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February 24, 2018

"Getting There" - Drivers Don't Pay Their Fair Share

Am I the only person in the state who thinks Gov Malloy’s plan for tolls and gas taxes makes sense?  Probably.  But let me try once again to overcome the usual objections and explain why Malloy’s plan is fair and necessary.

TOLLS ARE TAXES:         No, tolls are users fees.  Train fares aren’t taxes, are they?  If you don’t want to pay a few pennies a gallon more for gasoline, don’t drive.  Join us on the train and pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  There is no free ride.

I ALREADY PAY ENOUGH TAXES:       That may be your perception.  But in 1997 when legislators cut the sky-high gas taxes by 14 cents, why didn’t they tell us that would lose us $3.7 billion in needed transportation funding?  The bill has come due.

BUT I ALSO PAY A PROPERTY TAX ON MY CAR:   Sure, but it doesn’t go to fixing the roads.  That’s a town / city tax.  If you don’t like it, tell City Hall.

WE ALREADY HAVE THE HIGHEST GASOLINE TAXES:   Not so anymore.  Connecticut’s 39 cents per gallon tax is third highest in the Northeast, trailing Pennsylvania (59 cents) and New York (44 cents) and just ahead of New Jersey (37 cents). 

THE ROADS SHOULD BE FREE:          And just where in the Constitution does it say that?  This isn’t the pioneer West:  we’re talking about I-95 and the Parkways!  Driving is not like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Think of the new paradigm as an a la carte restaurant where you pay for what you eat.

TOLLS AREN’T SAFE:      Another myth since the days of the “fiery truck crash” in Milford in 1983.  Tolls don’t require barriers or booths anymore.  They’re electronic gantries over the highway reading your EZPass or license plate without slowing down.

TOLLS WILL DIVERT TRAFFIC TO LOCAL ROADS:           Maybe, for the first week.  Then people will decide if they want to waste time in traffic or pay a few cents to get where they’re going.

IF WE RAISE THE GAS TAX WHY DO WE NEED TOLLS?:           Because raising the gasoline tax can be done in weeks.  But tolls will take 2-4 years to install and by then upwards of half of all cars will be electric, paying no gas tax.  Why should a Tesla driver get a free ride?

OK, BUT JUST TOLL SOMEONE ELSE:          Sure, something like 34% of all traffic in Connecticut is from out-of-state.  But building tolls just at our borders is unconstitutional (and unfair).  We can offer a discount to CT residents, but can’t charge those driving through our state while we pay nothing.

MALLOY STOLE MONEY FROM TRANSPORTATION:        True, money has been regularly “reapportioned” from the Special Transportation Fund for years, by Rowland and Rell as well as Malloy.  You’ll get the chance to stop that in November when there’s a referendum question on the ballot for a “lock box” on the STF.

THE REAL PROBLEM IS STATE EMPLOYEE UNION CONTRACTS:          That may be so, but the SEBAC contracts were just renegotiated and approved by the legislature, so how do we undo that before the STF goes belly-up next year?

I’VE HAD ENOUGH!  I’M LEAVING THE STATE:       Sorry to see you go.  But when you say goodbye, remember you’ll have to pay tolls to NY, MA or RI on your way out.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 18, 2018

"Getting There" - Get Back on the Bus, Gus...

 Though maybe not the most glamorous means of mass transit, Connecticut’s 12,000+ local and commuter buses form a vital link in our transportation network.

“We’re not just a service for the needy few,” says Greater Bridgeport Transit’s CEO Doug Holcomb, the feisty young leader of one of the state’s largest and most successful  bus systems.

In other words, single-occupancy car drivers’ perceptions notwithstanding, it’s not just poor folks and the car-less who must rely on the bus.  According to Holcomb, 90% of GBT’s ridership is either going to school or work.  Like rail commuters, some bus passengers own cars but prefer to take the bus for any number of reasons.

GBT’s 40-foot buses average 30 passengers per bus per hour, an impressive average when you consider it includes rush hour and lower-ridership off-hours.  And it’s no wonder people take the bus when 78% of Bridgeport’s population is within a half-mile of a bus stop.

It’s the frequency of service that also makes buses attractive.  Miss one bus and there’s another along in a few minutes.  The GBT’s bilingual website makes it easy to ride the bus with maps and tutorials for first time passengers.  And the bus company even offers a real-time online map that uses GPS to show you where your bus is on its route.  Not even Metro-North can do that.

If you go to www.cttransit.com you can input your departure and end points for anywhere in the state and your bus alternatives and travel times will pop up.

Fares are cheap:  $1.75 for adults and just 85 cents for seniors.  Yet, fares cover just 35% of the cost of the ride (the rest is subsidy).  But by keeping fares affordable the bus is attracting more riders and covering more of its costs.

Sure Uber and lower gasoline prices are eating into ridership.  GBTA carries 18,000 daily riders compared to 20,000 just a few years ago.  But the bus can take you places Metro-North can’t, like the “Coastal Link” route which runs from Milford to Norwalk along the Boston Post Road.  At Milford you can connect to New Haven and at Norwalk, to Stamford.
Even the buses themselves are getting better as transit agencies upgrade their decade-old vehicles.  New buses are hybrid electric, not the old smoke-spewing diesels of years ago.  And Connecticut is now engaged in a $1.4 million study of all-electric buses, seeing if they can handle the cold and operate on our hills.  One model of electric bus can even re-charge in 5-12 minutes when it reaches the end of its route while off-loading passengers. 

One of the biggest bus successes in the state is CTfastrak, the almost three year old BRT (bus rapid transit) system running from downtown Hartford west to New Britain and more recently, as far east as UConn in Storrs.  The buses operate on a 9 mile dedicated highway and carry 400,000 riders each month on clean, sleek Wi-Fi equipped buses that depart every seven minutes.

CTfastrak has proven popular with college students, so it’s now considered “cool” to take the bus.  Who knows?   With millennials being big fans of mass transit they could give our state’s bus network a new uptick. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


February 09, 2018

"Getting There" - Zone Pricing for Gasoline


Why does gasoline cost 52 cents a gallon more in Greenwich than Bridgeport?   Is it because folks in Greenwich are richer and can afford it?  Or is it because it costs gasoline station owners more to operate in that tony zip code?

While both factors are probably true, the reason gasoline costs more in some towns than in others is because of something called “zone pricing”, an industry practice that does all but set the price for the commodity that is charged by distributors and passed along to their customers.

Lawmakers have debated zone pricing many times in recent years, but it has never been killed. I wonder why, given its apparent unfairness.  But who’s to explain the mysteries of what our lawmakers do?

Let’s follow the gasoline distribution process to better understand price-setting.
An oil tanker arrives in New Haven and offloads its cargo (there are no pipelines to our state).  There are thirty gasoline distributors in Connecticut and as they truck their gasoline to gas stations, they obviously incur costs.

Big chains of gas stations can negotiate better deals than the independently owned stations.  So to compete “Mom and Pop” gas stations often sell snack foods and such.  In effect, your beef jerky is subsidizing your cheaper gasoline.

But it’s the secret zone pricing rules, set by the distributors, that breaks the state into about 50 different zones and determines how much station owners must pay for gasoline. Pricing is determined by traffic volume, nearby income levels, the competitive landscape and other factors.  And the gas station owner is making only seven cents a gallon profit.  But if the station owners must pay more for gasoline, so will you.

When he was Connecticut’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal called zone pricing “invisible and insidious”. Yet, the courts say its legal and the Federal Trade Commission says whatever costs are added in one zone are probably offset by discounts in another.  So it all averages out, right?

Gasoline distributors also say they need flexibility to offer lower prices to gas stations competing with super-discounters like Costco.  And they also remind us that other industries have their own answer to zone pricing:  like supermarkets that may charge less for the same product in Bridgeport than they do in Fairfield, right next door.

So while we may not be willing to drive five miles for a cheaper gallon of milk, we seem happy to go a few miles out of way to save ten cents per gallon of gasoline.  Fire up your “Gas Buddy” app and happy hunting. But remember, it your car only gets 20 mpg, driving ten miles for cheap gas will cost you a gallon on the roundtrip.  Some bargain!

The state also meddles with other kinds of pricing, like for liquor.  In fact, state law requires merchants to mark up prices to a minimum price per bottle, all in an effort to preserve Mom and Pop liquor stores. Why?  Because those merchants have better lobbyists.

We didn’t feel obliged to protect small town hardware stores when Home Depot and Lowes came to town.  But we do keep all sorts of prices in our state artificially higher than necessary to protect smaller merchants selling gas and liquor.

So is “zone pricing” for gasoline really unfair, or just a state sanctioned economic reality? 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Who Speaks for Commuters ?

“Commuting on Metro-North is like getting hit with a two-by-four.  Service is getting worse and now you’re hitting us with a 10% fare hike.”

Those comments came from Jeffrey Maron, Vice-Chairman of the official Connecticut Commuter Rail Council (CCCR), a usually mild mannered, two-compliments-before-any-complaint kind of guy.  (Maron and I both served on the predecessor Metro-North Commuter Council).

But Maron’s tone had changed, as he quizzed CDOT Commission Jim Redeker at the recent CCRC meeting in Stamford where the transportation czar outlined the reasons for pending service cuts and fare hikes, i.e. the Special Transportation Fund is running dry and he has no choice but to cut expenses and raise revenue.

Maron reminded the Commissioner that Council members had offered many fund-raising suggestions, but never got the courtesy of a reply. “This is what  pi—es off the rider,” said Maron, raising his voice (which I have never, ever heard him do).  “We make suggestions and hear crickets.”

Maron was right.  Commuters’ suggestions should be heard, considered and accepted or rejected which explanation.  But Jeff’s ideas would amount to chump change compared to the funding really needed… like handing you a pool float as a tsunami hits.

Why not wrap all Metro-North cars in advertising, like our buses?  “That might bring in a million dollars,” said Redeker.  “So you don’t care about a million dollars?” asked Maron.  Probably not, when the STF will be $338 million in the red by 2022.

Why not collect all tickets?  Reasonable idea, but the needed staffing would cost more than the additional revenue collected, said the Commissioner.

Rubbing salt in the wound, Maron reminded the Commissioner of how much time and money he had wasted trying to repair, then demolish and privatize, the Stamford rail parking garage, a TOD project very dear to Redeker’s heart (and reputation).

And so it went as Commuter Council members (only half of whom even bothered to show up) bickered with Redeker and representatives of Metro-North.  Maron was right.  The Council gets no respect.

Which is why I resigned in 2013, after serving on that body for 19 years, the last four as Chairman.  The monthly meetings were a waste of time because neither side was listening to the other.

Over the years I’ve found that even simple questions require complex answers.  And there is usually a logical explanation for why the railroad has screwed up something.  Despite what curmudgeon commuters may think, the folks at CDOT and Metro-North are not stupid.  They’re just dealing with a complicated operation with insufficient resources and little margin of error.

So, why was the Commuter Council blaming Redeker for fare hikes and service cuts that he never wanted to make?  Instead, why weren’t they asking legislators what they will do to fund the STF?  The Council members weren’t listening.

So who’s really looking out for rail commuters’ interests?  It sure ain’t hypocritical lawmakers who claim to be fighting the fare hike necessitated by their own legislative inaction.

And sadly, I don’t think it’s the Commuter Council.  They’ve lost any credibility by their inability to deal with these issues with anything but bickering.

Nor do I pretend to that responsibility, though I’m usually the media’s go-to-guy for a soundbite.  I’m not even a full-time commuter anymore.

At this point I think it’s every man and woman for themselves. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.