High Gas Prices and Public Transportation Demands

Almost every time gas prices take a rise, demands to share to the ride and use public transportation go up. Demands to drive go down.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

With Inland Empire gas prices on their way to increasing 80 cents per gallon from last Wednesday, Californians should check out and take advantage of what ridesharing has to offer. High California gas prices and traffic continue to raid worker's commutes and take their money. Those who still drive alone into work early in the morning and leave in the afternoon do have some options. Motorists should take advantage of what existing services from Metrolink, RTA CommuterLink, RTA local, Omnitrans, city-operated bus services, and the private ridesharing and vanpool firms have to offer. By doing so, they can directly support The Transit Coalition's efforts to get Southern California moving by joining an HOV and saving big bucks on their commuting expenses.

However, all of this begs an important question:

Are high gas prices in the state really good for public transportation and carpools?

Short range, the answer is a clear yes.

With fewer cars on the road, our existing infrastructure, long overdue for upgrades, will be less congested. More people would carpool. Transit agencies will enjoy a surge in ridership demands which increases their farebox revenues and route productivity numbers.

But what happens when demands begin to outweigh current infrastructure and service capacities? Managing carpool lane occupancy requirements and improving Park & Ride lot capacities costs money, even if that meant re-striping and re-designating existing freeway lanes. When transit fleets do fill up, those extra bus and train departures will not simply come out of the heavens. Service upgrades cost money. And because farebox revenue only covers a portion of the cost to operate public transportation, transit agencies have to find a means to pay for the added services and capital infrastructure.

That's where high gas prices in California can actually become an obstruction to public transit funding. Yes, a percentage-based gas tax can neutralize some of this but the higher gas prices could also very well obstruct the market economy, a major tax revenue source. That in turn would create a longer-range catch-22 situation for the transportation agencies if nothing is done to solve this problem.

A primary reason why the state's economy could be negated this time around--if nothing is done--is simply because this specific gas price hike is isolated here in the state.

High CA gas prices, the market economy and transit:

If you read our blog posts regularly, you well know that The Transit Coalition is a fact-based transit advocacy group. That means, you may see positions and reasons that you may not find anywhere else.

Perhaps, we might be the only transit advocacy group around that also calls for more job development and hiring in the Inland Empire. Why? To cut down on the long-distance super-commuting demands that clogs our freeways. We also call for a stronger market economy in general throughout Southern California as every major poll suggests that economic security is a top major concern for citizens. Why do we--a transit group--call for a better market economy? This solution provides more tax revenue resources for expanded transit infrastructure and services in a fair way. Plus, with the increased number of jobs, working salaries go up because employers have to look for quality workers. That should be universally agreeable.

Bart Reed, The Transit Coalition's Executive Director and I were made aware of this when we paid a visit to RCTC several years ago. This visit occurred before the logistics and medical sector booms. We learned that transit funding was limited back then in Riverside County simply because many of the jobs in Downtown Riverside were government jobs. Only some were from the private sector. It's the growth in private sector jobs that can drive in the extra tax revenue to help pay for infrastructure upgrades.

One of the reasons why RTA and Omnitrans are now both able to finally put forth proposals for long-overdue bus service upgrades is simply because the IE economy is growing and the governments have the resources to allocate more funds to the transit agencies. And until the state and feds stop displacing our already high transportation tax revenue to other programs, policies to improve the IE market economy with efficient government oversight can provide the extra funding so that RCTC, Metrolink and our transit agencies are not caught in a Catch-22 situation where it becomes difficult to improve carpool lane infrastructure and public transit services when transit/HOV demands soar due to high gas prices.

However, this proven funding solution is negated when Big Oil takes the hard earned money from the pockets of Californian's no thanks to unresolved issues in well-intended state environmental law. When fuel prices go up, the costs of everything we buy--from food, to clothing, to even bicycle parts--go up too. Suppliers, service workers, and delivery employees generally cannot use public transit or a carpool for their work. The infrastructure is simply not there for them to do that. Meanwhile, working salaries for the middle class have remained generally stagnant according to the Press Enterprise.

Short and Long Range Solutions toward Freedom from the Gas Pump

Improving Metrolink-to-sbX connections is certainly a solution.
Photo: Omnitrans
I need to make absolutely clear, if this specific gas price hike situation was nationwide and there were in fact declining oil supplies, the long-term solution of improving transit infrastructure and promoting the growth of clean, efficient and affordable fuels that I pointed a few days ago would be put front and center as a short-range solution too.

But the fact is domestic oil supplies are high, oil prices are down, and this specific economic situation is all isolated only within our state that affects each of us whether one drives a car or not.

That's why this statewide situation requires a specific short-range solution on top of the longer-range answers. That is, do what's necessary to get the fuel supplies to where they need to be in order to get the state's gas prices back down to where they were before this reported "crisis" and reform state law to prevent such a spike of this magnitude from repeating exclusively in California.

If the state's oil refineries fail to produce what's necessary whether caused by refinery production problems, bidding wars overseas for chemicals or any other excuse to keep statewide gas prices well above the national average, the state government with EPA approval would temporarily allow gas stations to import traditional fuel which would force the in-state refineries and overseas suppliers to compete and not exploit the rules for their own financial gain. No environmental activist should want a global pollutant to profit big time due to loopholes in state environmental law.

Where is the law that would hold the Big Oil oligopoly accountable?

This short-range solution would keep the clean summer blend fuel mandates on the books while holding the oil industry accountable for keeping supplies in check with demands that prevents sudden price spikes during the summer. Longer-range, efficient, powerful and zero emissions clean vehicles should become the norm originating from clean power sources. That would free us from Big Oil, period, leaving urban sprawl and traffic congestion as the two major policy issues for private automobiles. Smog and dirty air from cars would be a thing of the past.

But because the rest of the nation was not impacted by this crisis, keeping the state's fuel prices well above the national average may prove to be bad for the state's economy.

If the current fuel shortage is allowed to continue, more industries will invest or move jobs out-of-state due to the simple fact that costs are lower there and California's economic future as well as the stability of mass transit operations could very well be threatened even though more people will be jumping aboard the buses, trains and carpool lanes. We would therefore have no fair means to pay for the upgrades as well as the long-range solution.

Nobody should support this scenario and the state government has an obligation to its people from preventing that from happening. The gas price directory service GasBuddy should not have to take the lead on this matter through a petition drive. The state government should have already been on this as this issue has been going on for far too long.

We need to hold the power structure to account to ensure public transportation is paid for and that non-polluting free market competition with efficient government oversight--not powerful oil oligopolies--are driving the Inland Empire economy.


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