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Oil Shock: Consumer Impact

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Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008; 11:00 AM

The American ideal of large homes, big cars and distant suburbs was underwritten by cheap gas, but those days are gone as gas and oil prices have recently climbed.

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Washington Post staff writer Eric M. Weiss will be online Tuesday, Aug. 5 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss how high oil and gas prices are impacting people's commuting and lifestyle habits.

A transcript follows.

About this series: The Washington Post is examining the economic forces that have unhinged oil prices from their longtime cyclical patterns, propelling fuel costs to once unimaginable levels that are now both fraying the lifestyles of our recent past and speeding the search for an energy source of the future.

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Eric Weiss: Good morning!

I'll be happy to answer any questions or comments about today's story on the suburbs. Since I am the transportation reporter, not an oil price expert, questions about commodity pricing will just confuse me.

So let's get started!

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Fredericksburg, Va.: My husband and I just bought a house.The biggest selling points were that it was downtown and only three blocks from the train station. Both of us work downtown and walk to work. The proximity to the train station gives us the opportunity to look for (higher paying) jobs in D.C. and avoid the I-95 commute. But what I would really love to see is for Amtrak or VRE to offer more routes on weekends for day-trips. If we want to see a Nationals game on a Sunday afternoon, we have very limited (and prohibitively expensive) options of taking a morning train into the District and an evening train back to Fredericksburg. We still have to get in our car, drive to Springfield (40 minutes) and take the Metro to the ballpark. I understand that is the general complaint from people living in points west of the District who drive to Vienna and Metro in, but here in Fredericksburg we actually have the tracks, the trains, and the station. As gas prices started to rise rapidly, I was probably one of the few people happy because I thought it would help rail and other public transportation efforts. Now with prices dropping again I worry that Americans will just get used to the prices and continue to drive. What would it take to get Amtrak or VRE to consider more convenient (and affordable) weekend, day-trip friendly routes and, more importantly, what would it take to get more people to use them?

Eric Weiss: Thanks for your question. I beleive one of the problems of a lack of service is that VRE doesn't own its tracks, freight railroads do, and allow VRE trains to run on their tracks during rush hours.

That, as well as a shortage of rail cars and storage space is keeping VRE from expanding to meet the needs. But their plans are big.

On the other hand, Fredericksburg is far away from Washington, so it makes sense that it is a long, expensive trip to a Nationals game or other city amenities. I assume that was part of the decision when you bought out there.

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Baltimore, Md.: Your article quoted U.S, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters saying, "We've passed that tipping point." Is she ready to recommend a change in federal transportation policy, e.g. putting federal support for highways and transit on an equal footing? As you are aware, federal matching funds give states and local governments a strong incentive to opt for highways.

Eric Weiss: She has strongly advocated more independence for states to make their own transportation decisions and has pushed for more public/private inititiaves. Her department recently financed more than $1 billion for the Captital Beltway HOT lanes, a project between Virginia and private companies.

Peters is in a tough situation because her department is running out of money. Since a lot of transportation funding on both highways and transit come from fuel taxes, the fewer miles we travel and the fewer gallons of gas we put in our vehicles means less money for roads and transit.

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Laytonsville, Md.: Hi Mr. Weiss, why are you so Virginia focused? Why was there no mention of the impact of high fuel prices on people in Montgomery County, Maryland? After all, according to your newspaper, Montgomery is the wealthiest, most populous, and allegedly most politically powerful county in Maryland.

Second question. Can you give me an example where an alleged planned community actually worked the way it was planned? I mean where in the DC Metroplex are there any communities where the vast majority of people who live there, work there, play there, recreate there, and go to school there? I doubt that you can find any example of this.

It's a great ideal, but it has failed so far.

Eric Weiss: Hmm. I believe the stories we wrote about the Intercounty Connector would stack as thick as a phonebook. And we continue to follow closely events regarding the proposed Purple Line and other Maryland initiatives.

However, Virginia's transportation funding problems, the worsening traffic situation there and the ongoing saga over Dulles Rail, HOT Lane and other issues has dominated the headlines in recent years.

It's a seesaw effect.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I do not understand why John McCain is mocking Barack Obama for asking Americans to properly inflate their tires. The federal government estimates that this step can improve gas mileage by about three percent, which translates to more than two bucks every tank of gas. It also would save -- right now! -- more than offshore drilling would contribute to available gasoline twenty years from now. So why has this so quickly become a joke, with GOP operatives sending tire pressure gauges to journalists?

Eric Weiss: Everyone, presidential candidates, journalists and political operatives alike, should drive on properly inflated tires.

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Arlington, Va.: I am currently living in a 3BR townhouse a block from the Ballston Metro, but can't help but pine for a big McMansion in Ashburn. You're saying that I can blame years of bad government policy for my misguided desires?

Eric Weiss: You can live wherever you wish. Just count on it being expensive and your commute congested.

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Rockville, Md.: Why doesn't the energy market use more long-term pricing instead of using spot markets? I don't know if parts of it do; maybe when Exxon buys from Saudi Arabia, they do use a long-term price. It's not like supply and demand are highly volatile for motor fuel, although it is for heating.

Remember when gas was $2/gal around the time of the last election? (hint: don't be too surprized if that happens again) Well, I bought a commodity future ETF in my Roth IRA, effectively hedging my fuel consumption for the next 25 years. It's like what Southwest Airlines does to hedge their fuel costs.

How come more parts of the economy aren't designed to do the same thing, seeing as energy prices are its more important form of unpredicatability?

Eric Weiss: You lost me on ETF...

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Clifton, Va.: I commute about 20 miles each way to my job in Ballston. I currently live in an upscale townhouse.

I do not want to live in Ballston in a condo. Sorry. Having neighbors on both sides is bad enough. And my HOA refuses to allow livestock. For the cost of a single family home in Arlington I can move further out to a farm. And I dont want a local socialist government controlling every facet of my life. And my neighbors acting as political commissars.

My next move will be further out. 10-20 acres for the dogs so they can can have 15-20 sheep to work. The further away my neighbors are the better.

And yeah I do need that SUV to haul my dogs to herding trials. Hey it doesn't pollute as much as my 1500lb 300hp Catherham Super 7 and they both get the same gas mileage. Most of my freinds and colleagues feel the same way. Close in means too many neighbors and socialism.

Eric Weiss: Sounds great! I wish I could live on a farm far away from car alarms. But I work at 15th and L Streets in the District, and it would be a long and expensive commute.

Good luck with the sheep!

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Reston, Va.: I've never understood why people complain after deliberately moving 2 hours away from their work or buying an egergiously large house.

Why is the WaPo giving them ANY space, and why should we feel sorry for these people? They CHOSE their commute and their stupidly large house!!!

Eric Weiss: True, but the exurbs have grown exponentially and are an answer for people who want a single-family house in the suburbs but can't afford Fairfax or Montgomery.

You may disagree with their choices, but these are our neighbors and co-workers.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: You say that government policies have "starved mass transit," yet just a few paragraphs later you cite the numbers:

"Federal spending is about 4 to 1 in favor of highways over transit. Today, more than 99 percent of the trips taken by U.S. residents are in cars or some other non-transit vehicle."

This tells me that mass transit gets 25 times the amount of subsidy per trip that auto travel does. So how is this starving mass transit? Also, you don't spell out whether how you are treating gasoline tax revenues. If the federal or state government collects $1 in gasoline taxes, and uses the revenues to build roads, is this a subsidy or a user fee?

You quote all manner of opponents to the current pattern of low-density suburbs and auto commuting, but only one who explains that the current pattern exists because that's what Americans prefer--and he gets only 2 sentences. Lots of economists and other researchers have studied these issues for a long time, and could have elaborated on the issue from the point of view of personal choices and market outcomes, rather than explaining it as the result of "starving mass transit." It doesn't look like you spoke to any of them; CATO Institute in Washington or Heartland Institute in Montana could have put you in contact with many such researchers.

For the record, I am a Democrat, my wife and I have only one car, and I bicycle to work (Chevy Chase to Capitol Hill) except during the winter, when I take the metro.

Eric Weiss: The story today was about how rising gas prices has made exurban living more expensive and that there seems to be a growing desire for more alternatives to the sprawling lifestyle.

We have been writing about the suburbs since the end of World War II. That has been the default way of growth in this country for decades and government spending reflects taht. Today's story was asking whether rising gas prices will change that? That was what I was exploring.

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Clifton, Va.: Is it the government's role to tell you how to live your life?

The automobile is not going away. The way we fuel them may change, and hopefully will break us from our dependence on oil. However, we will ALWAYS need roads.

You are right in saying Federal spending is unbalanced in transportation. However, you assert that it's tipped in favor of highways. If spending 25% of funds on public transit only yields 1% of ridership, that's a signal that we should be spending MORE ON ROADS, as they are and will continue to be the optimal form of transportation for a free and propsperous nation.

Eric Weiss: Government has been responding to how people want to live their lives by funding highways at the expense of transit.

But roads fill up. And the more roads you build, the more traffic you get. This is a fact. Look at Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston and other cities that have tried to ease congestion by building more capacity. It's a losing game.

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Loudoun, Va.: So, if one chooses to live in the exurbs because that's where they work, are they still a bad person? The reader comments to the Post article essentially vilified anyone who has chosen to live far outside the Beltway. Even though my house out here is less than 3000 sq. ft., should I pack up and move to a small rambler in Falls Church so I can have a really long commute out to my job near Dulles Airport? It seems unfair of the Post's readers to assume everyone who lives in Loudoun, Prince William, etc. is a wasteful monster!

Eric Weiss: I think you are good person, Loudoun, a very good person. It's great that you live close to work and, presumably have an easy commute and can spend more time with your family or your model trains or whatever.

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Arlington, Va.: The people that chose to move way out so they can get their fancy new house, their big yard, and big SUV get no sympathy from me.

When we purchased our home we decided that a small home with a short commute was more important. Sure it's an older small home that isn't fancy but I have 15 minute commute - on a BAD day! While they are sitting in traffic I am at home playing with my kids and enjoying my littlepiece of the world.

My co-worker complains everyday about gas and her commute yet when I asked her if she would rather have a short commute or a big house, she said big house.

She CHOSE to live out there so she should quit complaining. The fact that gas is $4 sucks but it finally makes people think about their choices when it comes to purchasing everything.

Obviously this does not apply to those that had no choice.

Eric Weiss: This is not a debate about good people. It's about choices. But when your co-worker made a choice to live far out, she made certain assumptions about gas prices and congestion, and she has lost the bet on both of those.

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Vienna, Va.: The government spending on highways is a simple response to demand. More people drive than take public transit, because it is far and away the best mode of travel.

Public transit is inefficeint, commanding huge government subsidies to keep them rolling.

We should be spending more money on suburban highways because suburban taxes are paying an increasingly large percentage of the total pie.

Eric Weiss: As I said earlier, builing more highway capacity has been the policy of the government for years now. And congestion is only getting worse.

What is the alternative?

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Short vs. Long Commute: Mr Weiss,

I think that you are missing the point. Many of us weighed the cost of living far away from where we work, and made the best choice we could. We're SICK of listening to people who made their choice and decided to complain about it later.

If they don't like it, they can change. Otherwise, can we please talk about a more appropriate topic?

Eric Weiss: Many people, especially those who can afford putting $100 in their tank, are not complaining.

But if you are one of those who were assuming $2 a gallon gasoline when you moved to Ashburn and commute to the Pentagon, you might be complaining.

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Harrisburg Pa.: I love this article. As someone who has always chosen to live in a city, I find it amusing when those who choose the suburban lifestyle complain that they have to take a long and expensive trip to get to downtown events. Too bad, I say, you are paying the price for your decision. I bought a condo in downtown DC last year as a second home, and love it. Anyone considering buying anywhere should check out www.walkscore.com - put in an address and you get a walkability score. Both my homes score in the high 90s.

Eric Weiss: Many people cannot afford a condo in the District, and are worried about DC's higher crime rates and poor schools.

Your decision is not for everyone.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm a single guy who lives by the Metro and has little need to venture far from my apartment.

But when I get married, have kids, etc., will I want them to go to a D.C. public school? Or do I want to pay 50 percent of my salary to send them to private school?

Many people move out because the schools are far better away from the city.

What about you Eric? You live in DC, where will your kids go to school?

Eric Weiss: Now we're getting personal. Yes, I live in Adams Morgan. But I commuted daily to Manassas for a year and a half and have the gray hairs to prove it.

Like others in our situation, we are hoping that DC schools improve--fast.

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23112: Honestly, what bothers me more than oil prices is just how giddy and smug (there's that word again) some of the commentary gets. We get it, you people like living in the city, where you're close to everything and you live in tidy little boxes. I don't have a McMansion by any means, but I rather like having a yard with trees and woodsy areas around me, where I can take my two boys and my dog out for walks where I don't have to worry about them getting off the sidewalks and into traffic. Sheesh. We did townhouse living and rode the Metro too before we made haste for Richmond's outlying suburbs.

Eric Weiss: Good for you. I'd love to have a yard and trees, and I love Richmond's Fan District. However, I work in downtown DC, so the commute would be a little much.

Also, others can just pick up and move to Richmond or someplace else that has a cheaper cost of living. The DC area is expensive because there are jobs and a thriving economy.

I used to live in Hartford, and housing was cheap and there was practically no traffic congestion.

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Socialism? Huh?: Clifton, Va. doesn't want to live close in because of neighbors and socialism? That's one of the most unique explanations for wanting to live on a farm that I've heard. Animal lover, nature lover, wants to run a farm, wants to run a ranch--I understand those reasons for moving out. I guess I'd have to hear his/her explanation of socialism, but I do find HOAs a little crazy and an example of the nanny state--like, why can't I have a clothes line to dry clothes when it is 95 outside? However, as Clifton, Va's previous post was written, it seems he/she is assuming that moving out to the country will assure that he/she is around like minded people who won't be busy bodies or have any undesirable beliefs like those in dense areas. Seems like a kind of wierd belief system--I grew up on a farm and live in DC proper now. I didn't encounter socialism in either location, and encountered busy bodies in both! People in the country don't all share the same beliefs either.

Eric Weiss: There is a country song, I think by Gretchen Wilson, in which she sings that everyone dies famous in a small town.

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Washington, D.C.: What's interesting is we finally have some semblance of people starting to pay for more of their true costs of living further out. When cheap gas and free roads help people live further out, we all suffer with higher congestion, higher air pollution and more energy dependence.

The big question is, how does this region start to match up housing centers and employment centers? Too many small counties each with their own agendas makes it difficult.

Eric Weiss: The environmental costs of our current mode of suburban living has not been mentioned in the chat or in my story. But even outer suburbs such as Prince William are struggling with air quality. So much for hanging out in the backyard.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a great 3000 sq ft townhouse in Washington, D.C. in a great neighborhood, but I grew up in a giant Potomac home on an acre of land. I cannot get away from a house plan that includes a den AND a guest room AND a kids' swingset AND a vegetable garden. It's literally eating at me. Do you see those houses decreasing in prices drastically enough that I could sell my house for $900k because people can walk to work and getting that big backyard?

Eric Weiss: People who can afford such homes in Potomac will likely not be making housing decisions on the price of a gallon of gas.

However, many of the expensive urban condos are being sold to empty-nesters, who prefer urban living to the suburbs.

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Alexandria, Va.: I share the concern of Fredricksburg that "Now with prices dropping again I worry that Americans will just get used to the prices and continue to drive." We need to have a continuing reinforcement of those individual conservation efforts that have helped bring prices down recently. Ideally, it would be some NON-price based method, as that has been so destructive of people's livelihoods- especially the most vulnerable. For example, we could legislatively impose gasoline pump limits (initially 15 gallons without repeats, dropping a gallon each subsequent year) for card-paying customers. If they truly NEEDED more, they could pay with cash at the counter. Most drivers could simply make the basic allotment go farther by driving conservatively, rather than experience the added time and effort to get a greater amount.

Also, as NO pump limits would be imposed for those dispensing biofuel blends greater than 20%, consumers would be motivated to obtain vehicles using more sustainable and carbon-neutral fuels. With this method, even the affluent could participate in the critical effort to kick the petroleum habit.

Eric Weiss: I'm neither environmentalist nor psychologist, but doubling the price of gas seems to have given conservation a larger boost than 1,000 Al Gore speeches.

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New Orleans, La.: Despite all the crying out on the part of our politicians particularly ones in NY state and California about profits made by the oil companies, I would point out the other side of this story. The NY State public employees retirement fund, the NY state teacher retirement fund and the California state public employees retirement fund own literally billons of dollars of stock in oil companies.

Please consider that you money is going there not just some faceless oil baron when you fill up your tank.

Eric Weiss: Interesting point.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Let's keep it in perspective. If I commute an extra 40 miles (roundtrip) because I live way out, that adds about 9,500 miles to my annual driving. At 20 mpg that adds up to 475 gallons or $1900 per year at $4 a gallon.

What do I do? Pay $25,000 to buy a hybrid that saves me $1200 per year? Even that sounds better than uprooting my family and move closer in to save $160 per month. Some will move but I expect most people will grumble and pay it.

Eric Weiss: Interesting question. I think there was recently an article suggesting that it might make more personal financial sense to hold on to your gas-guzzler rather than buy a gas-sipper right now.

The resale values of SUV are through the floor and Prius' and other econo cars are selling for a premium. It depends on your situation.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: I read in a response on here that the more roads you build, the more congestion you get. You referenced LA and Atlanta.

This is simply a fallacious argument. Roads do not cause congestion. People, jobs and a vibrant economy cause congestion.

Do you think building schools cause over-crowded classrooms?

Eric Weiss: I said earlier that the there is a correlation between congestion and a vibrant economy. But in vibrant economies, builing more roads does not solve congestion. Check out Shanghai and Beijing, which have been on a road-building tear in recent years. What did they get? More cars and more congestion.

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Springfield, Va.: Not everyone who lives in the suburbs has a McMansion, is fat, and drives an SUV. Sheesh. Since I've lived the D.C. area, I've moved from Dupont, to Ballston, and now to Springfield. My husband and I share one car that gets over 30 mpg. While a 1971 house isn't ancient, I would hardly say that qualifies as new, esp not when you're scraping off the original 1971 wallpaper. We chose to live in Springfield because the schools are good, and yes, we do have some semblance of a yard. It's not huge though. While our commute by Metro has grown, it still beats taking the Orange Crush any day of the week.

Eric Weiss: No one called anyone fat.

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Fairfax, Va.: In the last 50 years or so the nation has added upon 100 million people. Are you seriously contending that if government had spent less on highways and more on public transit we would have less congestion today?

Do you similarly think that classrooms in Loudoun, Montgomery and other area counties would be less crowded today had they built fewer schools and hired fewer teachers?

If you look at Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston and Washington, DC you will find that the real problem is that many roads planned to manage today's population levels were never built.

Roads weren't built, people and jobs came anyway.

Today's congestion is not the result of trying to build our way out of congestion, but the result of lack of political will to build what was planned and needed.

Eric Weiss: The question is not highways versus transit, but density versus sprawl. If you choose sprawl, there is not enough concrete and asphalt in the world to keep up with traffic.

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Washington, D.C.: I grew-up in an inner ring suburb where people either worked downtown (and often took the bus to get there) or worked fairly close-by (10-15 minutes by car). The houses were small and on postage stamp-sized yards, but typically the houses went through much remodeling and the yars were well tended and lush, with homowners outtside all weekend. The children of those people (my peers) tend to live further out in bigger houses with bigger yards, but they all claim to have no time for their yards, etc. and don't use all the space they have. Indeed, you're more likely to see people out tending their yards here in DC if their in the city or close-in than further out. People complain about DC schools, but frankly, despite the high performers like Walter Johnson, BCC, etc., most suburban schools here are mediocre or worse and canny parents in big cities like DC know how to navigate the city school systems and get their kids a dcent education.

Eric Weiss: Another problem is that the children who grew up in Arlington, Fairfax or Montgomery can't afford to buy a house in the neighborhood where they grew up, because prices have gone up so much.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I'd suggest that those who say they can't afford downtown D.C. are really saying they can't afford the big house with 3 bedrooms, 3 baths and yard they want. Maybe they need to think about living smaller? The time they trade in the commute for time with the kids just might be worth it. Schools? If there is demand, reasonably priced privates will open. Crime? Last time I looked some of the suburban areas had pretty bad crime problems, too.

Eric Weiss: That is a good point. There are families in New York City and in cities across the world who are raising kids in small apartments and see no problem. There are plenty of parks in the city. Where is it written that kids need a private park in their own backyard?

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Baltimore, Md.: I don't begrudge people who want a house with a yard and a garage. But 95 percent of the people around here driving Suburbans and Escalades don't need a vehicle big enough to tow a horse trailer. Those folks deserve $4/gallon gas, in my opinion.

Eric Weiss: That is their choice. If one can afford an Escalade, I imagine they can afford the gas to put into it.

Some people buy SUV because of the perceived safety of a large vehicle, others buy them because they like to see over traffic.

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Freising, Germany: You wrote, "Home prices in the far suburbs, such as Prince William and Loudoun counties, have collapsed; those in the District and inner suburbs have stayed the same or increased".

I realize that abandoning the concept of having your own four wheels may be something for the future, but do you think that there will be an interest in expanding the public transport systems in larger American cities?

Eric Weiss: The problem with expanding heavy-rail systems such as Metro to the suburbs is that there is no way to capture all of the suburb-to-suburb commuting that is now going on. Tysons Corner is second only to downtown DC in the number of job.

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Silver Spring, Md.: We could do a lot to curb sprawl if DC and Prince Georges County would fix their schools. I put up with the crime, taxes, noise, government corruption and cost of living in DC. And then I became a parent. I joined the parental march out of the the District and know that I did the right thing for my family.

Fix the darn schools.

Eric Weiss: You have really hit the nail on the head. The eastern part of the region has underused Metro stations and cheaper housing close-in. Also, the District can accommodate a larger population than it has currently.

The big problem is schools. Without good schools, you lose families and end up with cities filled with the young and old.

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Bridgewater, Mass.:"Like others in our situation, we are hoping that DC schools improve--fast."

Sound like high gas prices may be the saving of our city schools.

Eric Weiss: I hope you're right.

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Eric Weiss: Our time is up. Thanks so much for the interesting discussion.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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