09/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Brigham Young Would Be Proud

It's often forgotten that the founder of Salt Lake City, Brigham Young, was by today's standards a radical communitarian. The Beehive on the Utah license plate signifies cooperation, not rampant individualism. And Young also believed in protecting the environment and using land to enhance community. So the apparently startling shift towards offering better transportation planning and transportation options to residents of Salt Lake City is, in many ways, a return to the region's early Mormon roots. Nevertheless, it's been a brutal battle, driven by the Sierra Club, and all because the highway lobby had gotten its hands around planning in Salt Lake just as thoroughly as in other Western cities with less robust traditions of community.

But by allying with fourth-generation Mormon farmers, bird watchers, waterfowl hunters, and responsible developers, the Sierra Club was able to roll up yet another in a series of victories for transit in the Beehive State. The Speaker of the Utah House, and the Utah Department of Transportation, agreed to replace plans for an eight-lane Mountain View freeway corridor with no transit with a four-lane, local-access road combined with a completed build-out of the city's TRAX/MAX light-rail/bus system. Any future highway expansions will automatically trigger transit investments to maintain the balance of the system. And the entire project has been moved off of environmentally sensitive wetlands.

But even with victories like this for transit, Americans still need more-efficient cars. And the Bush administration was forced, for the first time, to hold a public hearing on how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) can deliver on that goal as Congress has mandated. Thanks to Sierra Club organizing, NHTSA heard a lot -- starting with "count honestly." NHTSA has been pretending that oil in 2015 will cost half of what it does today, because by making that assumption it can lower fuel-efficiency goals below what economics (and environmental protection) would warrant. But as Energy Daily put it, "In blistering critiques, environmentalists, consumer advocates and private citizens Monday blasted the economic assumptions used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in developing a proposal to raise the federal fuel economy standard." Almost all the witnesses called for honest counting and more ambitious goals, ones that would really protect consumers and the environment.

Almost all, of course -- the auto industry, even as its customers line up around the block for more-efficient vehicles, backed down from its earlier support for NHTSA's schedule and claimed it was too aggressive. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that earlier in the year the industry had said it would do better than what the Bush administration was proposing but is now backing down.

Toyota complained the proposed standards are "substantially front-loaded" and "increase at a rate much greater than anticipated" by the underlying law. Toyota was joined by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing most of the majors, as well as Ford. Even as they head for bankruptcy, they don't get it -- without strong federal standards they can't commit to the investments needed to cope with high price of oil -- because they will be exposed to competition from others who move more slowly if oil ever does go back down again. They need certainty, but they are terrified of it.

And Big Oil remained silent. The oil industry keeps pretending that it doesn't want to benefit from soaring demand for gasoline. It could give that position some credibility by joining the chorus and telling NHTSA what it knows -- that unless we lower demand, the price for oil is going up over the next seven years, not down. There is, after all, considerable evidence that when the oil industry speaks, the Bush administration listens.