Christie: Drivers shrug off higher gas prices for 4th of July, summer travel

Gas prices, which surged ahead of the July 4th holiday, are expected to keep rising through the summer. Pump prices are already the highest since 2014. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

After weeks and weeks of dueling stories about whether gas prices will continue to go up ahead of the July 4th holiday, the consensus seems to have settled on consumers paying more at the pump.

RELATED: Christie: Um… so what’s going on with these rising gas prices?

According to Gas Buddy, which as late as last week was proclaiming a drop in the highest gas prices drivers have seen in four years, motorists hitting the road to celebrate the July 4 holiday will be shelling out an average of $2.90 per gallon, the highest Independence Day gas prices since 2014, when the national average hit $3.66 per gallon.

“Oil has surged over 10 percent just in time for summer’s busiest travel holiday, costing motorists over $1 billion more than last year,” Patrick DeHaan, a GasBuddy analyst, said in a news release. “All the ingredients exist for the national average to inch closer to $3 per gallon, just in time for the second half of the summer.”

But whether that will cause drivers to curtail or even change their travel plans is altogether another question; and most analysts don’t believe it will. They expect a record-breaking number of Americans to travel by car this holiday, and traffic to be at its worst on Tuesday in the late afternoon.

Motorists are expected in record numbers this week despite higher gas prices. ( Bloomberg / Patrick T. Fallon)

AAA, which has tracked travel numbers over Fourth of July for the last 18 years, reports that the number of on-the-road travelers will be up 5 percent from 2017. That’s despite gas prices going up an average of 62 cents across the country from a year ago.

Again, we are still pretty far from the 2014 national average and most analysts don’t believe motorists will be jarred into changing their driving habits until the price hits the psychological threshold of $3 per gallon.

They might not have to wait for long. Higher prices are expected to hang around all summer. After five-straight weeks of prices dropping, gas prices are likely to increase again as oil prices surged to $73 per barrel late Thursday, the highest since 2014. The U.S. State Department ordered buyers to curb their oil purchases from Iran by November. In addition, OPEC’s smaller-than-expected oil production increase last week fueled speculation that global inventories will continue to drop, and a government report showed U.S. oil inventories dropped three times as much as expected as total petroleum exports from the U.S. hit a new record high.

President Donald Trump said Saturday that he had received assurances from King Salman of Saudi Arabia that the kingdom will increase oil production, “maybe up to 2,000,000 barrels” in response to turmoil in Iran and Venezuela. Key OPEC member Saudi Arabia acknowledged the call took place, but mentioned no production targets.

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters aboard Air Force One as he travels to his resort in Bedminster, N.J. on Saturday. Trump said that he was pressuring Saudi Arabia and OPEC to increase oil production. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

Trump wrote on Twitter that he had asked the king in a phone call to boost oil production “to make up the difference…Prices to (sic) high! He has agreed!”

A little over an hour later, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported on the call, but offered few details.

“During the call, the two leaders stressed the need to make efforts to maintain the stability of oil markets and the growth of the global economy,” the statement said.

It added that there also was an understanding that oil-producing countries would need “to compensate for any potential shortage of supplies.” It did not elaborate.

Well, there you go. We’ll have to see whether the Saudis honor any agreement with the president. And even if they do, whether it will have the desired effect of pushing down gas prices.

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Regardless, even with high gas prices, most motorists aren’t likely to curtail their travel during the most popular summer holiday, due to its appeal and rich tradition celebrating the nation’s birthday.

AAA says that the Fourth of July falling on Wednesday this year has given travelers more flexibility to schedule trips either the weekend before or after the holiday. That could account for the increase is drivers this year.

Are high gas prices having an effect on your travel plans?

Christie: Brightline shines light on what commuting could be in South Florida

“I could get used to this,” says Rick Christie, Post Editorial Page Editor. Taking the escalator in Brightline’s Fort Lauderdale station after smooth train ride from West Palm Beach Friday morning. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

It’s one smooth ride. And yes, it’s fast.

Nearly six years in the making, All Aboard Florida’s Brightline is finally beginning limited service on Saturday. But I joined a gaggle of reporters, and business and government VIPs this morning for a test run.

And once the four-car Brightline Green train got underway (about 10 minutes late), it was hard for me not to think of the travel possibilities this oft-maligned, privately funded high-speed commuter train can offer stressed-out drivers in South Florida.

Question is, will they buy into it?

During my six-year sojourn in Washington, D.C., I was a daily MARC Train Service commuter: Bowie State University Station in Maryland to Union Station near Capitol Hill, one hour each way. Having spent of most of my life and career in Florida, not known for its mass transit systems, it was a new experience for me.

This time of year, after standing out on a cold Beltway-area platform, I’d endure every noisy bump and grind that comes from a decades-old commuter train. It was worth it, however, to not have to endure driving and parking in D.C. — in either money or time.

Truthfully, my round trip from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale and back this morning on Brightline Green had me feeling none of those negatives but all the positives.

Yes, they’ve still got that “quiet zones thing” that needs to be fixed ASAP, but as a rider I was unaffected. I could hear the train horns blowing frequently as we crossed roads, but the train is so insulated that the blaring sounded like it was off in the distance.

That the Brightline folks dolled up everything for this morning’s “media event” was not lost on me. I didn’t have to put the slick-looking ticket-buying kiosk to the test. There were balloons and helpful, smiling Brightline employees all over the West Palm Beach station, and complimentary food and drinks. The latter included alcohol (although they may want to check that rum choice if they want to impress).

All the pomp aside, both West Palm and Fort Lauderdale stations — in cookie cutter fashion — were bright and roomy (emphasis on the bright). You have to wear sunglasses when sitting on the comfortable benches upstairs because the big glass walls let all the eastern morning sun in. There’s real food and drink for purchase (not vending machine stuff), a sci-fi looking play area for kids and a “pet relief” station outside.

The practical, common-sense accouterments — such as charging stations — are like those I’ve seen in more and more airport upgrades around the country to meet traveler demands.

Can South Floridians get used to working on a train? I sure could; if it meant avoiding I-95 traffic. (Jennifer Sorentrue / The Palm Beach Post)

The ride was smooth from beginning to end,whether speeding up, slowing down or stopping. There was no clickety-clack of the old railroad trains. This felt more like the Atlanta MARTA or D.C. Metro trains, but even smoother.

The most exciting thing on the ride was having to come to a near stop just after Hillsboro Boulevard in north Broward to make way for a passing freight train, apparently due to a motor vehicle accident. Otherwise, I spent time chatting with fellow journalists, asking questions of our hosts, fighting over-attentive train attendants, and getting lost in thought while staring out of the window at the sights (trees, undisturbed scrub vegetation, the curious lack of fencing in some areas, an errant store shopping cart here and there, and, yes, continuing work on quiet zones).

It’s obvious that All Aboard Florida (before it was Brightline) spent a lot time researching and visiting high-speed passenger rail systems in other countries– as well as Amtrak’s Acela in the Northeast. That accounts for the smart things like roomy leather seats, free Wi-Fi (that works), food and drink cart service and workstations mixed in with regular seating.

RELATED: Quiet zone work to be completed in March, Brightline says

But the fact that Brightline officials were not able to get all of the quiet zone upgrades done before the limited launch is a disappointment that sticks in the craw of government officials — especially in Palm Beach County. So much so, nearly everyone who spoke at the West Palm station launch brought it up. West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio, a huge champion of Brightline from the beginning, was so bothered about it that she didn’t even show up this morning.

One can’t blame her, given the political capital she has invested in this project. And Brightline officials, who’ve already tested the patience of just about everyone with their multiple false starts, need to get these quiet zones done by their self-imposed end-of-March deadline. Not because any public official can stop the train from running, but because Brightline needs those officials’ support if this private venture has any chance of being successful — much less aggressively expand in the way they’re hoping.

Again, this isn’t a passenger thing, but a public thing.

Passenger-wise, all I could imagine was having to get down to Miami International Airport for a flight to the Cayman Islands and being able to bypass all of that horrendous Interstate 95 traffic. And as if on cue during the southern leg of my trip, I took a minute to text a friend of mine who was driving from Boynton Beach to his law office in Fort Lauderdale.

Me: “Yo!… Taking the Brightline Green train down to FTL on a press junket… It’s pretty nice.”

Him: “I swear I’m on 95 and I just looked at the train tracks and thought about the Brightline. I know it’s starting for the public this weekend… I was stuck on I-95 this morning. 40-min. delay due to mva (motor vehicle accident) at Hillsboro.”

Yes, that is the same Hillsboro where we slowed down and lost maybe five minutes off our arrival time in Fort Lauderdale.

Look, admittedly, some of my cultural bias against commuter rail was run out of me by my time in D.C. As a result, my mind may be more open than most to the idea of hopping a train down to Fort Lauderdale or Miami for business or recreation. Basically, I’m not as wedded to my car.

Many South Floridians look at taking the train, and then stress about how to get from the station to a specific restaurant. It’s like they developed an allergy to a cab or never heard of a (gasp!) downtown trolley.

As good a ride as Brightline is — especially for the introductory price of $10 one-way to Fort Lauderdale ($15 for Select Service) — there is still the question of whether South Floridians are really ready to give up their automobiles for the train.

For me, after one ride, I say they should give it a try.

Christie: U.S. hypocrisy on human rights shows in Cuba policy ‘tweak’

Nelson Avila, center, joins anti-President Donald Trump protesters, calling for open relations with Cuba on Friday in Miami. Trump thrust the U.S. and Cuba back on a path toward open hostility Friday with a blistering denunciation of the island’s communist government. He clamped down on some commerce and travel but left intact many new avenues President Barack Obama had opened. (Leslie Ovalle/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz… and lest we forget, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

All have been the subject of compliments from President Donald J. Trump during his infant presidency. From their strength in terms of silencing — even through violence — critics to their facility to write billion-dollar checks to the U.S. government, the president has not been shy about lauding these strongmen for their “leadership” in their respective countries.

President Trump has not been as willing to discuss their dark histories — former and current — when it comes to alleged human rights abuses.

That wasn’t the case last week, when the president made the grand announcement to reverse President Barack Obama’s opening of diplomatic relations with communist Cuba.

There, he drew a line of hypocrisy when it comes to what the U.S. will, and will not put up with when it comes to human rights by its partners.

President Donald Trump signs an executive order on a revised Cuba policy aimed at stopping the flow of U.S. cash to the country’s military and security services while maintaining diplomatic relations on Friday in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

“It’s hard to think of a policy that makes less sense than the prior administration’s terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime,” Trump said.

“The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime,” Trump said. “We will work for the day when a new generation of leaders brings this long reign of suffering to an end. And I do believe that end is within the very future.”
Trump said Obama’s policy has helped Cuba’s Castro regime rather than ordinary Cuban citizens. Of course, this is all about helping the Cuban people. Hard to argue against that. And the fact that the U.S.-Cuban thaw begun by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in 2014 hasn’t noticeably resulted in less human rights abuses — jailing of dissidents, imprisoning political opponents, etc.

A little more impatience about democracy isn’t such a bad thing.

But Trump joined a chorus of Cuban hardliners during his speech on Friday on stage at the Manuel Artime Theater who don’t bother drawing a distinction between our approach to Cuba’s Castro regime versus others of the same ilk.

Truthfully, Trump’s so-called “reversal” of Obama’s policies normalizing of relations with Cuba after 50-plus failed years of isolationism was little more than a “tweak.”

In this file photo, a tour bus along Havana’s Malecon. As President Donald Trump outlined a stricter policy toward Cuba on Friday travel industry representatives scrambled to decode new prohibitions and reassure clients that the island was not off limits. (Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times)

What remains: full diplomatic relations, including an embassy in Havana; reduced immigration favoritism for Cubans, otherwise known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy; restored commercial flights and cruise-ship visits; enhanced cash remittances and visitation by Cuban Americans; and even removal of Cuba from the list of state terrorism sponsors.

What changes: tightening restrictions on tourist travel to Cuba — technically illegal already — and instituting a broad prohibition on financial transactions with companies significantly controlled by the Communist government’s military holding company.

The rest is mostly rhetoric. Questionable rhetoric that, while it sounds good on a campaign stump, won’t amount to much in terms of helping the Cuban people.

So why bother? Especially given how hypocritical it all sounds when compared to what he administration seems fit to put up with from other de facto dictatorships when it comes to human rights abuses.

Why didn’t we here the same compassion from the Trump administration for the Turkish people who are having their rights trampled on? Would the U.S. be wrong to demand the right to a fair trial for hundreds of alleged drug dealers shot down in the streets in the Philippines? Why didn’t we here the same for the thousands of Egyptians jailed and killed by el-Sisi? And was a $100 billion buy of U.S. military hardware enough to buy our silence on Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women?

Such selective ire makes the righteous indignation from Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Jose Diaz-Balart ring all the more hollow.

Human rights are human rights. You either care about them everywhere, or you don’t care about them at all.