May 31, 2011

Why Can't They..... ???

Simple problems require simple solutions.  And when it comes to solving our transportation woes, we consumers always wonder whey “they” can’t fix things quickly by doing what seems obvious and simple.  Take the following, for example…

Why can’t they make the bathrooms on the trains stink less?
Why can’t we have heat in the winter and AC in the summer, instead of vice versa?
Why can’t conductors announce each stop instead of hiding from passengers?
Why can’t they collect all tickets on the trains?
Why can’t the railroad treat us like valued customers instead of like cattle?
Why can’t we have competition among private carriers on commuter rail?
Why can’t they serve coffee and pastries in the bar cars in the morning?
Why can’t we have WiFi on our trains like Amtrak’s Acela?
Why can’t we get a rebate on our tickets when trains are late, service is cut or we can’t get a seat?
Why can’t they build more parking at the stations to cut the five-year wait for permits?
Why can’t I buy a ten-trip ticket that doesn’t expire in six months before I’ve used all the rides?
Why can’t they put a map at every station showing the local businesses and how to get there without taking a cab?
Why can’t Metro-North offer “quiet cars” like Amtrak, NJ Transit and the MBTA do?
Why can’t I buy a ticket on the train using a credit card?
Why can’t Hartford lawmakers all be required to ride Metro-North at rush hour for a week to know what their constituents endure all year?
Why can’t we do something about replacing the crumbling Stamford rail station garage instead of studying, talking and doing nothing for five years?
Why can’t towns leave station waiting rooms open evenings and weekends, especially in cold weather?
Why can’t they improve security on our trains instead of making us do their job with “If you see something, say something”?

Why can’t they get disabled vehicles off the road faster, avoiding back-ups?
Why can’t town police direct traffic when back-ups on I-95 send cars pouring onto the Post Road?
Why can’t they fix the overhead lights on I-95 so our highway is illuminated at night?
Why can’t they ticket trucks for using “Jake Brakes”, down-shifting noisily?
Why can’t they keep the truck-inspection stations open 24 x 7?
Why can’t we get reasonably priced gas on highway service areas instead of having to get off the road and into local traffic?
Why can’t they put tolls on I-95, priced by time of day, with proceeds being used to subsidize mass transit?
Why can’t they jail people endangering others by talking on cell phones while driving?

Why can’t they give us a human-sized seat with legroom at a fair price?
Why can’t the FAA improve safety by making sure pilots and air traffic controllers are properly trained, rested and supervised?
Why can’t they be honest with us about delays instead of always saying “it’ll be another 20 minutes” over the course of hours?
Why can’t they seat families with screaming babies in their own section, away from me?
Why can’t I take a car service to the airport for less than the cost of my flight?

What questions would you add to our “Why can’t they” list?  Send them to me and I’ll try to get the answers and share them in future columns.

May 16, 2011

Saving Money Going to New York City

Whether you’re a daily commuter, an occasional day-tripper or have friends visiting this summer, everyone can save money when you go into NYC by following this time-tested advice:

TRANSITCHEK:      For commuters, see if your employer subscribes to this fabulous service, which allows workers to buy up to $230 per month in mass transit using pre-tax dollars.  If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings.  A recent survey shows that 45% of all New York City companies offer TransitChek which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries. 

GO BY TRAIN OFF-PEAK:          If you can arrive at Grand Central on weekdays after 10 am and avoid the 4 pm – 8 pm peak return hours, you can save 15 – 20%.  Off-peak’s also in effect on weekends and holidays.  Your train will be less crowded, too.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE:      If you buy your ticket with cash on the train you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 - $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once!  There are ticket machines at most stations, but the cheapest tickets are those bought online.  And go for the ten-trip tickets to save an additional 15%.  They can be shared among passengers, even those traveling together in a group.

LOOK OUT FOR NEW TICKET RULES!:        Watch out!  Metro-North changed its ticket rules last year in what many consider a hidden fare hike.  One way and round-trip tickets which used to be good for months are now valid for only 14 days.  Even ten-trip tickets are now valid for only six months.  And forget about getting a refund on an old ticket, even if it hasn’t expired.  Refunds cost $10.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES:           Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50% over adult fares.  Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours).  Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50% off the one way peak fare.  But you must have proper ID and you can’t ride in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING:         Even rail stations that require parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends.  Check with your local town. 
Once you’re in NYC, you can save even more money.

AVOID CABS:         I have nothing against taxis, but they’re getting mighty expensive:  $2.50 when you enter the cab, $0.40 for each minute or one-fifth of a mile.  Add on a $1 surcharge from 4 – 8 pm weekdays, $0.50 after 8 pm and a state mandated $0.50 per ride anytime, not to mention a tip… and it all adds up.  Instead, take the bus or subway.  Or try walking.

METROCARDS:     Forget about the old subway tokens.  The nifty Metrocard can be bought at most stations (or combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offers some incredible deals compared to the $2.25 cash fare:  put $10 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 7% bonus.  Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus, or vice versa.  You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a week ($29) or a month ($104).  There’s now even an ExpressPay MetroCard the refills itself like an EZ-Pass.

CHEAPER TO DRIVE?:     Even being a mass transit advocate I’ll be the first to admit that there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than take the train, especially with three or more passengers.  You probably know how to avoid Triboro (RFK) bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure.  But do check out to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination.   Or drive to Shea Stadium and take the #7 subway from there.

The bottom line is that it ain’t cheap going into “the city”.  But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money.  Enjoy!

May 02, 2011

What Happens When Gasoline Costs $10 a Gallon

Tired of paying $4+ a gallon for gasoline?  Well, your pain has just begun.

For decades we’ve lived (and driven) in denial, somehow assuming we have the “right” to cheap gasoline, and therefore, low-cost transportation.  Now it’s time to face reality and consider what will happen when (not if) gas hits $10 a gallon. 

The following are my hypotheses.  (Follow the embedded links for recent news coverage that contribute to my theories.)   These things haven’t happened yet, but seem likely when gas prices inevitably soar to double digits a gallon.
AIR TRANSPORT:       Following the demise of a dozen airlines and the shrinking of the remaining carriers, air fares soar and service is cut.  Air travel becomes affordable to few.  Airport congestion fades as business trips are replaced with tele-conferencing.  Hotels are shuttered as business travel wanes and “leisure travel” becomes unaffordable. 
HIGHWAYS:     Rush-hour on I-95 is a breeze as half of all motorists can no longer afford to drive.  But the highways are a mess of potholes as the price of asphalt, made from petroleum, quintuples making it impossible to maintain the roads because gas tax revenues have dropped with decreased sales.  With more people working from home or on flex-time, traffic congestion is a thing of the past.
HOMES / OFFICES:   With home heating oil at $12 a gallon, people close off rooms in their “McMansions” and huddle in the few remaining spaces they can afford to heat, usually with wood stoves, which are also in short supply.  Office buildings, by law, can heat to no more than 60 degrees in colder months. Sweaters become a fashion rage.
MASS TRANSIT:    Delivery delays in the long awaited M8 cars and fears their manufacturer Kawasaki may declare bankruptcy send rail commutation into a tail-spin.  Seats are pulled out of cars to create standing room capacity and Metro-North offers cheaper fares to those who can’t get a seat.  As in Tokyo, “pushers” (click here for video) are assigned at Grand Central to squeeze passengers into trains.   Few can afford to drive and park at rail stations, so most spaces there are turned over to bike racks.  Despite fare increases, ridership soars.
AROUND TOWN:   Local traffic drops as people consolidate their few truly necessary shopping trips.  Because farmers are so dependent on oil (for fertilizers, packaging and transport), food prices soar.  Food imported out of season becomes an occasional treat.  Few can afford to eat out at now-chilly restaurants dealing with the same food shortages.  Wagons and carts, bikes with racks, mopeds and scooters replace the SUV.  Kids take the school bus daily instead of being chauffeured by Mom.  Suburban housing prices continue to fall as people flock to the walkable cities with good mass transit.  Small town taxes rise, encouraging further migration.  Schools can’t afford good teachers who must still commute from far away due to lack of local affordable housing.
THE ENVIRONMENT:         Oil drilling begins in the Alaskan wilderness, but no supply of oil will reach the lower-48 for three years.  In a panic, Congress weakens clean air laws to permit increased use of coal in power plants.  Air pollution worsens (thanks in part to the wood burning stoves) and acid rain decimates much of the Northeast.  Increased CO2 emissions hasten global warming.  The sea level rises and coastal communities risk greater flooding as more numerous and powerful hurricanes ravage the US.
THE ECONOMY:      The recession becomes a Depression as the impact of decreased mobility and soaring energy costs hit home.  China decides to stop buying US Treasury notes and the US dollar hits new lows, making imported oil even more expensive.
Will any of these predictions come true?  Time will tell.  What can we do to prevent this Doomsday scenario?  Not much.  So enjoy what’s left of the era of cheap oil.  We’ll all have a lot of explaining to do to our grandchildren.
For more, see and or just Google “peak oil”.


Enjoying the heatwave this summer?  The electric utilities sure are.  And just wait ‘til you get your next bill.   They’ve been warning us...