High oil costs squeeze already-tight budgets for families across the country

"Highway," originally uploaded to Flickr by Hitchster

Last week the New America Foundation hosted a panel to discuss the rising cost of oil and different strategies for tackling the issue. Panelists touched on a variety of areas, from national security to “green jobs” to the growing need for transit-oriented development around employment centers. Most of the discussion focused on mid- to long-range changes and solutions, but one story in particular illustrated the pressing nature of our immediate oil crisis and the toll it takes on America’s families.

A couple in Maine both drive to their jobs, but the rising cost of gas has squeezed their budget so tightly that the gentleman has taken on a second job just to cover the cost of the gas he and his wife need to get to their primary jobs. The couple’s predicament paints a stark portrait of how long drives can impact families’ budgets. The couple is working more but they’re not getting ahead, at best they’re just treading water. If the husband couldn’t find a second job, would they have been forced to quit one of their jobs because they couldn’t afford the commute?

For Americans who can’t afford $3/gallon gas, public transportation options are becoming an essential way to reduce expenses. While the logical assumption would be that increased need for public transportation would lead to increased revenue and service, the opposite is happening. As many states face financial crises, local governments are cutting transportation services across the country. These service cuts lead to decreased ridership, which reduces revenue even further. Economic recovery in these areas is, in turn, slowed since cuts to public transportation often hamper workers’ ability to connect with employers.

William Alden wrote a thorough and thoroughly depressing story the Huffington Post on the impact of Milwaukee’s bus cuts on job seekers and businesses. He highlighted painful stories of carless workers unable to find jobs near public transportation routes, and businesses that are looking to hire but can’t find employees because of unreliable and sparse transportation options.

Eric Isbister is the chief executive of GenMet, a metal fabricator located one block north of Milwaukee county. He needs new employees – the expansion of his business depends on it – but he can’t get them. The nearest bus stop is more than two miles from his factory. He advertises in newspapers, and regularly interviews prospective employees, but he continually runs up against the same problem. Often, he said, he’ll see an interviewee’s friends or family waiting in a car outside, ready to give the person a ride home. When he sees that, he knows he won’t be able to hire the worker.

Isbister said he’d hire a dozen new employees on the spot, if only he could. “I would welcome them with open arms,” he said. “And we can train. We’re well known for being the place that trains. You don’t have to be a metal fabricator, you don’t have to be a welder. We can teach you. But you have to be able to drive.”

Improving public transportation options in these areas would solve both sides of the problem: giving workers a way to reach their jobs and giving employers a reliable – and reliably transported – workforce.

The rising cost of owning a car goes beyond gas prices. AAA recently released their estimate for the cost of owning and operating a car in 2011: $8,776 annually, up 3.4% over their 2010 estimate. By comparison, the 2010 U.S. Census showed that the real median household in America fell from $51,726 to $50,221. That means for an average American household, the maintenance and operational cost of their car is now eating about 17.5% of their income.

Creating reliable, efficient transportation choices in communities across the country will help families reduce these burdensome costs. It’s in everyone’s best interest to create the transportation systems that cut costs for families and keep regional economies moving.