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April 27, 2015

Collecting Fares on the Honor System

Connecticut’s newest mass transit system, CTfastrak, is off to a great start.  The bus rapid transit system running from New Britain to Hartford is carrying up to 10,000 passengers daily.  Mind you, that’s coming off of its debut week when all rides were free.

In fact, it’s the fare collection process on CTfastrak that makes it innovative:  it’s on the honor system.
Unlike most buses, CTfastrak passengers pay before getting onboard, purchasing tickets ($1.50 for 2 hours’ use) at the stations or online.  This reduces the “dwell time” at each stop as passengers can board through any door. A similar system is running in NYC on certain “Select Bus” routes and seems popular.
But without paying a fare to the bus driver as you board, how do they know you have a ticket?  Ah, there’s the rub.  The “honor system” relies on “Fare Inspectors” making random checks.  Getting caught without a valid ticket means a $75 fine, though in these early days they’re mostly giving warnings.
Only a handful of US transit systems have adopted the honor system for fare collection, including the San Diego Trolley and the MUNI subway in San Francisco. In Minneapolis getting caught on a bus without a ticket is a $180 lesson in “doing the right thing”.
In Los Angeles the Metro had so many problems with free-loaders they converted to turnstiles. Even a $250 ticket for fare evaders didn’t encourage payment, resulting in a $9 million loss in ticket sales. And the fare there is only $1.50.
On Metro-North fare evasion doesn’t seem to be a problem.  If you don’t have a ticket they’ll just throw you off the train (at the next station, of course).  Or get an MTA cop to issue a fine.
Until a few years ago you could buy a ticket on the train for the same fare as on the platform.  That meant wasted time for conductors and a “money room” at Grand Central processing a million in cash each week.  Now if you don’t have a ticket and buy one on the train, there’s a $5.75 - $6.50 penalty… even on a $2 ticket.  Senior citizens get a break as do those boarding at stations that don’t have ticket machines.
The bigger problem on Metro-North is uncollected fares. The railroad admits it loses money by not collecting all tickets… but less money than it would cost to properly staff trains with enough conductors to collect them all.
Most infuriating is when trains from Grand Central leave Stamford.  Everyone can see that dozens of commuters got off there and scores more got on.  But the new arrivals’ tickets are seldom collected unless conductors have issued seat checks to the original NY passengers.
Watching someone traveling from Stamford to, say, Bridgeport get a “free ride” is like watching someone shoplift in a store.  You just know you’ll be paying more to subsidize their larceny, with neglectful conductors as their willing accomplices.


April 11, 2015

Paying for Malloy's $100 Billion Wish List

There is no question that Governor Malloy’s proposed $100 Billion transportation plan for our state is, as he puts it, “bold”.  The question is, is it achievable?  When asked which projects are important and should be prioritized, he insists it’s “all of them”.
Really?  Is turning little Oxford Airport into an international terminal, just 58 miles from Bradley, as important as fixing Metro-North?  Can we really spend $780 million on bike and
The 118 yr old Walk Bridge
pedestrian thoroughfares when we don’t have money to repair crucial bridges on the New Haven line?  And is spending $1.6 billion to widen I-95 from Stamford to the NY state line even necessary?
The problem is, the Governor’s plan isn’t a plan.  It’s a wish list, with something for everyone in the state.  His “plan” is of unknown origin.  Nobody has vetted these projects to say what makes sense and what doesn’t.  Nor has the Governor offered any ideas on how to pay for them. Instead he’s created a panel of experts tasked with coming up with those answers by the end of this summer, an unenviable job indeed.
As my Daddy taught me, “there is no free lunch”.  And there is no way to pay for any of these projects without significant pain.  A $100 billion plan would cost each man, woman and child in this state $27,800 to pay for it.  Even spread over 50 years, that’s $556 per person per year.  Are you in?
Even the Governor admits that highway tolls wouldn’t be enough, covering only one-third of the total cost.  And we know how popular tolling is.  So where else do we get the money?
Among the alternatives… a sales tax increase, higher gas taxes and real estate transfer fees.  Anything on that list to your liking so far?
How about “privatization”, in effect selling off state-owned roads and bridges to private companies, allowing them to charge whatever they’d like to use them?
Is it just by chance that this alternative is being floated by former Malloy campaign manager
Occhiogrosso & The Governor
and top aide Roy Occhiogrosso 
who just happens to now be working for a firm, HNTB Corp,  that specializes in such deals?  What does Mr. Occhiogrosso know about the Governor’s plans that we don’t, but should?
Privatization has been tried before.  In 2006 cash-strapped Indiana sold its 50-year-old East West Toll Road (“The Main Street of the Midwest”) to an Australian–Spanish conglomerate, netting the state $3.8 billion in return for the right to operate the crucial highway for 75 years. (PS:  Goldman Sachs earned a reported $200 million just for brokering the deal.)   In the first year of operations, tolls almost doubled. Surprised?

Let’s face it:  Governor Malloy is very shrewd.  He gets to look like Santa Claus, dolling out transportation goodies across the state while being able to blame his financing strategy team for assigning the costs.  This entire debate warrants very close scrutiny because, whatever its outcome, we will all be paying for it for many years.

March 31, 2015

Re-Thinking First Class



Any regular reader of this column knows that I hate flying.  I love travel, but getting there by air is a pain… and getting worse.  Our local airports are vying for third-world status.  The security searches by the TSA make a colonoscopy look like fun.  And once on the plane, the airlines’ seats and service make The Fung Wah Bus seem like a viable alternative.
Why is it that airlines are all vying for the cheapest products instead of the best?  Why this race to the bottom where low-cost-carriers like Spirit and Southwest are the models instead of overseas service exemplars like Singapore and Emirates?

I, for one, am willing to pay more to get more.  I may not opt for first class, but I will only fly in business class on flights to California.  It’s worth it.
But the legacy carriers like American and United ask for $1600 one-way from NY to LAX, and they get it.  Their business class is full thanks to frequent flyer upgrades. But now there’s a cheaper, better alternative:  JetBlue.
When JetBlue began as a low-cost carrier in 2000, it found a loyal following by offering high frequency, friendly and comfortable flights.  Today they are an international carrier serving 87 destinations with more than 200 aircraft.  And they have one of the hottest terminals at JFK, T5.
And ten of their newest planes, A-321’s, now offer a new product, “Mint”, with truly first class seating at lower-than-business class fares.  I finally had a chance to sample the service on a recent flight to LAX.


First, there’s the seating. There are just 16 seats with full, six foot lie-flat beds. I lucked out and got one of the four “private cabins” with 22-inch wide seats and a sliding door to the corridor.  My TV was a 15-inch flat-screen with live satellite feed, movies and SiriusXM Radio.  I had two AC outlets and a pair of USB plugs keeping all my gear fully-charged.
When I boarded I found a welcome note, written by hand, from the flight crew thanking me for my business.  Also awaiting was a full duvet and pillow, an amenities kit and free Wi-Fi, coast to coast.
After take-off came the usual beverages and a most unusual meal… the choice of three tapas-like entrees from a menu of five on offer, prepared by Saxon+Parole.  The lobster mac-and-cheese was to die for.  But they also had Kosher, vegan and gluten-free options.  And coming soon, an on-board cappuccino machine.
The service was amazing.  This was one of the best flights ever, and I’ve logged miles for decades on five continents.  And the ticket was only $599 one-way. I’d gladly have paid more.
The bad news is this amazing product is only available on flights from JFK to LAX (7 a day) and San Francisco (5 times daily).  Rumor has it they may also add transcon flights from Boston, but you won’t by flying “Mint” on your way to Orlando anytime soon. To the Caribbean, maybe.
So kudos to “New York’s hometown airline” for continuing to be innovative in offering more for less and making flying fun again!

March 14, 2015

Malloy's Transit Land-Grab



Don’t look now, but Governor Malloy’s trying to take your land, or at least control of the land around your local train or bus station.
Proposed Stamford TOD Project
When the CDOT recently tried to shove a private development down the throats of Stamford under the guise of “transit oriented development” in replacing the garage at the train station, city fathers were justifiably upset.  They voted through a zoning change giving them some say on the project, as well they should.
As revenge Governor Malloy is now proposing a statewide “Transit Corridor Development Authority” (TCDA) that would bigfoot the towns and cities, giving the state control over land, buildings and development within a half-mile of all transit stations. 
Your favorite coffee shop across from your Metro-North stop could be torn down and replaced with offices.  Parking lots could be enlarged with fees set by the CDOT, not the towns where the lots reside.  If the state wants to erect a building taller than local zoning laws allow, too bad… they can and will. As one critic described it, this is “eminent domain on steroids”.
The TCDA would be run by political appointees, a majority controlled by the Governor and not answerable to the local residents whose land would be affected.  The agency could issue its own bonds financed by rents and taxes on the very structures they want built. And the agency would continue with this power forever, under “perpetual succession”.
The TCDA would have the power to condemn property that it alone claims it needs to further its goals.  Town and regional planning and zoning boards can just go pound sand, powerless to stop them.
Because train and stations are usually in the downtown of cities and towns, those municipalities would lose control of the development destiny of their very core.  The Governor’s bill would have us believe that Hartford, or this new agency of political hacks, knows what’s best for us, not our elected mayors and first selectmen.
It’s been proven that the private developer chosen for the Stamford garage project just happened to have donated $165,000 to the State Democrats  before and after his selection.  Yet, there’s nothing in the Governor’s TCDA bill (HB 6851) to prevent such “pay for play” activities.
Were Dannel Malloy still mayor of Stamford he would scream bloody murder if a bill like this was introduced in Hartford.  But as Governor he seems to have no qualms at telling 169 towns and cities in this state that he knows best… that Hartford will determine if skyscrapers built by private developers should be plopped down in your town and mine.
“Transit oriented development” makes sense and should be encouraged.  We all need to promote housing and commercial growth focusing on our train and bus stations.  But this is a local issue, not a state right.
If we are to preserve the local identity and feel of our communities, we must stop the Governor’s land grab and keep control of our destiny.  Tell your State Representative and State Senator you oppose HB 6851 and Malloy’s land-grab.

March 02, 2015

Why We Love to Hate the DMV



What three letters strike fear in the hearts of every Connecticut motorist?  DWI?  NSA?  No, the DMV, our beloved Department of Motor Vehicles.
I had the pleasure of getting my new “verified” drivers license at their Norwalk office recently, girding myself for what the DMV’s own website promised would be a two and a quarter hour ordeal.
Arriving at 1 pm to a full parking lot, I knew I was in trouble.  After eleven minutes in the first
line, “Information”, I received my number, A104, and was told to wait.  At that point the automated system was calling A70 along with D759 and a few B numbers.  As numbers were called, people would scurry to the assigned window, but as time wore on, people moved from griping to just bailing out, leaving some numbers called but nobody appearing. That helped move things along.
My number was finally called at 2:15 pm for a transaction that lasted all of four minutes.  The clerk was pleasant and efficient.  I paid my $72 fee (set by the legislature) on a credit card, waited another six minutes for my picture, and was out the door at 2:37 pm.
There are 2.6 million active drivers licenses in Connecticut and 430,000 are renewed each year, most of them by mail.  But every six years your renewal requires a new photo and more recently, an in-person visit, thanks to Homeland Security’s “Real ID” program.
As of October 2020, only “verified” drivers’ licenses (or a passport) will get you past the TSA and onto a plane.  “Verified” means your license has been issued after you show the DMV a slew of documents… passport, W2, birth certificate, bank statement, pilot’s license… proving both legal residency and identity.
And as that 2020 deadline draws closer and people realize their driver’s license is really an ID card giving you permission to fly, the lines will get even longer.

My approval for a new license took just minutes because I had more than enough documentation.  But anyone ahead of me in line lacking even one crucial certificate slowed up the process. ( After my ordeal I found that, as a AAA member, I could have got my license at one of their offices for a small convenience fee.)
Add to the mix the thousands of undocumented aliens seeking drivers’ licenses now allowed under a new law, and you get the sense that the DMV is getting very busy.
The agency has added staff, but the offices are still jammed.  The DMV says that Wednesday and Friday mornings have the shortest waits, but who’s got a job that lets them take off that much time for a paper chase?
All told my experience at the DMV wasn’t too bad.  The clerks were as speedy as their cumbersome process allowed and they even had a nice little coffee and snack stand in the waiting area.  I just am grateful this is only necessary once every six years.  Seeya in 2021!

February 15, 2015

Is Metro-North Irreplacable?



What is Connecticut’s relationship with Metro-North?  Client – vendor?  Shared partnership?  Stockholm syndrome?  Or is the railroad a “fanged sloth” hanging around our neck?
All of those analogies has been made to the state’s 30+ year relationship with Metro-North, part of NY’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  But given their dismal safety record and deteriorating service in recent years, many have asked “is it time to fire Metro-North and find someone else to run our trains?”
I posed that very question almost four years ago and people were shocked, not knowing that such a thing was even possible.  Now there are even laws being considered in Hartford to rid us of the railroad.
But even though Metro-North works for us, CDOT’s Commissioner Jim Redeker says they should not… in fact, cannot… be replaced.
Redeker recently testified that Metro-North is uniquely qualified and staffed to run a commuter rail operation of its size and that there are no other potential competitors he’d consider as operator, let alone try to build our own agency from scratch.  On this point he’s probably right.
Where he’s wrong is in arguing that replacing Metro-North would mean we wouldn’t be allowed to run “our trains” into “their station”, Grand Central. 
There are plenty of railroads with operating rights on others’ tracks.  NJ Transit has no trouble getting into Penn Station. Virginia Railway Express runs into downtown DC.   Does Commissioner Redeker really think that our Congressional delegation couldn’t force the MTA to give us access to GCT?  It wouldn’t be an easy fight, but this is certainly no deal-breaker to replacing Metro-North.
Alternative #3 is to renegotiate our contract with the railroad. This opportunity only presents itself every five years, and 2015 is one of those windows.   Maybe we should get them to commit to service standards, as their current contract has no metrics to measure their performance.  But again, Commissioner Redeker seems reticent to fight for our state or its commuters.
He reminded lawmakers that the last time Connecticut arbitrated the contract we were out-smarted and ending up with a worse deal than we’d had before, going from 60% cost-sharing to 65%.  The MTA’s army of lawyers took us to the cleaners, costing us millions more in payments to Metro-North each year.  Apparently Commissioner thinks we’re not smart enough to negotiate a better deal, so why even try.
So, just to recap… our Commissioner of Transportation says we have no real options, that we have to work with Metro-North, but we’re probably not savvy enough to get any better deal than we have now.  So let’s just wave the white flag before the battle begins and keep paying $70+ million a year for lousy train service.
Now there is inspired leadership!  Declare defeat and just walk away.  Let the “fanged sloth” continue to hang around our necks.  We really have no choice. Suck it up because Metro-North, our vendor, is running the show.