High gasoline prices are a wake-up call. They also present us with an opportunity. We can wring our hands and pound our heads against the gas pump. Or we can heed the warning and begin to plan a transportation system for the future.
The world is rapidly changing, and we have to change with it. We should not fear change but direct it to our advantage.
A few realities are now apparent. Gas prices are going to remain high; most experts agree that this is a certainty. We cannot build our way out of congestion; every major city in the nation proves this point. Energy sources are going to change.
Where this will lead is still being determined, but our dependence on fossil fuels contributes to our vulnerability to perverse markets forces, foreign entanglements and terrorist threats.
Global warming will require greatly reduced emissions of greenhouse gases. A 2006 study by Environmental Defense titled "Global Warming on the Road" reminds us that U.S. automobiles and light trucks are responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gases emitted by automobiles globally.
The report's author states, "Cutting greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. automobiles will be critical to any strategy for slowing global warming."
Add to these realities the dramatically increasing cost of highway construction and the conclusion is obvious - we need to re-evaluate our outdated dependence on polluting fossil fuels and never-ending highways.
Some elected officials complain that they are running out of money to build more roads. That could work in our favor.
Building more and more, bigger and bigger highways is no longer practical or necessary. Ever-increasing energy costs have moved more freight onto rail as manufacturers continue to look for ways to cut transportation costs.
Most citizens would welcome efficient public transit options and would pay a reasonable fee for this service. Our creativity and practical expertise can generate new opportunities for moving people and freight.
Some options are ready to be implemented. Public transit must be a major component of future transportation alternatives.
Trains can move many materials and products more efficiently than trucks. Walking and biking paths will become more available in most cities. We can put more Americans to work modernizing our transportation system than into building more highways.
We will continue to drive cars and keep our roads in good repair. But we don't want a system only for the rich, who can afford high gas prices and tolls. We need to build a transportation system that can carry all of us, efficiently and at a reasonable cost.
Research will continue to find alternative fuels and other energy sources. Technological advances will eventually improve fuel efficiency and cut down on emissions. But if we all continue to drive more, these efficiencies will be cancelled out and congestion and pollution will only increase.
And building highways is not going to get cheaper.
The highway construction lobby is stuck in the past. It wants to continue putting all of our transportation eggs into the highway basket.
Politicians conjure up confused schemes to continue building more highways. They want to create many more private toll roads, turning over vital infrastructure to corporations that are more concerned with making a profit than providing a public service.
It also means taking the control of our infrastructure out of the hands of citizens and their elected officials. Other lobbyists want to create more debt for our children by bonding new highway construction.
So, the highway promoters ask, where will the money come from to do all these other things?
For starters, we can reorder our priorities. Not surprisingly, highway builders keep coming up with more reasons to build more highways.
The proposed I-69 extension in Indiana is a case in point. Based on the Indiana Department of Transportation's latest cost figures for one section of the proposed I-69, this one highway will cost at least $4 billion! That is more money than Indiana received from the 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road. How many public transit projects would that fund?
Building I-69 would also continue the degradation of our remaining farmland and forests.
Let's save our farmland for growing food. Let's conserve our forests for the products only they can produce, for the many animals that live there, for their beauty, peace and quiet and for the greenhouse gases they lock up.
We have nothing to lose by admitting we have a problem and that the old answers don't work anymore. Moving into the future with optimism, intelligence and creativity should be our legacy to our children.
We have the opportunity to save our environment, enhance our economy and improve the quality of life in our communities.
Planning and building our new transportation systems will take time and will be expensive. It will take ingenuity and commitment. Not doing so will be much more expensive and ultimately lead to more severe problems for all of us.
Tom Tokarski can be reached at email@example.com.