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All Aboard 

If you think $4-a-gallon gas is scary, wait until you're paying $7 a gallon. You won't be waiting long. A recent report from CIBC World Markets Inc. says $7 gas might arrive as early as 2010. While worldwide demand for oil rises, particularly in Asia, the report notes that overall U.S. gasoline consumption has dropped dramatically since January. Yet, gas prices continue to rise.

The next step for many lower-income Americans might be to give up their automobiles. CIBC predicts 10 million fewer cars on U.S. roads by 2012 — about half of the decrease from lower-income households. The report bases that conclusion on sound economic analysis: "Filling up their tank will have risen from about 7 percent of their income to 20 percent, an increase that will see many start taking the bus."

How spiking gas prices will change our region, our state and the rest of the country will be determined largely by how we respond to the emerging crisis. Elected officials could start by putting a spin on a familiar phrase: Instead of the oft-repeated "Think globally, act locally" mantra, political leaders everywhere should start "thinking nationally and acting rationally."

On the national level, Congress should approve the Clean Energy Tax Stimulus Act of 2008, which extends tax incentives for energy production through renewable sources and for conservation. American companies work best when they see an opportunity to make money; this bill would encourage investment and innovation.

Just as President Dwight Eisenhower ushered in the age of the superhighway with his National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, our next president should usher in the next American era of trains. By tracing the footprint of the nation's interstate highway system, America could create a rapid rail system to rival that of Europe. This would not only reduce dependence on foreign oil but also create jobs and allow Americans to continue traveling the country for work and pleasure.

Doesn't that make more sense than drilling anywhere and everywhere for fossil fuels that most experts agree are limited?

On a state level, Louisiana lawmakers should advance policies that encourage regionalism. Just as the Legislature consolidated levee boards and promoted inter-parish cooperation for flood protection, legislators should promote regional transit authorities that truly cross parish lines. Many people live within one parish but work in another, commuting to and from work every day. With transportation costs soaring, commuting could become so cost-prohibitive that the decades-long trend of middle class flight from urban cores could actually reverse itself — quickly.

In southeast Louisiana, Orleans and Jefferson parishes remain employment hubs. Without effective and efficient mass transit lines regularly delivering people to their workplaces, transportation costs could force many to move from their quiet suburbs back to (or closer to) the city. This might be good for real estate sales in Orleans and Jefferson, but it would be catastrophic for suburban residential real estate markets. Ironically, the same suburban parishes that resisted a regional transit system in the past may soon be clamoring for one — if they're wise. Otherwise, they may see a flight back toward the city that would gut their real estate values and property tax collections.

For too long and for reasons that have nothing to do with functionality, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has been anything but regional. With the exception of one bus route in Kenner, RTA does not cross parish lines. Jefferson Transit (JeT) doesn't do much better, providing only a few bus lines from the West Bank into the CBD as well as the airport-to-downtown line. That dysfunctional arrangement must change.

A true regional transit authority would incorporate Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Charles, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. In the short term, buses could bring employees downtown, reducing transportation costs and pollution and allowing people to live where they want. The state could help by designating High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on major streets and highways. Until we get a regional transit system, workers should seriously consider carpooling as much as possible.

Long-range, Americans need to take a page from Europeans, who have dealt with exorbitant fuel prices for decades by investing in fast, punctual trains that move people between countries on a daily basis. Rapid rail service between parishes ought to be simple. It is an idea whose time has come. On a high-speed light rail line, New Orleans and Baton Rouge would be less than an hour apart. Coupled with other economic development initiatives, such a connection could make southeast Louisiana a true economic powerhouse — with New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the Northshore as its anchors.

It can happen, but it won't happen by itself. It would be nice if local, state and national leaders, literally and figuratively, saw this train a-coming. If they wait until we're all paying $7 or more for a gallon of gas, we're liable to get left at the station.

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