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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.

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.

January 22, 2018

"Getting There" - Malloy's Transportation Cuts

Fare hikes, rail service cuts and a freeze on transportation projects.  As he promised in December, Governor Malloy announced them all last week.  Rail commuters and highway drivers are justifiably outraged, but they should direct their anger not at the Governor or CDOT but at the legislature.

WHY NOW?            This funding crisis has been years in the making, exacerbated 20 years ago when lawmakers’ political pandering saw them lower the gasoline tax.  Coupled with better gas mileage and increased use of electric cars, the Special Transportation Fund (STF) which pays for our roads and rails has been running out of money.  By next year it will be in deficit.

RAIDS ON THE STF:        His critics are quick to blame Malloy, correctly noting that he raided the STF for money to balance the state’s budget.  But so did Governors Rell and Rowland.  Blaming their past mistakes doesn’t answer the question of what we do now.

FARE HIKES:         Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  The proposed 10% hike in July, while unpopular, will be absorbed by commuters who have no real choice in how to get to their jobs in NYC… assuming they don’t move. 

PUBLIC HEARINGS:        Required by law 90 days before they go into effect, the public hearings on fare hikes will be cathartic but meaningless.  Think of them as political theater.  The CDOT will present the numbers, explain why the STF is running out of money and sit patiently as commuters yell and scream.  Then they will do what they must:  raise fares.

RAIL SERVICE CUTS:      Why is Malloy cutting off-peak weekday and all weekend service on the New Canaan, Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East lines?  Because, unlike the mainline, these lines are subsidized 100% by Connecticut, have lower ridership and are much more expensive to operate. 

ECONOMIC IMPACT:       While higher fares are never popular, cuts in train service can be economically devastating.  Without daily trains, houses in communities like Wilton and Redding will be less desirable.  Property values will decrease, affecting local taxes.  Transit oriented development dreams for communities in the Naugatuck Valley will be dashed. 

FUTURE PROJECTS:       Not only is the Governor threatening fare hikes and service cuts, he’s freezing $4.3 billion worth of transportation projects across the state.  Forget about the new Stamford rail garage, Route 8 – I-84 “mixmaster” in Waterbury, the Barnum rail station in east Bridgeport, and hundreds of other projects.  There may even be a 15% staff cut at CDOT.  That means months or years of delays on these projects if and when money is ever found, making our state even less desirable for new business investment.

ROAD MAINTENANCE:    These cuts may even affect CDOT’s ability to plow our roads in the next blizzard, let alone fix the potholes and our aging bridges.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?:     It will be up the legislature to finally address STF funding.  None of the alternatives will be popular, especially in an election year.  But I’d expect tolls, taxes, and yes, fare hikes… all predicated on passage of a true STF “lock box” in November’s referendum.

If you’re as angry as I am, do something.  Call your state representative and senator and demand that they vote on new funding sources for the STF to stop these service cuts and project delays.  They created this problem.  Now they’ll have to solve it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 15, 2018

"Getting There" - Transportation Predictions for 2018

Recently I reviewed my transportation predictions for 2017 and gave myself a final grade of B+.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even own a crystal ball.

This week, I’m doubling down on some predictions and offering a few new ones.  So tuck this column away and give me a prognostication grade this time next year.

Commuters…  you’re not going to like this one.  With the Special Transportation Fund (STF) imperiled (see below) I predict that there won’t be money to pay for the additional M8 railcars on order for delivery in 2019.  Crowding will continue to the point that ridership will peak and start to drop.  Adding insult to toe-stepping injury, there will be calls for another fare increase of at least 10%.  Ouch.

As he threatened, Governor Malloy will cut transportation spending when the legislature does not act on new funding sources for the Special Transportation Fund.  Even before the STF runs dry, expect reduced or eliminated train service, fewer road repairs, less snow plowing, etc.   It’s going to be bad, really bad.

Before we see discussion of new tolls or taxes, we will need a lock-box on the STF.  We will have a chance to vote on that in a November referendum.  But I predict the vote will be “NO”… not because we don’t need a lock-box, but because the one proposed won’t be secure enough to persuade cynical voters it would be pilfer-proof.  A “no vote” on the lock-box will put any new tolls or taxes for transportation in question.

This is a hard one to call because none of the dozens of early-announced would-be candidates for Governor have said anything about transportation.  They all know this is going to be a crucial issue.  But they also know that voters don’t want any new taxes or tolls.  So, who among this gaggle of wannabe Governors will have the guts to be honest on this issue?  That’s the man (or woman) who’ll get my vote, if s/he exists.

In the wake of the recent Amtrak crash near Tacoma WA, this technology to control our trains is years late, millions over budget and in some peril.  Despite a three year extension by Congress, I fear that Metro-North will not have Positive Train Control up and running by the 12/31/18 deadline.

Fresh from his first (and only) legislative victory in 2017, President Trump will bask in the glory of his mighty tax cut but he will not be able to get Congress to make good on his promise to spend $1 trillion to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.  Why?  Because deficit-nervous Republicans won’t stomach the cost and so despise the Democrat-dominant Northeast that they’ll say “No way” to our multi-billion dollar projects.

Autonomous cars and trucks will start showing up on our roads.  The occasional accident will raise calls for better safety.  But the age of the auto-bots will continue, and we here in Connecticut will either get onboard or be declared irrelevant.


Elon Musk’s controversial system of high-speed tunnels will continue occupying the headlines despite predictions of its eventual failure.  A prototype has been completed and tested even as his Boring Company continues drilling.  But money problems at Tesla will drain his bank account and Hyperloop will be put on hold.

Those are my predictions for 2018.  Check back next year and see if I’m right.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 08, 2018

"Getting There" - Transportation Armageddon

Fare increases, reduced train service, less highway snowing plowing, postponed construction.  All of these and more are on the horizon, say Governor Malloy and the Connecticut DOT because our Special Transportation Fund (STF) is running dry.

I hate to say I told you so, but…

We’ve been talking about this issue for years and our lawmakers have done nothing.  In fact, they’ve hastened this transportation Armageddon by their own short-sighted political pandering.

Remember in 1997 when the legislature lowered the gasoline tax by 14 cents a gallon?  Seemed like a popular move in a state with such high gasoline taxes.  But those taxes are how we fund our transportation!  And with lower oil prices, greater fuel efficiency and electric cars, people are buying less gas and the STF is running on empty.  And our debt service on transportation is growing faster than CDOT’s spending on operations.

Last week the Governor warned us that Wall Street won’t buy even our General Obligation bonds, let alone transportation bonds, if the STF goes into the red.  So unless we find new revenue sources soon, any bonding will be more expensive if not impossible.

So pick your poison:  tolls, sales taxes, Vehicle Miles Tax, gas tax, higher fares… none of them are popular, but some combination will be necessary.

The alternative is to cut spending, cancelling things like new railcar orders for the standing-room-only Metro-North… eliminating off-peak and weekend trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches… cutting Shore Line East rail service by 50%... and three fare increases from 2019 to 2022.

Forget about rebuilding the crumbling Stamford rail station garage, a new station garage in New Haven, widening I-95 or rebuilding the disintegrating Route 7 – I84 “Mixmaster” in Waterbury.  And as CDOT faces further staffing layoffs, don’t be surprised if our highways don’t get plowed.  Agency insiders tell me they’re already down 50% in snow plow staffers in some parts of the state.

Oh, but here come the uniformed suggestions for a quick fix.  You’ve heard them and maybe thought of them yourself.

Why not cancel the new New Haven to Springfield rail line?  Sure… but because it’s being built with federal money, the state would owe Washington a $191 million refund it doesn’t have.

Why not stop the raids on the STF to balance the budget with a lock-box?  Great idea and you’ll get a chance to vote on that in a November 2018 referendum assuming you think it’s a real lock on that box.

Why not wrap all Metro-North trains in advertising… collect all tickets… sell naming rights for stations?  Sure, but that would bring in chump change compared to the $1B we need just to keep the STF solvent and the state afloat.

Tolls and taxes are the only realistic alternatives. But our legislators, facing an election year, have no stomach for either.  They’re still recovering from wrenched shoulders from patting themselves on the back for achieving an unbalanced budget while they’re in serious denial about the real mess we are in.

Come January the CDOT will start a series of public hearings on the necessary fare hikes and spending cuts.  It will be a great time to see who among our lawmakers will be honest with us about the financial crisis they created.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media