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A Publication of WTVP

“$3.3 million a day—that’s how much American Airlines is losing in the era of insane fuel prices.” So ran the headline in a recent Fortune magazine article. “The problem is that no airplane was ever designed to make a profit with jet fuel at these prices.” In fact, at press time, the airline just announced that it will begin charging $15 for the first checked bag, cut domestic flights and lay off workers in an effort to come to grips with skyrocketing costs.

“Pity the airline CEO. He can’t control his biggest costs.” It’s the same story at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport. With so many variables beyond his control, these are surely daunting times for Airport Director Ken Spirito, who by all counts has done a tremendous job managing one of our region’s most essential resources. Whether it’s business travelers, vacationers, visitors to Caterpillar or UICOMP residents, the ease of travel into and out of Peoria is key to our economy. It’s often one of the first questions asked of many recruiters.

After several decades of relatively low costs, “insane fuel prices” are putting the squeeze on all of us. With gas prices poised to hit $4 a gallon and the increased costs of doing business being passed down to consumers, the implications for a way of life we’ve long taken for granted are enormous. Many folks simply can’t afford to drive anymore. Across the country, cities are seeing a surge in the use of mass transit. According to the American Public Transportation Association, mass transit ridership reached a 50-year high in 2007, a number which will undoubtedly be topped again this year.

And yet our midsized city is not set up for public transportation in the same way as a Chicago or New York. CityLink does an admirable job, but its resources, and thus its services, are limited. For example, with bus service unavailable on Sundays, low- and middle-income workers who depend on the bus to get to work are out of luck. Many are then forced to take a cab, which takes with it a significant portion of their paychecks.

Of course, Peoria is not Chicago, but it’s becoming clearer that we must begin to address these types of issues, as all signs seem to indicate that the “insanity” of current fuel prices is here to stay. There’s a chicken-and-the-egg problem here, too—improving our public transportation system will necessitate an enormous investment in infrastructure, but the density of ridership must be there to justify the expense. That’s not to mention the fact that any large infrastructure project would be years in the making—no answer to ease our short-term plight.

And this increase in fuel prices comes along with rising food prices and spiraling healthcare costs, even as the economy struggles to shake off the subprime mortgage mess and contain the downturn.

The times are a-changin’, and what’s certain is that we will change with it. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. Public transportation and more fuel-efficient cars are a part of the answer, but there is no quick or easy fix. A comprehensive solution will almost certainly require a transformational shift in our traditional thinking, a challenge we would be wise to begin considering. IBI

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