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ISSUE 119 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/5/2006

Gas prices gouge drivers

By Kathryn Sederberg
Contributing Writer

Friday, May 5, 2006

While in Germany this February, I took a picture of an advertisement for the train that caught my eye. Below a picture of a young couple kissing, the ad read: “Try this while driving.” There were other similar ads picturing a woman engrossed in a good book and a man fast asleep.

There are many benefits to rail travel, and as the buzz around gasoline prices continues to increase, maybe Americans will even start to consider them. With prices approaching $3 a gallon in Minnesota, people are starting to ask questions: Will it last? Why are prices so high?

According to the Energy Information Administration, a statistics company run by the federal government, factors behind the 2005 gasoline price increases include Hurricane Katrina (pipelines and refineries being shut down) and crude oil prices (with increasing global oil demand).

But the questions we’re asking are moving us in the wrong direction. Many Americans see it as some kind of right to be able to drive and to do so inexpensively. But this attitude is dangerous to the economy, to international politics and, most importantly, to our environment.

Many St. Olaf students return from semesters or interims abroad and rave about the European train systems. Katie Godfrey ’08 has spent a year in both Finland and France. A member of Environmental Coalition, she is frustrated by the current dialogue surrounding the gasoline price increase, as well as by common misunderstandings about alternative energy.

“I think the mindset of the American people needs to change,” Godfrey said. “It is important that we look at alternative energy sources, but mass transit is equally important.”

She explained the common misperception that running cars on ethanol will lead us on the path of sustainability: “It’s better than oil, but in the long run you still have as many cars and you’re still building roads.” Why can’t we design a system which parallels that of Europe? There are challenges facing the United States that are unique to our country. We have an incredible amount of space, whereas Europe has a very high population density. And in population-dense areas of the United States, the East Coast, for example, there are already some train systems in place.

But steps could be taken to create a mass transit system that is efficient and cost-effective. The 12-mile-long “light rail” in Minneapolis has proved to be a success so far. What cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul need to do is start with a local tram system such as this one, and then branch it out.

European cities often connect their system to a larger network, with high-speed trains connecting bigger cities. Would a train between Northfield and Minneapolis be worthwhile? If demand increases and a fast, efficient system is created, yes. And if larger trains connected big cities like Minneapolis-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago, businessmen and students alike could find it a very comfortable way to travel.

To give a concrete example for St. Olaf students, a train linking Northfield with Minneapolis would allow students to take the light rail to the airport. Imagine the demand if both St. Olaf and Carleton students were counted among those who travel regularly to and from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport.

There are some distances in the United States that just must be crossed by plane or car. Compared to Europe, we still have a lot of undeveloped land and our cities are very spread out. But increasing the demand for mass transit could be a big step in reducing our dependence on foreign oil and a big step in increasing environmentally-friendly options.

The United States has one of the lowest taxes among developed countries on gasoline. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Netherlands tops the list with a 158 percent tax, compared to our meager 15 percent.

Dramatically higher European gas prices are only a reflection of their high government taxation. But what if our government were to raise gasoline prices to $7 a gallon and use that money to build mass transit systems? You could get your homework done while traveling home for spring break.

Staff Writer Kathryn Sederberg is a junior from Duluth, Minn. She majors in CIS.

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