You can pump your own soft-serve ice cream at trendy yogurt shoppes. But you still can’t pump your own gasoline in New Jersey. Why? Once again, lawmakers in Trenton have killed an effort to save motorists money at the pump, allegedly in the name of safety. Self-serve gasoline has been allowed across the country for 73 years, ever since the first pump-your-own gas station opened in California in 1947.
Attention all chiropractors and physical therapists! Please report immediately to the state Capitol to treat the sore muscles of lawmakers who’ve twisted themselves into a pretzel, patting themselves on their backs for cutting the gasoline tax! What a surprise (in an election year) that lawmakers voted unanimously to cut the gasoline tax 25 cents a gallon from April 1 to June 30. What a massive sense of relief for money-short taxpayers to save — what? — $25 per car this spring.
In the waning days of World War II, the Americans sent a special unit into Germany to find one man, not to bring him to justice but to eventually put him in charge of the U.S. space program. His name was Werner von Braun. Now I think, whatever the outcome of the Ukraine conflict, a similar effort should be made to rescue Oleksander Pertsovskyi. Not familiar with his work? Well, two million Ukrainians are benefiting from his skills.
The Russian invasion of the Ukraine has thrown the world energy markets into turmoil, raising the price of gasoline in Connecticut to more than $4 per gallon. And given that 26% of all energy in this country is spent on transporting people, sticker shock at the gas pump will affect all of us. I’ve written before about our state’s crazy “Zone Pricing” for gasoline, which is why you’ll pay 42 cents more per gallon for fuel in Greenwich than in Bridgeport. But wherever you drive, there are some simple ways of saving on gas. Less Driving
DRIVE LESS: Duh!
As Metro-North returns to charging peak fares at rush hour this week, it’s time to get honest about the unsustainable nature of commuter rail in Connecticut. Sure, our state’s rail riders already pay some of the highest fares of any commuter line in the U.S. (because the railroad’s subsidy, though high, is the lowest in the country), but those fares don’t come close to covering the actual cost of operations, let alone the cost of capital equipment (new trains, locomotives, stations). Metro-North is losing taxpayers’ money with every trip — lots of it! Back in the good old’ pre-COVID era, almost half of the railroad’s cash flow came from the sale of monthly commuter passes. Now the railroad is offering a further 10% discount on those all-you-can-ride tickets to try to encourage dwindling sales.
As we celebrate Black History month, let’s remember that the path to civil rights began long before the march to Selma. It happened on city buses in 1955 in Montgomery Alabama and for decades before that on railroads across America. In the history of American transportation, there is one crucial intersection between railroads and civil rights: the formation in 1925 of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters by A. Phillip Randolph. This was the first predominantly African-American labor union in the US. Pullman Cars
It was in 1859 that George Pullman launched the first deluxe railroad sleeping cars bearing his name.
This week, updates on a few interesting developments in transportation:
PEAK FARES: On March 1, Metro-North will again start charging peak fares during rush hours. But the railroad will also offer new discounts: 10% off a monthly pass and discounted 20-trip tickets. On the subways and buses they’ll give passengers free rides for the week after they pay 12 one-way fares via the new OMNY scanners. They’re calling it “fare capping,” giving frequent riders free rides after paying $33. ADDED SERVICE?: The railroad says it’s evaluating adding more service, speeding up express trains etc.
Why do most motorists hate truck drivers? Is it because their big rigs are so intimidating? Or do we think they’re all red-neck cowboys, living the life on the range and we’re secretly jealous? I respect truckers and think, for the most part, they are much better drivers than the rest of us. They have stiffer licensing requirements, better safety monitoring and much more experience behind the wheel.
You think you have a bad commute? Try doing Maclean Sarr’s hour and a half trip each way — in a wheelchair. Unable to walk since contracting cerebral palsy as an infant, the 22-year-old Sarr is now a student at Gateway Community College in New Haven but lives in Westbrook. That means a 28-mile trip each way, in his motorized wheelchair, in a bus, a train and another bus. Sarr lives within “walking distance” of the Westbrook station serving Shore Line East trains, but there are no sidewalks and too much traffic, so the Nine Towns Transit bus is his best option.
When I read two very different news stories about our trains last week, Charles Dickens came to mind:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times — it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” — A Tale of Two Cities
Oh, it’s our winter of our despair, alright, especially for Metro-North when the New York Times last Friday so cogently summarized the commuter line’s near-term future as being “Devastated by Remote Work,” almost verbatim repeating my predictions of one year ago: Commuters are not coming back. Late in 2021 the weekday ridership on Metro-North peaked at about 50% of pre-COVID numbers but has now slid back to about 37%. Sure, you can blame Omicron, but the shift is so much more fundamental: The very nature of work is now different and always will be. There’s no longer a need to go to work to do your work. Former daily commuters told the Times they don’t miss their daily three-hour ride or their $500 monthly tickets.
In an age of ever-faster trains connecting major cities globally, is there any future for anachronistic night trains with sleeping cars? Why, yes! In the old days you used to be able to travel long and relatively short distances on overnight trains, either in coach or a comfy sleeping compartment. On the New Haven Railroad you could board your train at Grand Central before midnight and awake the next morning in Boston, Cape Cod or Montreal. It was like combining the cost of travel and a hotel in one package.
Our love affair with the automobile depends on one thing: free parking. After driving on our “free” highways, we have to park someplace, and we all hate to pay for what’s really a privilege. It’s as if there’s some constitutional right to free parking. But free parking is actually expensive and paid for in more than just dollars. The industry standards setting group known as the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) has defined 266 different types of businesses and has determined the amount of nearby parking they require.
Tom Kaminski is like an omniscient guardian angel, floating in the heavens and keeping motorists in the tri-state area safe from motoring mayhem. For 34 years Kaminski has been a traffic reporter for WCBS 880 radio, heading a team of producers, spotters and tipsters covering traffic and transit from his vantage point 1,500 feet above the city in the station’s Bell 206 helicopter. Most of the time he’s in the chopper, but always with a pilot and, more recently, a camera operator for his twice hourly updates for PIX-11 TV. Six times each hour (“on the 8s”) from 5:30 to 9 a.m and again from 4:30 to 7 p.m. his live weekday traffic reports on WCBS-AM 880 help steer thousands of travelers on their way to and from work. “The rush hour never really ends in Connecticut,” he tells me.
We all dream about traveling first class. Big comfy seats, real food and free drinks. This is the only way to fly. But did you know that there used to be a handful of private, first-class “club cars” on the New Haven Railroad’s commuter trains? Among the most legendary was one that ran from New Canaan from 1908 to 1976 — Car # 5113.
Building and maintaining our highways is expensive. But here’s a quiz question: on Interstates 95 and 84, what costs a half-million dollars a mile to construct? The answer: sound barriers. Why are we spending that kind of money to surround our interstate highways simply to protect the peace and quiet of their immediate neighbors? Living that close to a highway built in the 1950s comes with the twin costs of increased noise and air pollution along with the benefits of proximity to the highways.