TIME Nepal

Why Nepal Wasn’t Ready for the Earthquake

The death toll has been amplified by a paralyzed political system

The shock of the past few days in Nepal gave way to despair, frustration and a few larger questions on Tuesday, as the death toll from the devastating earthquake that wracked the small Himalayan nation over the weekend rose above 4,000 — a number that will almost certainly rise once international rescue teams reach rubble-filled outlying areas surrounding the capital, Kathmandu.

The massive quake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale and followed by three days of panic-inducing aftershocks, has left the country — already one of the world’s poorest and least developed — reeling and utterly helpless.

But while the earthquake is tragic, seismologists said it didn’t come as a surprise. Nepal’s location on a fault line and a lack of emergency resources made a devastating earthquake inevitable, heightening a sense that more should have been done to make typically ramshackle local buildings more resilient, and so saving countless lives.

“It was no surprise whatsoever. This is the earthquake we’ve been waiting for,” Susan Hough, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, tells TIME. “People have been talking about a magnitude 8-ish earthquake hitting Nepal pretty much exactly like this one did. What surprises me is how many buildings are still standing.”

Nepal, nestled in the midst of the Himalayas and on a fault line between the Eurasian and South Asian tectonic plates, has long been on experts’ radar as a high-risk region that lacks the wherewithal to protect its 30 million people.

The country has a per capita GDP under $1,000, and homeowners often construct their own buildings without any oversight from trained engineers. Government officials imposed a new building code in 1994, six years after an earthquake there killed 700 people, but lack the resources, or will, to enforce it strictly. The government also attempted to implement a 1998 action plan formulated by disaster-management organizations GeoHazards International and the National Society for Earthquake Technology–Nepal, but was unable to adequately shore up its defenses.

“People have been trying for a long time to improve preparedness and resilience, but they’re resource-strapped,” Hough said.

MORE 6 Ways You Can Give to Nepal Earthquake Relief

The rest of the world has jumped to Nepal’s aid in the quake’s aftermath, with a host of countries ranging from neighbors like India and China to distant nations like the U.S. and even Israel joining the landlocked Himalayan nation’s own people in providing relief-and-rescue assistance. However, the continuing efforts have enforced a bitter sense of how powerless the Nepali government is to care for its own people when faced with calamity.

“Our government is not strong enough to handle this,” said Kshitiz Nyaupane, a Kathmandu local in his mid-20s. “We must take care of it ourselves.”

Nyaupane’s statement echoes the frustration Nepal’s people feel at a political system wracked by decades of indecision, internal conflict and instability.

A decade-long civil war sparked off by a Maoist rebellion ended in 2006 after claiming nearly 20,000 lives, and the monarchy that had ruled Nepal since the 1700s was abolished in favor of parliamentary democracy. Competing and highly divisive factions of Nepali politics have been unable to come to an agreement on a constitution since then, however, and issues like disaster preparedness have taken a backseat amid an impasse that has lasted nearly a decade.

“We have had no political stability, nine prime ministers in eight years, and we don’t have a constitution,” Nishchal N. Pandey, director of the Kathmandu-based Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS), tells TIME. “The people are very, very frustrated” at Nepal’s political and economic paralysis that could well be exacerbated by this disaster, Pandey said.

“The government cannot look after everyone,” said Tika Regmi, executive director of local trekking company Adventure Mountain Explore Treks & Expedition. “It’s the public like us who has to be careful.”

Although all of Regmi’s tour groups bound for the base camp of Mount Everest have fortunately been accounted for, he said not a single member of the government, police or army had come to his village of Budhanilkantha (about 11 km from Kathmandu) as of Monday afternoon. “Some people don’t even have a tent, mattress, blankets or food,” he said. “I don’t know if the government is looking, they may come to us tomorrow or maybe not.” Regmi was unreachable on Tuesday.

Some believe the government’s efforts of the 1990s may have mitigated the extent of the devastation to some degree — experts had previously predicted that an 8.0-magnitude quake in Kathmandu could kill between 40,000 and 250,000 people, according to University of Colorado professor and South Asian earthquake expert Roger Bilham.

But Pandey says there are certain facts and figures that are inexcusable. “Can you imagine that the Nepal army has just one Mi-7 helicopter?” he says. “Just one, for a force of 90,000. This is a grave tragedy.”

The CSAS head hopes that the earthquake, as tragic as it is, will be the jolt Nepal’s political class needs to get its act together. A fully functioning government would go some way to ensure the next quake, which is surely coming, does not wreak such a hefty toll. “So many people have died, our history is completely gone, and if not now, then when will these politicians come together?”

— With reporting by Justin Worland / New York

Read next: Where Will the Next Big Earthquake Hit?

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Government

DEA Chief to Retire Amid Pressure Over Agents’ Sex Scandal

DEA administrator Michele Leonhart testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a hearing on sexual harassment and misconduct allegations at the DEA and FBI in Washington on April 14, 2015.
James Lawler Duggan—Reuters DEA administrator Michele Leonhart testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a hearing on sexual harassment and misconduct allegations at the DEA and FBI in Washington on April 14, 2015.

Michele Leonhart had been widely criticized for her response to a scathing report detailing allegations that agents attended sex parties with prostitutes in a foreign country

(WASHINGTON) — The embattled head of the Drug Enforcement Administration said Tuesday that she plans to retire after three decades with the agency, an announcement that came amid mounting pressure for her resignation from members of Congress who questioned her handling of misconduct allegations against agents.

Michele Leonhart, a career drug agent who has led the agency since 2007 and was the second woman to hold the job, had been widely criticized for her response to a scathing government watchdog report detailing allegations that agents attended sex parties with prostitutes in a foreign country.

After Leonhart appeared last week before the House Oversight Committee to respond to an inspector general’s allegations that the agents had received lenient punishments, most lawmakers on the panel announced that they had lost confidence in her. She also was criticized as being “woefully unable to change” the agency’s culture.

The no-confidence statement was signed by 13 House Democrats and nine Republicans, including its chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and the committee’s top Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland. Chaffetz went a step further, calling for Leonhart to resign or be fired. On Tuesday, the two lawmakers said they welcomed Leonhart’s departure, calling it appropriate and an opportunity for new leadership.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated earlier Tuesday that the Obama administration had “concerns about the material that was presented in the (inspector general) report that raised legitimate and serious questions about the conduct of some DEA officers.” He said Obama “maintains a very high standard for anybody who serves in his administration, particularly when it comes to law enforcement officials.”

Leonhart will leave the agency in mid-May, Attorney General Eric Holder said in announcing her retirement.

“Michele has led this distinguished agency with honor, and I have been proud to call her my partner in the work of safeguarding our national security and protecting our citizens from crime, exploitation and abuse,” Holder said, crediting her with helping dismantle violent drug trafficking organizations.

Leonhart canceled an appearance to receive an award Tuesday from sponsors of the Border Security Expo, a trade show in Phoenix for government contractors. Doug Coleman, the DEA’s special agent in charge in Phoenix, accepted on her behalf.

Robert Bonner, a former DEA administrator and Customs and Border Protection commissioner, told the luncheon audience that Leonhart was being unfairly blamed for agents’ misconduct. He said last week’s House hearing presented a “jumbled and distorted” picture of the agency, much of it untrue.

“Sadly, what we’re witnessing in Washington is ‘gotcha’ politics in action,” he said.

Leonhart was the target of online petitions calling for her ouster after she distanced herself from the administration’s stance on legalized marijuana, seen as a hands-off approach that lets states legalize marijuana so long as it is state-regulated. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law and is classified by the DEA as a Schedule 1 drug, along with drugs such as heroin and peyote.

Leonhart also declined to fully endorse sentencing reform efforts supported by the Justice Department, and the agency has been criticized by privacy advocates for its use of a sweeping database of phone calls made from the United States to multiple foreign countries. The agency acknowledged that database in a court filing involving a man accused of conspiring to illegally export goods and technology to Iran, but said it was no longer in use.

During Leonhart’s tenure the agency was responsible for a variety of notable criminal cases, including assisting in the 2014 capture of Mexico’s Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, long considered one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the world.

There were also scandals, including the case of a California college student who was left alone in a holding cell for five days without food or water. The April 2012 incident left Daniel Chong in grave physical health and led to a $4.1 million settlement and nationwide changes in the agency’s detention policies.

___

Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in Phoenix contributed to this report

MONEY Taxes

What It Says About the Economy that People Are Saving their Tax Refunds

saving tax refund
Rene Mansi—Getty Images

It's not necessarily good news that so many are banking their checks from Uncle Sam

This spring, Jes Norman is looking forward to handing her personal financial advisor a bigger-than-normal check: her tax refund.

“I’m investing because I hadn’t in prior years,” says Norman, 28, a project manager for an electronic medical record company. “My tax return is the easiest deposit to give since it’s ‘bonus’ money.”

After a serious medical illness plunged her in debt four years ago, the Rockford, Ill. resident was forced to spend her available cash paying off medical bills. Now her finances are stable enough for her to save her refund.

Retailers looking forward to tax refund season hope Americans with extra cash might be quick to throw open wallets and splurge. But surveys show a higher percentage of adults will be making like Norman this year, and socking away at least part of their refunds.

Fewer Plan to Splurge

tax refunds economy

The average tax refund is up 0.7% this year, to $2,893. And the National Retail Federation’s survey last month of over 6,000 adults across income brackets and regions showed almost half of consumers expecting a refund are planning to save some of what they get back from Uncle Sam.

That is the highest percentage since the trade association started conducting the survey 12 years ago.

Thirty-nine percent of consumers also planned to pay down debt with their refund.

Only 10% planned to make a “splurge” purchase and a quarter said they would use at least some of the refund for living expenses.

A smaller survey by Bankrate.com showed consumers who planned to spend their refund dropped from 7% in 2010 to only 3% this spring. Meanwhile those who planned to save or pay down debt grew from 58% five years ago to 67% today.

Blame the Recession Hangover

This savings trend has been taking off on a national scale since the recession, says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. Before the recession, the savings rate hovered between 2.5 and 3%. Now it’s up to 5.5% and has been on the increase for the last three months.

“American consumers remain cautious,” Zandi said. “I think, in general, consumers are not letting loose.”

Other economic indicators seem to back this up.

Despite strong job growth, several months of increases in personal income and lower gas prices, retail sales dropped 0.6% last month—despite forecasts for an increase of 0.3%. This is the first time since 2012 they have dropped for three consecutive months.

Personal consumption also declined more than expected: -0.2% and -0.3% over the past two months before adjustments for inflation.

And the annualized pace of auto sales fell in February to 16.2 million from January’s 16.6.

Meanwhile consumer sentiment has been slipping during tax season. The index peaked at an 11- year high in January at 98.1 but fell in February to 95.4 and to 91.2 in March’s preliminary forecast.

New York tax professional Alisa Martin, who has clients ranging from low-income freelancers to high-income professionals, also says she has seen a new awareness from clients to save and pay down debt since the recession.

“People are more concerned about savings,” said Martin. “Even people that were good financially before the crash, it dipped into a lot of their savings. They saw accounts really go down. Now they’re trying to get things built back up.”

The NRF survey found that Millennials were even more likely than the general population to save (55% vs. 47%)—which may be owed to their having come of age in tough economic times.

“Perhaps having learned a few financial lessons from their parents during the economic downturn, it appears that Millennials are looking for ways to get ahead,” explains Pam Goodfellow, a director for Prosper Insights and Analytics, the company that administered the poll. “Less likely to be saddled with mortgages and accumulated debt, tax refunds represent the perfect opportunity for younger consumers to invest in their future.”

 

Hear why Millennials are saving more of their refunds

 

Aside from these national trends, Americans may also be affected by more programs promoting savings this tax season. H&R Block, one of the country’s largest tax preparers, announced a new 3-year program to promote savings called “Savings at Tax Time.” The campaign, a partnership with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will encourage clients to save when they come in to get their taxes done.

The bureau also runs a similar campaign at thousands of government-supported community tax preparation sites for low-income Americans.

Retailers Will Lose… But Maybe Not as Much as Expected

The loss in potential spending by Americans is significant. Last year, the IRS handed Americans a total of nearly $65 billion dollars in refund checks.

But even with the increased push toward savings, tax refund season won’t be a total bust for retailers.

“We do know that there are significant spending responses among households when their tax refunds arrive,” said Jonathan Parker, a finance professor at MIT who has studied how Americans tend to spend money they get from government rebates and refunds.

Parker said many studies have shown that people tend to spend a “significant share” of these types of payments—even those who say they’ll save it.

More on taxes from Money 101:

How can I reduce my tax bill?

How do you know if it makes sense to itemize?

What if I need more time to file my taxes?

TIME cities

Los Angeles Will Spend $1.3 Billion to Fix Its Crumbling Sidewalks

The deal is a major win for disabled Angelenos

The City of Los Angeles said Wednesday that it will budget $1.3 billion over 30 years t0 repair broken sidewalks, resolving a lawsuit that claimed the walkways were in such poor condition they violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The suit argued that the sidewalks relegated disabled Angelenos to second-class citizenship because they were so cracked as to be not traversable and thus interfered with the independence of disabled people, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Lillibeth Navarro, executive director of the group Communities Actively Living Independent and Free, called the deal a “major win” for people with disabilities.

Starting next fiscal year, the city will spend $31 million annually on the project, with the number rising to $63 million in future years. The first focus will be on parks and heavily trafficked walkways like those outside hospitals.

A federal judge still needs to approve the exact terms of the deal.

The reason sidewalks fell into a decrepit state is because when federal money the city relied on for maintenance dried up, property owners were unwilling to raise taxes to cover the expense.

It is estimated that 40% of sidewalks need repair in the City of Angels.

[Los Angeles Times]

MONEY Autos

Police All Over the U.S. Are Issuing Fewer Traffic Tickets

traffic violations
Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

Drivers appear to be catching a break from cops, who are writing fewer tickets of late. But don't think for a second the decrease is because police have become softies all of a sudden.

The Nevada Supreme Court says it could be completely broke by May 1. The primary reason the court won’t have enough cash to operate? Not enough people are breaking the law. Or rather, not enough people are being caught breaking the law.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal recently reported that the number of traffic and parking citations has plummeted in Nevada, from 615,267 in 2010 to 484,913 last year. That’s a dip of more than 21% over five years. The state court system’s budget relies on millions of dollars in funding from such citations, so when significantly fewer tickets are issued, it can wreak havoc on the court’s ability to do its job, and even just keep the lights on.

In mid-March, Nevada Chief Justice James Hardesty raised the problem to a group of state lawmakers, asking the legislature to provide emergency funding to make up for the shortfall in citation revenues. The court’s budget is currently running $700,000 short. As for why the number of tickets issued by police has steadily declined, Hardesty doesn’t think it’s simply because a broad swath of drivers has suddenly seen the error of their ways and stopped speeding.

“With all due respect to the citizens of Nevada, I don’t think anyone is driving better,” Hardesty said to lawmakers. “I think the truth is that we’re seeing less traffic violations because law enforcement’s priorities have changed and it has changed dramatically.”

What, then, are the new priorities? The Review-Journal noted that police have put new “emphasis on violations that could cause crashes,” with citations up for drunk driving and cellphone use behind the wheel. Understaffing may be a factor as well.

In any event, the decrease in traffic citations is hardly limited to Nevada. Speeding tickets are down sharply in Wisconsin, from 294,000 convictions in 2004 to 156,000 in 2013. In Washington, D.C., police officers issued 76,832 traffic tickets last year, down from 81,161 in 2012 and 116,509 in 2010. Citations issued on interstates in Ohio are down as well, especially on busy I-70, where the monthly number of tickets is down 25%. Over in Pennsylvania, the number of tickets issued by state police was down 22% in September 2014 and 11% in October compared with the same months the year before.

Speed Limits Up, Revenue Down

What’s to explain the decline in tickets? In some cases, it’s a matter of not having the funds to keep police out on patrol looking for violators. Police in Wisconsin, for instance, say that federal grant money that used to support anti-speeding campaigns has dried up.

What’s interesting—or perhaps sad, in a which-came-first, dog-chasing-its-own-tail sorta way—is that budget tightening is often blamed for why ticket issuance is down, at the same time a decline in citations is pointed to as a prime reason for budget shortfalls in the first place. Understaffing due to budgetary constraints has been blamed for the sudden and dramatic decline in ticket revenues in Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York as well in recent years.

Higher speed limits that are more in line with how people actually drive also appear to have handcuffed the need to issue speeding tickets. When Ohio upped its speed limit to 70 mph in 2013, it became the 37th state to OK speeds of 70 or above. In light of that, it’s no coincidence that speeding tickets have dropped 7% on Ohio’s 70 mph stretches, and they’re down 25% on rural areas of I-70 where the limit is 70 mph.

In some cases, especially in D.C., there are indications that police are writing fewer traffic tickets because automated red-light camera systems are doing the job for them. In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, traffic tickets were supposedly down steeply last fall partly because police were occupied in a seven-week manhunt for alleged cop killer Eric Frein. What many drivers might find alarming is that even as citations were down during this period, ticket revenues were up significantly compared with the year before. How could this be? The average traffic fine simply got more expensive, hitting $125 in 2014, up from $114 the year before.

The cynics among us may think that police are writing fewer tickets mainly because they have little incentive to write more tickets. This certainly seems to be the case in parts of Illinois, where police issue traffic tickets at a tiny fraction of the rate their citation-happy brethren in law enforcement do across the border in Missouri. The most infamous example of this is Ferguson, Mo., where the killing of an unarmed Michael Brown by police inspired months of protests, and where police are known to write more and more tickets to fund local budgets. Nearly 12,000 traffic tickets were issued in Ferguson (population: 21,111) last year. Across the border in Illinois, where municipalities see very little of the money taken in from traffic fines, police in cities of similar size like Alton (population: 27,690) and Edwardsville (population: 24,663) handed out only 6,653 and 3,128 tickets, respectively, in 2013.

“None of us want an officer to have a financial incentive to write citations,” Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keevan said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

For that matter, traffic tickets aren’t supposed to be about money, right? They’re supposed to exist in order to incentivize drivers into behaving better behind the wheel and keep roads safer. The purpose of lower speed limits is supposed to be to save lives as well. With that in mind, one might assume that since speed limits have risen, and since police seem to have grown lax in their approach to writing tickets, roads would become more dangerous. But the statistics don’t bear this out.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there were 30,057 car crashes in which someone died on American roads in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s the second-lowest fatal car crash total ever (2011 had slightly fewer), and it marked an all-time low for the death rate per 100,000 vehicle occupants.

In other words, roads today are safer, not more dangerous, and it’s hard to argue that writing more tickets is going to make anyone safer.

TIME Government

Americans Still Think Government Is Their Biggest Problem, Poll Shows

capitol-building
Getty Images

More than terrorism, ISIS and race relations

For the fourth month in a row, Americans have voted that the government is the biggest problem currently facing the United States.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 18% of Americans surveyed named the government as the most important U.S. problem, followed by 11% who named the economy in general and 10% who said unemployment. These beat out terrorism, ISIS and race relations on the survey.

Despite concerns about the government, 31% of Americans surveyed said they were satisfied with the direction of the country, well above its low of 7% in late 2008 during the economic crisis.

Read next: How Mexican Immigration to the U.S. Has Evolved

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY winter

Sick of Clearing the Snow? Failure to Do So Could Cost Even More

150304_EM_snow_1
Steven Senne/ASSOCIATED PRESS

It's been a stormy winter for much of the country, so it's understandable if you're tired of clearing snow off your car and sidewalk. But there's more reason than ever to handle these chores like a good citizen.

Earlier this winter—before we knew just how bad of a winter it would be—we ran a post about why it is so essential to shovel your walkway after it snows. The reasons start with getting hit with local fines for failing to clear snow and ice, and they end with the possibility of being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars if someone falls and gets injured on your property.

In Boston, which is on the verge of crossing the mark for having snowiest winter on record, Mayor Martin Walsh plans on increasing the fine fivefold for property owners who don’t clear their sidewalks or snow and ice, or who push snow into the streets. The highest possible fine could be $1,500, up from the current maximum of $300, if Walsh can convince the city council to get on board with the idea at a meeting on Wednesday, the Boston Globe reported. If property owners don’t pay the fines, they would simply be added to the owner’s property tax bills.

“Failing to remove snow from a sidewalk puts lives at danger. It’s a problem for every pedestrian, but it is especially difficult for our children, for the disabled, and for the elderly to face deep, unshoveled sidewalks, and be forced to walk in the road,” Walsh said in a press release. “I urge the City Council and state officials to move this legislation which grants us the authority to deter these violations, hold accountable those who are guilty, and recoup some of the added costs that these violations create.”

Getting sidewalks cleared of snow and ice has also proven to be a problem in many parts of New York City, especially in neighborhoods overrun with foreclosed properties and vacant buildings, where it’s sometimes impossible to track down who, if anyone, is the owner. According to a New York Times analysis, 331 tickets for failure to clear snow off sidewalks have been issued to just 10 notorious properties in the Bronx. The Bronx has been hit with the most fines per capita (more than 10,000 violations), though Brooklyn and Queens properties have received more tickets overall, with 14,000 and 13,000, respectively.

Meanwhile, in places like northeast Ohio, unshoveled sidewalks and walkways are causing a host of problems, including disputes among neighbors and gripes from elderly residents about the unfairness of fines. In some cases, the United States Postal Service has even stopped delivering the mail to residences where sidewalks, walkways, or streets are clogged with snow and ice.

Your obligation to clear snow doesn’t stop at the edge of your property, however. Laws have been passed in New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Connecticut, among other places, requiring drivers to clear snow from cars before heading out onto roads. In the latter, drivers face fines up to $1,000 if snow or ice flies off your vehicle and causes damage to another car or motorist, but in most cases, the fine would be a flat $75.

There’s also a bill currently under consideration in Pennsylvania that would allow police to pull over cars and trucks if the vehicle is covered in ice or snow that “may pose a threat to persons or property,” regardless of whether or not any damage has been caused. If the bill becomes law, drivers would face fines of $25 to $75 for not clearing snow and ice from vehicles. That’s cheap compared to Europe, where failure to clear snow from cars in the Alps could result in a fine of €450, or around $500.

TIME Government

Kayla Mueller’s Father Says U.S. ‘Put Policy in Front of American Citizens’ Lives’

ISIS claims the 26-year-old hostage died in a recent air strike

Slain ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller’s father has accused the Obama administration of putting its policy of not paying ransoms “in front of American citizens’ lives.”

In an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie, Carl Mueller said he had mixed feelings about the government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorist groups who kidnapped foreigners. Other Western countries are known to have paid millions to secure the release of their nationals.

“We understand the policy about not paying ransom,” he said. “But on the other hand, any parents out there would understand that you would want anything and everything done to bring your child home…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

MONEY Autos

How New York’s Proposed Toll Hikes Stack Up Against Other Cities’

bridges over Hudson river
Brett Beyer—Getty Images

The tolls faced by New York City drivers today are expensive, and could get even pricier if a new proposal on the table is approved. Still, in the grand scheme, the city's tolls are cheap compared to some other places in the world.

This week, a transit advocacy group introduced the Move NY Fair Plan, a proposal to add and tweak driving fees around Manhattan in order to address what it describes as an “unfair, regressive tolling system,” while also easing traffic congestion and raising $1.5 billion annually to fund transportation infrastructure. The gist of the proposal, as summed up by the New York Times, the Times Herald-Record, and others, is that some bridge tolls would get cheaper while a few new tolls would be added according to “a logical formula: higher tolls where transit options are most available and lower tolls where transit is either not available or a less viable option.”

The plan calls for tolls to be added to four bridges that cross the East River but traditionally have been toll-free: Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro, and Williamsburg. Vehicles would also start being hit with a fee when they cross 60th Street northbound or southbound in Manhattan. In both cases, the new tolls would run $5.54 each way for E-ZPass users, and $8 for others. Meanwhile, tolls on a few other New York City bridges, including the Verrazano Narrows, Throgs Neck, and Bronx-Whitestone, would be reduced by $2.50 for E-ZPass holders.

The overarching argument in favor of the changes is that the existing system of tolls and transit fares isn’t sufficient to fund infrastructure needs, and that today’s tolls are just plain unfair. Hence the proposed “Fair Plan.”

But how “fair” would the new tolls be compared to what drivers face elsewhere? The proposal—which for now is just that, a proposal that may not win much support in the city or Albany—would have no effect whatsoever on the bridges and tunnels run by the Port Authority, including the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, among others. If the plan is approved, the East River Bridge tolls—again, $5.54 each way with E-ZPass, so $11.08 round trip—would be cheaper than a Port Authority bridge or tunnel crossing into New York during peak commuting hours ($11.75), but pricier than an off-peak trip ($9.75).

Among other pricey bridges and tunnels around the U.S. and abroad:

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel: The $15 toll during peak season (Friday to Monday, May 15 to September 15) is quite pricey, but hey, this engineering wonder connecting Virginia’s Eastern Shore to Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach is 20 miles long.

Golden Gate Bridge: At a cost of $6 to $7 only for cars heading into San Francisco, the Golden Gate doesn’t charge as if it’s one of America’s most famous landmarks.

Whittier Tunnel: This 2.5-mile passage in between Anchorage, Alaska, and Whittier and Prince William Sound is the longest highway tunnel in the U.S., and it only has one lane that must be shared by cars and trains. The cost of driving through in a standard vehicle is $12 one way.

Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge: Also known as Pearl Bridge, Japan’s Akashi-Kaikyo has the world’s longest central span of any suspension bridge, at 1.2 miles. Driving across costs 2,300 Yen, which is around $20 per vehicle today. The toll used to be closer to $30 back in the days when the American dollar wasn’t quite as strong.

Mont Blanc Tunnel: This passage crossing the France-Italy border in the Alps is impressive for two key data points. The tunnel stretches a total of 7.2 miles, and driving through costs about $49 one way.

As for the idea that drivers in the New York City area be charged not for crossing a body of water but simply for entering or exiting Manhattan’s CBD (central business district), Singapore, Milan, London, and Stockholm have had similar toll systems in place for years. London’s “congestion pricing” scheme has been in place since 2003. Back then, the daily charge for driving in central London was £5, or about $7.75 today. The driving surcharge has since increased, hitting £11.50 ($18) last summer.

Compared to that, the $5.54 charge to drive into lower Manhattan just might seem cheap.

TIME Education

Shrinking the Education Gap Would Boost the Economy, Study Says

Students applaud as U.S. President Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the Worcester Technical High School graduation ceremony in Worcester
Kevin Lamarque —Reuters Students applaud as U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the Worcester Technical High School graduation ceremony in Worcester, Massachusetts June 11, 2014

A modest improvement in the lowest test scores could see GDP rise by $2.5 trillion by 2050

Narrowing the education gap between America’s poor and wealthy school children could accelerate the economy and significantly increase government revenues, according to a new study.

An improvement in the educational performance of the average student will result in “stronger, more broadly shared economic growth, which in turn raises national income and increases government revenue, providing the means by which to invest in improving our economic future,” says the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

The study is based on findings from a 2012 assessment given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Data showed the U.S. education system performed poorly when compared against the world’s 34 developed nations, ranking below average in mathematics and just average in reading and science.

The Washington Center took America’s test score of 978, and in their most modest scenario boosted the achievement scores of the country’s bottom 75% testers so that the national score reached the worldwide developed nation average of 995 (or roughly equal with France).

This would raise the U.S. GDP by 1.7% by 2050, they found, which, taking inflation into account, would amount to a $2.5 trillion rise or an average of $72 billion extra per year.

The country would also make over $900 billion extra in total federal, local and state revenue.

If the U.S. were able to match Canada’s educational achievement score of 1044, the potential gain would be significantly higher. The study estimates that GDP would grow by 6.7%, equivalent to $10 trillion or about $285 billion per year.

This latter scenario would mean a revenue boost of $3.6 trillion.

The Washington Center said their findings suggest that governmental investments into education would pay for itself in the form of economic growth for many years to come.

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