Each month since November, when gas prices hit a milestone ($3.01 a gallon) that looks comparatively modest by today's standard ($3.93, on average across the U.S.) Americans have been driving less.
We're not only driving less which means presumably that we're taking more public transportation, biking and walking more, and combining errands when we do drive but the cars we're buying are more fuel-efficient than the gas guzzlers that we drove off the lots just a few months ago.
All this would seem like bad news (very high gas prices) with a very shiny silver lining (a very real move toward fuel-efficient transportation). After all, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (one-third of the overall U.S. contribution to global warming) dropped 9 million metric tons in the first quarter of 2008.
You might see it that way. But not if you are a bureaucrat at the Federal Highway Administration, which released its latest "Traffic Volume Trends" report to much fanfare this week. They showed that March traffic was down 11 billion miles 4.3% from a year earlier, the first drop seen in the month of March since 1979.
Here's the FHA's take-home message in a very short press release announcing the March statistics:
"That Americans are driving less underscores the challenges facing the Highway Trust Fund and its reliance on the federal gasoline excise tax," said Acting Federal Highway Administrator Jim Ray.
That's right. While we still drive 3 trillion miles every year (or more the latest figure is for 2006) the FHA is concerned that it isn't squeezing as many cents per gallon out of American motorists. Cumulative "vehicle miles traveled" the operative statistic has dropped 17.3 billion miles since November 2006, resulting in a loss (the FHA doesn't include this figure in its press release) of $3.18 billion dollars in tax revenue.
If finding another source of highway maintenance money is the cost of reducing global warming and driving more efficiently, it just might be worth it. (Insert visions of raging wildfires, mass migrations out of the desert Southwest, deadly storms, etc., etc.) The FHA might want to think about rethinking its message.
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