Gas Gas Prices
Monday, March 18, 2013
(Paul Eisenstein -- The Detroit Bureau) Following up on a pledge made during his State of the Union address to “shift our cars and trucks off oil for good,” President Barack Obama is seeking Congressional approval for a $2 billion energy trust fund to support the development of advanced vehicle technologies.
The White House hopes to sidestep the ongoing federal budget debate by promising the requested funding “would be set aside from royalty revenues generated by oil and gas development in federal waters of the Outer Continental Shelf.” That could be a salve to those who have demanded the White House continue to expand oil and gas drilling. There are already some signs of support from Republicans.
An earlier Obama Administration program focusing on battery propulsion was effectively shut down by Republican opponents after some high-profile problems.
[RELATED:Audi Transforming Wind Power into e-Gas]
In the State of the Union address the president said, "I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an energy security trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good."
On Friday the president said, "The only way to really break this cycle of spiking gas prices — is to shift our cars entirely, our cars and trucks off oil."
During the first Obama Administration, much of the emphasis was put on batteries and electric propulsion. Even funds already allocated to hydrogen fuel cell research was shifted away. In recent months, the Department of Energy has been expanding its focus and while batteries and battery cars would still be a central part of the trust, the program would also push for development of biofuels and compressed natural gas. CNG has been gaining momentum in recent months due to the wide availability of the fuel as a result of the so-called “fracking” boom.
The broader focus of the new trust fund appears to recognize that demand for battery-based vehicles, whether conventional hybrids, plug-ins or pure battery-electric vehicles, is growing much more slowly than proponents had anticipated.
The administration came into office calling for a $25 billion fund to support clean, high-mileage technologies with low-interest loans. After an initial spate of projects, some quickly souring, the spigot was closed and there have been no new loans made in over two years. Some existing loans, such as one for $529 million to Fisker Automotive, were halted mid-stream. That has put Fisker in a critical situation, the company expected to be sold or fail if it can’t arrange more cash. Others hoping for federal aid, such as California-based Next Auto, folded entirely.
Automakers continue to press for assistance in efforts to reduce emissions and meet higher mileage standards – the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, mandate rising to 54.5 mpg in 2025. Most manufacturers believe they cannot get to that figure without the use of battery power and other breakthroughs the new Energy Security Trust will target.
“The Energy Security Trust builds on this historic progress, continuing to increase momentum towards to a cleaner, more efficient fleet that is good for consumers, increases energy independence, and cuts carbon pollution,” said the White House.
Despite ongoing partisan bickering that has so far failed to resolve the so-called “sequestration” issue, the energy trust concept has been drawing a wide range of support. It is “an idea I may agree with,” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking GOP member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said after the president’s State of the Union address.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Detroit Bureau.
Friday, February 22, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Six roller coaster weeks after Governor Bob McDonnell proposed a major transportation funding overhaul, the Virginia House of Delegates has approved a compromise measure to raise $3.5 billion over five years for roads and rails.
The House voted 60 to 40 -- with 25 Democrats providing key "yes" votes -- to send the measure to the state Senate. House minority leader David Toscano said, "it's not perfect but better than not approving any new money for transportation."
"There are things that I don't like about this, but I am willing to support it because I do think that even though it doesn't solve every problem, it solves a lot of problems," he said.
The bill replaces the 17.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax you pay at the pump with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on gasoline AND a 6 percent tax on diesel. The state sales tax would also increase to 5.3 percent, with that additional revenue earmarked for transportation.
Republican Delegate David Albo of Fairfax says Northern Virginia will eventually receive $350 million a year for its needs. "The three funding sources are a .7 cent sales tax, a .25 percent fee when you sell a home, so on a $500,000 that's $1250, and a three percent hotel [tax]."
The legislation also imposes a $100 registration fee on hybrid and electric vehicles. State Senate approval is needed to approve these proposals.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
(Matt Bush, Washington, D.C. - WAMU) Maryland Senate President Mike Miller wants to impose a sales tax on gasoline, as well as allow counties that rely on mass transit, like Montgomery and Prince George's, the ability to raise the state gas tax up to 5 cents per gallon in their areas.
It will take a lot of heavy lifting to get it passed in Annapolis, something the long-time president of the Senate knows as well as anyone.
One way Miller is looking to secure votes is by pushing something he himself does not like — a so-called "lockbox" on transportation funding. Critics have long argued that lawmakers end up spending money raised by transportation taxes on other things.
"I personally don't care for this proposal, but to ease the minds of those that think this is a piggyback for some future executive to rob from, I think this might alleviate their concerns," he says.
The biggest fight, however, will come from legislators who feel motorists will be paying higher taxes that will go to mass transit, as those lawmakers feel that more of that money should instead go toward roads.
Meanwhile, across the border, Virginia politicians are negotiating a transportation funding deal that would lower the gas tax and increase the sales tax.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
In a final attempt to reach a compromise on measures to raise substantial new revenues for transportation before the scheduled adjournment of the legislative session, Virginia House and Senate negotiators struck a deal that replaces the state’s gas tax with a lower tax on the wholesale price of gasoline, but raises the sales tax.
The deal eliminates the state’s seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon gas tax, replacing it with a three-and-a-half percent wholesale tax. It also raises the state sales tax to pay for roads, but not by as much as the governor wanted. The sales tax would increase from 5 to 5.3 percent under the deal reached by a conference of ten legislators. A $100 registration fee for hybrid and electronic vehicles is also included.
The deal, which would raise approximately $869 million a year when fully implemented, now heads to the House and Senate for floor votes by the end of the week. While passage in the Republican-led House seems certain, the deal may run into trouble in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans each hold 20 seats. Some Democrats remain unhappy with the plan to use general fund (sales tax) revenue to pay for transportation.
“The reduction in the gas tax makes no sense to me,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax). “Obviously I want to raise money for transportation… but it’s a little bit of a shell game, quite frankly. Historically we’ve used sales tax for education and this is a major step in the other direction.”
Petersen calls the $100 registration fee for alternative fuel vehicles “asinine.”
“We want people to drive fuel efficient vehicles. Why would we penalize them?” he said.
To appease Northern Virginia lawmakers, the negotiators included Governor McDonnell’s proposal to use $300 million in increased sales tax revenue to finance the Silver Line rail extension to Dulles Airport.
The $5.5 billion Silver Line project is managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which has lobbied Richmond for funding in order to offset projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road. Those tolls are supposed to pay for 75 percent of Phase II of the Silver Line’s construction cost under the current financing arrangement.
‘When it comes to the Silver Line the $300 million is vital to future toll mitigation. I would hate to think this opportunity would be lost,” said MWAA chief executive Jack Potter.
The negotiators’ deal created an unexpected potential difficulty for the Silver Line extension. The agreement requires that Loudoun County approve a countywide commercial and industrial tax (C&I) in order to be eligible for state transportation dollars for local projects. However, in 2012 the county created two special tax districts around its future Silver Line station stops. Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles District) says an additional C&I tax would make the county uncompetitive with surrounding jurisdictions in attracting businesses.
“If the Legislature moves forward with this proposal it would force us to reexamine our funding mechanism for Metro [Silver Line] and create a great deal of doubt,” Letourneau said in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
Loudoun's participation in the Silver Line project is vital to eventually extending rail to Dulles International Airport.
In addition to the special tax districts for the coming commuter rail, Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors has in place a special tax district for businesses along its busy Rt. 28 corridor. A C&I tax of 12.5 cents per $100 assessed property value would render the county at a steep disadvantage to neighboring Fairfax, Letourneau said.
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Tuesday, February 12, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) For the first time Gov. McDonnell says he is willing to compromise on his plan to eliminate the state's gas tax, an idea Senate Democrats are unhappy with because it would shift transportation funding to general revenues.
"I think we can talk about that," says McDonnell. "I think this is the best solution to be able to eliminate it."
On Tuesday, the Virginia State Senate will take up Gov. Bob McDonnell's transportation funding plan that passed the House of Delegates last week. But what the governor still calls the "best solution" is still dead on arrival in the Senate.
"We will have to compromise. There's no way I'm voting for a total elimination of the gas tax. That's absolutely insane," says Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. He says Democrats are open to a mix of solutions for paying for transportation, but the gas tax will have to be part of it.
Petersen says his colleagues are now more open to working with the governor since an unrelated but controversial redistricting measure was dumped.
"It can't help but improve things around here," says Peterson. "I think when that redistricting bill happened, it cast a shadow over the session."
If the Senate passes the measure, it will have to be conferenced with the House bill. The legislative session ends in about three weeks.
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Wednesday, February 06, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Governor Bob McDonnell’s five-year, $3.1 billion transportation funding package died on the floor of the Virginia State Senate on Tuesday night, as divided lawmakers decided to sent the proposal back to committee after defeating two Republican floor amendments.
After more than an hour of debate it became apparent there were not enough votes to support the governor’s plan to eliminate the state’s gas tax (17.5 cents per gallon) and replace it with a higher sales tax to fund road and rail construction and maintenance.
The bill was largely blocked by Senate Democrats from northern Virginia who were unhappy with McDonnell’s plan to use general fund revenue that also pays for schools, public safety, and other programs.
At least one senator’s frustration bubbled to the surface. Republican Senator Frank Wagner, whose amendment to establish an eight percent gas tax was defeated as an alternative to the governor’s proposal, implored his colleagues to get behind some plan to create new revenues for the state’s immense transportation needs.
“You know, I told myself in 22 years I'd never get emotional over a bill. And I'm sorry I broke my own damn word. I'm emotional. We've been fighting this for ten years. Ten years now!” Wagner shouted. “I'm here tonight to get a transportation bill passed!”
The Senate is now left to consider a bill passed by the House of Delegates that maintains most of the key provisions of Governor McDonnell’s package, including the elimination of the gas tax. But the administration sounded pessimistic the House bill would fare any better.
“It was quite clear from the floor debate and from the fact they voted against every single transportation funding mechanism before them, and that they didn't even offer any solutions of their own, they have no intention of addressing transportation funding,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, who made it clear the administration blamed Democrats for the bill’s demise.
“We’re incredulous,” Connaughton said. “On a day that the Texas Transportation Institute comes out with its nationally known study that says the Washington region has the worst traffic congestion in the entire country, the Senate Democratic caucus voted against every Senate version of transportation funding to date.”
Without some form of compromise, the General Assembly will close its session in three weeks without approving any new transportation revenues.
“Unless the Democrats in the Senate work with us… things do not look very favorable right now,” Connaughton added.
“The governor can send down a bill at any time. That's his prerogative. I would encourage him to find common ground among all the proposals that are out there and there are a lot of them,” said Delegate David Toscano, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House. “It looks like if the governor is not willing to compromise on very much, nothing is going to get done,” he said.
Toscano chided the governor's plan for relying on revenue from future Internet sales -- a marketplace equity bill --that Congress "probably won't pass." He added: "It was deficient in the first place."
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
By Kate Hinds
Urban automobile traffic is better than it was at its peak in 2005 -- but the cost of traffic congestion is on the rise.
The 2012 Urban Mobility Report -- a ranking of traffic congestion from Texas A&M's Transportation Institute (TTI) -- says the total financial cost of congestion in 2011 was $121 billion, or about $818 per car commuter. A big piece of that is wasted fuel, which the report says reached a total of 2.9 billion gallons.
But worse still than mulling that over is a new addition to the report: the tally of annual carbon dioxide emissions attributed to traffic. The TTI estimates it at 56 billion pounds – or about 380 pounds per auto commuter.
The E.P.A. considers carbon dioxide a major factor in climate change, and estimates that transportation accounts for about one-third of the country's CO2 emissions, second only to the generation of electricity.
Harder to quantify financially is wasted time: the TTI says the average car commuter spent an extra 38 hours traveling in 2011, two-and-a-half times worse than the 16 hours in 1982.
The report also measures a "planning time index," which show how much time drivers need to be sure they'll arrive at their destination.
(Example: according to Google Maps, a trip from TN's offices in lower Manhattan to JFK Airport should take 30 minutes. But New York's PTI is 4.44 -- meaning drivers should allow 133 minutes to cover the worst-case traffic scenario. Meanwhile, the transit combo of the subway to the Air Train should take a little over an hour, says Google Maps.)
The report comes at a time when many states are struggling with how to replenish transportation funding coffers strained by aging infrastructure and increasingly diminished returns on the gas tax. Virginia is eying a new sales tax, Connecticut is debating new tolls, and some of Los Angeles's freeways are no longer free. Meanwhile, New York's MTA -- the nation's largest transit system -- estimates it sustained $5 billion in damage from Sandy.
Unsurprisingly, the TTI says the nation's largest urban areas see the worst traffic. DC tops the list for the fourth year in a row, followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston. Although car traffic overall is down from a 2005 peak, as the economy recovers, the numbers of cars on the road is increasing.
The report offers up some suggestions. It cautions that there's no one-size-fits-all approach, but offers up a range of solutions from increasing capacity to developing land more densely. "Improving transportation systems is about more than just adding road lanes, transit routes, sidewalks and bike lanes," says the TTI. "It is also about operating those systems efficiently."
That last sentence probably will cause tension headaches for local transportation officials who have been trying to wring every last dollar out of their budgets. Funding was flat in the latest surface transportation bill.
But Slate contributor Matthew Yglesias offers up another solution, albeit one that has yet to be passed in an American city: congestion pricing. "Naturally an underpriced valuable commodity leads to over consumption," he writes. "Charge people enough money to eliminate routine congestion and you'll find yourself with fewer traffic jams and an enormous pool of revenue that can be used to maintain your basic infrastructure and upgrade your bus service."
Read the full report here.
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
As both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly prepare to work to find common ground after passing different versions of Governor Bob McDonnell’s major transportation funding plan, critics say the governor’s proposal to eliminate the state gas tax and replace it with a higher sales tax would not provide enough revenue to satisfy the state’s transportation needs.
On Monday the House gave preliminary approval to a measure that keeps most of McDonnell’s proposals intact, including eliminating the state’s 17.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax. In the Senate, a key Republican lawmaker is proposing a different solution: a 5.5 percent sales tax on the wholesale price of gasoline tied to inflation.
The bill approved by the House killed the governor’s plan to impose a $100 registration fee on alternative fuel vehicles. The proposals are scheduled for a final vote today.
The McDonnell administration argues higher fuel efficiencies continue to eat into gas tax revenues so the tax should be replaced, especially as the adoption of hybrid and electric cars is expected to reduce gas consumption.
The latest hybrid and electric models are currently on display at the Washington Auto Show, where proponents say they have become much more practical for everyday use since the first generation models.
Mahi Reddy, the founder of SemaConnect, a manufacturer of electric vehicle charging stations based in Bowie, Maryland, says EVs are indeed becoming more popular, although they only represent less than one percent of all vehicles on the road today.
“Previous generations of electric cars struggled because they used lead-acid batteries. They used nickel-metal hydride batteries,” Reddy said. “The new generation all use lithium batteries, the same lithium technology that is in your cell phone. So that means these batteries are much lighter, they have much more range, and these cars are much better engineered so they are practical cars you can use to commute to the office.”
In his view, the biggest obstacle facing EVs is the lack of charging stations.
A report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found our region has strong potential for EV growth, but an "underdeveloped charging network" is one of several problems.
But while the governor views improving fuel efficiency as a reason to dump the gas tax altogether, the Council of Governments executive director Chuck Bean takes the opposite position.
“In terms of transportation funding all of the options need to be on the table; gas tax, sales tax. We are really in a crisis of transportation funding and need to be very creative,” Bean said. “I would hesitate to reverse or eliminate any taxes because there is simply a great need for more funding.”
The potential of these vehicles does raise another potential challenge to funding transportation: as the U.S. vehicle fleet is comprised of more EVs and regular vehicle fuel standards improve, the gas tax will lose even more of its purchasing power. That would leave states looking for other revenue streams like higher tolls, more borrowing, higher vehicle fees, or higher sales or property taxes to pay for roads and rails.
The smart growth community says there is no way for Virginia to build its way out of its infamous traffic congestion and taht the solution lies in changing land use policies and urban planning strategies to maximize the potential for transit, walking, and bicycling.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, DC - WAMU) A legislative committee in the Virginia House of Delegates will take up Governor Bob McDonnell's $3 billion transportation funding plan Wednesday. The governor expects his bill will go before the full House and Senate next week.
McDonnell's proposal has been picked apart since its unveiling three weeks ago, but he still says it's the best plan out there. McDonnell insists increasing the gas tax would be politically impossible, which is why he has recommended eliminating the gas tax and replacing it with a higher sales tax to fund transportation.
"I can only tell you that the poll that was done last week by two independent sources said that 2-1, Virginians favored this approach over tax increases," McDonnell said. "So I think I've found the right economic and political model that can actually get the job done and can pass."
Virginia would be the first state to eliminate its gas tax, dumping what has become a rule of transportation funding: use the roads, pay the tax that's supposed to maintain them. But it's not outrageous — it's just different, says Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.
"We are one of the few nations on earth that uses gas taxes to directly fund transportation," he says. "Most countries have much higher gas taxes than we do, which sends a signal to users and discourages gasoline consumption and encourages smaller vehicles and more public transportation. So they have much higher gas taxes than we do but they don't dedicate that money to transportation."
But Schank calls the governor's plan 'inconsistent' because it maintains a user fee on trucks by continuing the diesel tax and a user fee for electric vehicles by increasing the registration fee to $100.
"And then he's getting rid of the so-called user fee for passenger vehicles by getting rid of the gas tax," he says. "It's not a strategy based on thoughtful analysis about how we should be paying for our transportation system."
Schank acknowledges the governor has to deal with political realities. McDonnell says neither the General Assembly nor Virginia residents want to pay more at the pump.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Commuters are skeptical that congestion pricing will reduce traffic in the metropolitan Washington area and raise revenues to fund transportation projects. Instead, they favor alternatives to driving -- commuter rail, express bus service, or bicycling/walking.
A report released Wednesday by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) weighed the attitudes of 300 area residents who participated in five forums: two in Virginia, two in Maryland, and one in the District of Columbia. The participants were asked to consider three scenarios: 1) placing tolls on all major roadways, including interstate highways; 2) charging a per-mile fee measured by GPS systems installed in cars; and 3) creating priced zones similar to a system in London that would charge motorists to enter a designated area.
These attitudes are being probed at a delicate time for transportation funding in the region: Virginia's governor is proposing the elimination of the state gasoline tax -- while Maryland is looking at increasing theirs. Meanwhile, the area's largest transit project, the Silver Line, has yet to be fully funded.
But the funding scenarios posed to study participants received tepid support.
“This study shows people are cautiously open to concepts of congestion pricing, but they really need to see if it’s going to work, and they have doubts about that,” said John Swanson, a TPB planner.
“They really want to make sure that there are clear benefits, that [congestion pricing] is going to fund new transportation alternatives… particularly transit and high quality bus [service],” he added.
Scenario one – charging tolls on all major roadways – was supported by 60 percent of study participants, who engaged in extended exchanges of ideas and opinions. Scenario two – using GPS to track miles traveled – was opposed by 86 percent, even though drivers’ actual routes would not be tracked, only the number of miles.
“I don’t want to discount privacy concerns,” Swanson said. “I don’t think, however, the concerns were simply the classic ‘big brother’ concerns. There was a lot of code language for broader anxieties. It was a complicated proposal that was hard to understand. It seemed to be hard to implement. A lot of people said it looked like it would be expensive to implement and, frankly, they are right.”
The study participants spoke of congestion in personal terms -- family time robbed, the stress of dealing with incessant traffic. Most commuters said driving is not a choice.
“The availability of other options besides driving—such as transit, walking and biking—increased [the] receptiveness to pricing. Participants also spoke favorably of proposals that would maintain non-tolled lanes or routes for those who cannot or do not want to pay,” the report said.
Transit advocates say the report shows shaping land use strategies to improve access to transit and create walkable, densely built environments is the best way to mitigate the region’s traffic jams.
“Newcomers to the region are very frequently choosing the city or a place near transit rather than a place where they have no option but to drive,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
“What’s most interesting about this report is that it was an effort to seek public support for congestion pricing, but what it documented was the much stronger support for transit and improvements in how we plan land use in order to give people more choices to get around,” Schwartz added.
The study’s authors – the TPB partnered with the Brookings Institution – found most participants were unaware the federal gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon) hasn’t been raised since 1993. However, they also favored raising the gas tax as an easier, fairer alternative to implementing a congestion pricing program.
Support for increasing the gas tax increased over the course of the sessions -- from 21 percent when the study convened to 57 percent upon its completion.
The gas tax “is a hidden fee,” said Swanson. “We learned that people actually like that. There is a general sense of the invisibility of the gas tax being a problem and potentially a benefit, something that’s strangely attractive to people.”
Eighty-five percent of study participants identified transportation funding shortfalls as a critical problem, yet expressed doubts the government would make the right choices if additional revenues were made available through congestion pricing.
TPB board member Chris Zimmerman, who's also a member of the Arlington (VA) County Board, took exception to the wording of the study’s questions using the word “government” because he felt it provoked a negative response.
“If you are trying to interpret what people say, you have to be careful of what question you ask them,” Zimmerman said. “I think people get that there is a lack of funding. They also get the fact there are a number of other problems. There aren’t alternatives. For many in this region, they drive not because that’s what they are dying to do, but because they have no choice.”
Zimmerman, who background is in economics, said it should be no surprise people are lukewarm about congestion pricing proposals, given the lack of alternative modes of transportation in some places. He is also unsure congestion pricing will work.
“The way roads are run is there is basically no pricing of them at all. Even if you are paying a gas tax it’s not related to your use of any particular road. An economist looks at that and says of course you are going to get inefficiency and congestion,” Zimmerman said.
“You are not talking about going from the current situation to instantly pricing everything perfectly. You are talking about implementing costs on particular segments of roads and that gets a lot more complicated because there are secondary effects," Zimmerman said. "We price one thing and many people shift to some other place. Well, where is that some other place?”
“In practice, implementing that is very difficult.”
The Washington region saw two major highways shift to congestion pricing in 2012. Maryland's Inter-County Connector charges variably priced tolls; the 495 Express Lanes charge dynamically priced tolls and offer free rides to HOV-3 vehicles.
In the case of the Express Lanes, the state of Virginia will not receive toll revenues for 75 years as per its contract with its private sector partner, Transurban, and it remains to be seen if the new toll lanes will ultimately reduce congestion in the heavily traveled corridor. The ICC also has its critics, who say the recently constructed highway was a waste of money.
Monday, January 14, 2013
(Mitchell Hartman, Marketplace) The North American International Auto Show has kicked off in Detroit this week. Last year clearly showed the big-three U.S. automakers were back -- after GM and Chrysler got bailouts, and Chrysler also got new investment and leadership from Fiat. Auto sales were the highest since the recession began.
Facing ambitious new federal mileage standards (fleets have to average 54.5 mpg by 2025), and higher gas prices, automakers are touting ‘fuel efficiency’ at the auto show.
And no longer is it just for mid-market compacts. Even pickups, and sports cars like the new Chevy Corvette, brag on their gas mileage.
The new Corvette -- with styling like the Stingray of the 1970s, after which it is named -- came out from under the fancy tarps yesterday at the show. GM says it’ll get much better mileage than the previous version, which did 16 mpg in the city.
Many of the premier GM, Chrysler and Ford brands are now considered as reliable and well-engineered as European and Japanese performance cars -- and they tend to be cheaper.
Hybrid gas-electric car sales were up nearly 70 percent in the U.S. last year.
But automakers are also pushing higher fuel efficiency in conventional gasoline engines. They’re using lighter metals like aluminum, magnesium, and ultra-strong plastics. Also, there are ever-smarter computers in car engines that get more ‘oomph’ on a four-cylinder engine. Diesel vehicles, which can get better mileage and have become much more clean-running, are also gaining traction in the U.S. market.
One thing that’s changed from decades past, says auto analyst Paul Eisenstein atTheDetroitBureau.com: The domestic car market has become truly international.
“Does Detroit still matter as the dominant player in the U.S. auto industry?” asks Eisenstein. “No. There’s competition from all over the world that’ll continue to grow.”
But Eisenstein says there’s a flip side -- GM has to compete with Hyundai or BMW here. And those companies have to take the U.S. automakers seriously abroad.
“Chevy had record sales last year -- significant enough,” Eisenstein says. “But 60 percent of their volume took place overseas. And a good portion of that took place in all the emerging markets, like China, Brazil and Russia.”
Automakers could have record profits this year, and luxury cars are expected to fly off showroom floors. This year at the auto show new luxury models are on display from Cadillac, Lincoln, Lexus, Infiniti, BMW, Bentley, Audi, Acura, and Maserati.
Germany’s BMW is predicting record sales again this year. Ford is predicting luxury sales will be up 7.5 percent this year -- almost double what the company anticipates for its mass-market models.
Wednesday, January 09, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Virginia would become the first state in the country to eliminate its gasoline tax if a major transportation funding plan proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell (R) is approved by the General Assembly.
Revenue from the state gas tax of 17.5 cents per gallon, last raised by lawmakers in 1986, would be replaced by an increase in the state sales tax. That rate is currently 5 percent; the governor wants to raise it to 5.8 percent.
McDonnell’s proposal would also increase by half the portion of the sales tax already dedicated to road maintenance and operations. However, during the first three years, that tax would provide $300 million for the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport -- a $5.5 billion project that Virginia has funded only $150 million to date.
“Transportation is a core function of government. Children can’t get to school; parents waste too much time in traffic; and businesses can’t move their goods without an adequate and efficient transportation system,” said McDonnell at an afternoon news conference, flanked by members of the General Assembly who will dissect his sweeping proposals during the 45-day legislative session.
If lawmakers pass the governor’s entire plan, which also includes higher vehicles registration fees and a $100 charge on electric and natural gas vehicles, Virginia would receive more than $3 billion over five years to fund road construction and transit development, including intercity passenger rail.
A primary aim of the funding package is to stop the yearly transfer of construction dollars from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund to required maintenance projects, a process that will leave the fund empty by the end of the decade.
“My transportation funding and reform package is intended to address the short and long-term transportation funding needs of the Commonwealth. Declining funds for infrastructure maintenance, stagnant motor fuels tax revenues, increased demand for transit and passenger rail, and the growing cost of major infrastructure projects necessitate enhancing and restructuring the Commonwealth’s transportation program,” McDonnell said.
The governor has indicated in recent weeks that the state gasoline tax’s diminishing returns minimizes its effectiveness in raising new revenues. Higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards, among other factors, have eaten into the tax’s buying power. The 17.5 cents per gallon tax currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, although the tax has lost 55 percent of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation since 1986, the last time it was raised.
Instead of raising the tax or pegging it to annual inflation adjustments, the governor wants to eliminate it, although the state diesel tax would remain in place. Virginia would then abandon a fundamental premise of transportation funding: motorists who use the roads pay for the roads in the form of taxes.
“If this were adopted it would mean there would be no relationship to the extent to which people use the transportation network and what they actually pay for it," said Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which favors road construction as a solution to traffic congestion.
"It's a dramatic proposal to shift funding from the gas tax to the sales tax, and we're going to have to look at what it means when you disconnect the tax from the actual use of the roadways,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and frequent critic of the McDonnell administration’s funding priorities.
The General Assembly has for years evaded the responsiblity of injecting significant new tax revenue into transportation. While all observers agree the state’s needs total in the billions, there is no consensus on the best way forward. To Schwartz, prioritizing road construction amounts to squandering precious funds that could be used to develop public transit systems.
"Instead of addressing metropolitan area needs, the administration is spending $1.2 billion on Rt. 460, $200 to $400 million on the Charlottesville Bypass, and proposing to spend billions on the Coalfields Expressway and an estimated $2 billion on a Northern Virginia outer beltway,” he said.
Friday, December 28, 2012
(Kristian Foden-Vencil, Oregon Public Broadcasting) Gas prices in Portland haven't been this low for almost two years.
Gregg Laskoski is a petroleum analyst with the price tracking website GasBuddy. He says big stores like Safeway are using cheap gas as a loss-leader. "When you sell gasoline at the lowest price in the market, you're bringing a lot of traffic into your store," Laskoski says. "And while a certain number of those folks will certainly buy gas, many of the same consumers are going to come in the store and buy many other things."
Brainard Brauer owns Redland gas station, just outside Oregon City. He says he understands the benefits of a competitive marketplace, but Costco is now selling fuel for less than he can buy it. "It hurts me as the owner to see customers upset and even angry, for us charging a higher price than a Fred Meyer, Safeway, and now a Costco, that is seriously undercutting the market."
Brauer says he appreciates a competitive marketplace, but he says smaller stations may be driven out of business by such gas prices.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
(Derek Wang - Seattle, KUOW) Washington Governor Chris Gregoire is proposing a new wholesale vehicle fuel tax to help cover the costs of getting kids to school.
Currently, school districts help pay for students' transportation needs, but a recent court ruling says state government is not doing enough to support education. That includes education-related transportation.
Gregoire’s solution? A new tax on refineries to basically pay for school bus costs. Her plan was included in her 2013-2015 budget proposal, which is required under state law. Gregoire said her fuel-tax proposal is directed at oil producers, not consumers.
"Let’s be clear," she says, "the five top oil companies in America, in the first six months of this year, had over $60 billion in profits. So I expect them to do this without passing this on to consumers."
Gregoire’s proposal would cost fuel wholesalers about 5 cents a gallon in the first year, 8 cents a gallon by 2015 and 12 cents a gallon in 2017.
State Senator Andy Hill is the likely chairman of the Senate budget committee. He opposes the plan and predicts that the new fuel tax would get passed down to consumers. “That really hurts the middle class as they fill up their tanks," explains Hill. "I think when you ask the average voter, when you ask about transportation, they think about roads, bridges, tunnels, ferries. They don’t think about school buses.”
Fellow Republicans say the state doesn’t need to raise taxes to pay for education.
Gregoire’s plan would need to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and Governor-elect Jay Inslee. A spokesman for Inslee wouldn’t say whether the incoming governor supports Gregoire’s plan. The spokesman said Inslee will lay out his own budget plan during the upcoming legislative session.
Follow Derek Wang on Twitter.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
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Tuesday, December 18, 2012
(Emily DeMarco - PublicSource) The shale gas drilling industry wants to move its wastewater by barge on rivers and lakes across the country. But the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates the nation’s waterways, must first decide whether it’s safe.
“It may be hazardous,” said Commander Michael Roldan, chief of the Coast Guard’s Hazardous Material Division, stressing the word ‘may.’ “If it is, it would not be allowed to ship under bulk.”
Right now, he pointed out during an interview with PublicSource, it can’t be shipped by barge, even though there has been confusion in Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Ohio about whether it could be.
The Coast Guard has been considering whether to allow the industry to use the waterways for about a year, according to Roldan, who said the question came up when the Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh -- the local office of the Coast Guard -- called the Washington office to clarify whether bulk transport was allowed after Marcellus Shale drillers began making inquiries.
The Coast Guard’s decision would affect more than Pittsburgh’s iconic three rivers. Nearly 12,000 miles of waterways could be open to these waterborne behemoths, each carrying 10,000 barrels of wastewater.
Like so many questions involving the shale gas industry, it’s a divisive one. Environmentalists said the possibility of a spill that could contaminate Pittsburgh’s rivers with chemicals isn’t worth the risk. But industry officials who advocate waterway transport said barges are the safest, and cheapest, way to move this stuff.
A barge accident would be a “massive catastrophe,” said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy organization.
“It’s not just a contamination of a waterway,” Hvozdovich said. “You’re talking about the contamination of the drinking water supply for about half a million people....It seems like a very bad idea.”
However, industry officials and transportation experts counter that other industrial materials, some toxic, are moved on barges now. They include chlorine, hydrochloric acid and anhydrous ammonia. Why should the drilling industry be treated differently? they ask.
Anyone who says moving the wastewater is a danger doesn’t know what’s on the waters already, said John Jack, vice president of business development and operations for GreenHunter Water, a company that handles wastewater for major oil companies.
“Look what’s going down the waters right now,” Jack said, “highly toxic stuff....There’s nothing in our product that’s hazardous.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires about five millions gallons of water per well. Water is combined with chemicals and sand and shot deep underground, releasing pockets of gas from shale rock formations.
Depending on the well, about 15 to 80 percent of what was injected returns to the surface. That’s called ‘flowback.’ Plus, the well continues to regurgitate naturally occurring water from inside the shale, which is called ‘produced water.’ Both liquids become wastewater, which is often called “brine.”
Complications arise for the Coast Guard’s analysis because companies use proprietary mixtures of chemicals in fracking. And, salt, hydrocarbons and radioactive elements that occur naturally underground catch a free ride with the watery mixture to the surface.
“If there wasn’t the variability, this would be a much easier process,” Roldan said.
The agency is determining appropriate ‘ceilings’ for each component in the wastewater. Companies that want to ship by bulk would have to test their wastewater first. If the components are under the Coast Guard’s ceilings, companies would be given the green light, assuming approval.
The Coast Guard’s biggest concern about the wastewater is what Roldan calls the ‘bathtub ring’ effect inside the barges. Just as, after many showers and baths, calcium in tap water can leave a ring around the tub, radioactive particles in the wastewater may accumulate inside the barge.
Workers and inspectors on the barges could be at risk after long-term exposure, he said, and the agency would likely require regular testing of the barges for radioactivity.
Roldan couldn’t say when the Coast Guard’s determination of whether wastewater can be safely moved on barges would be complete. In part, that is because the nationwide issue is complicated. For example, experts from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Transportation and Energy have weighed in already.
Others, including a committee established by the White House, will likely review the draft proposal.
The agency plans to publish its proposal on transporting wastewater in the Federal Register. Then, the public and the industry will have an opportunity to weigh in.
But there has been great confusion at the ports about the rules.
Officials at GreenHunter, which moves wastewater for some of the largest drilling companies in the Marcellus and Utica Shales by truck, planned to start using barges before the end of the year because they believed it was allowed, Jack said. They’ve been investing in five terminals in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“I’ve had the regional commanders out to our sites and nobody told us that we couldn’t” move it by barge, he said. His understanding, he said, is that it’s being done in Texas and Louisiana.
The Pittsburgh office of the Coast Guard declined to comment.
But Roldan’s reaction was immediate when asked whether any company is allowed to do this. “No, they’re not allowed,” he said. “You may want to tell them before we catch them.”
However, he said he understood the confusion because of the way the current regulations are worded. “A liberal reading … could lead to a misinterpretation,” he said.
One question the agency couldn’t answer is the expected volume of wastewater that would be shipped over the rivers.
“We’ve been asking ourselves this,” Roldan said.
In Pennsylvania alone, about 23 million barrels of wastewater were generated in 2011, according to PublicSource calculations using data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil & Gas Reporting website. The data are self-reported by the producers and are not vetted by the DEP.
While about 99 percent of the waste from shale drilling is just water, the remaining one percent is salt, chemicals, and radioactive particles.
A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition declined to answer questions about moving waste on barges and instead emphasized the industry’s commitment to recycling wastewater.
Today, new technology has increased the capacity for on-site recycling, but that is costly. Transporting the waste off-site to disposal or treatment locations is still needed by the industry.
Less road wear and tear
Shale gas companies have good reason to eye the waterways.
Transporting wastewater by barges has environmental, safety and economic benefits, Jack, of GreenHunter, said. For example, a major drilling company would save 58,000 trucking hours by using barges.
And trucks have about 2,000 accidents for every barge accident, he said, citing data from the DOT and the Coast Guard.
James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, an agency that advocates for waterway transport, said using barges is a good idea.
“The more that it can be moved on waterways, the less wear and tear of roads,” he said, adding that barges also produce less air pollution than trucks.
And they’re a fraction of the cost. Barges cost only about 10 percent of the cost to move the waste by truck, said Jim Kruse, director of the Center for Ports and Waterways Institute at Texas A&M University. They are 20 to 30 percent cheaper than trains, he said.
The change would not eliminate trucks because they'd still be needed to get the wastewater from the drill rigs to the barges.
Three gas drilling companies have already approached Pittsburgh-based Campbell Transportation Co. about moving their wastewater by barge, said Peter Stephaich, one of Campbell’s shareholders.
“We are regulated by just about everybody,” he said, listing federal and state agencies that oversee barge companies. Stephaich said he’s confident that wastewater will be moved responsibly.
“If we move it, we’ll move it within the rules,” he said. “If the costs are too high, we won’t do it.”
Operators like Campbell may have to purchase new equipment, retrofit their infrastructure, and train their crews.
Benjamin Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University (about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh), is one expert who didn’t know about the Coast Guard’s review.
“Oh crap,” he said. “A lot of things could go wrong.”
For example, wastewater contains bromides. Bromides transform into carcinogens when they are pumped through water treatment facilities, Stout said.
If there was a barge accident, the treatment facilities would have to shut their intake valves of river water, he said. Cities such as Pittsburgh and Wheeling use water from the Ohio River for drinking.
(Stout is a board member of FracTracker, a non-profit that disseminates data about the shale gas industry. Both FracTracker and PublicSource are funded, in part, by the Heinz Endowments.)
Despite his alarm, Stout said he is glad that the Coast Guard is studying the issue because it’s one more determination about an industry that currently doesn’t offer a lot of transparency.
Asked whether the Coast Guard is being lobbied by the industry, Roldan said: “We’re not really feeling pressure. We could deny it.”
Reach Emily DeMarco at 412-315-0262 or email@example.com.
View this story on the PublicSource site here.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
(Isabel Angell -- San Francisco, KALW) Gas prices in California are always a big problem. And this year, the average price per gallon is set to hit four dollars – the highest average ever. It seems like there’s nothing the average driver can do to lower their fuel costs – except, maybe, change what grade of gasoline they buy. Most people, though, have no idea what that means for their car.
A choice at the pump
At a gas station in El Cerrito, people pull up in their cars to fill up their tanks. At some point, each of them presses a button: regular, mid-grade, or premium. The higher the grade, the higher the octane content. And the higher the octane content, the higher the price. At this gas station, regular gasoline costs $3.82 per gallon and premium costs $4.05 – twenty-two cents more expensive. I’m curious, so I start asking people what kind of gas they’re buying, and why.
Kate Foley buys gets regular because it’s the cheapest, she tells me with a laugh.
Susie Marcus went for the regular unleaded, “I guess because it’s the least expensive and I have not seen any proof that buying the better gas makes you go farther or better mileage.”
Ariana Jones sprung for the premium. She tells me it’s the only kind her car will take.
So, how are they making these decisions? If it’s just based on price, there’s no reason to use premium, unless the more expensive gas is actually better.
For answers, I turned to Daniel Kammen, a professor at the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley. He told me octane is a measure of energy content. So the different grades of gas have different energy contents. I asked him what that means for my car.
“You get more zip in the car when you use a fuel with a higher energy content,” says Kammen.
But before you start imagining your humble Honda Civic transforming into a fiery red Mustang, a word of warning from Kammen: “There's very little difference in everyday behavior. So if you're doing urban driving, you’re not going to notice much difference because you're not going at the speeds when it matters. And on the highway you have to have a really high performance car to really see that difference.”
And by high performance car, he doesn’t mean a lowly BMW.
“You most likely see it when you start driving Lamborghinis and Ferraris,” says Kammen.
The latest numbers from the California Energy Commission say that 18 percent of gas sold in California in 2010 was premium. But 18 percent of Californians probably don’t own a Lamborghini.
So why do people buy premium when they don’t have to? I asked Sudhot Bhat, who teaches marketing strategy at San Francisco State. He says that most consumers are not experts in the things that they buy.
“Even for things like toothpaste, they are not very good judges of quality,” Bhat says. “So what I sometimes think is that a lot of consumers use price as a gauge of quality. If they do not know much about a product, they tend to think that the product with the higher price is higher quality.”
Bhat says because most people don’t know what’s going on in their gas tank, some consumers might spring for the premium gas just because it’s more expensive. But he has a solution for people who want to get the most bang for their buck: look it up on the internet.
“I think if consumers had more time and they did some research, they would know what really is good quality. You don't have to take the manufacturer's word for it, you can actually go on see what other people are saying,” says Bhat.
One of the big reasons people say they like to buy premium is to prevent engine knocking, when the fuel doesn’t explode the right way in the engine, and that makes a knocking sound. It means you’re not getting the full power of the gas – and if it keeps happening, it can actually hurt your car. But, for the last fifteen years or so, engines have been built with sensors to prevent this exact thing from happening.
So what should you be buying? I took Sudhot Bhat’s advice and turned to the Internet. What I found matched what Berkeley’s Dan Kammen told me: if your car’s manual says it runs on regular, there’s no reason to splurge on a higher grade. And many high-performance cars will run on regular – you just might not get the maximum power possible. Turbo-charged really do require the high-octane premium, so check with your mechanic before making the switch.
Thursday, December 06, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell offered no specifics in his “comprehensive transportation funding and reform” plan to raise an additional $500 million per year to prevent the state from running out of money to build roads by 2017.
Speaking in Fairfax County at his annual transportation conference, Governor McDonnell called on lawmakers to stay in session next year until they find a solution to Virginia’s long-term funding woes, which are exacerbated by the transfer of money from the state’s construction fund to required highway maintenance projects.
“I don’t think we can wait any longer,” McDonnell said. “I don’t think I can continue to recruit businesses to Virginia and see the unemployment rate go down unless we are able to get a handle on and provide some long-term solutions this session to that problem.”
The Republican governor, who is one year from leaving office, did not specify what he will ask lawmakers for when they convene in Richmond in January.
“I’ll tell you when we’re ready… before the session,” the governor said in brief remarks to reporters following his speech. “These are plans that take a lot of work to put together.”
He refused to take a position on whether the state’s gas tax should be increased, although he indicated that doing so alone would not generate adequate revenue. The tax of seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon, which currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, was last increased in 1986. It has lost 55% of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation.
Improved automobile fuel efficiency and the rising costs of highway construction materials have reduced the gas tax’s buying power, McDonnell said.
“A key ingredient of asphalt has increased by approximately 350% over that same time,” he said.
Critics contend the McDonnell administration cannot be trusted to direct new revenues wisely. One of the most vocal critics points to a record of highway construction instead of transit projects as evidence, especially from the $4 billion dollar package approved for the administration by the legislature.
“He squandered most of that,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It’s gone to rural highway projects that have very low traffic demand and are not high priorities given the traffic congestion within northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.”
Schwartz listed State Rt. 460 in southern Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway, bypasses in Charlottesville, and plans for an “outer beltway” in northern Virginia as examples of poor spending priorities by the administration, while transit projects like the Silver Line Metro rail and existing roads like I-66 need help.
“They are not targeting the areas of greatest need. You are not getting the best bang for your buck. You are spending a few billion dollars on the wrong things,” said Schwartz.
New revenues would likely be directed to construction projects under the state’s transportation trust fund, which currently loses hundreds of millions of dollars annually to required maintenance. The trust fund’s formula directs fifteen percent of its monies to transit projects. The remainder is for road building.
Governor McDonnell denied his administration is neglecting transit and other modes of transportation. “It’s going to be a multi-modal approach. Road, rail, and mass transit, all of those will be beneficiaries of a funding plan,” he said.
Monday, November 26, 2012
By Kate Hinds
In the days following Hurricane Sandy, when New York's regional transit systems were either completely shut down or barely limping along, commuters still found a way to work -- by biking more, embracing ferries, temporary "bus bridges" and HOV lanes, even leveraging social media to find rides or temporary office space.
"In many U.S. cities, which are limited to cars, buses or other singular transportation modes," the report states, "the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy would have, at least temporarily, crippled the economy." Not so in New York, where residents "displayed impressive inventiveness to maintain their mobility. Individuals created new routes and combinations of modes to get to work, using a variety of systems."
The report surveyed 315 commuters about modes of transport and commute times. That's a small sample considering the millions of people affected. And asking a commuter to estimate how long they took to get to work can invite exaggeration, the Rudin report is an impressive attempt to quantify the chaos of ad-hoc mobility choices during the storm.
While almost everyone saw their commutes increase, Staten Islanders fared the worst. For residents of that hard-hit borough, commute times in the days following Sandy nearly tripled.
The report also praises New York's MTA for keeping the public updated about service changes, and recommends the agency maintain its adaptable subway map. But other transit providers don't come off as well: "During the Hurricane, the Port Authority [which operates the PATH train system] and NJ Transit provided remarkably limited information throughout and following the storm about their service."
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Poll results show that Superstorm Sandy has remade two kinds of landscapes in New York: physical and psychological. Beachfront is gone, trees are uprooted and whole communities have been forcibly rearranged by a monster tide. No less dramatically, a majority of New Yorkers are expressing love not only for their elected officials but everyone's favorite bureaucratic whipping boy, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
You read that correctly.
The latest Quinnipiac University poll finds 75 percent of New Yorkers rated the authority's performance during and after Sandy at "excellent" or "good." That's better than the Red Cross's 66 percent approval rating, and the dismal 37 percent approval for the region's utility companies, which struggled at times to bring the power back.
NY MTA chairman Joe Lhota was highly visible in the days and weeks following the storm as his workers methodically pumped out no less than seven under-river tunnels and, one by one, got them back to carrying trains and vehicular traffic.
The NY MTA also showed a fair degree of nimbleness by running shuttle buses over cross-river bridges until the subways were dried out. (Taking a cue, the NY Department of Transportation today announced its plan to run a temporary ferry from the hard-hit South Shore of Staten Island to Manhattan.) And the authority captured the public imagination with an online map that showed the the subway recovering in real time.
The Quinnipiac poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 registered voters in New York, also reported that Mayor Bloomberg's odd-even gas rationing system won favor by 85 to 12 percent. Other winners: President Obama, New York Governor Cuomo and, with the best numbers, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. See the full results here.