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$7 Gas Will Rock Our World

Tom Condon

May 25, 2008

Some years ago, I was running along Farmington Avenue at lunchtime. I noticed after a half mile or so that I was keeping up with the bus. It's not that I was going fast I was blessed with all of the attributes of a great runner except speed it's that the bus was inching along.

There was a lot of traffic, a lot of stops and the usual fumbling for the right change. The bus finally did pull ahead of me, but I remember thinking someday we might have to put the rapid back in rapid transit.

That day has arrived.

I'm prompted to this conclusion by a piece on treehugger.com discussing the implications of gas surpassing $7 a gallon in the United States within two years. Would you bet against it?

Some of the possibilities are downright chilling. Will there be any U.S. auto manufacturers left? No, unless they get really smart, really soon.

How about domestic airlines? If they fold, it's not good for hub cities or, for that matter, convention cities. It won't bode well for states with major national tourist attractions, but we're OK there; we don't have any.

The tree-huggers, who were riffing on a piece by MSN MoneyBlog's Charley Blaine, speculate that it will be curtains for snowmobiles, 100-horsepower powerboats, off-road vehicles and regional "destination" shopping centers. This will not interrupt my life in any appreciable way, but some people aren't going to like it.

The broader response must be reorganizing our regions to live with less fossil fuel. That means greener and denser cities. Hartford actually took a step in this direction last week with the announcement by the nonprofit housing group Common Grounds that it had begun restoring the former Capitol Building at 410 Asylum St. into the first certified "green" multifamily building in the state. Green roof, the whole deal. Good first step.

With gas at $7, more people are going to look for transportation alternatives mostly buses and trains. Oh, a few more people will commute by bike, but until it's made safer by building bike paths, the number won't be huge.

In most of Connecticut, the only viable alternative is the bus. I have nothing but admiration for the folks at Connecticut Transit, who've kept a bus system going in the face of massive indifference from the state Department of Transportation and almost everyone else.

But it's a little pokey. When gas hits $7, the bus won't just be for poor people (and a few tree-huggers) anymore. There is going to be demand for rapid transit.

Well, good. Such a thing exists elsewhere; models are available. One of the best-known is in the city of Curitiba, Brazil, where visionary Mayor Jaime Lerner, a planner and architect, designed a system where passengers get on and off buses very quickly via loading tubes.

Combine that with dedicated bus lanes, automatic signaling the bus should always get a green light and slightly fewer stops, and bus service begins to work like light rail.

And by the way, I'd reduce the bus fare to $1 and add the lost quarter to the gas tax. (Lerner has a great quote: "Cites are not the problem, they are the solution.")

In addition to better bus service, $7 gas will bring increased demand for commuter rail service. Ridership has been surging along the shoreline, the place where we have commuter rail. Demand will be just as strong on the inland route from New Haven to Hartford and Springfield, as soon as the service begins. If it ever begins.

This project ought to be one a fast track, as it were, but it isn't. It's been on the drawing board since 2002. The state Department of Transportation just began an environmental assessment that is scheduled to take 18 to 24 months.

Why in the name of Casey Jones do we have to spend two years studying a railroad corridor that's been open and active for more than 100 years? I know that the public process, contracting procedures and other things all add time, but this is ridiculous. That service won't be running until 2013 or later, I'm guessing, more than a decade after the project started.

The New Haven-to-Springfield line is 62 miles long. The nearly 1,800-mile transcontinental railroad was built in six years, 1863 to 1869.

When gas hits $7, people are going to ask, "Where's the train?" On the plus side, Amtrak hopes to add a couple of trains in the corridor this fall. It's something.

Another part of the effort to use less $7 gas will be to drive more slowly. The responsible thing would be to lower the speed limit. Let's see who has the guts to do it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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