Solving Oil Addiction, State by State

As 43 million people hit the road for Thanksgiving — members of my family among them — I'm reminded again of how dependent we are on gasoline to live our lives. We need it to get to work, to school, to spend holidays with our families. When gas prices spike, all drivers suffer, but in some states, the pain is worse than in others.

NRDC just released its 6th annual report on state oil dependence, ranking states in how vulnerable drivers are to gas price shocks, and in states' efforts to reduce oil dependence. Mississippi once again tops the list as the state where drivers pay the largest percentage of their income on gas — double the share of what Connecticut drivers pay. Many of the hardest-hit states are predominantly rural. And many of the states where residents spend the least percentage of their income on gasoline, such as Washington, also rank in the top ten of states promoting clean energy and transportation policies that reduce oil dependence. (My home state of New York is also among the top ten.)

The federal government has taken important steps to ease our addiction to oil, foremost among them being President Obama's new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. By 2025, our cars will go twice as far on a gallon of gas, saving us enough oil to cut our imports by one-third, and slashing our fuel bills by $1.7 trillion. The standards will also reduce carbon pollution by 580 million metric tons — the equivalent of the emissions produced by 140 coal-fired power plants.

But building more fuel-efficient cars is only part of the solution. We also need to build more fuel-efficient infrastructure: fix crumbling roads and bridges, expand and improve public transportation, and develop communities that allow people freedom to move without their cars. We need federal, as well as state and local leadership, to put these solutions in place.

California, not surprisingly, is employing a host of strategies to reduce oil dependence, including a low-carbon fuel standard, promoting infrastructure for electric vehicles, and smart growth policies that discourage sprawling development and reduce driving distances.

Pennsylvania ranks 15th among the solution states, and its drivers are among the least vulnerable to gas price hikes, in no small part due to the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA), whose rail and bus routes criss-cross the region, giving rides to about half a million people each work day. SEPTA was recently named the nation's most outstanding transit agency — and that was before they announced a new energy savings plan that will save $2 million dollars without increasing fares or reducing service. The agency has outlined a suite of techniques, including deploying more fuel-efficient technology on buses, which will cut energy use 3 percent. 

We're also seeing smart solutions at work in smaller metropolitan areas like Charlotte, NC, where city officials recently announced a $1.2 billion investment to extend the city's Lynx light rail line, connecting the downtown area to UNC Charlotte — a move that will relieve highway congestion and give residents a gas-saving option to get around. North Carolina's state government has traditionally skewed funding toward road-building, but the new Republican governor, Pat McCrory, might turn that around — he championed the creation of Charlotte's light rail line as mayor. As governor, he could help deliver more transit solutions throughout the state.

Light rail systems, intercity buses, car-sharing and vanpooling are all fuel-saving, congestion-relieving transit solutions — and people want more of them. A recent poll by NRDC showed Americans strongly support additional government investment to improve public transportation over new highways as the best way to solve America’s traffic problems.

All over the country, people are ready for transportation solutions that will clear the air, save money, and help us get where we need to go. We need more states to prioritize funding for public transit, and employ other fuel-saving strategies such as enacting idling restrictions, building out electric vehicle infrastructure, and planning smart communities that reduce driving distances. Efforts such as these, combined with federal oil-savings policies, will protect Americans from gas price spikes and help us break our dangerous addiction to oil.

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