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A Transportation Stimulus

By Ed Koch

The availability of the hydrogen-powered car, the Honda FCS Clarity, just leased to several hundred people in southern California, reinforces for me the need for an urgent government research program devoted solely to ending the energy crisis. Last year, $327 billion flowed from the United States to oil producing countries, hugely contributing to our current economic crisis. This year the dollars spent on importing foreign oil are undoubtedly far greater: oil in 2007 ranged from $60 to $92 a barrel and last week reached $139. America's estimated annual oil bill for 2008 will be $400 billion.

According to The New York Times of June 20th, "Honda's president said that the Clarity costs several hundred thousand dollars to make," so it isn't really anything more than a gimmick today. However, with government-backed research, it is likely that we could make the hydrogen engine and battery readily available at an affordable price. The Manhattan Project -- building the atomic bomb -- cost $2 billion, $21 billion in today's dollars. A similar program dedicated to dealing with the country's energy crisis could help develop new nuclear power plants and refineries, and expand drilling offshore and in Alaska, including ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). Energy is to industry what oxygen is to humans and other animals. Without it we would die, and in the case of energy, our standard of living would be vastly reduced.

A Manhattan Project would enlist, as it did in World War II, the best minds available who could determine what is practical and environmentally safe. It would deal with short-term and long-term measures, including conservation, and its scientific breakthroughs would be available to all of America's industry.

Naysayers are quick to claim that none of these measures alone will end our dependence on foreign oil and often point out that 79 percent of existing offshore oil leases are not being developed. If offshore oil leases are not being exploited, we should ascertain why that is the case, and take immediate measures to penalize offending oil companies.

Congress, for its part, is also shirking its duties. It has failed to come up with an effective energy plan. All we see is partisan wrangling, while all Americans suffer. It is both ridiculous and catastrophic that the current presidential election may be decided by the price of gas in late October which some experts have suggested may reach $5 per gallon.

Let me offer a proposal to both candidates - Senators Obama and McCain. Why not, in order to lessen the huge impact on the discretionary dollars available to Americans today because of the cost of filling up the gas tank, make the cost of transportation that is employment related, including expenditures for gas, train and subway, a tax credit for amounts spent, available on income taxes to be filed this year.

In case you're wondering, a tax credit gives the taxpayer the benefit of dollar for dollar spent. There has been talk by economists and the candidates of the need for a second stimulus. Why not address a huge problem - cost of transportation - and provide a stimulus at the same time?

It is ridiculous to castigate Senator Obama for rejecting public financing so as to not be subject to any spending caps in the campaign. He has a right to change his mind, the result of which saves the taxpayer money. Senator McCain's chief spokesman and campaigner, Senator Lindsey Graham, says of Senator Obama, "His word's broken forever on this issue." That is hyperbole, since McCain is free to follow suit, and has not been injured by the Obama decision.

Under New York City's public financing law for local candidates, if a candidate rejects public financing, the candidate who remains under the campaign financing law, gets the following advantages:

First, the candidate who accepts public funding, when there is a non-participating candidate who raises or spends more than half of the expenditure limit, gets additional City funds for his/her campaign fund. Second, the cap on spending is first increased to 150% and, where the non-participant spends more than three times the spending limit, is totally lifted.

The national public financing law should be amended to follow in some form the New York model. Will Congress do so? I doubt it.

Ed Koch is the former Mayor of New York City.

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