption by a fifth. Impressive.

Of course, the president didn't outline how that reduction would be accomplished. But then, that's not his job, and even if it were, the State of the Union address is hardly the proper venue to get into the details. As we say in my line of work, the actual implementation of the president's vision will be taken offline.

It's his job to set the tone. It's the rest of our jobs to execute.

Git 'er Done

Twenty years ago, during the heyday of the Reagan administration, state and local governments got a hold of a new kind of Kool-Aid. When drunk, it made them understand that economic success would be guaranteed if only governments stopped acting so much like governments and started acting more like businesses.

The chant was "streamlining," code for "get rid of the deliberative process." Government had to become more efficient, and the best way to get more efficient was to become less accountable.

Less discussion, more action.

In that spirit, Indiana in the 1980s authorized county governments to establish various "economic development" commissions. These commissions, peopled by appointed bureaucrats, would assume some of the duties, and many of the powers, previously held by elected officials.

Thereby taking politics out of the business of government. Things could now "get done."

More of the same

Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of one of those commissions, Monroe County's five-member Redevelopment Commission. The best way to think about the Redevelopment Commission is as a kind of parallel fiscal body, like the County Council, that decides how, and on what, your property tax dollars will be spent.

Except that, unlike County Council members, Redevelopment Commissioners aren't elected and thus aren't subject to the political considerations of their decisions.

It's just more efficient that way.

In the meeting I attended, the Redevelopment Commission was deliberating whether or not to appropriate the property taxes generated in a particular area (the area around S.R. 37 and Fullerton Pike).

Why? To fund an "improvement" (the language of these things is never value-neutral) of Fullerton Pike through Gordon and Rhorer roads. How is a road "improved?" It's made wider, or straighter, to better accommodate exclusively automotive traffic.

For years, there's been a vision among some in the community for a beltway around Bloomington. I've seen the planning pictures of what it might look like, wrapping from south of town along Sare Road, arcing north by Wal-Mart to the airport and then circling around to S.R. 37 along Curry Pike and through Criderville.

Obviously any landowners holding large open lots along the route can expect large increases in the development potential, and thus value, of their land. Indeed, the list of those landowners rolls out all of the usual, well-connected, developer suspects.

On the other hand, any landowners living in their houses along the route are, well, screwed. Unless you're the kind of homeowner that likes looking out their kitchen window at a five-lane beltway.

State of the County

I heard the president say we have to cut down, radically, on gasoline use. But I don't remember hearing any public discussion about the wants, needs, or appropriateness of encircling Bloomington with a five-lane automotive beltway. Has it been part of any local political candidate's platform, and I just happened to miss it?

Of course not. Because these things happen below the public radar.

And that leads me to my conclusion, highlighting the difference between what's happening in the public's conscience, i.e. the president's admonition to work towards reducing our dependence on gasoline, and what happens unconsciously.

In other words, the national mandate be damned. Even in the most progressive county in Indiana, even in a place intellectually best prepared to understand the enormity of the challenge laid out by the president, we're tragically, structurally, stuck hopelessly repeating the mistakes of the past.

Instead of depreciating gasoline-dependent infrastructure, we're increasing it. Business as usual, even for us.

Gregory Travis can be reached at greg@littlebear.com.