Direct part of oil windfall to where it’s truly needed

August 6, 2008 | Marilyn Watkins

I met someone in the grocery store the other day who had just moved back to the city from the suburbs. The reason: gas prices. A year ago the average cost per gallon in Washington was $2.96. On Aug. 1, it was $4.17, according to AAA.

That’s 18 cents below the peak price a few weeks ago. The U.S. average is now under $4, but as in so many rankings, Washington is above average. In Everett and Seattle, the average price of regular on Aug. 1 was $4.18, in Bellingham $4.22, and Vancouver $4.07.

With global demand booming, gas is going to stay expensive.

I was shocked the first time filling my tank topped $40, but kept on driving. When it passed $50, then $60, I started limiting trips and more often opting for the bus or foot. So did others. Transit use is up and gasoline consumption down. We seem to have finally hit the price where Americans are moderating their car habit.

How gas prices have fueled global warming, urban sprawl, pollution, and disastrous foreign policy decisions. If it takes $4 gas to reverse those destructive trends, there’s a definite up side.

Of course, for lots of seniors, laid-off workers and families struggling on the economic edge, high fuel prices make a tough situation worse.

The irksome thing about gas prices is who’s benefitting. Europeans have paid high fuel prices for decades because of high taxes, which both limited consumption and provided revenue to invest in public transportation.

Unfortunately, our extra fuel dollars aren’t funding transit and bridge upgrades, but lining the pockets of big oil companies and their executives. Last week Exxon broke its own record as the top earning U.S. corporation ever, announcing $11.68 billion in quarterly profits. Exxon’s CEO made $16.7 million in 2007, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. A lot to most of us, but a paltry sum compared to Chevron’s CEO, who raked in $31.5 million.

Exxon announced its record profits the day before the first anniversary of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. The same week, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reported that one of every four bridges in the U.S. needs modernization or repair.

Here in Washington, 922 bridges are part of the Seismic Retrofit Program started in 2007. To date, work has been completed on one fourth of those bridges — 231, and another 153 have been partially retrofitted. The state Department of Transportation also maintains a “structurally deficient” list that in June had 142 state owned bridges, nine of them in Snohomish County. The DOT stresses that “deficient” does not mean unsafe. Since it’s limited to state-owned bridges, that list does not include the railway overpass on Broadway, on which the city of Everett imposed weight restrictions last month.

Meanwhile, Sound Transit is proposing a sales tax hike to fund light rail to Lynnwood and other expansions. Both Community Transit and King County Metro are proposing fare increases this fall to cover high fuel prices without resorting to service cuts.

We need to find a way to divert some of the money we’re paying in high fuel prices from corporate profiteering and devote it instead to building up our infrastructure and providing relief to the most vulnerable.

Some ideas have been batted around Olympia. In 2007 Rep. Maralyn Chase introduced a carbon tax on petroleum, coal, natural gas and motor vehicle fuel, with the proceeds devoted to reducing greenhouse emissions. In 2006, Reps. Bob Hasegawa, Hans Dunshee, Mike Sells, John McCoy and others introduced a windfall profits tax, with revenues devoted to incubating renewable energy, retrofitting schools for energy efficiency, and reducing taxes on businesses affected by high fuel prices.

Both these ideas need more work, but they’re a start. In addition to infrastructure and renewable energy, some of the revenues should go to struggling families. We could do this by increasing the home energy assistance program and fully funding a partial state sales tax rebate for working families.

If high fuel costs push us individually to make wiser choices, and collectively we find ways to invest in needed infrastructure changes, we might find we come out of the energy crisis with stronger communities and a brighter future.

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Posted in An Inclusive Economy

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