Op-ed column: Government at all levels can — should — take steps to help with gas crunch
I’m as mad about high gas prices as the next guy, but what I’m really mad about is the fact that this is a problem we created for ourselves and are doing virtually nothing to solve. And solving it would involve so little sacrifice.
I’m not talking about everyone trading in their gas-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks for fuel-efficient hybrids. Given the state of the economy, I realize few people could afford such a drastic measure. And even if they could, it hardly makes sense to spend thousands, or ten of thousands, on new wheels just to save hundreds (maybe) a year on gasoline.
What I’m talking about, mostly, is motorists — especially the ones who drive those guzzlers — slowing down.
The difference in fuel consumption from driving 55 mph instead of 75 is substantial — 25 percent, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. In fact, this group estimates that if the nation’s speed limits were reduced to 55 mph, we’d save an estimated 1 billion barrels of oil per year — more than our total imports from the Persian Gulf! (Even at 65 mph, the fuel savings would be substantial: 15 percent.)
What would happen if fuel consumption dropped by that much? Prices would surely fall, as a glut developed. But even if they didn’t, we’d be filling up less frequently and thus saving money. Air quality would improve immediately (happy Earth Day!) and the longer-term environmental threat posed by global warming would diminish.
Another benefit from slowing down: Highway fatalities would be reduced.
Enforce the limit
I headed over to Massachusetts for a few days last week and was amazed at how — even with the price of gas at $3.50 per gallon — so few people drive 65. And yet, on the talk-radio show I was listening to the day I got there, practically every caller was grousing about the price of gas and saying nothing could be done!
I’m not holding my breath waiting for the current occupant of the White House to act on this, but state and local officials — who pay occasional lip service to the problem — could surely do more to help out. I’m talking about better highway speed enforcement. Generally, that’s the state police’s responsibility, but most of the time I see a trooper on the Thruway, he’s flying by faster than anyone! How about it, Gov. Paterson?
As a side benefit, strict enforcement of the 65 limit would bring the cash-strapped state, or any municipality that chose to crack down on speeders, a windfall.
For their part, local governments could do more to reduce wasteful idling — in public vehicles, simply by ordering employees to shut them off when they’re “just running in for coffee,” etc.; and in private cars, by doing a better job of synchronizing traffic lights.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten stuck at all four traffic lights on the roughly quarter-mile stretch of Brandywine Avenue between State Street and the I-890 entrance ramp in Schenectady. I’ve even complained to Mayor Brian Stratton about it — to no avail. (What does he care? The gas for his car — a city-supplied Jeep — is paid for by taxpayers.)
That’s hardly the only example of out-of-synch traffic signals in Schenectady, and other Capital Region cities and towns are full of them as well. Why don’t our mayors and supervisors get their employees to do some work on this and save us all a little gas? How hard could this be?
Ban drive-up windows
Something else local governments should do to reduce unnecessary idling is ban drive-up windows — at banks, drugstores and fast-food restaurants. Unless the motorist has a disability and can’t easily get out of the car, let them park, shut their engine off and walk a few steps. I read recently that more than half of McDonald’s U.S. sales are transacted through drive-up windows. That seems like an incredible amount of wasteful idling to me.
The climb in gas prices over the past year has been gradual. Maybe it hasn’t caused a financial crisis in this country — yet. But people who were spending maybe $75 a week on gas and now have to spend $100 or $125 to support their lifestyle simply aren’t going to have the same discretionary income for things like restaurant meals, movies, coffee, etc. Eventually, this is going to weigh on the economy.
That’s why, if for no other reason, I think government action is justified. Obviously, the best way to effect change would be from the top, but even local governments can have an impact. These “sacrifices” really aren’t that much — there was real rationing of gas during World War II — yet they could make a difference.
Joe Slomka is the Gazette’s deputy editorial page editor. His column reflects his own opinions and not that of the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 395-3174 or firstname.lastname@example.org