empty rural road

The mythical ‘open road’ of rural America is in fact more open in 2008
Photo: ehow.com

High gas prices and a generally spooky economy have curtailed Americans’ driving this summer, across Yonder most of all.

The Federal Highway Administration, releasing its national traffic figures for June 2008, reported a 4.7% decrease in driving since June 2007. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Highway officials expected metropolitan areas to show the biggest decline because people have mass transit as an option, but it came in rural areas instead.” From June a year ago, driving on rural highway interstates fell 7%.

Dan Arnold, whose company owns 73 service stations across the Midwest, told the Tribune, “Summer travel is down a little bit, but in smaller communities it’s down more significantly. They have less disposable income, so higher gas prices affect them disproportionately. It just comes down to having less money to spend, so you stay home.”

Ten days ago blogger Matt Insley reported on a trip to Knott County, Kentucky. “Many of the local gas stations simply weren’t selling gas,” Insley wrote. He circled greater Knott County on a national map to stress how here, as in the Southern Black Belt, Wyoming, New Mexico, and much of Southern Oklahoma, rural Americans are spending more than 10% of their income on fuel. These are some of the poorest regions in the country.

The federal report extends and confirms the findings from a recent AARP telephone survey. In AARP’s poll, 67% of Americans age 50 and older “said they have cut back on their driving because of high gas prices.” Rural America has a more elderly population than does the rest of the nation.

gas price chart
Average U.S. gas prices, 1990-2007
Source: U.S. Department of Energy

On average a gallon of gas cost $3.16 in June 2007. In June 2008, according to Consumer Reports, gas cost $4.04 per gallon, up 28%. Diesel has risen even more steeply, from $2.80 in June 2007 to $4.69 a gallon, a 67% increase. Gas prices have tricked downward since July as the price of crude oil has fallen.

Though the declines in motoring over the past eight months have been dramatic, American drivers actually have been gradually scaling back over the past four years. As it happens, unemployment is now higher than it’s been since the driving downturn began, in 2004.

transport change box

Declines in U.S. driving (June 2007 to June 2008) have been greatest on rural roads
Source: Federal Highway Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation

The new federal highway report notes that driving decline has been most evident in vacationlands of Florida and Maine. All of the other states that showest greatest decreases in driving were largely rural: -7.7 percent in Idaho, – 6.8 percent in Washington, – 6.7 percent in Nevada, -6.2 percent in Kansas, and -6.1 percent in Alaska.

Less driving is an encouraging sign for U.S. environmentalists, but many state highway departments are leery of the change. It’s gasoline taxes pay for road improvements. A spokesperson for Colorado Department of Transportation told the Ft. Collns paper that Colorado saw a $3.5 million drop in gas tax collections in June, and thus far in 2008, the state gas revenues are up only 1.4 percent overall. “That increase doesn’t cover inflation or the higher costs of construction materials that CDOT pays.”

“¨”Something is going to have to change,” Federal Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said in late July. Peters affirmed that gasoline-taxes could not be a long-range method to pay for federal highways and bridges. She said that tolls would likely replace the current system.

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