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GAS PRICE? I’M NOT PANICKED

Published: 
Sunday, October 11, 2015

Soon after I first came here, back in the early 1995, a litre of unleaded gas was $2.57. A beer cost $4. And what is now a $5 taxi ride was just $2.

Since then, the Central Bank’s index of retail prices has soared to more than three times its 1995 level. Which is pretty much what has happened to beer, on the Avenue at least. 

Food prices—says the index—have increased more than fourteenfold in 20 years. 

So I’m not getting too excited about the price of Super, which (including the budget hike) has moved from $2.57 to $3.11 over the same time frame.

The fuel subsidy makes no economic sense. It sends the wrong price signals—we’re encouraged to tie up road space, boost global warming and buy gas-guzzling cars. 

And it’s not the only subsidy we give the nation’s drivers. Spend a few billion on a new highway? Fine, not a problem—drivers can use it for free. There’s no user charge.

That’s in contrast to France, which has long used tolls to recoup the cost of its autoroutes. As they do in Jamaica, and some American states.

Drive into central London on a weekday, and there’s a daily congestion charge. It’s around $115. Plus whatever you pay to park.

This country’s transport system is balanced on the edge of chaos. We saw that last week—a fallen tree or a bad smash-up can create hours of tailback.

You can hit gridlock any time—on a Sunday afternoon or at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Too many people get up at five each day to reach work for eight. That’s not acceptable. It’s a gigantic waste of time and energy. 

We’re worried about service standards? If I had to start my day like that, I too would be on a short fuse by Friday.

For school students, a hefty commute is no way to start a productive day.

Traffic congestion carries all sorts of costs. Businesses pay for vehicles and staff who spend their working time uselessly stuck in traffic.

This country has the right geography for a rail system. There’s a linear settlement pattern. An east-west line from Diego along the corridor, plus a north-south line through Chaguanas and San Fernando could serve a huge slice of the population.

So yes, it looks promising. But there may be snags.

First of all—what type of rail? There’s a huge difference between an urban tramway chugging between closely-spaced stops, and a full-scale high-speed bullet.

One of the pre-2010 French consultants told me that his team worked on two alternatives—the high-spec system they had been asked for, and a less ambitious mid-speed network they felt would be more cost-effective.

Next—what type of cost recovery? Road users pay only their vehicle costs and (subsidised) fuel. They get the track the car runs on for free. Should that be the same for rail passengers? Or should they pay the full set-up cost?

Either way, a rail system won’t come quick. And it won’t come cheap. Unless the good fairy brings a new energy boom, we’re going to have to make choices.

And that’s what the budget speech doesn’t do. It runs through the whole highway menu, including a costly causeway to Chaguaramas which would perhaps parallel the proposed rail track.

There’s nothing totally off the wall on that list—nothing like Jack’s proposed Northern Range tunnel to Maracas. But it’s hard to see how, in the current financial climate, we can pay for all of these, all at once. Even if we borrow. Or indeed, especially if we borrow.

Big transport schemes can run away with themselves, with unhappy consequences. And that’s not just Panday and Piarco—if you want to read about trouble, just google “Edinburgh trams.”

Three good words in the new Public Sector Investment Programme are “National Transportation Study.” We need one of those—and with luck, it will come with open-minded consultation and imaginative thinking.

And with an eye to new technology. Driverless cars could be with us in just a few years. Now, that’s going to be fun to write about.

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