Glenn Jackson, $3 gasoline, and mass transit
By Russell Sadler
The late Glenn Jackson was arguably the most influential un-elected official in shaping Oregon’s suburban development.
As CEO of Pacific Power and Light, Jackson would have been an influential figure anyway. But he chaired the State Highway Commission for so long he determined the design of the highway infrastructure that shaped the state’s explosive post-World War II growth.
Jackson died in June 1980. In the year before his death, I had one of the last interviews with him. With the memories of the Arab Oil Embargo and its soaring prices and long lines at the pumps still fresh in the public mind, I asked Jackson, “Do you think the suburban, automobile-dependent lifestyle we have built is sustainable?”
“Probably,” Jackson responded after a long, thoughtful pause, “unless gas costs $3.00 a gallon.” We both chuckled and the interview ended.
Nearly 26 years later, gasoline costs more than $3.00 a gallon nearly everywhere in the United States. Stories about the financial hardship people are enduring just to fill their gas tanks fill the news. Nor is it just a suburban problem. Cheap gas allowed many people to find inexpensive housing in rural areas and commute to jobs in towns and small cities.
But gasoline is a necessity and the rising gas prices mean less disposable income. For the poor, the price of commuting can burn up most of what they earn.
Public transit is an alternative in some urban areas, but travel time is longer. And even the middle class in their comfortable suburbs are spending much more of their disposable income commuting to jobs that support their suburban lifestyle. Americans are running harder just to stay in place.
Jackson was shrewd enough to realize that energy transition problems would emerge when the world began to believe it was running out of oil, not when the oil actually ran out.
There is a good argument that world oil production is at its peak or has just peaked and is actually declining. The oil companies and oil producing nations know it or at least believe it. That’s why prices have climbed so rapidly. Since no one expects to see gasoline priced below $3.00 anytime soon, it’s probably a good idea for the rest of us to get busy dealing with the transition problems as we move from comparatively cheap petroleum to expensive petroleum. It becoming clear our present lifestyle is not sustainable for too many people.
I dislike writing pessimistic columns as much as you dislike reading them. I have a couple of former students who, because of deliberate choices that they made about five years ago, are only indirectly affected by the rising price of gasoline. I think there is a lesson in their choices.
When the Oregon Highway Commission was renamed the Oregon Transportation Commission in 1968, it reflected a change in attitude toward freeways -- at least in the Portland metropolitan area. Gov. Bob Straub blocked the construction of the Mt. Hood Freeway and appointed commissioners sympathetic to light rail lines. Former Congressman Les AuCoin and former Sen. Mark Hatfield helped fund light rail from their positions on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.
Widely mocked by Libertarians and the build-freeways-and-be-damned crowd, light rail commuting has been embraced by a younger generation.
My two former students met and married at Southern Oregon University. They had a child. When the graduated, they deliberately moved to Portland to well-paying high-tech jobs at companies located along the light rail line. They deliberately bought a condo in one of the development nodes along the light rail line. They deliberately had a second child. They deliberately chose not to own a car. When they need a car they rent one.
With the money they saved from not owning a car -- it’s thousands of dollars a year -- my former students paid off most of their student loans. They can afford two lovely children and children are not cheap. They do not think they have suffered or sacrificed by not owning a car and they have not felt the economic dislocation from rising gasoline prices like their fellow workers who commute by car.
“But everyone can’t do that, Sadler,” you say. I couldn’t agree more. But thanks to some farsighted government planning, my former students had that choice to make.
Instead of paying unwarranted “compensation” to landowners who want to perpetuate the unsustainable post-World War II suburban sprawl model, we ought to be revising the land use laws to encourage more light rail oriented development so more people have the choice of living that way in the rapidly emerging era of high priced petroleum.
Now there’s a platform plank that some candidates for governor and the Legislature can run on.