April 27, 2012

Tired of Traffic? 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!  What surer sign of an economic recovery?
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 drawn into the incidents.
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 many 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 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 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 selfish merchants require them to drive at those times to meet their delivery timetable.  If big-box stores and supermarkets only took truck deliveries in the overnight hours, our highways would flow must 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.  Excessive speed and drinking cause most accidents, and the majority of accidents involve cars, not trucks.
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!”

April 09, 2012

What's a Fair Fare?

Governor Malloy is quick to tell us that creating a state budget is like making sausage, something he has done in years past (the sausage making).  “It’s not pretty. It’s work,” he says in describing the process.  The question is, how palatable will the end result be, especially for riders of mass transit.
Last year the Connecticut Department of Transportation said it desperately needed a fare increase of 16% for riders of Metro-North.  That got whittled back to a “modest” 12%, spread over three years and riders felt victorious.
That’s like a mugger threatening to take your life but only kicking you in the groin.  For this you’re supposed to be grateful?
Then earlier this year we found that the fare increase wasn’t being spent on the trains but getting tossed into the sieve-like “Special Transportation Fund” which also pays for bridge repairs and even CDOT pensions.
To her credit, State Representative Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton) and 26 other lawmakers tried to pass a bill requiring fare hikes to be spent on transit.  The bill never got out of the Transportation Committee.
But State Representative Kim Fawcett (D-Fairfield) had better luck in her role on the Appropriations Committee.  Not only did she get a $1.9 million set-aside to be spent on station repairs and improvements, but somehow she got next year’s 4% fare hike eliminated.
Are you as confused by the workings of Hartford as I am?  Oh, I’m grateful!  Just confused.
But so too are other taxpayers, especially those who don’t ride our trains or buses.  They wonder why tax money is being spent to subsidize transit at all.  (In Westport the Board of Finance is even slashing subsidies for local bus routes, following on this populist theme.)
I’ve often noted that fares on Metro-North in Connecticut are the highest fares of any railroad in the US.  That’s because the subsidy is the lowest.
For example, a one-way ticket from Bridgeport to NYC (a distance of 55 miles and running right alongside I-95) costs $16.25. 
But ride the MBTA commuter train from Boston to Providence (51 miles, also paralleling I-95) and you’ll pay only $7.75.  Or avoid the traffic mess on the 10 lane wide I-95 in Miami by riding there on Tri-Rail from Boynton Beach (58 miles) and you’ll only pay $6.25.  Similar distances against the same competing roadway… so why the fare differences?
Are the MBTA or Tri-Rail trains any cheaper to operate?  No.  But ironically, the lowest fares are where the lowest ridership is found.
Most commuter railroads keep fares low to attract passengers out of their cars.  But in Connecticut, where trains are standing room only (and driving options are few and undesirable), the commuter gets screwed with the highest fares, not to mention over-priced parking in limited supply.
Not everyone riding Metro-North is a “1%’er”.  Sure, we have a few millionaires.  But we have far more middle-income, blue collar and minority workers and students.  By constantly raising train and bus fares, we are going to literally drive those people out of our state.  They can get to their NYC duties faster and cheaper from Long Island, Westchester or New Jersey.
Forty percent of all the taxes paid in this state are paid by residents of Fairfield County.  Lose those commuters and the entire state loses… especially those we subsidize who live up-state and who never take mass transit.
So kudos to those in the legislature who “get it”, who see the value of keeping our mass transit as affordable as possible.  As these budget proposals come to a vote, we will be watching closely who votes in support of the commuter… and who sees them just as a convenient target of taxation.


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