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August 31, 2005

Peak Oil and Shifts in Incentives

Alan Imhoff

On September 26th at Frederick Community College an event will take place that will provide some information on a growing issue that is finally getting some attention, albeit belatedly.

On that day, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett is sponsoring an Energy Conference that will focus on awareness of the global peak in oil and its implications on the United States.

As has become painfully obvious in recent weeks, the price of regular gasoline hovers around $2.70 a gallon. This will most assuredly rise as the effects of Hurricane Katrina are fully known on the Gulf Coast's oil producing and refining business.

I have been the recipient of numerous articles on a web service that have been arguing this very subject for over a year. In the scientific community, this problem was forecast decades ago. Yet as a nation we have denied the inevitable on our quest for the open road in our new SUV's and mega-motor homes.

While I was born too late to experience rationing during World War II, I did experience the odd/even days of the 1970's. Developing the art of finding a gasoline station that had gas and then proceeding to wait in line to buy the precious commodity in order to drive to work and then repeat the process two days later.

As a result of that and the growing mandate to build more fuel-efficient cars, I participated by buying a compact car, even though at six feet four it was a bit tight. I kept on buying small cars long after that, mostly because of the cost of commuting 44 miles one way down I-270 to work in the greater DC area for 20 years.

Even though I have retired and gotten out of that commute, I still see on a regular basis the ever evolving outer rings of gridlock to the DC commute. To a lesser degree it is beginning to happen on I-70 towards Baltimore.

So, what to my surprise, a note on a recent web service was so astounding it prompted this column. According to the message, in a recent article in a national newspaper, a developer has bought and continues to buy land in the area of Town Hill, Alleghany County, in western Maryland for 4,500 homes to be sold predominately to "baby boomers" about to retire, who are willing to make an approximate one-way 100-mile commute to DC.

When it can sometimes take 15 minutes to get from Whittier to I-270 before beginning the 1 and hour commute, what are these people thinking?

As we will experience real soon this winter, the price of home heating oil should see similar rises as has gasoline. Next spring it will be interesting to see where a gallon of gas will settle. I have seen articles that predict $4 by next Fourth of July and, according to some, that is on the conservative side.

Whatever happens, we are in an era where some fundamental habits of driving will need to change. Policy makers at the local level will need to come to the realization that planning for public transportation infrastructure is a necessity, not a luxury.

At the state and federal levels, major shifts in incentives to allow for alternative means of getting workers to jobs will need to be a top priority. Just as we embraced the Interstate Highway Act in the 1950's, we will need to resurrect rail travel to reasonably and efficiently handle some of that need.

What is now only in certain major cities like New York, a multitude of public transit access points will need to reach out, not only to the suburbs, but what is affectionately termed second and third-ring cities and towns. Who knows, maybe the developer of the new Town Hill city would be willing to start a high-speed rail line from Hancock down I-70 to DC.

Maybe we are on our way to emulating San Francisco, where - according to one response to the Town Hill article - a lawyer drove seven miles to catch an express train to ride some 70 miles one-way to work in downtown. Our housing prices seem to indicate we are already heading in that direction and if memory serves me correctly, the greater DC area has the second worst traffic congestion in the nation behind Los Angeles.

So, if you think it might be worth your time in taking off from work on Monday morning September 26th, those scheduled to speak should give you something more to think about. At the very least I would hope that some news organization would give it the coverage it deserves and we could all benefit from a report generated by the discussion.

Otherwise, I might want to do some land speculation out in Grantsville for the coming of seventh-ring cities. But then I have heard folks from Pittsburgh are already doing that.

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