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Waiting at too many red lights? The taxman likes it that way

There's a rush you get when you're driving down the street and you catch one green light after the other. In some places -- and you know the highways by heart -- you can travel for miles that way, never tapping the brakes. As long as you're going the speed limit, you can sail across some towns this way.

They call that the "green wave," and it's no accident. Traffic engineers build that timing into their systems. The "green wave" is one of the things that keeps Manhattan avenue traffic flowing as well as it does. The green wave also happens to be an efficient way to manage fuel costs and limit carbon emissions. Repeatedly pressing on the brakes and repeatedly starting from a halt burns lots of gas.

That efficiency is why some governments oppose it.

It's enough to make you see red. Even in this era, when motorists need a price break and fuel is so valuable that wars are fought over it, governments resist the simple measure of timing their stoplights to create a green wave because they make more on fuel taxes if they don't. That's the dispiriting truth revealed, blithely, in the sixth paragraph of a story in the Daily Telegraph about efforts to re-program stoplights in Britain.

"The Government feared motorists who were traveling smoothly, rather than stopping and starting, would use less fuel and pay less to the Treasury in duty as a result," the story reads.

Yes, up to now, our ally in the Iraq War would rather have people chewing up gas. Bureaucrats had to rejigger the books to make it worth the while of local governments to synchronize their lumbering transit patterns.

Our governments have been using motorists as cash cows in some pretty obvious ways, such as the insidious double jeopardy of the so-called Driver Responsibility laws, but this is the first time I've seen in print a confirmation that there's an ulterior motive to keeping our transportation systems a jumbled mess.

How much money does your state stand to lose if all the lights worked efficiently? Hard to say. But Portland, Oregon, recently re-timed its lights (in that case, to match bike traffic), a move that is calculated to save motorists 1,750,000 gallons of fuel a year. The effort cost a little over $500,000 to implement.

In Oregon, the tax on a gallon of standard gas is 43.4¢, only 18.4¢ of which is federal excise tax; the rest goes to state (24¢) plus county and city. Multiply that 25¢ in local taxes by the number of gallons saved, and municipal authorities, the guys who program the lights, are raking in $437,500 less a year on gas taxes. And that's just in Oregon.

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