Has the Obama Administration, in its first three years, helped the United States ween itself from fossil fuels? Or more urgently, from oil? The 2005-2008 period sent another stern warning that a discretionary, oil-based lifestyle was unlikely to be sustainable in America. The data now proves this out. From the highs of 2005, US oil consumption has fallen 10-12% as a growing tranche of the country can no longer afford petrol. The tragedy of course is that the Obama Administration could have easily used the financial crisis to start rebuilding our rail system: securing for itself a win-win in both job creation, and, a lessening of the economy’s energy intensity. Instead, token investments in select city transport projects and a symbolic interest in high-speed rail have masked the reality that both parties in Washington remain fully committed to the Automobile-Highway complex.
Good news springs forth from the bad news, however. The footprint of America’s passenger rail system may lie beneath overgrown lilacs, but the majority of the rights-of-way have been maintained. To give some idea of the great contraction that took place with our rail system as the folly of our national highway program went into overshoot, these two maps from a half century ago tell the tale. (source: National Association of Railroad Passengers). The first is from 1962, when the intercity passenger rail network still covered 88,710 route miles.
Just 10 year later however, with intrusive highways bisecting American cities and ruining the integrity of their downtowns, the number of passenger route miles had collapsed by over 75%, to 19,366 miles.
Was the Obama Administration correct in thinking that oil prices would moderate, thus making our continued, outsized investment in Automobile Infrastructure the correct policy choice? There’s no longer any need to argue, about the answer. In the same way that normalcy bias disabled the Administration from understanding that the “recession” was not a typical, post-war affair, the same obsolete thinking guided Washington to believe a return to normalized oil prices was in our future. Now for the data: 2011 oil prices are at the highest annual average since 2008, at $94.81 per barrel. Gasoline prices at the pump were at the highest ever during the just concluded Christmas period. And total energy expenditures as a percentage of GDP are back above 9.00%.
This blog advised the Obama Administration to run hard, very hard, towards rail back in 2009—prior to entering office. Now that oil consumption is in decline in the US, its the responsibility of Washington to give Americans the alternative which most cities are already choosing: streetcars, light rail, commuter rail. On a national level, we need an even larger investment to finally separate intercity rail lines for passengers away from existing freight lines. And, the two main corridors on West and East coasts beg for a decade long series of mega-projects, with world-class high-speed service. As it’s a fairly good bet Obama will win reelection, I suggest the Administration redeem itself with rail in its second term.