I’ve been doing a lot of driving lately, and it has given me plenty of time to listen to music and ruminate on the important questions of life, like what determines the price of gas.
Prices have fluctuated a lot over the past few years, though the long-term trend is mostly up. For example, on opposite corners of an intersection in North Jersey there are two gas stations that I used to frequent, now both abandoned but still sporting signs advertising the price of gas when they went out of business. One says 87.9 cents for regular, but it’s been closed for well over a decade and dollar a gallon gas is surely gone forever. On the other corner, the last price was 363.9 cents. That station must have died during the spike in prices three years ago, which I remember vividly because I drove to Yellowstone and back and never saw gas below $4 a gallon. Today prices are just under $3, but I’ll bet there will soon come a time when 363.9 is in range again.
Whiling away the miles from Boston to Princeton a few weeks ago, I also saw a remarkable spread of prices even on the same day. The cheapest, 252.9, was in New Jersey, which always seems to offer a bargain, but I had been forced to refuel in western Connecticut at 309.9, which irritated me no end. When I arrived in New Jersey, with a nearly full tank of expensive gas, the price at the Garden State Parkway service center was 257.9, only a nickel above the lowest price anywhere. This was a bit odd, since the service centers don’t gouge but they’re not normally cheap either, a fair trade for convenience. Someone is leaving money on the table by not setting the price higher than any random corner station.
It was only a month or two ago that Governor Christie backed out of New Jersey’s commitment to a new railroad tunnel under the Hudson River, citing the cost (about $3 billion for New Jersey if I recall). I’m certainly not an expert on such matters, but it seems that he could have done better on this decision.
Let’s do some quantitative reasoning. As a rough estimate, there are 5 million vehicles in New Jersey (one for every two people, give or take). At 10,000 miles a year and 20 miles per gallon, that’s about 500 gallons per vehicle per year. If the gasoline tax were raised by 20 cents a gallon, which would bring prices more or less into line with surrounding states, a typical driver would pay an extra $100 for gas over the year, and the state would collect an extra $500 million in taxes. In a few years, that would cover New Jersey’s share of the tunnel’s cost. Of course there are downsides — gas taxes are regressive, falling unequally on the less affluent — and my estimate might be too optimistic, but it’s worth considering.
I commuted to New York on NJ Transit for much of the summer. The train trip is wearing but a lot less tiring than driving would have been, and always much cheaper since NJ Transit gives a generous discount to senior citizens. The existing tunnel under the Hudson, with only two tracks, operates at capacity all the time, and the slightest glitch causes delays. I spent hours sitting in morning trains waiting to get to Penn Station, and a similar amount in the afternoon waiting to leave the city. (Twice I also sat for hours in the middle of nowhere when trains were held up by what NJ Transit euphemistically calls “trespasser incidents,” in which some unfortunate soul decides to end it all by walking in front of a high-speed train and the entire Northeast Corridor is shut down while the authorities investigate.)
On return trips from New York, I often chatted with a distinguished NJ Transit engineer who was designing electrical systems for the new tunnel. He was remarkably instructive on technical matters, and it was reassuring to see the high level of competence that went into the planning. It’s a shame that his work for the past five or 10 years will be for nothing.
On the other hand, it’s good to see some local sanity: It sounds like plans to replace the Dinky by a bus are not moving very quickly, if at all. Anyone who takes the Dinky regularly knows how convenient and reliable it is and how unlikely it is that a bus would provide service as good.
I drive between Princeton and Boston rather than taking the train because it costs half as much and is a lot faster. But for the long run, our public transport choices as a society often seem wrong-headed. If we each optimize for ourselves at the expense of the whole, eventually it will catch up with us, as we run out of gas and our infrastructure collapses around us.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.