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May 05, 2018

"Getting There" - Transportation Cuts Will Hurt Us All

For weeks I’ve been writing about the CDOT’s impending bus and rail service cuts and fare hikes and their profound impact on commuters, local businesses and real estate values.  But with just weeks to go, the folks who can prevent this pain… our legislature… seem to be doing nothing.

 The deadline is July 1st this year when proposed CDOT cuts will go into effect:   A 10% fare hike on Metro-North will be matched with elimination of off-peak trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines as well as Shore Line East.

How are local officials responding?  By complaining that the proposed cuts on them aren’t fair.  “Don’t cut my mass transit, cut someone else’s!”, seems the plaintiff cry.  “Why is my bus service being cut but Hartford and Stamford’s isn’t?,” one official asked me.

I told him he was asking the wrong question.  Instead he should be asking why any bus or train service was being cut.

It’s as if a crowd was trapped in a burning building with one narrow fire escape and everyone’s screaming “I deserve to survive. Let the others get burned” while nobody is working to douse the flames.

The answer isn’t to push away the pain onto others but to turn off the pain at its source.
 Legislators can easily stop CDOT’s plans by just raising the gasoline tax four cents a gallon and diverting the car sales tax into the Special Transportation Fund.  Instead, they’re blaming everyone but themselves for the mess they got us into.

Remember:  it was the legislature that pandered to voters by lowering the gasoline tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997, a move that cost the STF $3.4 billion in lost transportation spending that could have repaired roads and fixed bridges.

Now the Republicans are so focused on the fall campaign they’re deceiving voters in a “big lie” PR move only Sean Spicer could enjoy: trying to argue that proposed highway tolls are “taxes”.  

They are not.  Tolls would be a user fee, paid only by those who drive on those roads.  Train fares aren’t taxes, are they?  You only pay those fares if you take the train.

Do Republicans really think voters are that stupid?  Apparently so.

The pols are also piling on the CDOT for being late in opening the new Hartford Line, the commuter rail line between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.  Our legislature can’t even deliver a budget on time, let alone understand the complexity of a $769 million railroad construction project that’s taken over a decade.

It’s not by chance the Republicans are known as the “party of no”.  For all their complaining they have offered no new ideas or embraced the ones that thoughtful observers think are obvious:  asking motorists to pay their fair share with gasoline taxes and tolls.

Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US, fares that have risen 53% since the year 2000…  while motorists haven’t seen a gas tax increase in 20 years. How is that fair?

If the July 1st service cuts and fare hikes go into effect, commuters should know it’s their legislature that’s to blame.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 28, 2018

"Getting There" - The Hartford Line

There’s finally some good news on transportation:  a new commuter rail line, The Hartford Line, is set to open this spring.

Decades in the dreaming and years in the planning, the state-owned commuter line will run 17 trains a weekday between New Haven and Hartford, stopping at State St (New Haven), Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin and Union Station in downtown Hartford.  Twelve trains on weekdays will continue north, stopping at Windsor and Windsor Locks before ending their run in Springfield.

Parking will be free at Berlin, Wallingford and Meriden, at least until the fall.  When service expands there will be a train every 30 minutes in peak hours and every 60 minutes off-peak.  In some parts of the 62-mile run the trains will hit speeds of 110 mph, compared to the 79 mph max currently on Amtrak.

Some of the runs will use Amtrak equipment, but all trains will honor new, lower CT Rail fares.  While Amtrak currently charges as much as $47 one way from New Haven to Springfield, all trains on The Hartford Line will sell tickets for just $12.75 for the same trip.  And New Haven to Hartford will be just $8.

There will be the usual discounts for seniors, 10 trip and monthly commuters.

Those fares, coupled with free parking and a massive marketing campaign, should lure road-weary commuters off of I-91 and onto the rails.  At least that’s the hope, and there’s a lot of money riding on this plan.

Connecticut got lucky in 2011 when Florida Governor Rick Scott turned down federal money for mass transit in his state and we quickly grabbed the funding.  Millions were spent double-tracking the line and building beautiful new stations, which are hoped to be the catalyst for TOD (transit oriented development) nearby.

Also new is the railroad’s operating agency.  CDOT by-passed Amtrak (which operates Shore Line East and still owns the tracks for The Hartford Line) and went with TransItAmerica Services and Alternate Concepts, a joint venture which won the 5 year, $45 million operations contract.

Insiders tell me they’ve got a waiting list of job applicants for conductors and engineers, most of them Amtrak and Metro-North veterans fed-up with their experiences there.  The new operators promise great customer service.  Compared to Amtrak and MNRR, there’s nowhere to go but up.

One big disappointment for all concerned is that the train service will start, not with shiny new rail cars, but hand-me-down rail cars from MBTA in Massachusetts.  The original plan was that MNRR’s electric-powered M8 cars would be running on Shore Line East by now, freeing up that line’s diesel push-pulled equipment to run on the Hartford Line.  But that hasn’t happened, so CDOT went scrambling looking for railcars, which are in short supply nationally.

What they got were 16 cars, each 30 years old, which have been rehabilitated and “deep cleaned” inside and out and given FRA’s stamp of approval to run.  They’ll be fine for now and eventually The Hartford Line will get its own new railcars.

Start date was supposed to be late May, but I’d prefer they wait ‘til everything is perfect rather than rush to open “on time” and disappoint riders in any way.  Right now it looks like opening-day will be in mid-June.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

April 24, 2018

"Getting There" - Second Guessing the CDOT

Years ago a US official touring China’s amazing new 225-mph high speed rail network commented: “It’s amazing what you can do in a country that only needs three people to make a decision”.  No public hearings, no environmental impact studies… no dissent.

In this country we have a different system.  Consider CDOT’s many multi-million dollar projects, their public process and, as a result, how slowly they progress.

The “billion dollar” Walk railroad bridge replacement in South Norwalk is a perfect example.

The CDOT deserves a lot of credit for their transparency on this project, including a  dozen or so open houses, information forums and public hearings they have held. They’ve even opened a walk-in information center nearby.  There are weekly updates and a robust website, in multiple languages, to keep Norwalkers updated on the nine-year project.  

Nobody can say the public isn’t involved.

The project has been brewing since 2015, but only now are the protests really ramping up in the form of a lawsuit.  At issue is whether replacement of the swing bridge is really necessary or whether a fixed (unmovable) bridge would suffice.

Plaintiffs say that a fixed-bridge wasn’t considered, but should have been, even if it meant getting the Norwalk River upstream officially closed by act of Congress after buying out the local marinas and oil terminals that might lose barge service as a result.

But the CDOT says that option was cost-analyzed and would only save 11% of the construction cost, while still disrupting the area and the demolition of the Aquarium’s IMAX theater.

I’m not a lawyer (or an engineer), so I can’t opine on either the legality or engineering decisions.  But that hasn’t stopped others from questioning the CDOT at this late point in the process.  Everyone seems to have an opinion, whatever their qualifications.

Some are even waxing nostalgic about the Victorian-era look of the bridge, hoping its iron superstructure could be preserved or replicated, because it is such a part of the city’s identity. Maybe the city’s motto should be “Norwalk:  We live in the past.”

But where were these people three years ago when the project was in its development phase?  How much work (time and money) might be lost if their litigious second-guessing further stalls this crucial project?

Remember:  this bridge is being replaced because it is used by 200 daily trains carrying 125,000 passengers on Amtrak and Metro-North.  There’s a lot at stake if it isn’t fixed.

Another case in point: the Cribari Bridge over the Saugatuck River in Westport built in 1884.  This swing bridge carries vehicular traffic on Rt 136 but is so old and crumbling that CDOT recently put a 20-ton weight restriction on the span.  That means fire trucks can’t get across.  But the town and CDOT have been battling for years over replacing the Cribari bridge. 

Preservationists want to keep its ornamental steel truss filigree even though it’s regularly struck by traffic.  It’s another battle of nostalgia over practicality.

I’m all for citizen engagement in transportation planning.  But at some point we have to trust the professionals, yes… the engineers, to do the right thing and build for the future.  The time for kibitzing should have a statute of limitations.

Our crumbling infrastructure cannot wait to be rebuilt.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

April 01, 2018

"Getting There" - Saving Money Riding Metro-North

Whether you’re a daily commuter, an occasional day-tripper or have friends visiting from out of town, everyone can save money when you go into NYC on Metro-North by following this time-tested advice:

TRANSITCHEK:     Get your employer to subscribe to this great service, which allows workers to buy up to $260 per month in transit using pre-tax dollars.  If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings on commutation.  A recent survey shows that 45% of all New York City companies offer TransitChek which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries. 

GO OFF-PEAK:      If your train arrives at Grand Central weekdays after 10 am and you can avoid the 4 pm – 8 pm peak return hours, you can save 25%.  Off-peak fares are also in effect on weekends and holidays.  Your train may be less crowded, too.  These tickets are good for 60 days after purchase.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE:      Buy your ticket on the train and you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 - $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once!  (Seniors: don’t worry, you’re exempt and can buy on-board anytime without penalty). There are ticket machines at most stations, but the most convenient  tickets are those bought online using the new e-Tix app.  And go for the ten-trip tickets (Off-Peak will save an additional 15%).  They can be shared among family members and friends and are good for six months.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES:          Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50% over adult fares.  Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours).  

Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50% off the one way peak fare.  But you must have proper ID and you don’t get the discount in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING:         Even train stations that require local parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends.  Check with your local municipality. 

CHEAPER STATION PARKING:           If you're a regular commuter, don’t waste money parking at comparatively “expensive” station garages like South Norwalk ($ 12 per day), Stamford ($11) or New Haven ($18).  Instead, park at the day-lots in nearby towns for as little as $4.  But be sure to pay at the pay station before boarding the train.

Once you’re in the city, you can save even more money.

METROCARDS:     Sorry Grandpa, subway tokens are no more.  The nifty MetroCard can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some incredible deals:  put $5.50 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 5% bonus.  Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus.  You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a week ($32) or a month ($121).  There’s now even an ExpressPay MetroCard the refills itself like an EZ-Pass.

BUT…  IS IT CHEAPER TO DRIVE?:      Despite being a mass transit advocate, I’m the first to admit that there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than take the train, especially with three or more passengers.  You can avoid bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure.  

Check out  to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination, some offering discount coupons.   Or drive to CitiField (it’s still Shea Stadium to me) where parking is cheaper and take the # 7 subway from there to GCT.

The bottom line is that it isn’t cheap going into “the city”.  But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money.  Enjoy!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 18, 2018

"Getting There" - Public Hearings or Political Theater?

In recent weeks I’ve been criss-crossing the state talking to folks about our transportation crisis:  the proposed fare hikes on trains and buses coupled with service cuts on the branch lines, and the multi-billion spending cuts at CDOT.

I call it the “Winter of our discontent” magical misery tour.   Here's a link to a video of one of my talks:

From Woodbridge to New Canaan, from Old Lyme to West Haven, I’ve talked to crowds large and small, explaining what’s going to happen July 1st and why.  Most folks knew something about our impending doom, but they all left unhappy about the cuts’ specific impact on their lives.

Like the First Selectwoman from Old Lyme who said taxpayers were going to have to spend $600,000 repairing a local bridge because, for the third year in a row, CDOT doesn’t have enough money to share with municipalities.

Or the manager of The Roger Sherman Inn in New Canaan who said she’d probably have to close if off-peak train service was cut on the branch, making it impossible for her cooks and waiters to get to work.

But the culmination of all these presentations was last Tuesday night’s public hearing in Stamford before an SRO crowd of 200+ angry residents.  I’d come more to listen than talk, but couldn’t resist and used my allotted three minutes to ask…

“What are we doing here?  Why are we at this hearing when nothing that you or I say tonight will do anything to change the inevitability of these fare hikes and service cuts?  This may be cathartic, but it’s just political theater.  The folks you should really be talking to are not from CDOT but your State Rep and State Senator.  The legislature created this funding problem and only they can fix it.  If they raise the gas tax and get serious about making motorists pay their fair share, none of these service cuts or fare hikes will happen”.

I was speaker number 11 of more than 80 who signed up to speak.  Some of them waited 4 hours for their few minutes in front of the mic.

But not the politicians.  As State Rep’s arrived, they were whisked by the CDOT Commissioner to the front of the speaker’s line, jumping the queue.  The Commissioner is no fool.  He knows who controls his budget and it isn’t the old guy with a walker complaining about the buses.

When the pols spoke it was the usual platitudes but no new ideas.  “Don’t raise fares, find other funding sources,” said one.  What funding sources?  To their credit, some of the pols did stay to listen, but others (including at least one gubernatorial hopeful) did their grandstanding and split.

One State Rep did have the guts to poll the crowd on their appetite for raising the gasoline tax and tolling our roads, both of which got loud support, much to his surprise.  The people have spoken so now’s the time for action.

By the way… what kind of message does it send when scores of New Canaan residents go to the Stamford hearing to oppose rail service cuts but take a chartered bus instead of the train?

People are angry.  But they need to direct their anger not at the CDOT but at the legislature, holding them accountable for their inaction.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 10, 2018

"Getting There" - A Private, For-Profit, Passenger Railroad

There is no profitable passenger railroad in the United States. 

Amtrak and commuter lines like Metro-North all operate at a loss as a public service, their deficits borne by tax dollars.  But in January all that changed as America saw the launch of “Brightline”, a privately owned, for profit passenger railroad in Florida.

Running between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, the railroad is owned by Fortress Investment Group, which has ties to Florida East Coast Railways over whose freight tracks the new passenger trains will run.

So far the $3 billion invested in the railroad has delivered only 46 miles of track but plans are to extend the line south to Miami and north to Orlando Airport by 2021.  The trip from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach takes just 34 minutes, averaging 79 mph and costs $10 one way in “Smart Coach” class, $15 in “Select Coach” (first class).  That’s hardly enough time to get settled in let alone enjoy the comfy Acela-style seats, complimentary Wi-Fi or free snacks in the pricier seats.

Trains run every 90 minutes on weekends, more frequently on weekdays.  Eventually they hope to offer four trains an hour (compared to two an hour on Metro-North). The commuter-line TriRail runs between the same stations (for $5.65 one way) in about an hour, thanks to nine intermediate stops compared to Brightline’s nonstop express.

Driving the same distance on Florida’s I-95 would take 47 minutes, assuming an average 65 mph, which is nearly impossible on that crowded interstate, in some places 16 lanes wide!

On its opening weekend, a VIP inspection-train killed a pedestrian crossing the tracks (after
the warning gate had been lowered) in Boynton Beach FL.  Since testing began of the new trains, six people have been hit by the trains, four of them killed.  Despite the fatalities, local residents are trying to force the railroad to suspend use of its horns as locomotives fly along at speed.  That’s pretty stupid, if you ask me.

Brightline’s owners aren’t counting just on passengers to make their railroad profitable.  Wisely, they are expecting real estate (which they own) adjacent to their stations to become quite desirable.  They’re building a 290-unit residential building in West Palm and another 816 units in a mixed-use, 11-acre site near the railroad’s eventual Miami hub.  Not only will they have a captive ridership but their rent money as well.

This is also Connecticut’s dream:  transit oriented development.  The only difference is that in Florida Brightline owns the land near their stations.  CDOT does not, with the exception of parking lots like Stamford station’s which have long been eyed as a revenue source to subsidize our trains.

In Hong Kong the privately-owned Mass Transit Railway (MTR) turns a profit of $2 billion a year not just by running one of the world’s best subways, but by owning the shopping malls and skyscrapers above its stations.  Turning an 85% operating profit, the MTR can invest in new trains and passenger amenities while still keeping fares at about 50 cents a ride.

We’ll see if Brightline can find its audience and turn a profit.  If they do, their success may be a model for other private investment in this crucial public service of mass transit.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 04, 2018

"Getting There" - Big Brother is Along for The Ride

Don’t look now, but someone is joining your travels:  Big Brother.

You assume you’re alone, traveling in your car to and from work?  No, you are being watched.  All along I-95 TV cameras are looking for accidents and slow downs.  Though there are specific state laws prohibiting the use of those cameras to write speeding tickets, they can follow your car by model, color and license plate number.

Many local cops’ cruisers have license plate readers, scanning every plate and sending its information to a national database that can alert the officer to outstanding warrants, lack of insurance and other stoppable offences.  Some departments store their scan data for weeks, others for years.

Now, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is contracting with a private company to have access to a billion license plate records, allowing the agency to know where you were and when.

If you have an EZ-Pass, it’s being “pinged” for more than just paying tolls.  The NYC Dept of Transportation uses hundreds of E-ZPass readers in Manhattan, it says, to monitor the flow of traffic.  But the NY Civil Liberties Union calls that an invasion of privacy

And, of course, our cell-phones are constantly transmitting our location and speed to services like Google and Waze, though you can turn that off.  It’s even alleged that hackers can use Waze to track you.  And have you checked your Google Location History lately to see everywhere you’ve been and when?

Even outside of your car, you’re still being followed.  Metro-North just added security cameras to its trains, watching both the engineer and the passengers.  There are cameras, as well, at stations and on NYC buses.  MTA (and NYPD) can easily track every swipe of your MetroCard (tied to your credit card).  Of course, they’re only looking for bad guys, not you.  Right?

Traveling by air?  Well, in addition to a full luggage search and body pat-down by the TSA, now the airlines and US Customs agency are using facial recognition to allow you to board your flight and leave the country.

If you’re bound for Aruba on JetBlue out of Boston you won’t even need a boarding pass as your face will identify you to the airline… and who knows who else.  The whole process take two or three seconds and is billed as a “convenience”.

US Customs hopes to use facial recognition for arrivals into this country starting this summer.  Meantime your RFID chip-enabled passport will be necessary.  But do you know what information about you is encoded in that chip?  US Customs says there is no personal data on the chip, just a reference number corresponding to your personal information stored on their computers. 

Like all RFID chips, your passport’s can be “pinged” from up to 30 feet away, so some travelers are now shielding their passports with expensive wallets lined with metal.

Don’t want Big Brother to join you on your journeys?  Wear a disguise, strip yourself of all technology, and try walking or riding a bike.  Or just stay home, curled up in a paranoid-induced ball, worrying.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 24, 2018

"Getting There" - Drivers Don't Pay Their Fair Share

Am I the only person in the state who thinks Gov Malloy’s plan for tolls and gas taxes makes sense?  Probably.  But let me try once again to overcome the usual objections and explain why Malloy’s plan is fair and necessary.

TOLLS ARE TAXES:         No, tolls are users fees.  Train fares aren’t taxes, are they?  If you don’t want to pay a few pennies a gallon more for gasoline, don’t drive.  Join us on the train and pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  There is no free ride.

I ALREADY PAY ENOUGH TAXES:       That may be your perception.  But in 1997 when legislators cut the sky-high gas taxes by 14 cents, why didn’t they tell us that would lose us $3.7 billion in needed transportation funding?  The bill has come due.

BUT I ALSO PAY A PROPERTY TAX ON MY CAR:   Sure, but it doesn’t go to fixing the roads.  That’s a town / city tax.  If you don’t like it, tell City Hall.

WE ALREADY HAVE THE HIGHEST GASOLINE TAXES:   Not so anymore.  Connecticut’s 39 cents per gallon tax is third highest in the Northeast, trailing Pennsylvania (59 cents) and New York (44 cents) and just ahead of New Jersey (37 cents). 

THE ROADS SHOULD BE FREE:          And just where in the Constitution does it say that?  This isn’t the pioneer West:  we’re talking about I-95 and the Parkways!  Driving is not like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Think of the new paradigm as an a la carte restaurant where you pay for what you eat.

TOLLS AREN’T SAFE:      Another myth since the days of the “fiery truck crash” in Milford in 1983.  Tolls don’t require barriers or booths anymore.  They’re electronic gantries over the highway reading your EZPass or license plate without slowing down.

TOLLS WILL DIVERT TRAFFIC TO LOCAL ROADS:           Maybe, for the first week.  Then people will decide if they want to waste time in traffic or pay a few cents to get where they’re going.

IF WE RAISE THE GAS TAX WHY DO WE NEED TOLLS?:           Because raising the gasoline tax can be done in weeks.  But tolls will take 2-4 years to install and by then upwards of half of all cars will be electric, paying no gas tax.  Why should a Tesla driver get a free ride?

OK, BUT JUST TOLL SOMEONE ELSE:          Sure, something like 34% of all traffic in Connecticut is from out-of-state.  But building tolls just at our borders is unconstitutional (and unfair).  We can offer a discount to CT residents, but can’t charge those driving through our state while we pay nothing.

MALLOY STOLE MONEY FROM TRANSPORTATION:        True, money has been regularly “reapportioned” from the Special Transportation Fund for years, by Rowland and Rell as well as Malloy.  You’ll get the chance to stop that in November when there’s a referendum question on the ballot for a “lock box” on the STF.

THE REAL PROBLEM IS STATE EMPLOYEE UNION CONTRACTS:          That may be so, but the SEBAC contracts were just renegotiated and approved by the legislature, so how do we undo that before the STF goes belly-up next year?

I’VE HAD ENOUGH!  I’M LEAVING THE STATE:       Sorry to see you go.  But when you say goodbye, remember you’ll have to pay tolls to NY, MA or RI on your way out.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 18, 2018

"Getting There" - Get Back on the Bus, Gus...

 Though maybe not the most glamorous means of mass transit, Connecticut’s 12,000+ local and commuter buses form a vital link in our transportation network.

“We’re not just a service for the needy few,” says Greater Bridgeport Transit’s CEO Doug Holcomb, the feisty young leader of one of the state’s largest and most successful  bus systems.

In other words, single-occupancy car drivers’ perceptions notwithstanding, it’s not just poor folks and the car-less who must rely on the bus.  According to Holcomb, 90% of GBT’s ridership is either going to school or work.  Like rail commuters, some bus passengers own cars but prefer to take the bus for any number of reasons.

GBT’s 40-foot buses average 30 passengers per bus per hour, an impressive average when you consider it includes rush hour and lower-ridership off-hours.  And it’s no wonder people take the bus when 78% of Bridgeport’s population is within a half-mile of a bus stop.

It’s the frequency of service that also makes buses attractive.  Miss one bus and there’s another along in a few minutes.  The GBT’s bilingual website makes it easy to ride the bus with maps and tutorials for first time passengers.  And the bus company even offers a real-time online map that uses GPS to show you where your bus is on its route.  Not even Metro-North can do that.

If you go to you can input your departure and end points for anywhere in the state and your bus alternatives and travel times will pop up.

Fares are cheap:  $1.75 for adults and just 85 cents for seniors.  Yet, fares cover just 35% of the cost of the ride (the rest is subsidy).  But by keeping fares affordable the bus is attracting more riders and covering more of its costs.

Sure Uber and lower gasoline prices are eating into ridership.  GBTA carries 18,000 daily riders compared to 20,000 just a few years ago.  But the bus can take you places Metro-North can’t, like the “Coastal Link” route which runs from Milford to Norwalk along the Boston Post Road.  At Milford you can connect to New Haven and at Norwalk, to Stamford.
Even the buses themselves are getting better as transit agencies upgrade their decade-old vehicles.  New buses are hybrid electric, not the old smoke-spewing diesels of years ago.  And Connecticut is now engaged in a $1.4 million study of all-electric buses, seeing if they can handle the cold and operate on our hills.  One model of electric bus can even re-charge in 5-12 minutes when it reaches the end of its route while off-loading passengers. 

One of the biggest bus successes in the state is CTfastrak, the almost three year old BRT (bus rapid transit) system running from downtown Hartford west to New Britain and more recently, as far east as UConn in Storrs.  The buses operate on a 9 mile dedicated highway and carry 400,000 riders each month on clean, sleek Wi-Fi equipped buses that depart every seven minutes.

CTfastrak has proven popular with college students, so it’s now considered “cool” to take the bus.  Who knows?   With millennials being big fans of mass transit they could give our state’s bus network a new uptick. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 09, 2018

"Getting There" - Zone Pricing for Gasoline

Why does gasoline cost 52 cents a gallon more in Greenwich than Bridgeport?   Is it because folks in Greenwich are richer and can afford it?  Or is it because it costs gasoline station owners more to operate in that tony zip code?

While both factors are probably true, the reason gasoline costs more in some towns than in others is because of something called “zone pricing”, an industry practice that does all but set the price for the commodity that is charged by distributors and passed along to their customers.

Lawmakers have debated zone pricing many times in recent years, but it has never been killed. I wonder why, given its apparent unfairness.  But who’s to explain the mysteries of what our lawmakers do?

Let’s follow the gasoline distribution process to better understand price-setting.
An oil tanker arrives in New Haven and offloads its cargo (there are no pipelines to our state).  There are thirty gasoline distributors in Connecticut and as they truck their gasoline to gas stations, they obviously incur costs.

Big chains of gas stations can negotiate better deals than the independently owned stations.  So to compete “Mom and Pop” gas stations often sell snack foods and such.  In effect, your beef jerky is subsidizing your cheaper gasoline.

But it’s the secret zone pricing rules, set by the distributors, that breaks the state into about 50 different zones and determines how much station owners must pay for gasoline. Pricing is determined by traffic volume, nearby income levels, the competitive landscape and other factors.  And the gas station owner is making only seven cents a gallon profit.  But if the station owners must pay more for gasoline, so will you.

When he was Connecticut’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal called zone pricing “invisible and insidious”. Yet, the courts say its legal and the Federal Trade Commission says whatever costs are added in one zone are probably offset by discounts in another.  So it all averages out, right?

Gasoline distributors also say they need flexibility to offer lower prices to gas stations competing with super-discounters like Costco.  And they also remind us that other industries have their own answer to zone pricing:  like supermarkets that may charge less for the same product in Bridgeport than they do in Fairfield, right next door.

So while we may not be willing to drive five miles for a cheaper gallon of milk, we seem happy to go a few miles out of way to save ten cents per gallon of gasoline.  Fire up your “Gas Buddy” app and happy hunting. But remember, it your car only gets 20 mpg, driving ten miles for cheap gas will cost you a gallon on the roundtrip.  Some bargain!

The state also meddles with other kinds of pricing, like for liquor.  In fact, state law requires merchants to mark up prices to a minimum price per bottle, all in an effort to preserve Mom and Pop liquor stores. Why?  Because those merchants have better lobbyists.

We didn’t feel obliged to protect small town hardware stores when Home Depot and Lowes came to town.  But we do keep all sorts of prices in our state artificially higher than necessary to protect smaller merchants selling gas and liquor.

So is “zone pricing” for gasoline really unfair, or just a state sanctioned economic reality? 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Who Speaks for Commuters ?

“Commuting on Metro-North is like getting hit with a two-by-four.  Service is getting worse and now you’re hitting us with a 10% fare hike.”

Those comments came from Jeffrey Maron, Vice-Chairman of the official Connecticut Commuter Rail Council (CCCR), a usually mild mannered, two-compliments-before-any-complaint kind of guy.  (Maron and I both served on the predecessor Metro-North Commuter Council).

But Maron’s tone had changed, as he quizzed CDOT Commission Jim Redeker at the recent CCRC meeting in Stamford where the transportation czar outlined the reasons for pending service cuts and fare hikes, i.e. the Special Transportation Fund is running dry and he has no choice but to cut expenses and raise revenue.

Maron reminded the Commissioner that Council members had offered many fund-raising suggestions, but never got the courtesy of a reply. “This is what  pi—es off the rider,” said Maron, raising his voice (which I have never, ever heard him do).  “We make suggestions and hear crickets.”

Maron was right.  Commuters’ suggestions should be heard, considered and accepted or rejected which explanation.  But Jeff’s ideas would amount to chump change compared to the funding really needed… like handing you a pool float as a tsunami hits.

Why not wrap all Metro-North cars in advertising, like our buses?  “That might bring in a million dollars,” said Redeker.  “So you don’t care about a million dollars?” asked Maron.  Probably not, when the STF will be $338 million in the red by 2022.

Why not collect all tickets?  Reasonable idea, but the needed staffing would cost more than the additional revenue collected, said the Commissioner.

Rubbing salt in the wound, Maron reminded the Commissioner of how much time and money he had wasted trying to repair, then demolish and privatize, the Stamford rail parking garage, a TOD project very dear to Redeker’s heart (and reputation).

And so it went as Commuter Council members (only half of whom even bothered to show up) bickered with Redeker and representatives of Metro-North.  Maron was right.  The Council gets no respect.

Which is why I resigned in 2013, after serving on that body for 19 years, the last four as Chairman.  The monthly meetings were a waste of time because neither side was listening to the other.

Over the years I’ve found that even simple questions require complex answers.  And there is usually a logical explanation for why the railroad has screwed up something.  Despite what curmudgeon commuters may think, the folks at CDOT and Metro-North are not stupid.  They’re just dealing with a complicated operation with insufficient resources and little margin of error.

So, why was the Commuter Council blaming Redeker for fare hikes and service cuts that he never wanted to make?  Instead, why weren’t they asking legislators what they will do to fund the STF?  The Council members weren’t listening.

So who’s really looking out for rail commuters’ interests?  It sure ain’t hypocritical lawmakers who claim to be fighting the fare hike necessitated by their own legislative inaction.

And sadly, I don’t think it’s the Commuter Council.  They’ve lost any credibility by their inability to deal with these issues with anything but bickering.

Nor do I pretend to that responsibility, though I’m usually the media’s go-to-guy for a soundbite.  I’m not even a full-time commuter anymore.

At this point I think it’s every man and woman for themselves. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

January 29, 2018

"Getting There" - The Hudson River Tunnels

It should have been done by now.

2018 was the expected completion date of the new railroad tunnels under the Hudson River first proposed in 2009.  At the time the $9 billion project was the biggest infrastructure project in the country.  Now it’s just a footnote to history.

Why do rail tunnels from New York’s Penn Station to New Jersey matter to us here in Connecticut?  Because they are the weakest but most crucial link in the northeast corridor, the $50 billion heart of the US economy.  Imagine trying to get to Philadelphia or Washington without Amtrak running through our state, into those tunnels and to points south.

There are 23 bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan from the north and east.  But between that island and New Jersey there are only six… two of them those rail tunnels built in 1910.  And when super-storm Sandy flooded those tunnels in October 2012 with 3.5 million gallons of salt water, their lifespan was shortened by decades due to corrosion.

If one of those two rail tunnels were to fail, the entire nation would be in an economic crisis.
New York’s Penn Station was never built to handle the 430,000 daily passengers it now handles each day (vs the 750,000 who enter the much-larger Grand Central Terminal).  Amtrak, NJ Transit and the LIRR carry twice as many riders at Penn as New York’s three airports combined.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents alone make up 16% of Manhattan’s workforce.  Their rail commuting options are so tight that many rely on the 7700 daily commuter buses that bring them into the transit cesspool known as The Port Authority bus terminal.

All that could have changed if the 2009 plan to build additional rail tunnels had gone through.  But then, along came Chris Christie, the newly elected Governor of the Garden State who balked at the cost and pulled the plug.

Cynics say that he did so to instead spend money on highways and keep the state’s gasoline tax low for another few years, even after repaying Uncle Sam for $95 million already spent on the project.

Now the project has been redesigned… and re-priced at a staggering $20 billion, which also includes adding seven more tracks at the overcrowded Penn Station.  The new target for completion is 2030.  Of the total, both NY and NJ would each contribute $3.6 billion with another $1.9 billion coming from the Port Authority.

But that’s only if President Trump’s promise for $1 trillion of spending on infrastructure makes it through Congress.  And that seems iffy.  The Trump campaign promise hinges on public-private-partnerships (P3’s).  The White House even convened a panel of high powered business leaders to study the idea, but they all quit after the President’s comments following the Charlottesville riots.

Imagine that:  Tweets that killed a tunnel.

Even basking in the glow of tax reform, I don’t think Congress has the appetite to tackle the infrastructure plan if it adds further to the deficit.  Worse yet, those in the red states so loathe the liberal New York area that they’d just love to see us crumble… like an aging railroad tunnel.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.