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Originally published Monday, October 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Remembering 18.9-cent gas

Somehow, for more than a half-century, the image has stuck in my mind: a gas station on Route 1 in New Jersey, a metal sign out front, swinging...

WASHINGTON — Somehow, for more than a half-century, the image has stuck in my mind: a gas station on Route 1 in New Jersey, a metal sign out front, swinging on hinges. Its message: Gas, 18.9 cents a gallon.

With gasoline prices recently spiking past $3 a gallon, it's obvious our blissful long ride on cheap fuel, so ingrained it morphed into the American psyche and assumed birthright, is finally sputtering to an end.

Combine high-price gas with the grinding roadway congestion around our major metro regions, and you have to ask: What will our future be?

There's an interesting but very partial solution in the oncoming wave of toll roads around major metro areas. They may enable us to stay mobile — but at significant per-mile cost even before the fuel.

Yet the crisis, some voices are now telling us, goes dramatically deeper. The very resources that made America's 20th-century way of life possible — cheap fuel and cheap land at the forefront — have vanished.

Instead, the 21st century is delivering massive environmental, economic and political threats. The magnitude of Hurricane Katrina is an example: Its arc of destruction encompasses an area as large as Italy. And its impact was made much worse because of the land and energy and transportation choices of the past half-century.

A good chunk of the Deep South's explosive population growth, for example, has occurred along environmentally fragile Gulf and Atlantic coasts, on land too difficult to access in earlier times. The result, suggests Keith Schneider, former New York Times reporter now with the Michigan Land Use Institute: "The vehicle-dependent, highway-loving, subdivision-craving, big-box, fry-pit, sprawling communities that resulted were built precisely in zones that potent hurricanes would hit hardest."

So if we look to a transportation future, should we just think about more miles of roadway, bypasses, toll roads that assure speed of "throughput" — and a chimerical search for "affordable" gas?

Hardly, says Schneider. He argues for a new, less-energy-intensive course. It means bringing homes, schools and recreation and shopping closer to each other. It's called "smart growth." Switching to more compact development will also, Schneider argues, "relieve families of the need to operate fleets of vehicles fueled by foreign oil."

It's not just a matter of lifestyle preferences, he maintains; it's a matter of national security — forging less costly, more efficient, environmentally sensitive policies that will give us a far better chance to withstand the energy emergencies and the Katrinas of the new century.

And it's a direction that Americans are increasingly prepared to take, argues Anne Canby, president of the Washington-based Surface Transportation Policy Project. She points to a national poll showing 51 percent of the public favors more investment in public transit, only 18 percent more highway funding.

And there are multiple other reasons for a new transportation course, she argues. National asthma rates grew 59 percent from 1982 to 1996, with ozone and particulate matter from fossil-fuel burning especially serious health concerns. To handle an exponential increase in senior citizens who'll either not choose or be able to drive, we'll need much more transit, and many more safe paths and walkways.

There's a social-equity angle: For the less-affluent who have to own a car for work, the new high gas prices will darken even further their hopes of ever achieving homeownership.

Finally, and inevitably, there's the global energy-supply issue. The U.S. still voraciously consumes 25 percent of the world's energy supplies. Transportation accounts for 65 percent of U.S. oil use. "The lack of connection between our foreign policy and our oil appetite, which is highest per capita in the world, is somewhat unbelievable and maybe surreal," Canby argues.

The real question is likely not whether, but how we adjust to a more-sustainable course. Clearly, there's little hope in today's White House or Congress, still in thrall to the fuel industry and auto producers.

Belatedly but surely, governors, mayors and local groups are starting the exploration with varieties of energy-saving "green" agendas. Some local publics are voting for new transit systems, and against big highway-building packages.

But what's required is a fundamental, indeed radical, break with the policies born back in the days of 18.9-cents-a-gallon gasoline. Otherwise, the mounting emergencies of the 21st century will force us to our knees.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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