OpEd from Sunday, June 20 by HEC Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda
Tackle oil dependence with local decisions
With the BP oil disaster continuing to devastate the Gulf Coast, many Hoosiers wonder how — hundreds of miles from that distressed region — we can make any dent in helping to solve this extraordinary national tragedy. Many concerned citizens will rightly direct their energies toward Washington, where lawmakers are considering a cost-effective, market-based carbon cap system to spark major innovation in oil-saving technologies.
But the battle to deal with the nation’s oil addiction should not be limited to D.C. The stakes for the health of waterways and wildlife, national security, public health and economy are far too high. They call on us to take this fight into state and local communities.
Many decisions that impact our oil dependency are heavily influenced by local decisions: public transit and rail funding, street repair, zoning laws and street design. The bad news is that Indiana has historically made some wrong choices on these issues. Indianapolis, for example, is sixth in the country in terms of commuters who travel to work alone. Indianapolis’s transit system is 100th in size in the nation, even though it serves the 16th largest metropolitan area.
The good news is that foresighted citizens, social entrepreneurs and elected officials are stepping up their advocacy for the right type of state and local policies that will help Indiana wean itself from its oil addiction.
Automobile driving is responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s oil use. Hoosiers, despite our great pride in freedom, since the 1950s have had little choice but to drive cars in our highway-heavy society. Several grassroots organizations have joined together under the Indiana Citizens’ Alliance for Transit to change that picture. It is our hope that citizens join this coalition and advocate for legislation that will empower counties to raise funds expressly for expanding transit services. This kind of legislation is our best long-term prospect for getting Hoosiers out of cars. It will spark investment that will ultimately strengthen the state’s competitiveness, create greater job opportunities, promote healthier communities and help revive urban centers.
But the re-thinking of transportation funding in Indiana cannot be restricted to identifying a new source of funding for our chronically under-funded transit systems. Citizens also need to get engaged in the broader issue of how taxpayer dollars devoted to transportation are prioritized, and provide public comment on the Indiana Department of Transportation’s long-term transportation plan. The existing plan represents an unfortunately outdated view of transportation, proposing to spend $1 billion more on new highways and roads than on road repair. And it proposes to spend nothing on passenger rail, compared to $28 million spent annually by Illinois.
With more than 4,000 crumbling bridges across our state, Indiana’s taxpayer-funded transportation priorities must change. If we reallocate more money to repairing our existing infrastructure, Indiana has a much better chance of promoting urban redevelopment over sprawl, leading to less auto dependency, and safer and stronger communities.
Smart growth is another key area where state policy can promote a less oil-dependent society. Such policies, intended to create more walk- and bike-friendly environments, include changing zoning regulations to allow communities to more easily create village-like neighborhoods that are both residential and commercial, and policies that require complete streets, where streets are carefully designed to safely accommodate users of all modes of transportation: pedestrian, bike, transit and auto. We’re starting to see progress on these fronts in a few Indiana communities, but what we truly need is statewide policy to accelerate this progress.
The changes we need to our laws and policies may seem quite large, but fortunately there are efforts under way on all fronts. And what’s new about this movement is that businesses and congregations are getting involved in a way they never have. This movement needs people like you. The BP oil disaster can get us pretty dispirited. Let’s not waste this opportunity to make a difference that will have enduring impact for our state and nation.