Monday, November 24, 2008

Amps, Gas, Grass or Algae; Nobody Rides for Free

Congratulations Durango Transit, for announcing that Main Avenue Trolley rides will be fare free in '09. While this covers only a small part of my little corner of self-chosen paradise, it's about time.

Let's not strain anything patting ourselves on the back just yet though, because we're running several decades behind the curve on this one. Many lost ideals ago, I was an operational cog in a couple of free transit systems, in other self-congratulatory paradises far, far away from home...

One system moved a large percentage of 4 million+ yearly visitors from one grand national park view to the next. The buses carried up to 100 people each and ran on propane. The talk was of banning all private cars from park roads in the near future. Then oil prices dropped. The last time I visited, smog from power plants and internal combustion engines clouded the views; and the roads were clogged with cars, SUVs, and tour buses. The free bus system belched diesel smoke, service was reduced to an inconvenience, and the buses ran half-empty.

The other - ah, paradise, at any price! I lived in a cheap trailer slum just outside of a ski town, and drove a free bus for a decent wage. I carried local paupers and self-anointed royals, on my appointed rounds through neighborhoods ranging in price from the low-shelters to the high-exorbitants. An abandoned rail-bed through the valley was on track to become a bike/ski commuter path. We were on the way to post-car craze enlightenment. But housing costs kept rising, chasing job-holding locals down-valley. A few years later, the bike path plan was shelved for lack of interest, the bus system carried mostly visitors, and the 'local' work-force commuted from up to 60 miles away. My 'decent wage' was pushing me down-valley with the rest, so I just kept going.

Now, here we are - fresh from a round of oil industry rapaciousness that pushed Durango-area transit use up 30-some percent over 2007. Our president-in-waiting promises to move us toward alternative energy, and Colorado governor Bill Ritter's statewide focus on renewable energy production seems to be bearing local fruit in last week's announcement of a plan to make oil from algae near Ignacio, and last spring's exploration of solar power farming near the same town. With all this and the promise of free buses to keep us warm, what could go wrong?

Yesterday, I filled my old Subaru up with good old, bad old unleaded gas, and the total on the pump didn't make me cringe. Don't get me wrong, I'm still living in a trailer just outside of town here in our paradise, can't afford $4 gas, and am not advocating the tough love of keeping energy costs at luxury levels. I am pointing out that cost-based conversions are notably temporary. Though there are plenty of reasons (a tanked economy, climate change, trade deficits, etc.) to replace fossil fuels with other means of warming, cooling and transporting our society, faith in change fades with falling prices at the pump. Unless pushed by a committed and vocal citizenry, no administration will be able to convert us to alternative, renewable, sustainable energy production and use.

Though my once high ideals are long tempered by broken promises and the pragmatism of survival, I've lived long enough to prove that change is always possible, so I've been exploring some options lately.

Amping up the ailing auto industry was discussed on radio program Science Friday this week, and here are some avenues for further exploration:
Half of a hundred thousand is still too high for me, so I may be electrifying my old Suby someday:

Whether vehicles have electric, internal combustion, or hybrid engines, energy has to go into the tanks and batteries. Whether it's pond scum algae, solar or wind generated electricity, gas from grass (corn and sugarcane), or the same old fossil technologies we've loved and hated for several lifetimes - should be up to us, not to the rising and falling fortunes of energy corporations and politicians. If you want more information on sustainable energy and economics, check out a Green Festival near you:

If you still have a few bucks to spend, a Green Festival is coming to Denver next year; but why wait? With the economic wounds of fuel price gouging still bleeding, and more corporate bail-outs blowing in the wind, it's time to press the loan officers known as Congress, Colorado's Legislature, Governor Bill Ritter, and the incoming Obama administration to require corporate business plans that deliver sustainable energy production and use to the masses, rather than continuing to transport massive wealth to self-proclaimed oil royalty at home and abroad. It's long past time to press the political brain-trusts of La Plata and San Juan (N. M.) counties to institute a transit system up and down the Animas River valley, to connect the economic zone that stretches from Purgatory to Farmington. We elect them to represent our interests. Now times are hard again, and it's time they get to work.
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