Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Americans ditching the car

Commuters are driving less, the federal government says. Workers are leaving their cars at home and finding other ways to get to work. Highway funds at risk.

By Kenneth Musante and Aaron Smith

NEW YORK ( -- Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer miles in May compared with a year earlier, according to a report Monday from the Federal Highway Administration.

"We have seen the longest decline in vehicular miles traveled since we started collecting this data," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters in a conference call with reporters.

Peters said that in the first four months of this year, Americans traveled 40.5 billion miles less compared with the same period in 2007. She said the decline in usage means less tax revenue for highway system.

Many of these commuters are flocking to trains, buses and bikes, or telecommuting from home.

Rising gas prices are to blame for the driving decline, and the use of public transportation is soaring, said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transit Association, a private trade group.

"It does seem that we are on track to beat last year's record [public transportation] ridership," she said, noting that the 2007 tally of 10.3 billion public transit trips was a 50-year high.

"That can really only be explained by the large increase in gas prices," said Miller.

Gasoline prices soared in May, rising for 24 consecutive days in the month, and breaking the psychologically significant $4-a-gallon barrier in many states, according to data from motorist group AAA.

The FHA said that driving in May experienced the third-largest monthly drop since the agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation that manages the nation's highways and bridges, began collecting data 66 years ago. It was the largest drop for any May, a month that usually sees driving increase due to the Memorial Day holiday, the agency said. Three of those largest monthly declines have occurred since December, as unusually high fuel prices take a toll on drivers.

Trains, buses, bikes, telecommuting

Many of these drivers switched to public transportation. Usage jumped in the first three months of the year by 88 million trips from a year ago, for a total of 2.6 billion, according to the most recent figures available from the APTA.

Some of the most dramatic increases occurred in the light rail systems in Baltimore, Minneapolis and St. Louis, the commuter rails of Seattle and Harrisburg, Penn., the buses of San Antonio and Denver, and the subways and elevated rails of and Boston.

The Boston Globe reported Monday that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority broke a ridership record of 375 million passengers in fiscal year 2008, which is 21 million more than the prior year.

Other commuters, like Eric Creese, a senior database administrator in Eagan, Minn., switched to muscle power for commuting. Creese, a former triathloner, said that high gas prices inspired him to "get back" into biking.

"I asked myself, 'Why drive 150 miles a week when I can save my car, my money and do something good for my body and environment,?'" said Creese, who said he has biked 1,000 miles to work since May and saved about $250 in gas.

Now Creese runs a Web site - - for bike commuters, with calculators to estimate calories burned and gasoline saved. His co-workers have logged their miles on his site, totaling 5,400 so far.

And if commuters really want to save money, they'll stay at home, said Chuck Wilsker, president and co-founder of The Telework Coalition. Wilsker estimates the nationwide tally of telecommuters to increase by 4 or 5 million workers this year, from an estimated 28 million at the start of 2008.

"If you want to quickly reduce your commuting costs by 20%, leave your car at home one day a week; if you want to reduce your costs by 40%, leave your car at home two days," said Wilsker, who telecommutes from his suburban Maryland home to Washington, D.C.

Not only does Wilsker save on gas, but he said he saves on automotive wear and tear, lunch and dry cleaning.

"You know what I'm wearing?" said Wilsker. "I'm wearing shorts, sandals and a tank top. I'm sitting here working from home. My dry cleaning bill is none."

Feds get squeezed on taxes

As high fuel costs led many to rely on other forms of transportation, such as mass transit, and to cut back their miles on the road this year, the reduced driving also sliced tax revenue that would normally go toward highway maintenance, the FHA said.

The federal tax on gas generates 18.4 cents per gallon of regular gas sold and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel, which gets pumped in to the federal Highway Trust Fund. Some states also add a tax of their own to fund various projects.

The FHA budget totaled $42.18 billion in fiscal year 2008. The Bush Administration has requested $40.14 billion for fiscal year 2009.

As Americans drive less, new ways are needed to fund the national road system, the highway agency said. Even though fewer drivers are using the highways, funding is still critical, party because of a backlog in highway projects.

Peters said she would unveil a new plan on Tuesday to "fundamentally reform our nation's transportation." She said much of the plan will focus on calculating a better cost-benefit analysis for maintaining the national highway system, as well as "weaning ourselves from the gas tax over time."

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Countrywide Home Loans Wins Consumerist's Worst Company In America Contest

Duhn duhn da duhn! Envelope please... yes, America has voted and... the Worst Company in America award goes to.... Countrywide Home Loans (now owned by Bank of America)! The final vote was...

...6098 to 4826, a solid trouncing of Comcast, which had been favored to win by many commenters. After 67 rounds and five months of fierce battling, Countrywide climbed to the top of the poop pile and affirmed its well-deserved status as the absolute nadir of capitalism. It looks like in the end, we all decided that the destruction of a giant chunk of the American economy by greed and fraud was more reprehensible than an unsatisfactory internet experience.

The Lucky Golden Shit award will get shipped to Angelo "Golden Boy" Mozilo, former Countrywide CEO, who steered the ship of financial doom from its inception to the height of its unfettered raping of the American Dream, just as soon as we find a good mailing address for him. The receipt for the Lucky Golden Ship will get mailed to Bank of America CEO Kenneth D. Lewis, along with a certificate of completion.

Congratulations to our top 10 runners up

Bank of America
American Airlines
Capital One
United Health Care
Blue Cross Blue Shield

You're champions, all of you. Better luck next year.

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Don't Pay These New Hidden Fees

Felonious Fees

Once, when I was kid, I paid $3, a week's worth of lawn mowing, to see the Alligator Lady at the county fair. "Half reptile and half woman!" the promoter barked. I was hooked. When I got inside, all I could see was her silhouette. "Whaddaya think, electricity is free?" demanded the carny. I coughed up the 50-cent electrical surcharge, the lights came on -- and the Alligator Lady was revealed to be a woman in a bathing suit with a bad case of eczema. How could I be such a sucker?

These days, fees no longer surprise us, and companies know that. In fact, many businesses are raising fees. "Consumers have not revolted, so companies are getting bolder," says Diane Clarkson, a travel industry analyst at JupiterResearch. "They're charging for more things, and charging more for them."

As a result, Americans are paying billions of dollars a year in fees that are not part of the advertised price, on everything from late credit card payments to battery disposal to clean sheets when you stay at a hotel. (Can I waive the housekeeping fee if I use the last guy's towels?) Here are some of the most felonious fees, plus tips on what you can do about them.

Many telecom surcharges are called junk fees because they don't account for anything special but simply reflect the true cost of doing business -- like the "Federal Subscriber Line Charge" of $12.78 that I pay Verizon every month for my two home phone lines. It sounds official and unavoidable, but according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), this so-called federal surcharge "is not a tax or fee charged by the government." In fact, it goes right into Verizon's pocket. Poring over the fine print on my phone bill, I learn that the fee "funds part of the cost of providing long-distance companies access to local telephone networks."

Well, duh. How else would I call my mom in Arizona? If my regular monthly bill of $37.95 per phone line (plus long-distance charges) isn't enough to cover the cost of hooking me into the system, why don't they just charge more, instead of sneaking in a 17 percent junk fee on the back end?

Competition is the reason. "Companies know that consumers are price-conscious," says Edgar Dworsky, a former assistant attorney general for Massachusetts who now runs consumer advocacy websites, including "They advertise an attractive price to get the consumer's attention, rather than reveal the complete price, which is far less attractive." If not downright ugly.

Other oddball fees turned up on my Adelphia cable bill, like the 6-cent monthly "FCC Regulatory Fee." This simply reimburses the cable company for what they are charged by the FCC -- in other words, a cost of doing business. The 49-cent "Franchise Fee" reimburses Adelphia for what they pay my local community for stringing their lines along the right of way. You got it: I have to pay extra for the cable.

The latest billing trend is what consumer advocates call un-fees. They point to a case last year, when the FCC stopped requiring DSL Internet providers to contribute to the Federal Universal Service Fund. (Telecom companies collect the FUSF to help pay for wiring libraries and improving Web service in poor and rural areas.) When DSL providers no longer had to pay the fee, they stopped charging it to customers, right? Not quite.

Within two weeks of eliminating the monthly FUSF fee of $1.25 or $2.83 (depending on the speed of your Internet service), Verizon Online initiated a "Supplier Surcharge" of $1.20 or $2.70 a month (again, depending on your speed). Was it a coincidence that the new fee was almost exactly the same as the old FUSF fee? Bobbi Henson of Verizon explains that the company had spent a lot of time and money developing its DSL service but did not want to pay for it by raising customers' bills. "When the FCC charge was eliminated, we decided it was a good time to distribute the cost fairly across our whole customer base," she says. But customers complained loudly enough that Verizon withdrew the new fee.

What You Can Do
Shop around and indicate to each phone and Internet supplier that you are considering your options -- cable, DSL or satellite. Let them know they can't take your business for granted. You might consider eliminating your landline in favor of cell phone service only. And if you make lots of long-distance calls, check out Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems like Skype. Hot Tip
Dialing directory assistance from your cell phone can cost as much as $3.49. Call 1-800-FREE411. In return for listening to a brief ad, you pay nothing.

Put the Brake on Travel Fees

A few years ago, airlines started charging $5 to book your ticket with a human on the phone (as opposed to using the website); now many have upped that fee to $15 or $20, says Clarkson, the travel industry analyst. Need to change the date of your return? That's likely $100; a few years ago, $50 was the norm. "It was more of an inconvenience fee before," she says. "Now it's a revenue stream."

Clarkson's biggest pet peeve is the now ubiquitous fuel surcharge, which airlines began to levy as oil prices shot up. Since fuel is rather essential to flying, consumer advocates wonder why higher energy costs aren't simply included in the fare. "It's like buying a book and paying a paper surcharge because the cost of timber is going up," says Clarkson.

Current laws require airlines to include fuel surcharges in the advertised fares, although some airlines have lobbied the U.S. Department of Transportation to deregulate the ads so they can "unbundle" surcharges. As it is, surcharges are hard to track because airlines change them frequently. Most typically run $20 to $30 per round-trip ticket, but the sky seems to be the limit. On its website, United Airlines says its international flights (including trips to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) can incur fuel surcharges of "up to $150 per direction of travel, and which are subject to change at United's discretion, without notice." Uh, thanks.

Hotels are joining in the fee-for-all, and like everyone else, they're getting bolder. "Hotel guests expect to pay a ridiculous amount for the macadamia nuts in the mini bar," says Clarkson, "but they don't expect to pay to have the mini bar restocked." Some hotels are charging fees for telephone service even if you don't use the phone.

I wanted to visit my mom in Arizona. The Omni Tucson National Golf Resort & Spa had a "Net-savvy rate" of just $189 a night. I went to confirm the reservation and -- aha! -- there was a $12 nightly "resort fee," which made the room actually cost more than $200 a night (not including taxes).

I called the reservations line for Omni Hotels and asked about the Tucson charge. The guy on the phone seemed stumped. "Well, it's a resort," he said finally. "There are two Jacuzzis, two pools, a sauna, a steam room, workout equipment, tennis courts ..."

Obviously this was just another way to pile profit onto the back end. I wondered if it was negotiable. "I've got a lousy backhand," I told him. "What say we forget the tennis and call it even?"

"You'll still have to pay the fee," he said nervously.

"What if I promise to stay in my room and work on my laptop the whole week?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Have you ever seen the Alligator Lady? Oh, never mind."

What You Can Do
Before booking a plane ticket, check the total, including taxes and fees. Make sure your checked luggage is within size and weight limitations (available on airline websites) to avoid extra fees. When making a hotel reservation, inquire about fees, and refuse to pay those for services you won't use.

Hot Tip
At the rental-car counter, skip the up-front gas fee that allows you to return the vehicle empty. You'll only end up paying for gas you don't use. Break-the-Bank Fees

Fees used to be levied by banks to discourage bad behavior, like bouncing checks. But fees have become a profit center for the banking industry, accounting for billions of dollars in revenue. Take those checking account overdraft charges, which are at an all-time high, according to The average bounced-check fee is a whopping $27.40. That's a 50-cent increase over the last year.

Even more outrageous are the insane late fees credit card companies charge when you miss your payment deadline. We're talking an average of $31.37 -- up 14 percent from $27.44 in 2002, according to CardData. And credit card issuers are charging the fees with alacrity, often if a payment is late by just a few hours. Last October the Government Accountability Office released a study that criticized the confusing array of fees charged by credit card issuers -- from balance transfers to paying by phone to using the card overseas. "There are so many credit card fees and penalties these days that consumers need a scorecard to keep track," said Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), who requested the study.

What You Can Do
To avoid most banking fees, pay your credit card bill on time and don't bounce checks. Consider paying electronically so the money is transferred immediately. It also pays to ask: Sometimes banks will waive monthly service charges or penalties if you're a good customer. Hot Tip
Forget about interest-bearing checking accounts. They typically require a huge balance ($2,660 on average, says Bankrate) to avoid service fees of around $10 a month, and they pay paltry interest (0.34 percent in the latest Bankrate survey). You're better off with a free or cheap non-interest checking account, and stashing the extra cash in a money market fund.

If you think there ought to be regulatory laws, dream on. The government is a major player in the sneaky-fee game. With voters revolting against higher taxes, politicians are imposing fees to pay for everything from civic centers to libraries.

Taxes that would never pass muster with voters are instead fobbed off as "fees" on powerless visitors. Thus, a hotel room in Chicago will cost you 15.4 percent in taxes, one of the highest lodging rates in the nation. Likewise, a rental car in Dallas carries a 5 percent fee to finance a stadium, completed in 2001, for the NBA Mavericks.

I like basketball, but it sticks in my craw that when I, a Boston Celtics fan, rent a car in Dallas, I have to subsidize a rival team's stadium!

Personally, I go along with Clarkson, who says: "I'm a huge proponent of the customer complaint. Don't just tell the manager; write a letter to the most senior marketing person saying, 'Your fees are not acceptable and I want a refund, or you will lose me as a customer.' That puts a lot of hesitation into marketers' minds when they consider implementing these fees."

Good advice -- which I plan to take with me to the next county fair.

Original here

Boy killed in West Bank protest

Nilin demonstration
Demonstrators frequently clash with troops in the Nilin pocket

Israeli troops have shot dead a 12-year-old Palestinian boy during a protest against Israel's barrier in the occupied West Bank, medics say.

The Israeli military said it was investigating what had happened.

It happened at Nilin village, west of Ramallah, where peace activists say Israel is taking 25 hectares of land from villagers to build the barrier.

The Israeli army is replacing the main access road to the village with a tunnel under military control.

Activists say the plan will have the effect of turning Nilin into a prison. Israel says the barrier and other construction work is necessary for security reasons.

'Serious' inquiry

The boy was identified by local organisers of the anti-barrier protest as Hamad Musa, AFP reported.

He was hit in the head by a live bullet fired by Israeli soldiers and died of his wounds while being transported to hospital, Palestinian medical sources said.

One activist told AFP the army dispersed protesters near the barrier using rubber-coated bullets and tear gas, and then fired live rounds at people gathering in the village.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said the army was carrying out a "serious" joint inquiry with Palestinian officials, in quotes carried by the AFP news agency.

Fifteen people were also reported injured by rubber-coated bullets during the demonstration.

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