Like a frog who slowly permits himself to cook because the water only slowly comes to a boil, people in the rural Pacific Northwest have remained relatively quiet in the face of painfully escalating gasoline prices.

It was only four years ago when gas prices controversially broke the $2 a gallon threshold, a psychological barrier that unleashed a spasm of hand wringing and angry denunciations. Now, the Oregon average exceeds $3.50 for regular - and is considerably higher here on the coast. It is easy to imagine surpassing the $4 mark by Memorial Day weekend.

What happened? Where is the outrage as oil companies tap record profits?

Aside from simple fatigued feelings that mere citizen irritation will achieve nothing in the way of meaningful action from the White House and Congress, Northwesterners are responding to higher prices with that most time-honored capitalist tool - we are buying less.

If a report by Seattle's Sightline Institute is to be believed, residents of Oregon, Washington and Idaho are buying 11 percent less gasoline per person now than in 1999, the equivalent of every motorist in the Northwest taking five weeks off from driving each year.

Sightline chalks this up to more people using mass transit, buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, living closer to their jobs and simply driving less.

Though Clatsop and Pacific counties are both served by pretty decent transit systems, the problem here on the coast is that jobs often are located many miles from home. Wages are comparatively low and transportation options are few. To use an economics term, our demand for gasoline is relatively inelastic - like it or not, we have to buy it.

We're not entirely lacking in options, however. Lots of guys are reassessing their need for a full-size pickup. The idea of carpooling is starting to seem less farfetched. Wrenching though it is, some are even being forced to uproot their families to search elsewhere for a better match between income and expenses.

All in all, it's likely that the days of truly cheap gasoline are gone forever. As the Washington Attorney General's Office reported last week, a major investigation shows that fuel prices really aren't being artificially jacked up, at least on a regional basis. "The West Coast is a fuel island, separate from the rest of the U.S. domestic market. So when local supplies aren't sufficient, petroleum distributors start searching as far as Finland and Saudi Arabia to meet demand," according to a University of Washington economist.

Around the nation, everything from more telecommuting to motorcycles has been suggested to help, but as Grist magazine comments, "We have done so little to diversify our transportation network. We placed all our bets on roads, cars, and gas. Sadly, those were losing bets ..."

It's time to dramatically expand our national investment in automobile alternatives. The time must return when every little town has streetcars, for example, and not just for waterfront tourists. Europe manages to prosper despite gasoline prices still much higher than ours; our challenge will be adapting their solutions to our wide open spaces.


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