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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

June 18, 2010 at 10:00 AM

America and big oil: We wish we knew how to quit you

On Tuesday, President Obama told the nation, “the tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.” Today he’s in Columbus touting federal stimulus money going to…a road project.

Last year alone, the stim put more than $100 billion into highways and the auto industry. This as transit systems around the nation were suffering and cutting service, Amtrak remained a hostage to politics, and high-speed rail continued to be a dream to study — even as our competitors already have it and are building more. It’s been shown that road projects don’t ease unemployment. It’s not even true that “roads pay for themselves,” even without factoring in the unfunded externalities such as the cost of sprawl, pollution and environmental damage.

Most of all, the massive new highway projects planned around the country continue our dependence on fossil fuels — with major changes in ways to power most cars years away if ever — and deprive Americans of transportation choices.

The president’s cognitive dissonance isn’t just, er, driven by the immense political power of the road-building, auto, suburban housing and oil industries. It’s as American as a low-gas-mileage Camaro. Polls show strong support in Louisiana for continued deep-water drilling, even as residents there are angry and heartbroken by the BP disaster. We want a pony. We want to continue our lifestyle based on a moment in history when gasoline was plentiful and cheap, and climate change wasn’t even known outside a few academic outliers.

So, some investments in renewable energy — but little to address our big guzzler of oil: transportation. Talk about cap-and-trade but no expenditure of the president’s political capital. Miss the chance to retrofit suburbia with transit and rebuild our rail system — creating large numbers of good jobs and restoring domestic industries. Forget a gas tax that would really provide incentives to make the transition we must make eventually anyway, whether we like it or nor. Starting it now could be an economic plus. Doing it once the roof falls in, not so much. Kick the can down the road. At least it will be a wider, repaved road.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Not a tea party

But a revolution still

Private liquor stores

Comments | More in Environment, Sustainability, Transportation, Urban issues

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