Gas prices passed $4 per gallon this week in many parts of the country. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine deserves much of the blame for this. Yet while the scale, brazenness, and brutality of the invasion caught so many people off guard, the war’s effect on the cost of petroleum products like gasoline should not have come as a surprise.
How many times has a calamity of one kind or another caused something like this to happen before?
It happened during the 1973 oil crisis, in which the embargo proclaimed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries made prices triple.
It happened during the 1979 oil crisis, sparked by the Iranian Revolution and hostage situation.
It happened in 1990, during an oil price shock caused by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent Persian Gulf War.
It happened during the Iraq War. Although the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not initially cause much change to oil prices, international turmoil in the years that followed contributed to a more than five-fold increase.
It happened thanks to major storms. For instance, damage to Gulf Coast oil refineries by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 contributed to a surge in prices as well.
While prices for gas and oil typically came down after some of these spikes, the trend still points upward. Adjusted for inflation, prices now, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, have already approached the highest highs of the past. Even if this crisis ends quickly, oil shocks will keep happening for as long as we depend on oil.
Even apart from international conflict, our reliance on oil and gas can’t go on forever. We will eventually run out of fossil fuels, or what’s left will become too expensive to use on the scale that we do now. Transportation today accounts for the biggest share of American greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s time to finally break the habit. But how?
The first answer that many people think of—electric cars—doesn’t hold up so well when you take a closer look.
While electric cars pollute less and cost less to operate than gasoline-powered cars, around 60 percent of American electricity came from burning fossil fuels last year. This odd mix of 21st and 19th century technology is, at best, only a step in the right direction. And even if we begin getting most of our energy from clean, renewable sources, that will not solve the problem of traffic congestion, or the terrible human and financial costs of injuries and deaths caused by car accidents. In 2020, the United States suffered 38,680 traffic fatalities.
As a matter of national security, we need independence from foreign oil, so that we can avoid finding ourselves again and again in the awkward and untenable position of depending on an adversary for energy.
We also need much greater independence from oil, period. Burning oil we produce domestically comes at greater and greater financial and environmental cost as well.
The solution is to use today’s crisis as an opportunity—an opportunity to really start building a cleaner, more resilient transportation system that gives us better options than we have today.
If we invest smartly, high-speed rail can play a critical new role at the core of our transportation system.
Today, for most Americans, traveling outside their local area means at least one of two things: a long drive, or hassles in one or more airports.
Imagine having this option instead: driving, walking, or biking to the nearest train station.
If you live in or near a city, that station could provide direct access to electrified trains that travel more than 200 mph. And if you live in a smaller community, a bus or a train at conventional speed could connect you to a hub with high-speed trains departing every hour, or even more often.
For most trips up to a thousand miles, a trip like this would take much less time than driving. It could even take less time than flying, when you factor in airport delays. It would also cost less, be far safer than driving, and offer much greater comfort: roomy seats, with the ability to work or relax along the way, and the ability to get up, walk around, and get a snack or meal onboard whenever you feel like it.
Winston Churchill said never let a crisis go to waste. The crisis we face now—the way the Russian attack on Ukraine has already rippled around the world, all the way to the nearest gas station, where prices were already climbing—will go to waste if we shrug it off as we have the warnings of the past.
Let’s finally give our country the independence from oil shocks that we’ve been meaning to get around to. Let’s finally give Americans better transportation options. Let’s use this crisis to build a safer, cleaner, more resilient American transportation network, with corridors of fast, frequent, affordable trains at the center.
If you agree, join us! For less than the price of one tank of gas, you can become a member of the High Speed Rail Alliance right now!