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April 26, 2006

Why We Need Higher Gasoline Prices

President Bush was right. America is addicted to oil. So why are all us junkies complaining that our oily “fix” is too expensive? We chose our addiction, and either we pay up or go to rehab.
I’m so tired of watching news stories about drivers moaning about the price of fuel as they fill their SUV’s. You want to drive a tank? Pay for it!

Let’s put gas pricing in the proper perspective. A gallon of gas costs less than a latte grande at Starbucks, yet nobody complains about the caffeine cartel. It costs you less to go 20 or 25 miles in your car than you pay for a gallon of milk. Yet nobody’s moaning about rising price of moo-juice.

Think gas is pricey here? Travel abroad and see what the rest of the world pays for fuel. In Canada it’s US$ 5 per gallon, in Europe it’s US$ 6 per gallon. Admittedly, much of those prices is additional taxes (used to subsidize cheaper mass transit), but the result of those prices and taxes is greater fuel efficiency and less traffic.

According to the EPA, Fairfield County’s air is as dirty as LA’s, thanks in part to car and truck exhausts. Moms obsess about protecting their kids’ health by buying expensive organic milk, then drive to the supermarket in pollution machines.

Face it. Americans have been spoiled for years with cheap gas prices. So why are prices increasing now. Greed? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a matter of (limited) supply and (insatiable) demand.

Depending on whom you believe, we have maybe 50 years of oil left in the planet. And yet, nobody’s really doing anything to plan for our post-gasoline transportation needs. Even the few higher-mileage hybrid cars that are available still rely on gas.

Where’s the equivalent “put a man on the moon” R&D effort to produce a hydrogen-powered car, let alone an all-electric vehicle? Nowhere. Even motorists who’d buy such a car can’t find one to purchase.

Instead, we drive prestige autos worth more than a college tuition payment… and pay annual town taxes on those status symbols that are greater than the annual income of workers in the third world. And yet we have the nerve to complain about gas prices going up a few pennies at the pump?

Do you really believe we’ve sacrificed thousands of American lives in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq in the cause of democracy? In your heart of hearts, you know these wars are over oil; and our despot allies in Saudi Arabia know it, too.

As oil becomes scarcer, the Chinese demand becomes greater and drilling gets more precarious (as in Alaska’s ANWR), the only solution is to let gas prices move higher to encourage conservation. That should mean smaller cars, better use of fuel-efficient mass transit and, yes, less driving.

I’m neither a tree-hugger nor a Communist. I’m just trying to be realistic. Because I know that, in the long run, our grandchildren will curse us if the legacy we leave them is a gasoline-based transportation system we should have weaned ourselves from years ago.

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

April 09, 2006

The Plan to Widen I-95

Among the wackiest solutions to our never-ending traffic problems on I-95 was the one floated by then-Commissioner of Public Safety (the CT State Police), Art Spada. He suggested double-decking the highway. Although Spada is gone, his idea lives on. The Stamford Chamber of Commerce keeps talking up the plan as did a state lawmaker in the current session.

Just imagine: a ten-year construction project costing billions of dollars… huge fly-over bridges… construction tie-ups… pollution… and on day one when it opened, traffic would swell to fill the new lanes and we’d be back to square one. We complain enough that I-95 always seems under construction, but this “double-decking” idea is patently absurd.

The answer isn’t double-decking or, that other non-starter idea offered by Governor Rowland, allowing traffic to drive in the break-down (emergency rescue) lane.

Ask any engineer and they’ll tell you that I-95 is an out-of-date disaster. Nearing it’s 50th anniversary, the ramps are too short and the lanes too narrow, especially around the bottle-necks we know so well… northbound coming into Stamford and approaching Exits 13 and 14 in Norwalk.

So, if we’re not going to double-deck it, why not at least widen I-95? Well, that’s not going to happen for any number of reasons… not enough land, it’s too expensive, and environmental opposition will drag it out in the courts for years.

Several years ago, a fourth lane southbound was added from Exit 10 (Darien) to Exit 8 (Stamford). The construction took over three years and it cost almost $50 million, or about $15 million a mile. And did all that asphalt do anything to improve driving times? Not really.

But our friends at CDOT are trying again. They have plans to add a pseudo fourth lane from Greenwich to Westport. But rather than calling it a “widening” of the highway, these new lanes are being given a new euphemism, “operational lanes.”

Running from each on-ramp to the next off-ramp, these new lanes would allow vehicles to enter the highway, build up speed and merge without the Indy-500 style acceleration required with our short on-ramps of today. Exiting traffic would have a chance to move right long before the Exit, allowing through-traffic to pass on the left.

Some of this might help, especially around the Stamford and Norwalk bottlenecks that back up traffic for miles. The first project in this “operational lane” scheme is set for Darien and will be in the less-than one mile stretch between Exits 10 and 11. The cost will be $3.5 million. (A public hearing will be held on the plan on Thursday April 20th, 7 pm at Darien Town Hall.)

I never expect to see I-95 finished in my lifetime. I just wish we’d stop pouring money into concrete and steel and invest it instead in better mass transit. That’s the way to improve traffic… get cars off the roads by putting passengers on the trains.

But as I testified recently before a legislative hearing in Hartford: “This building is crawling with lobbyists for highway construction interests, but who’s here speaking for the interests of commuters and mass transit?”

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 15 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com