It almost looks like the oil gods—or maybe energy market insiders—conspired to prove everyone wrong.
A year ago, a gallon of gas cost $2.92 in Santa Fe. Six months later, in mid-July, it peaked at $4.10.
And Americans, who’d enjoyed artificially low gas prices for decades, finally could begin to sympathize with drivers everywhere else in the world. Many professional soothsayers, including SFR, predicted the impending “end of oil”.
Then, as if to spite every peak-oil doomsayer and proud new Prius owner, gas prices dropped to lower than they’d been in years. Last week, it was selling for $1.65 a gallon in Santa Fe—cheaper than milk! It’s even cheaper in Albuquerque.
But why bother filling up, now that Santa Feans can ride the shiny new Rail Runner for free (at least, for the next few months)?
Indeed, drivers seem ready to embrace a car-reduced future. Despite feeling pinched by the recession, Santa Fe County voters in November passed by a 10 percent margin a 15-year, $80 million dollar transit tax. And, despite the risks of sharing the road, bicycle commuting became a serious option for more people.
All in all, looking back, 2008 may be remembered as the year that “alternative transportation”—the clumsy phrase used to cover every way of getting around besides driving—started to go mainstream.
Why? It wasn’t just the suddenly schizophrenic economics of the automobile. Americans finally caught on that global warming was real, serious and our own damn fault. A vice presidential candidate who made “drill, baby, drill” an eerie, Exxon-friendly chant lost decisively to a vice presidential candidate who took the Amtrak to work.
Of 32 proposed public transit taxes on ballots around the country in November, voters passed 24, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence.
Even Santa Fe County Commissioner Jack Sullivan, who fought the transit tax because the county initially didn’t have much say in how the revenues would be spent, is ultimately glad it passed.
“What do we get after all this arguing?” Sullivan says “We will get roughly $2 million a year. That’s a good chunk of money to plan a very good transit program.”
And that means we can start to “save gas, keep cars off the road, do all those things we pontificate about—‘we’re going to save the ozone layer,’ and so forth,” Sullivan says.
Before all that happens, Santa Fe’s public transit system has some kinks to work out. For starters, more routes may be needed.
The gaps in the system are borne out by the head counts: Not everyone who started taking the bus this summer is still taking the bus.
Santa Fe Trails ridership fell to 53,400 in November, after a July peak of 83,600—an all-time record. Transit use usually drops off in the winter months, but it did so more significantly this year than last. Ridership on the North Central Regional Transit District’s dozen city-to-city lines is more or less flat compared to this time last year.
District 2 City Councilor Rosemary Romero says it’s not enough for local leaders to fund more transportation hubs and connecting routes—they also need to actively promote public transit.
Maybe they could start by reminding everybody that public transit saves lives. Romero hopes extended late-night train schedules could help cut down on drunk driving.
“In European countries, you could go out clubbing and have a good time” knowing that you could always catch a bus or a train home, Romero says.
Until the late-night transit movement gets some traction, gas guzzlers will continue to be the alcoholics’ weapon of choice. At least they won’t be driving new cars.
Lonnie Wooten, general manager at Santa Fe BMW, has seen floor traffic fall since the summer gas-price peak.
“Even wealthy people are holding on to their money,” Wooten says. As for Santa Fe’s more bargain-priced auto dealers, “They may tell you they’re doing good, but I doubt it.”