Vernal thoughts

by Bill Monson

Signs of Spring are everywhere.

The swallows have come back to Capistrano. The buzzards have returned to Hinckley, Ohio.

The robins are returning from the American Bottoms.

And gasoline prices are going up.

The Auto Club expert says it's a ''combination of Middle Eastern strife, a stronger economy, and the switch from winter to more expensive summer-grade gasoline.''

What, no refinery fires?

In California, the six oil companies that control that state's market say they can't meet the December 31st deadline to remove MTBE, a carcinogenic additive; and they predict the cost of gasoline could rise to $3 to $4 a gallon if they do. So Governor Gray Davis will have to give them more time.

Thus far, MTBE has contaminated 38,400 groundwater wells in California as well as numerous creeks and rivers. But what's a little cancer if you can keep gasoline under $2 a gallon?

Why can't the oil companies meet a deadline where all they have to do is leave something out? Well, the plan was to replace MTBE with ethanol; and the experts say there will be a shortfall of 2.4 to 5.9 million gallons A DAY by December. Illinois and Iowa corn- growers should be licking their chops in anticipation of what that's going to do to corn prices. In the meantime, California gas prices are going up ten cents per gallon every week

And of course the Senate rejected tougher fuel economy standards for cars, SUVs and pickup trucks. So the latter pair will continue to guzzle gas as they merrily roll along (and over and over, on occasion.)

With Congress also threatening to derail AMTRAK and the airlines undermining travel agents, it's going to be hell on the pocketbook of anyone wanting to go anywhere next year.

AMTRAK has had difficulty from its beginning because it was forced to use tracks owned by railroads who preferred to move more profitable freight, which did not complain about the rock and roll of minimally-maintained tracks like passengers do. Caught in this bind, AMTRAK could not attract enough riders to become profitable despite steadily increasing passengers. The northeast corridor had some striking success, but cross-country routes did not fare so well.

Still AMTRAK can be advantageous. For example, about two years ago, when the Peoria airport was socked in by fog, I took AMTRAK to Chicago. I wheeled my suitcase three blocks south from the depot to the subway and was delivered to O'Hare in plenty of time to make my cross-country flight. When I checked in, I learned my commuter flight from Peoria was still on the ground.

I'm no Nostradamus, but it doesn't take one to predict that travel is going to become even more expensive. Millions of Americans will be priced out of the chance to do the traveling they now do.

Without travel agents, who currently book 80 percent of all airline tickets, we'll all have to use the Internet or (God help us!) airline telephone clerks to arrange our own air travel. And AMTRAK may not be around to help out in bad weather or for more leisurely travel.

So as Spring brings back our avian travelers and stirs the wanderlust in human hearts, it's a good time to contemplate just what traveling we plan to do this year -- and what it might cost us next year.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website March 20, 2002

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