Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Driving Expenses: Not all toll hikes are created equal

Published at

The Maine Turnpike Authority has decided to increase tolls, starting November 1, to raise $21 million in additional revenue for highway maintenance and debt repayment. The steepest hikes will be for commercial trucks, but most drivers will take a hit. That said, depending on what routes you drive, you might see no increase at all. And if you switch from paying cash to getting an E-ZPass, in some cases you can even lower your toll rate from what you pay now.
You probably guessed a toll hike was coming, what with the reports on Maine Turnpike Authority fiscal excesses dating back many years (see "E-ZPass on Ethics," by Lance Tapley, August 4, 2006) and the more recent jailing of 23-year MTA head Paul Violette for stealing between $150,000 and $230,000 in MTA funds to subsidize an extravagant lifestyle. Present MTA executive director Peter Mills swears the latest rate hike has nothing to do with those misdeeds, but many of his board of directors, and many of his employees, are holdovers from that era (see "Many Maine Turnpike Enablers Still in Power," by Lance Tapley, August 5, 2011).
So what's changing? Right now, the major barriers on the Turnpike charge $1.25 at West Gardiner, $1.75 at Gray/New Gloucester, and $2 at York. They'll go up to $1.75, $2.25, and $3, respectively. E-ZPass users pay on a more varied scale partly based on the distance they actually travel on the highway, but apart from the free trips between Lewiston, Auburn, and Sabbatus, everybody pays at least 50 cents per trip. (E-ZPass users are guaranteed at least the same toll rates as cash payers, so you'll never pay more, but often pay less.)
We broke down the numbers to find some interesting tidbits.
• Of the 314 total variations on trips on the pike (from every exit to every other available exit, northbound and southbound), 92 — just shy of one-third — won't see any toll increase at all. Most of these are trips in the greater Portland area, such as driving to Gray from Rand Road on the Portland-Westbrook line, though some no-increase trips cover a lot of ground, like going from the "Portland North" exit 53 to exit 19 in Wells.
• And 94 trips, including 46 of those seeing no increase at all, will cost the same whether you use cash or an E-ZPass. So if, for example, you drive from Gray to Kennebunk, you'll pay $1.50 no matter what. And driving from Kennebunk to Gray will cost you the same $1, cash or E-ZPass, before and after the rate change.
• For 76 trips, nearly a quarter of the possibilities, converting to E-ZPass as the new rates take effect will actually save you money over the cash payments at the current rates. (A driver entering the Turnpike by driving south on I-295, heading to New Hampshire or Massachusetts, at present pays $3 cash — $1 at the 295-Pike interchange, and $2 in York — or $2.50 E-ZPass. The new rate will be $4 cash or $2.85 E-ZPass. So you can drop that $3 to $2.85 by switching.)
• For an additional 11 trips, switching to E-ZPass will let you avoid an increase and keep the same toll rate you had when paying cash. For example, driving to Portland North from Lewiston, Auburn, or Sabbatus will cost $2.25 cash or $1.75 with E-ZPass; the old rates were $1.75 cash and $1.50 with a pass.
• On long trips, E-ZPass savings increase. Driving the full length of the Turnpike, for example, from Augusta to York (or vice-versa) at the moment costs $5 in cash, or $4.80 with an E-ZPass. Starting in November, it will run you $7 cash or $6.45 E-ZPass. Rather than saving just 20 cents, you'll save 55 cents per trip.
• Very short trips can have wide cost variations depending on how you pay. At present, if you go from Wells to York, you pay $2 in cash but just 80 cents with an E-ZPass. That difference will only grow with the new rates: $3 cash, or 90 cents E-ZPass.
• Some trips that previously saw no savings will see modest breaks for E-ZPass users under the new rates. Drivers who used to enter at the Gray tolls heading to the Portland area didn't see any benefit to using E-ZPass, because they paid the same amount either way. Now, they'll save at least 10 cents each time.
If you're considering switching from cash to an E-ZPass, you should know a few more things:
• If you get an E-ZPass, it costs $10 plus 5 percent tax for the device. New Hampshire charges $8.90; Massachusetts gives them out for free.
• As in other states, you have to pre-load the device with at least $20 in credit, with tolls deducted from your balance as you drive, rather than shelling out cash. (There's a certain irony about paying up front to an organization so it can pay down its debts.)
• By the time the toll change takes effect, you'll be able to order an E-ZPass online in Maine — a new initiative, though New Hampshire and Massachusetts have had it for years. MTA spokesman Dan Morin says states with online ordering have significantly higher E-ZPass participation.
• If you want to sail through a toll area at highway speeds, you'll still need to go to New Hampshire for that modern convenience. In Maine, E-ZPassers have to sit in the traffic jams just like everyone else.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Press Releases: It's an online world now

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Portland Press Herald editorial crew needs some lessons on online communication and Internet copyright law. This is clear in the wake of a recent dustup the paper had with a woman who took a photo in October 2010, posted it on Flickr way back then, and was very surprised to find at the top of the PPH's front page, and prominently online, on August 7.
The picture was the crux of a Press Herald story covering part of the ongoing revelations about Reverend Bob Carlson, who killed himself in November 2011 when allegations began surfacing that he sexually abused minors. In this development of the matter, which is being covered exhaustively in other media, former Husson University president William Beardsley (now the state's conservation commissioner) confronted Carlson in 2006 about an allegation of some sort of sexual misconduct. The reverend resigned from his post as campus chaplain; Beardsley claims he told Carlson not to return to campus. The photo is evidence that Carlson did visit campus for official events after that conversation.
Having learned of the photo's existence on Flickr, the paper downloaded the photo from the online site to run in print and online, describing the photo as taken by "the former administrative assistant to Rodney Larson, dean of the School of Pharmacy."
It appears, then, the PPH knew the identity of the person behind the camera. And the photo was clearly marked on Flickr as "© All Rights Reserved" But the paper never contacted that person, despite the contact-the-photographer button Flickr provides on every page.
The post-publication exchange with the shooter in question, Audrey Slade, raises questions about the paper's understanding of good online conduct.
She wrote twice to PPH brass, asking them to take the photo down. On August 9, managing editor Steve Greenlee wrote back, claiming the paper "could not, by deadline, determine who the photo belonged to" and saying the paper determined it could use the photo in part because it was "on a public site (Flickr), available for anyone to view, with no obvious indication of ownership." Greenlee also claimed "there was no contact information for the account holder on the Flickr page."
In a blog post about the situation, Slade wondered about the ethics of basing an entire article on her photos, and all but identifying her, without contacting her, either for comment or for permission. She noted Flickr's message button, and added, "perhaps since they were able to see my name attached to my flickr page, they could have googled me, thus finding . . . my email address." She also noted that her job title was nowhere to be found on Flickr, so the paper clearly had additional information about her identity.
The paper answered with a post of its own, admitting the reporter "neglected to click the message button on Flickr." (That button is how I reached Slade to speak to her about this situation.)
After admitting sin by omission, the paper then gave three reasons it published the photo without contacting her and without credit: "The photo was viewable by the public with no privacy settings. The image was central to a story of great public interest. Naming the photographer without her permission would have pulled her into a controversy unnecessarily."
The second one is true, and the only excuse of the three that's even reasonable. The third reason might hold water if the article hadn't all but named her. As for the first, the Press Herald's own photos are "viewable by the public with no privacy settings" — but we can be sure the PPH would send its lawyers after anyone who used them without permission or credit.
The paper later took the photo down and told Slade it would pay her $300. She wrote back, saying it had been four days, and therefore $400 was in order — as well as a public apology. She's gotten a check for the full amount, but she's still waiting on the apology.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Community Building: Mosque welcomes visitors

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Don't believe what you read or hear in the news about Muslims. "Instead of taking it from the media, it's better to take it from people who are educated in the religion," said imam Mohamed Ibrahim, speaking in Somali and using a translator, at an iftar gathering Monday night at the Maine Muslim Community Center in Portland.
Attending were not just the community center's regular congregants, but community members, neighborhood residents, and city officials (whose ranking member was Police Chief Mike Sauschuck).
The iftar breaks the fast that observant Muslims keep between sunup and sundown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (when the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed). The community center, which includes a mosque, has been in its location at the corner of Fox and Anderson streets since 2007; it was in May 2011 that the members were able to buy the building, and renovations finished last August. So the gathering marked an anniversary of sorts — as well as an opportunity for further engagement between the Muslim community and the wider population of Portland.
Recalling the support the group found when, shortly after the building was purchased, it was defaced with graffiti in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden by American troops, board president Mohamud Mohamed said the center wants to welcome neighbors all the time, not just in crises. "We don't need the people only the difficulty day," he said.
The solution, he proposed, was one laid out in a proverb he translated as: "The animal they understand each other when they sniff each other. The people understand each other when they talk together."
The gratitude to those who attended from among the Muslim leaders was palpable — and oft-repeated in remarks from several of them — and the welcome was genuine, filled with smiles and excellent food. (A surprise: lasagna, which entered Somali cuisine through Italian colonizers.)
But there was an element of defensiveness as well. While inviting attendees to return, and noting that any community members who are interested may visit at any time, Imam Ibrahim cautioned against believing stereotypes and fear-mongering. "Islam is a religion of peace," he said.
This was perhaps most vividly represented when, partway through the meal, the muezzin's call resounded through the building, and worshipers stood up from their plates or came in from outside. Lining up on the carpet, facing the mihrab (the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca), roughly 70 men and boys (women pray separately) bowed and knelt, pressing their foreheads to the ground while whispering prayers.
This weekend will see the observance of Eid al-Fitr, the really big feast and community gathering marking the end of Ramadan; the exact timing depends on when the crescent moon is first sighted here in Portland, and the location of the observance is still being determined because of scheduling conflicts at the Portland Expo, where celebrations have been held in the past.