And the funny thing is, it costs no more today to extract a barrel of crude oil than it did in 2001, about $20 a barrel. Nor is there a shortage - America has plenty of reserves at the moment. Yet the price of a barrel of crude in the futures market is now topping $135 a barrel, all of it speculative and all of it pure profit for Big Oil.
That said, the cost of gas is only going to go up, not down, in the future; what we're witnessing is speculation based in part on the knowledge that gas is going to get harder to come by, for reasons both political and geologic, in years to come. And what we're witnessing already in the Seattle area is drivers modifying their behavior as a result of the escalating prices. A University of Washington study last month found that traffic volumes in Seattle are actually down one to two percent this year from their 2006 levels, despite an increase in the area's population. Meanwhile, Metro and Sound Transit (as with almost every other urban public transit agency in the country) are reporting notably higher ridership figures. Anecdotally, many of the bus routes within the city of Seattle that once had relatively few riders are now standing room only much of the day.
It's pretty easy to understand why. People are driving less, and using public transit more, because they can't afford to drive as much as they once did. It's particularly noticeably on nights and weekends, when discretionary trips are being taken less often. That trend can do nothing but accelerate as the price of gas continues to rise in the years and decades to come. The day is coming when driving - as has always been true in Europe and Japan - is not something everyone does. Many people who do drive will only do so sparingly. And driving will cost money, for tolls (inevitably coming to King County roadways) as well as gas. Chances are Seattle's recent decline in traffic volume will continue. A lot of people are going to either be less mobile or will need to find other ways to get around.
So why are so many public officials acting as though traffic volumes will continue to go up for the indeterminate future?
Only last fall, voters rejected Proposition One, which would have spent a ton of money (depending on how you count, either $47 billion or $157 billion), much of it on Seattle area road expansion. Gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi has been touting his transportation "plan," which is so reliant on more lane capacity for single occupancy vehicles that it may as well have been written in 1958, not 2008. Meanwhile, Ron Sims' much-ballyhooed "Transit Now" package, a sales-tax increase passed in 2006 that raised $50 million a year for expanded bus service, only restored previous cuts mandated by Tim Eyman's I-695; it did nothing to expand bus service to meet future needs. And various Eyman initiatives (or legislation inspired by them) continue to hamstring state and local sources of public transit funding.
Sound Transit is currently floating for public comment two variations of a possible ballot measure for this fall, an attempt to fund some of the proposals voters rejected in the "Roads and Transit" package last year. That investment (despite assorted flaws in Sound Transit's process) needs to move forward, but a light-rail system can only replace auto traffic if there's an adequate bus system to feed it. That investment still needs to happen, and nobody seems to be talking about it.
As gas prices go up, so will demand for Seattle buses. Already, some routes could run every five minutes at peak hours and they'd still be full. But there aren't enough buses in the system, and there's not enough money to run more.
With vehicular traffic likely declining in the future, it simply makes sense to start thinking now about building the infrastructure for point-to-point mobility in Seattle in the 21st century that doesn't require private cars. That means combating sprawl with increased urban density (subject of a whole different column, since the density being pushed by Greg Nickels and friends is catering almost exclusively to the people least likely to be priced out of car ownership). It means maintaining the roads we've already built, rather than expanding them.
And it means taking the money that Dino Rossi, Kemper Freeman and their fellow high priests of asphalt would like to (literally) pour into new roadbeds and putting it into public mobility instead. We need those investments now. When gas hits $10 a gallon, it'll be too late.
Geov Parrish's column appears every other week in the Beacon Hill News & South District Journal. He may be reached via the addresses listed below.