Friday, September 26, 2014

Why DO We Drive?

I just realized after reading a short semi-graphic book (short in size too), sent to me by my son Jesse, that America is not just a car culture, it's also an oil, gas and coal culture just to run our 254.4 million passenger vehicles. Our car culture began with Ford's assembly-line produced Model A's and T's at the turn of the century, as if the petroleum and steel industries weren't big enough already. Then came WW I and II, and the massive expansion of those industries to build (necessary), war equipment. All those production plants had to be used for something, and so the great leader of GM, Alfred P. Sloan made it his mission to "reorder society" -- "to alter the environment where automobiles are sold."

So the push for autos and roads became a national obsession. After WW II tens of thousands of 25x30 foot wooden boxes were built by Bill Levitt, here in Willingboro NJ for example, or Levittown PA just across the river -- mazes of roads and homes that directly created suburbia and -- sprawl. And all governments, federal, state and local, established Departments of Transportation with huge powers to fund and build those roads, along with turnpike authorities. But toll roads didn't cut the mustard so motor fuel taxes were established by these conglomerates, with taxing authority granted by legislatures across the country - to build more roads and more sprawl. 

I can attest to that sprawl. As early as 1979 I drove from Costa Mesa California north 42 solid miles to Los Angeles and did not know what town I was in except for small signs. It was one continuous swath of residences, businesses and strip malls, and roads - freeways paid for by tax dollars, not free at all (and they shouldn't be). The NJ Turnpike is marked by exits every 10 miles or so with urban or suburban sprawl at each terminus. The NJ Garden State Parkway, from Central Jersey to the far north is one continuous city full of roads. 

You get the picture because you are the picture. We're a country of roads that go somewhere, and vehicles to get us to that somewhere. I'm not proposing we level Willingboro or Levittown to build bike paths, 3 or 4 story condos, and parks. But...

I do strongly recommend you take a few minutes and order Why We Drive by Andy Singer from Amazon for only 6 bucks used. 8 new. It's an eye-opener. It builds the strongest case yet for a transition away from petroleum vehicles, and I will say we should immediately only produce hybrid vehicles (electric/gas), then finish technologies like hydrogen and fusion to eliminate these harmful pollutants forever. Yes, I believe the dire warnings, all ready to late, that we are destroying humanity and the planet, "The Climate Change Problem" if you will.

I for one vow right now not to buy another car unless it's a hybrid. I'm still researching benefits of all electric, what with their need for more power plants and added infrastructure, but, but, even that is better than producing CO2 and living in smog like I did when visiting L.A., with their daily "Smog Index" number.

Just to be purely selfish about all this, I don't want to end up visiting our grandaughter in Manhattan and wearing a breathing mask like they do every day in Bejing - unable to take her outside for just a walk or park visit.

How about you?

Best, Rod

Copyright Rodney Richards 2014

What Should the Raise in NJ Gas Taxes Pay For?

Not just roads, roads, roads - that's for sure. The Transportation Trust Fund, created by the NJ Legislature decades ago to be a funding and spending mechanism for building roads only, is at $950 million a year, grossly out of whack it would seem to me. What roads do we have or need that require expenditures of $950 million -- every year?  The debt we'll be paying for generations is staggering, with bonds floated EVERY YEAR, that now each have a 21 year year debt service. Yet every modern planner, environmentalists, urban planners and others all recognize the need for planned communities with fewer roads and intermodal transportation like light rail, modern trolley systems, parks, greenways, bike lanes, buses, and paths and other community, non-car and truck spaces.

I remember the sleek modern electric trolley (no hanging wires), my mother and I rode from our 3-star hotel on the outskirts of the city to Dublin Ireland's hip new walking shops and city blocks full of sights. Minute by minute green bus tours with open tops full of passengers ambled by, dropping and picking up their passengers all around the city, even at its largest park (with free-roaming deer!), Museum of History, Museum of Art and other wonderful places we visited. 

The downtown park was also redolent with flowers and other plantings, statues like the famous and fictitious Molly Malone , a fishmonger and her bronze cart, and more. And the "trolley" was a block from our hotel, an easy memorable, short walk. We waited less than ten minutes for the next one to appear, and its passengers were commuters and tourists, and city travelers as well.

We have the fantastic River LINE (light rail), here in NJ, following the curvy Delaware River on our west coast from Trenton to Camden, stopping at the Battleship NJ, the State Aquarium, and the ferry to south street in Philadelphia. Cost? Last time I rode its full length, it was $1.10 for the day, one way. Janet and I rode it one fine day to the middle of Burlington City, disembarked, toured the town, ate lunch, then strolled its park by the river. Now visit New York City, with its newly opened additional High Line walking portion covering old elevated railways, or the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a gorgeous 1/3 mile stretch on the East River for strolling and seating and small parks -- we've enjoyed both with our son's sketch group.

What about the future when we can eliminate thousands of cars with monorails throughout our cities and between towns? Too expensive still, but that would be an ideal way to reclaim all the land and property taken up by empty parking lots on weekends.

So the Motor fuels Tax, TTF monies etc, should partially be reserved, at least a third, to actually promote all forms of PUBLIC  MASS - transportation, eliminate the need of roads by building light rail lines as well, and lines for walking, biking, busing, and eventually monorail and other less damaging systems than roads.

Tomorrow's blog: Why DO we drive?

Best wishes, Rod

Send me your comments!

Copyright Rodney Richards 2014

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Time for a Raise in NJ Gas Tax

Do you like New Jersey roads to drive on? Tired of potholes on local roads? Blame your municipality and County. State roads and bridges? Blame the State. Federal Interstates? Don't blame the Feds, those roads are always in good shape and well cared for I'd say, especially early snow removal in our winter months.

How are roads funded in Jersey? Hopefully, mostly by drivers who use them and buy gasoline or diesel for their vehicles, paying the State Motor Fuels Tax. Millions from State sales taxes also are used. So in that sense, non-drivers pay also.

Most state gas taxes are in the high teens and twenties with a few, like California, in the 30s ($.39/gal). But look at their roads - like the Santa Ana Freeway -- 6 lanes wide in each direction last time I drove it! [source: NJ Gas, Total U.S. Fuel Taxes by State, 9-25-14]

"Q: How does New Jersey pay for transportation projects?

A: The state uses 14.5 cents per gallon, and it's among the nation's lowest; a tax on firms that refine or distribute petroleum projects; a portion of the sales tax and a relatively small allocation from toll road authorities. For the current fiscal year, that revenue comes to $1.2 billion. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is paying for an additional $375 million in New Jersey projects." [source: Daily Reporter 9-25-14]

Each year, the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), also provides $150 million in grants thru the Local Aid program to assist local governments through grants, to improve the local transportation system and to encourage redevelopment of downtowns and improve quality of life.  So the municipalities have to vie with each other for a piece of the action and no $$ is guaranteed. So your local property taxes pay for the bulk of local roads, paving and repairs. I'm not sure if the counties are in that mix, but they also collect taxes for road building and repairs. 

So driver, you get what you pay for -- again, only fair. You own a home? You pay taxes on that property to receive services like police, fire and ambulance, garbage collection etc.  I'm a firm believer in user fees, first hoisted upon me (professionally), in the 80s, a new concept then, by computer mainframe software companies I dealt with when working in the IT contracts department of the State of NJ. Use more? Pay more. Want a better or bigger version? More features? No problem, pay more. Only fair. 

So if we want better roads in always good condition, safer bridges and tunnels and all of it, then we drivers, we users, need to pay for it. Not so much my 82 year-old mother who barely drives anymore.
And the cost of gas? Doesn't matter what it is, I'll pay it to use my car, tho I may consolidate trips and drive less, I'll pay it. That's why the price of a gallon is less now,; we've been using less, traveling less since the start of the 2008 recession. 

So please don't complain to me about the high prices of gas -- I'm not sympathetic. 

But give me good roads.That's only fair. And give me other amenities like parks, and light rail etc.

I'd like to hear your comments - if you're a driver too.

Best, Rod

Copyright 2014 Rodney Richards