Sunbury Neighbourhood Association

the Vancouver Sun -July 03, 2008

High oil prices put the brakes on a future of endless progress

Higher fuel costs threaten to affect how we’ll proceed as a region


Remember when the future was hurtling toward us at breakneck speed? It’s arrived. And this future is a friend stewing in Los Angeles airport for a day because her airline cancelled her flight home. Not enough passengers to justify the fuel costs. She rebooks, this time having to make a connection through Denver.

Or the future is news from family back east that my old alma mater, Chrysler, is shutting down minivan production. And that GM is circling the wagons and laying off thousands. Hard times ahead for the heartland.
And the future is a relative divulging, with some chagrin, that the truck he recently bought to pull his fifth wheel costs $175 a fill-up. He grimaces at his timing. Those cheap weekends out in the woods now approximate the cost of a good hotel room in New York City. Providing, of course, one could afford to fly to New York City.

The thing about the future is, it got here too soon. It caught everybody by surprise — even the Peak Oilers, who salivated at the prospect of its arrival. And having arrived at speed in the form of high oil prices, no one quite knows what to make of it.

In particular, I wouldn’t want to be an engineer or urban planner these days. All those former projections of the future, with their steady reassuring growth rates climbing nicely toward the upper right-hand quadrant of a graph? Gone. Or, at least, in doubt. Nothing can be taken for granted any more. And that not only includes the cost of fuel, but how we progress as a region.

Take the Gateway project. The premier’s vision to streamline truck and auto traffic with new perimeter roads, the construction of a tolled bridge over the Fraser and the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge exists on the premise that traffic will increase to the point of gridlock in the near future.

That the provincial government is spending billions to promote more vehicular traffic while introducing a carbon tax seems a little illogical, but forget that for the moment. There’s a greater, unintended logic within it.
It’s this. The carbon tax was introduced to change our driving habits, to force us to drive less, and with less environmental impact. That is good.

And which is why I believe the carbon tax is a good thing.

But this, high fuel prices have already done, and will continue to do so. Car buyers are abandoning SUVs and minivans, and using mass transit in growing numbers.

But a greater i mpact may be just down the road. A recent CIBC study I mentioned in Saturday’s column predicted there would be 10 million fewer cars on the road in the U.S. within five years, and 700,000 fewer in Canada.

If that prediction becomes reality, and if gas prices go even higher and have a greater impact on traffic growth, then the need for Gateway is not only in doubt, so is its economic viability. Those tolls it will depend upon to pay for its construction will be slower in coming. Those billions of dollars spent on perimeter roads and widened freeway lanes may be wasted. Nonetheless, Gateway, Transport Minister Kevin Falcon told me Wednesday, is going to go ahead unchanged, high gas prices or not.

“First of all,” Falcon said, “if that happens, and traffic decreases, that’s great news.

“If we have less cars on the road, fantastic. But even if that scenario should arrive, I still believe we have [to go ahead with Gateway].”

Falcon believes Gateway must go ahead just to accommodate population growth projected for the Fraser Valley, that high gas prices or not, that growth will strain the existing traffic grid.

But Falcon also believes in future of the car, in some form.

“My opinion is, as the price of fuel goes up, it will change the technology of what we’re driving, whether it’s hydrogen or solar-powered or electrical-powered vehicles, which I think is most likely. That’s the weakness of the Peak Oil projections.

“I think the bottom line is, we’ll all be driving something. So you just the can’t ignore the infrastructure.”

Falcon may be right, he may also be very, very wrong. He is straying from the territory of projection — which is what an economist or urban planner does — and into wishful conjecture — which is what an optimist or gambler does.

The region will continue to grow as it has. Well, maybe, maybe not. Who’s to say how high fuel prices will transform the local economy?

We’ll all be driving zero-emission cars in the future. Sure hope so, but technology has shown before that it has its limits.

Surrey Mayor Diane Watts said Wednesday that she, too, wants to see Gateway go ahead, if only to accommodate the 700,000 trucks that cross the border into Surrey every year.

But what if high fuel prices affect the number of trucks crossing that border?

Well, Watts said, the provincial government should be taking a close look at that and modelling the effects of a $1.50 or $2 litre of gas.

She’s right. And I hope the provincial government is, though it doesn’t sound like it is, if I understood Falcon correctly.

But what happens if the future, having arrived at breakneck speed, suddenly puts on the brakes?
For good?

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