Myths lie at the heart of every culture. One of America's myths is the ethos of the automobile. Our love affair with the car causes us not to be clear-headed about transportation costs. We fool ourselves. The consequence is a deteriorating transportation infrastructure of bridges and highways.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has nudged our car culture into much needed candor by suggesting what is called congestion pricing. Surprisingly, the federal government has decided to put some money on Bloomberg's concept.
The essence of congestion pricing is to charge for access to a freeway or to city streets in an easily defined area - such as an island like Manhattan. Congestion pricing is similar to pricing electricity higher during peak demand periods. The goal with congestion pricing is to reduce the number of automobiles on the streets at certain times of the day. It encourages people to time their discretionary trips.
All of this requires that drivers begin to recognize the social and environmental costs of driving. Some Americans have begun to do that by recognizing that automobile emissions are a major element in the creation of greenhouse gases.
Many Americans nurture another myth which has been fed by various politicians. It is the belief that we can have something for nothing. That myth's extension is the "no new taxes" mantra. The Astoria City Council has bucked that delusion by imposing a three-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax. The tax revenues will be used to repair Astoria's streets.
State Sen. Betsy Johnson offers a similar dose of reality when she talks about the need for a major Oregon transportation initiative in the 2009 Legislature. That would require the voters to approve an increase in the gas tax. Of course, the voters will assuredly hear the "no new taxes" mantra.
If the American way of life is to be sustainable through the 21st century, it will require that Americans address the social and environmental costs of driving and parking automobiles. It will also require conservation. A corollary of that process will be the development of high-speed rail networks in population corridors such as Seattle-Portland-Eugene. America's inadequate railroad network is more akin to that of a developing nation than an industrialized economy.
Michael Bloomberg has distinguished himself as a pragmatic Republican politician. He's done the kind of big thinking that we expect from our leaders. If Bloomberg succeeds with congestion thinking, it will be a major breakthrough.