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Let the market dictate the miles you drive
By Don C. Brunell
Today, there is an unavoidable urge to let government engineer our lives in the name of climate change.
For example, under legislation passed this year in Olympia, lawmakers decided to limit the number of miles we drive in order to curb greenhouse gases. Despite business appeals to her to veto that section of the broad climate change bill, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the legislation without striking the limits on miles traveled. If the goal is to reduce carbon dioxide, why monkey around with peoples driving habits?
They went at this issue backwards. Instead of punishing people for driving, why not make them part of solving the problem. For example, why not give them a sales tax break for buying a hybrid or highly fuel-efficient car? Give them an incentive and they will cut greenhouse gas emissions long before 2050 specified in the law.
With the price of gas and diesel headed north of $4 a gallon by summer and no long-term relief in sight, many commuters would love to lower their gas bills if they could afford to trade in their gas guzzlers.
That may not even be necessary. When the price of gas in Europe shot past $6 a gallon, people started buying smaller smart cars, mopeds and motorcycles. They also flocked to trains and buses.
One time-tested reality is people will solve problems when offered incentives, but balk at government edicts. Another reality today is that most families are finding it harder to make ends meet. Not only is the price of gas skyrocketing, but so are grocery bills because more and more crops and livestock feed are going into ethanol production.
What is most exasperating about this heavy handed government approach is it does not recognize different peoples needs in various parts of our state.
While limiting the number of miles we drive may force people in Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane onto buses, what about people who live in small towns and rural areas who have to commute long distances?
For example, I grew up in a small town and my dad was a journeyman electrician who worked construction jobs. Often he had to drive a hundred miles each day. Sometimes he was forced to live out of a hotel room, but if possible he would drive each day even if it meant he got home at 8 p.m. and left at 5 a.m.
It was his choice to be with his family every night even if our gas and auto repair bills were higher than many neighbors who worked in town.
If the other legislative goal is to force people to live nearer their work, they need to look at what they are doing to increase the price of houses. For example, not many young instructors at the University of Washington can afford to buy in the university district and commute long distances from places where housing is affordable.
The point is what may seem like a good idea when lawmakers are cloistered in Olympia at the state capitol will end up hurting the very people they are trying to save.
That doesnt mean we abandon efforts to limit greenhouse gases, but there are better ways.
Reducing greenhouse gases is a shared goal. Washington is ideally situated to significantly reduce our states carbon footprint. We have an abundance of hydro power which produces no greenhouse gases and we are blessed with millions of acres of forestlands. Keep our dams and plant young trees on burnt over forestlands. Young trees convert carbon dioxide into the rich oxygen we need to survive.
Legislators should let the marketplace change our driving habits. According to the Puget Sound Regional Council, people are already driving less. For decades, the average number of miles driven in the Puget Sound region increased by six percent a year. Over the last five years, however, it has grown by less than one percent which is already an 86 percent reduction.
Those we elect to office should have more faith that people are capable of doing the right thing without being spanked by a costly new government bureaucracy set up to enforce and ill-conceived law.
Don C. Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.