Congress has approved a $284 billion bonanza for highway construction and transportation projects through 2009. This record spending level will no doubt prove immensely popular with America’s motorists, mall developers, and construction firms.

But everyone would be better off in the long run if we followed a different path.

Here’s a radical yet rational proposal for next year: spend the $225 billion slated for highways instead on mass transit, high-speed intercity rail, and alternative fuels and energy-efficient vehicles. That revolutionary move would serve the nation’s best interests.

Admittedly, many thoroughfares need work. But the problem here is oil. Every highway improvement boosts motor vehicle use, which increases oil consumption. The more oil we use, the more we depend on foreign suppliers like Saudi Arabia as more dollars spill outside our borders. Meanwhile, our contribution to the buildup of climate-changing gases in the atmosphere spirals out of control.

The U.S. consumes approximately 20 million barrels of oil a day – about 840 million gallons. Most of this, about 70 percent, is used for transportation, primarily by passenger cars, trucks, buses, and other motor vehicles. The nation used to produce most of the oil it consumed. But our domestic output has declined since 1972 and we depend on foreign oil. Today, approximately 55 percent of our oil is imported. That proportion is expected to reach 60 percent in 2010, and to keep rising after that.

If all of our foreign oil came from Britain, Canada, Norway, and other stable, predictably friendly nations, foreign oil dependence wouldn’t be a concern – aside from financial implications. But most of the safe foreign suppliers, like those three, are running out of oil. We are becoming increasingly reliant on less stable, often unfriendly suppliers, including Angola, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. These countries alone possess sufficient untapped supplies to satisfy our habit.

Oil dependency threatens our freedom, safety, and moral values. To ensure a steady stream of it, the U.S. has often been compelled to forge questionable alliances with unsavory foreign regimes, such as our shameful commitment to protect the Saudi royal family against all its potential enemies, foreign and domestic. These arrangements force us to grovel before foreign monarchs like the one we rebelled against in 1776, providing them with arms and ammunition.

Our growing foreign energy reliance weakens our currency and economy. Every day, we import approximately 11 million barrels of oil. At the current price of about $50 per barrel, that amounts to a net daily outflow of half a billion dollars – or $200 billion per year. That’s one of the largest items in our massive balance-of-payments deficit, and a major factor in the dollar’s declining value.

If we keep exporting dollars this way, we will invite a significant economic slowdown, with painful consequences for all Americans.

Finally, there is the matter of greenhouse-gas emissions. The U.S. is the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide – the principal source of global climate change. The biggest share of our CO2 emissions, about 43 percent, comes from the burning of oil. According to the latest Department of Energy projections, our petroleum-related CO2 emissions will rise by 41 percent between now and 2025, from approximately 2,500 to 3,530 million metric tons.

Let’s face it: there’s no way that we can reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions and thereby slow the pace of devastating climate change if we continue to burn petroleum at this rate.

So, instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on highways, which encourages increased oil consumption, let’s invest in urban mass transit, high-speed intercity rail systems (like those now operating in Europe), and the development of environmentally-friendly energy systems, including those powered by the sun, wind, and waste biomass.

In particular, let’s devote a substantial sum – say $50 billion – for accelerating the development of hybrid vehicles, super-fuel-efficient cars, and hydrogen-powered fuel cells. That would reduce our dependence on foreign oil regimes, increase our safety, bolster the economy, slow the pace of climate change, and generate just as many jobs (if not more) than the billions spent on highways.

Despite the inconvenience on the highway, it would be a good deal for America.

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