Editor's Notes

What would have happened if courageous politicians in California had put a $2-a-gallon tax on gas five years ago?
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tredmond@sfbg.com

I was dreading the drive home from Lake Shasta. Sunday afternoon. The end of a major holiday weekend. Every car in Northern California would be converging on the Bay Bridge right around the same time I got there. Figure two hours from the Carquinez Bridge to the toll plaza. Hot weather. Tired, hungry kids who have to pee. Nowhere to go, no way to move. An impatient driver (me), who can't stand waiting five minutes in a grocery store line, stuck in an endless, hellish queue with no outlet for the anger except to crab at my long-suffering partner. It wasn't going to be pretty.

We did what we could. We got up early Sunday morning, de-fusted the boat, pulled into the dock by 11 a.m., and got on the road by noon. But still: 210 miles to San Francisco. We'd hit the Bay Area right about 3 p.m., along with every other auto-mad idiot who drove somewhere for the Fourth of July.

But a funny thing happened: we cleared Vacaville, and Crockett, and Vallejo, and I kept waiting for the traffic to hit. And then Albany and Berkeley and ... whoa: we were on the bridge approach at 3:15, not one single stop-and-go spot, and the bridge was no worse than a typical pre-rush-hour weekday afternoon. It seemed as if nobody was driving.

Nobody is a bit too strong of a term — there were still plenty of people on the road. But for the first time in a decade, the California State Automobile Association reported a decline in car use over the holiday. "Less disposable cash and an overall increase in travel expenses have caused Californians to postpone or downsize their holiday getaways," CSAA spokesperson Cynthia Harris announced.

You could see that up at the lake, where rows of empty houseboats sat at the dock. Part of it was the incessant media coverage of the fires (in fact, Shasta was fine). But the biggest factor was the price of gas. At $4.50 a gallon, people don't drive as much.

This is good.

For the first time in many, many years, people are talking about fuel efficiency again. I'm obsessed with it: change the oil, keep the car tuned and the tires inflated, and our utterly uncool Saturn wagon, with two-wheel drive and a small, weak four-cylinder engine, gets almost 40 mpg on the highway. We burned maybe 12 gallons round trip, which cost a little more than $50. Twice what it cost a few years ago, but not a deal-breaker. All of a sudden, the SUVs are grounded, and we've got the trick ride.

And I started to think: imagine what would have happened if courageous politicians in California had put a $2-a-gallon tax on gas five years ago. The SUVs and Hummers would be long gone. Public transit would be booming. And with 1.5 billion gallons of gas sold per year in the state, there would be $3 billion more each year in new revenue. Enough to fund huge improvements in urban transportation systems. The high-speed rail line to Los Angeles would be well underway. Traffic (and pollution, and global warming) would have dropped dramatically.

Yeah, the price of gas hits hard on working-class people who have to drive. I get that. It's not the world's most progressive tax. But the price has gone up anyway (as we all knew it would eventually) — and now all of that money is going into private oil company profits instead of going into public benefits. Something to think about.