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January 31, 2016

Tolls, Taxes and Transportation

I hate to say “I told you so”, but…  Just as I’d predicted, Governor Malloy’s hand-picked Transportation Finance Panel has finally issued its recommendations for paying for the governor’s 30-year,  $100 billion transportation “plan”. 
First off, the Governor’s “plan” is not a plan but a wish-list of projects for all 169 towns and cities in the state.  It has been vetted by no one and has no priorities, (though CDOT
Commissioner Redeker says about two-thirds [$66 billion] would be for repairs and replacement of what we already have, not any grandiose schemes for monorails down the middle of I-95.)
Interestingly, as it began work last summer the Transportation Finance Panel wasn’t allowed to debate the merits of anything in the Governor’s “plan”, so all they could do was suggest how to fund the whole thing. 
Atop their newly issued report is a telling quote:  “If something’s worth having, it’s worth paying for.”  Duh!  But that’s a pretty soft sell on this mega-plan given the unpopularity of their funding suggestions:
  • ·       Raise the gasoline tax two cents a year for seven years
  • ·       Hike bus and rail fares 2.5% annually
  • ·       Introduce electronic tolls on highways with congestion (time of day) pricing.
  • ·       Land value capture at transit sites

That last idea is a doozey.  It suggests that if someone owns private land next to a new transit station and it appreciates in value, the increased taxes collected by the town should be shared with the state.
That is perilously close to last year’s Machiavellian bill that would have created a quasi-state agency, the Transit Corridor Development Agency (all of whose members would be appointed by the Governor) which would have the power of eminent domain on any land within a half mile of a bus or train station.  Though rejected, that idea is already being re-thought by OPM, so watch out this session.

But before you set your hair on fire… don’t worry.  All of this is moot.  Nothing is going to happen, and here’s why.
The Governor says that none of his panel’s proposals should even be discussed until there is a transportation “lock box” in place.  That won’t happen until November’s election and will depend on passage of a constitutional amendment ballot question.
Why the delay?  Because the Democrats in the legislature don’t want to have to vote on something as unpopular as tolls or taxes before the next election.
Meanwhile, even Governor Malloy seems distracted from his transportation mega-plans, as he is rumored to be lobbying for a cabinet seat in the Clinton administration come 2017. And the Presidential campaign season will doubtless see Governor Malloy on the road quite a bit on behalf of his could-be boss.


So don’t look for a widened I-95, high-speed rail or new deep-water ports anytime soon.  The legislature will be busy with more important things, like getting re-elected, before they can deal with funding the Malloy “plan”.

January 26, 2016

Don't Blame the Trucks



Driving to Hartford the other day (no, you cannot really get there by train) I saw a beautiful sight:  hundreds of trucks!  Yet, motorists hate trucks and mistakenly blame them for traffic congestion and accidents that cause hours of delays.
Readers of this column know I’m a “rail guy” and would love to see freight trains replace trucks, but that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.  But as motorists we should not blame truckers for traffic woes of our own creation.
Check the facts and you’ll find most highway accidents are caused by motor cars, not the trucks.
Do trucks drive too fast?  Sure, but don’t we all?  Next time you’re on I-95 check who’s in the high-speed left lane and you’ll see cars, not trucks.
Should there be better safety inspections of trucks?  Absolutely!  But for every over-weight truck or over-worked truck driver there are doubtless hundreds of unsafe cars and equally road-weary warriors behind the wheel whose reckless disregard endangers us all.
Truckers drive for a living.  They are tested and licensed to far more rigorous standards than anyone else.  And because they drive hundreds of miles each day, overall I think they are far better drivers.  When’s the last time you saw a trucker juggling a cellphone and a latte like some soccer moms?
And remember… they’re not out there driving their big-rigs up and down the highway just to annoy us.  We put those trucks on the road by our voracious consumption patterns.  Every product we buy at stores large and small, including the very newspaper or iPad you hold in
your hand, was delivered by trucks.  Want fewer trucks on the road?  Just stop buying stuff.
By definition, trucks are high-occupancy vehicles.  Compare the energy efficiency of a loaded truck delivering its cargo to you in your “SOV” (single occupancy vehicle), even if it is a hybrid.  Only rail offers better fuel efficiency.
Why are trucks jamming our highways at rush hour?  Because merchants require them to drive at those times to meet the stores’ delivery timetable.  If big-box stores and supermarkets only took truck deliveries in the overnight hours, our highways would flow much better at rush hour. 
Truckers must use the interstates while passenger cars can chose among many alternate routes.  Why is the average distance driven on I-95 in Connecticut just eleven miles?  Because most of us drive the ‘pike for local, not interstate trips.
If we were smart enough to “value price” our highways (ie return tolling) we’d see fewer vehicles of all kinds on I-95, and those that were willing to pay for the privilege of motoring there would get real value in a faster ride.
I’m hardly an apologist for the trucking lobby.  But neither is it fair for us to blame anyone but ourselves for highway safety and congestion.  It’s the SOV crowd, not the truckers, who are to blame. 
Let’s be honest about this mess of our own making and stop trying to blame truckers as our scapegoat.  As the great philosopher Pogo once put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

January 01, 2016

Speed Limits, Safety and Fuel Efficiency



Crawling along I-95 the other day in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic, I snickered when I noticed the “Speed Limit 55” sign alongside the highway.  I wish!
Of course, when the highway is not jammed, speeds are more like 70 mph with the legal limit, unfortunately, rarely being enforced.  Which got me thinking:  who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?
Why is the speed limit on I-95 in Fairfield County only 55 mph but 65 mph east of New Haven?  And why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the NY border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”?  Why does the eastern half of the state get a break?
Blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT.  This body regulates everything from speed limits to traffic signals, working with local traffic authorities
(usually local Police Departments, mayors or Boards of Selectmen).
OSTA is also responsible for traffic rules for trucks (usually lower speed limits) including the ban on their use of the left hand lane on I-95 in most places.
It was the Federal government (Congress) that dropped the Interstate speed limit to 55 mph in 1973 during the oil crisis, only to raise it to 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the ban altogether in 1995 (followed by a 21% increase in fatal crashes),  leaving it each state to decide what’s best.
In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads support 80 mph.  Trust me… having recently driven 1000+ miles in remote stretches of Utah, things happen very
fast when you’re doing 80 – 85 mph!
About half of Germany’s famed Autobahns have speed limits of 100 km/hr (62 mph), but outside of the cities the top speed is discretionary. A minimum of 130 km/hr (81 mph) is generally the rule, but top speed can often be 200 km/hr (120 mph).
Mind you, the Autobahn is a superbly maintained road system without the bone-rattling potholes and divots we enjoy on our highways.  And the German-built Mercedes and Audis on these roads are certainly engineered for such speed.
American cars are designed for maximum fuel efficiency in the 55 – 60 mph range.  Speed up to 65 mph and your engine runs 8% less efficient.  At 70 mph the loss is 17%.  That adds up to more money spent on gasoline and more environmental pollution, all to save a few minutes of driving time.
But an even bigger for the loss of fuel efficiency is aerodynamic drag, which can eat up to 40% of total fuel consumption.  Lugging bulky roof-top cargo boxes worsens fuel economy by 25% at interstate speeds.  So does carrying junk in your trunk (or passengers!):  a 1% penalty for every 100 pounds.
Even with cheaper gasoline, it all adds up!