A timely dry run

September 11, 2005

PROBABLY THE WORST idea kicking around right now for dealing with high-cost gasoline is to find some way to artificially hold down the pump price.

Pain at the pump may be the only argument persuasive enough to convince Americans of the need to make perhaps major changes in their lifestyles to conserve fuel.

Shortages in the gasoline delivery system caused by Hurricane Katrina will be onlytemporary. But they offer a preview of what lies ahead as the world draws ever more thirstily from energy sources already functioning at peak capacity.

If higher gas prices now prompt greater use of car pooling, swifter trade-ins for fuel-efficient vehicles and heftier political support for public transportation, Maryland and the rest of the country will be better able to handle the chronic energy squeeze that's coming.

Proposals offered at the state and national level to suspend fuel taxes or set price caps clearly have been crafted for their political appeal alone. They are wildly impractical as well as counterproductive.

Taking the bite out of high fuel prices will only discourage conservation and create the false impression that America's wasteful ways can continue indefinitely. Market forces of supply and demand serve a useful purpose. Sometimes a better price can be found by shopping around.

Surrendering tax money that could otherwise be used to expand public transportation - especially the meager and generally inefficient service available in Maryland - makes even less sense. Those struggling with fuel bills would be much better served by alternatives to driving alone, especially in gas-guzzlers.

Encouraging signs have recently appeared, suggesting more Marylanders are seeking such alternatives. Requests for mass transit information and car pool connections are growing rapidly.

Such interest may prove short-lived as gasoline prices subside or drivers acclimate to paying $3.50 per gallon and more. But elected officials should know better.

Katrina has sounded a timely warning: Start preparing now for the global dry spell that's on the way.

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