March 26, 2012

"Politicians and The Price of Gasoline"

Last weekend I was honored to be a judge at the National History Day competition.  Why is it that Middle School kids understand what adults don’t:  that you can learn from history and, hopefully, not repeat the same mistakes?  Case in point, the tax on gasoline.

As gas prices push toward the $5 per gallon mark, politicians are trying to give the impression of doing something they cannot do:  get prices back down.  Politicians don’t set gas prices, the free market does.  But sometimes, in their haste to appear engaged, the pols do more harm than good.

Obama speaks in Oklahoma, saying he’ll fast-track the southern portion of the Keystone pipeline, even though the White House has no say on the already approved project. It’s political grandstanding, but harmless enough.

But in Hartford when the D’s and R’s get together and agree to mess with gas taxes, watch out.  This is no more than bipartisan pandering to motorists, which will end up hurting both drivers and the users of mass transit.   Here’s the story.

In Connecticut we pay about 49 cents a gallon in taxes… 25 cents in regular taxes and the balance in the Gross Receipts Tax paid by wholesalers and passed along to us at the pump.
The lawmakers want to put a cap on the Gross Receipts Tax for about a year, savings us about 1.7 cents a gallon.  That’s right… less than two cents.  

Pennies in savings, but at what cost?  Do lawmakers forget where the gas taxes go… and what happened the last time they cut gas taxes when Rowland was in office?

Here’s the math:  for every penny a gallon collected in gas taxes, $15 million goes into the Special Transportation Fund to pay for highway and bridge repairs, salt for winter roads and subsidies for mass transit, taking cars off the road.

That fund is already in trouble and could run out of money in two years, leading to talk about finding new sources of revenue… like tolls.  A political stunt like this gas-tax cap will save the average motorist pennies, but leave our highways in disrepair and push bus and train fares ever higher.

Even at $5 a gallon, gas in the US is cheap compared to the rest of the world.  Yet, we drive the biggest and least fuel efficient cars and moan at the cost.  Why do Americans think they have a God-given right to cheap gas?

Sure, gas in New Jersey is cheaper.  But they have tolls on their roads.  Pick your poison… taxes or tolls… because there is no free ride.

What’s driving gas prices higher is not state taxes but Wall Street speculation and geopolitics.  Why not do something to regulate investors betting gas prices will go higher and, in effect, making them do just that?

And when (not if) Israel attacks Iran and the Straits of Hormuz are closed, choking oil deliveries and sending gas to $8 to $10 a gallon, do lawmakers really think that a two cents a gallon saving in state gas taxes will mean anything except for less spending on our roads and rails?
Next time you’re driving on I-95 and wonder why the potholes aren’t filled or worry if the bridge you’re on might collapse, thank your elected officials in Hartford for their short-sighted penny pinching.

March 10, 2012

First Class: The Only Way To Go

For a guy who writes so much about transportation, trust me, I’m something of a homebody. I don’t like traveling anymore.  Not that I don’t enjoy visiting different cities (and do so almost weekly for business), it’s just that the journey from here to there is not much fun.  When Cunard used to say “getting there is half the fun” they were talking about cruise ships, not flying.

Getting to and from the airport is a major hassle and expense. Airports (and planes) are jammed.  Getting through security is like visit a proctologist. Flights are inevitably delayed.  Meals enroute are but a memory.  Frequent flyer programs have whored themselves, passing out “elite” status to so many passengers that it’s impossible to get an upgrade, let alone a free ticket.  (You should have heard the grumbles on a recent flight from Continental mileage mavens now vying with United road warriors for upgrades since the merger!)

But there is an alternative:  first class… or at least business class on transcon flights.  Sure, it costs more… either in higher fares or in redeeming those once precious frequent flyer miles… but it’s worth it.

You get to check in faster.  You can cut the line with the TSA’s blessings.  The seats are bigger.  The flight attendants are actually friendly.  And they sometimes give you real food.  Plus, there’s that slightly smug feeling as you ease into your seat and watch the coach customers walk in, heading for steerage, that you’re, well, “special”.

Even on Amtrak, first class is a better experience.  On Acela to Boston or Washington there’s a comfier seat and a decent meal.  (I don’t drink, so the free booze in flight or on the train matters little to me). And, unlike the airlines with their pricey airport “clubs”, first class passengers can use Amtrak’s “Metropolitan Lounge” (now dubbed “Club Acela”) for free, complete with wi-fi and free beverages.

When time allows I’ll even opt for an overnight Amtrak ride in a comfy sleeper to Chicago or Miami rather than endure two plus hours of turbulence.

Even traveling by bus there’s a first class option.  The “Limo Liner” between Boston and New York makes the Bolt Bus or Fung Wha bus look like a cattle car.

What may surprise you is that going first class doesn’t always mean taking out a home equity loan.  In fact, compared to full fare coach, first is often only a few bucks more.  And tickets can be changed without charge.

There’s a great Norwalk-headquartered travel meta-search engine, that allows you to price all your alternatives, coach / business / first, at one site, so you’ll see the hidden bargains.  (Full disclosure:  Kayak is a consulting client of mine… but trust me, I wouldn’t recommend them if I didn’t think they were great). 

My New Year’s resolution for business travel is to “treat myself right.”  Life is too short to be trapped in coach.  I am reminded of a bumper sticker I saw once at a TWA ticket office.  It read:  “Fly First Class… Your Heirs Will”.


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