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January 18, 2015

Malloy's Plan to Widen I-95



Be careful what you wish for.  After years of pleading, we finally have Governor Malloy’s full attention on the problems of transportation.  But his recently announced plan for the state sound like he’s been reading from the book of Moses… Robert Moses, the NYC planner who never met a highway he didn’t like. 
Governor Malloy has announced that he wants to widen our interstate highways. All of them, everywhere!  “Look at New Jersey,” he said recently. “They were smart enough to build parallel highways to existing highways,” evoking images of the six-lane wide New Jersey Turnpike where cars and trucks run in their own lanes.

Great, perhaps, for the swamps of Secaucus, but Governor Malloy says he wants to replicate that on all of I-95 from Rhode Island to New York, adding lanes that would eat into some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
Imagine the decades of construction and the billions of dollars in cost.  The exit 14 widening on I-95 in Norwalk alone cost $41 million and it’s still not done.
And once built, would adding an extra lane or two really solve congestion or would it just encourage more traffic?  Wouldn’t a six lane I-95 actually potentially reduce ridership on Metro-North?  Sorry Governor, super-sizing I-95 is not the answer.
Widening our highways is not viable environmentally or economically.  It’s a non-starter that will see years of lawsuits while a better long-range solution sits right in front of us.
What we need to do is better utilize Metro-North, the railroad line that parallels I-95 for its entire length.  We need to turn it into a suburban “subway” line.
If we increased train service from twice-an-hour off-peak to trains running every 10 to 15 minutes, you wouldn’t need to worry about a timetable.  Just show up and catch the next train.
Why not take the billions you could waste on highway widening and instead add more trains and build more parking at the stations, giving riders better access to the truly rapid-transit? We have already invested billions into Metro-North, so why not finish the job?
Instead we are going to hear the Governor’s grandiose dreams of paving the state as the construction companies and unions see dollar signs in their eyes.  The projected costs will be staggering.  Many will love the ideas, but nobody will like the few painful alternatives to pay for them.
There will be the inevitable debate about tolls and where they should be placed… at our borders or state-wide. Some will suggest we raise the gas tax.  Maybe even offer privatized toll roads (or “Lexus lanes”).
Those are the wrong discussions.  Instead of widening I-95 we should be widening use of an existing resource… our rails.  Let’s build the Fairfield County Subway.

November 22, 2014

Promises Still Not Kept

Someone once said:  “Judge me by my actions, not my words.”  So let’s do just that comparing recent rhetoric to reality when it comes to Metro-North.
EXPANDED SERVICE:     During the election campaign much was made of a promised expansion of off-peak train service, growing from one train an hour to two.  But when the new timetable came out November 9th riders found that the 14 newly added weekday trains don’t stop at five stations:  Southport, Greens Farms, East Norwalk, Rowayton and Noroton Heights.
Despite pleas from the CT Commuter Rail Council, CDOT chose to skip those stations to save ten minutes’ running time between New Haven and GCT.  There was never an expectation that the new trains would be semi-express, just a promise of expanded service.  What happened?
ADEQUATE SEATING:     Though we now have more rail cars than ever before, thanks to delivery of the new M8s, many trains still don’t have seats for every passenger.  The
Rush hour standees
railroad’s own “Passenger Pledge” promises every effort to provide adequate seating, and Metro-North’s statistics claim that 99.6% of all trains have enough cars.   So why the standees? 
ON TIME PERFORMANCE:        Yes, safety should always come first.  But October saw only 86.7% of trains arrive “on time” (defined as up to 6 minutes late).  In the morning rush hour OTP was only 82%.  And this is despite three timetable changes since the spring, lengthening scheduled running times to reflect new Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) speed restrictions.  They keep moving the ‘target’ and still can’t get a bulls-eye.
Doors open off-platform.
SAFETY:      After taking its lickings from the FRA and the National Transportation Safety Board, Metro-North has proclaimed it’s a new day at the railroad, that a new “culture of safety” is ingrained in its employees.  But in early November a collision was avoided by seconds after track crews erected bridge plates in front of an oncoming train at Noroton Hts.  And there have been at least three incidents of conductors opening train doors that were off the platform where commuters could have fallen and been injured.
RELIABLE SERVICE:       The new M8 cars are performing well.  But diesel push-pull service on the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines has been unreliable.  September saw several locomotive fires and break-downs, stranding passengers or forcing “bustitutions” (bus substitutions).
COURTEOUS EMPLOYEES:       Most Metro-North staff does a great job under often-times difficult circumstances.  But there are clearly some employees who either hate their jobs, their customers or both.  Hardly a week goes by without The Commuter Action Group hearing complaints about surly conductors snapping at passengers.  Yet it’s hard to complain because these staffers violate railroad rules to always wear their name badges.


It’s been a year since a sleepy engineer drove a train off the tracks in the Bronx, killing four and injuring 70.  As Metro-North President Joe Giulietti himself acknowledged, the railroad has lost the trust of its customers.  Rebuilding goodwill, like the infrastructure, will take years.

November 08, 2014

Commuters Have Political Clout

The recent elections have shown Hartford an important fact:  the 120,000 daily riders of Metro-North have political power. 

The Commuter Action Group, of which I am founder, endorsed only five candidates for election and they were all winners.  (Trust me, there were many others seeking our endorsement, but they didn’t have the track-records (pun intended) to warrant our support.)

Those we backed have long supported mass transit. They have fought for more funding and understand their commuting constituents’ frustrations.   All we did was remind voting commuters who were their real friends in Hartford versus those who were just paying lip-service to the issue during a campaign.

While I have disagreed with him in the past (and will probably do so again), Governor Malloy was an easy choice.  His opponent was just the latest dilettante billionaire to be chosen by the GOP (remember Linda McMahon’s two runs for office costing $97 million?), by-passing experience political veterans.  Tom Foley was just clueless, saying such things as “we spend too much on mass transit” and surrounding himself with “yes-men” advisors.  Even his fellow Republicans on the ballot couldn’t talk sense into him.

What would give Foley or McMahon, neither of whom have ever been elected to anything, the idea that their track records as CEO’s would qualify them for the job of Governor?   A CEO can snap his fingers and say “do this or you’re fired”, but a Governor has to deal with a legislature, and in Foley’s case, it would have been of the opposing party.  Good luck with that.

Trust me… I am not a fan of one-party rule.  With their huge majority and deep pockets I think the Democrats in this state have become abusive bullies. 

So why does the GOP keep choosing these kinds of candidates, aside from the fact that they can bankroll their own campaigns?  What a shame that veteran State Senator John McKinney didn’t get a chance to run against Malloy. McKinney was very strong on transportation issues. That would have been an interesting race.  Maybe in 2018?

Because we are non-partisan, the Commuter Action Group also endorsed three Republicans… State Senator Toni Boucher and State Rep’s Gail Lavielle and Tony Hwang, as well as Democrat Jonathan Steinberg.  They were all winners, not because of our endorsement but because we helped remind commuters they have been strong allies in Hartford.

What did we ask for our endorsement?  Only a single pledge:  that, if elected, they would promise to do something never done before… to caucus, Republicans and Democrats together, with fellow lawmakers from electoral districts representing commuters.

It was amazing for me to learn that doesn’t happen… that R’s and D’s from Fairfield County never get together to present a united front against up-state lawmakers’ attempts to cut funding for our trains.  Well, it will happen now!

Back in the dark days of February when the Commuter Action Group was formed, I reminded Hartford lawmakers that if they didn’t come to the rescue of our trains, that commuters would “remember in November” who their friends were.  And clearly they did. 


October 13, 2014

Five Worst Ideas for Solving Traffic Congestion



The fall campaign has brought a welcome discussion of the state’s transportation woes, especially getting mass transit back into a state of good repair.  But gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley says he thinks the real issue isn’t the trains and buses but highway congestion.  Yet, he offers no solutions, saying only “we’ll figure it out.”  Really?
Tom, if there were easy answers, they’d have been implemented by now.  Look… this is really a matter of supply and demand: too much demand (highway traffic) and not enough supply (spaces on those roads).   I think the solution is in managing the demand.  But Foley says it’s a “supply side” issue. 
So here are a few of the crazier ideas for fixing traffic I hope he does not embrace:
1)    DOUBLE-DECK I-95:        Seriously, this was once proposed.  Can you imagine the decades of construction and billions in cost, with “upper level” roads having to soar hundreds of feet over existing bridges.
2)    ALLOW TRUCKS ON THE MERRIT PARKWAY:       There are two words to explain why this can’t happen:  low bridges.
3)    BAN TRUCKS FROM I-95:          Trucks are high-occupancy vehicles delivering goods to the stores that you, in your single-occupancy vehicle, drive to so you can shop.  No trucks, no goods, no shopping.
4)    DRIVE IN THE EMERGENCY BREAK-DOWN LANE: This was Governor Rowland’s idea and he even wasted a million dollars studying it.  But if you think of that far right-hand lane instead as the “emergency rescue lane” you’ll see why this doesn’t make sense.  This plan would also require re-striping traffic lanes to a narrower width, making driving more dangerous.
5)    WIDENING I-95 TO FOUR LANES:       Again, billions in cost and decades of construction.  And if you build it, they will come.  Traffic will expand to fill available space.  Then what, a fifth lane?
I think there are better ideas for managing congestion, some of them already being implemented:
OPERATIONAL LANES:     Adding a fourth lane from on-ramps to off-ramps gives traffic a better chance of merging on and off the highway without blocking the through-lanes.
WIDENING CHOKE-POINTS:      For example, the exit 14-15 mess in Norwalk.  But this $42 million construction project, discussed since 2002, has been under construction for more than two years and it’s still not done!
MANAGE DEMAND WITH TOLLS:       Tolls are coming, as I’ve predicted before.  And with time-of-day pricing they’ll not only raise badly needed funds but also mitigate demand.  Those who absolutely must drive at peak hours will pay for the privilege and get a faster ride as those who can wait will defer their trip.  We have peak and off-peak fares on Metro-North, so why not on highways.
ADD A ZIPPER LANE:      Sure, this may require highway widening, but just one lane that’s reversible depending on demand, a system that’s long been in effect on the Tappan Zee Bridge.    

As I say, there are no simple solutions to highway congestion.  So when any candidate says he or she has one, be skeptical.  It’s easy to identify the problems.  But fixing them will always be expensive.

September 29, 2014

Foley vs Malloy on Transportation



Regular readers of this column know that I’ve never been shy about criticizing Governor Malloy for his transportation policies.  But after hearing him and his Republican opponent, Tom Foley, discuss transportation in a recent forum, I am enthusiastically endorsing Malloy for re-election.
In my view, Tom Foley is clueless.  He doesn’t understand the issues, has no new ideas and often refuses to address specifics.  If he is our next governor, mass transit in Connecticut is in serious trouble.
Since early in the campaign Foley has said we spend too much on mass transit, often to the detriment of our roads.  He also says it is not the state’s job to “purposefully push people out of their cars and onto mass transit”.
Huh?   Does Foley think that state troopers are blocking commuter access to I-95 and forcing them onto Metro-North?  This is crazy-talk.
Both Foley and Malloy agree that traffic congestion is bad. But Foley offers no solutions, aside from saying we need more highways.
Malloy acknowledges the traffic mess but says that spending more on mass transit will give drivers alternatives, encouraging (not forcing) them off the highways.
As for Metro-North, one wonders if Foley has ever stepped out of his BMW sedan and ridden the train.  Foley says that the train from New Haven to Grand Central takes 20 minutes longer to make that run today than it did a century ago.  True, but that’s not because the trains aren’t capable of higher speeds.  They’re under speed limits by the FRA after the May 2013 Bridgeport derailment.
One issue where the candidates did show surprising agreement was highway tolls.  Both Foley and Malloy acknowledged toll revenue may be needed for projects like widening I-84 and I-95 (east of Madison). 
In campaigning, Mr. Foley’s constant mantra is that he’s a former CEO and knows how to get things done.  But running state government is not like running a business.  The Governor only proposes but the legislature disposes.  Foley’s only government experience was in two political patronage diplomatic appointments to Iraq and Ireland.  Like fellow Greenwich multi-millionaire and perennial GOP candidate Linda McMahon, Foley has never been elected to anything.  In June 2009 he said he would run for Senate against Chris Dodd, then chose a race for Governor.
Though he has been running for office for five years, he’s never bothered to learn about the issues, speaking in vague generalities and often refusing to answer questions. When he is pinned down, Foley’s answer is often “I don’t know.
When his campaign did take a position, on urban development, it turns out the Foley plan was plagiarized.
You may or may not like Dan Malloy, but at least you know where he stands.  He has an encyclopedic command of facts and figures and is clearly a hands-on leader.  Yes, he comes off as arrogant and a bit of a bully sometimes, but it’s clear that, unlike Mr Foley, he cares about these issues and has a vision.
In the long run, the citizens of Connecticut will get the kind of governor they deserve.  If they study the issues and really listen to the candidates, especially on this crucial issue of transportation, I hope that Dan Malloy will get re-elected.

September 18, 2014

TransformCT - Crowdsourcing our Future

Who is designing our state’s transportation future?  Urban planners? Academic visionaries? Highly trained engineering and planning professionals at CDOT?  No, unfortunately the state is leaving those decisions to you and me via a website, www.TransformCT.org
The idea is to give everyone in Connecticut a chance to voice their opinions about what roads and rails should be built, then debate and “vote” on others’ proposals. The top vote-getters will help determine what gets built.  Some call it “crowd-sourcing” though I prefer to think of it as a popularity contest for amateurs.              

(True confession:  45 years ago I wanted to be a civil engineer and help design “the train of the future”.  I attended Lehigh University but quickly discovered that I wasn’t cut out to be a Civil Engineer.  Instead, I got into broadcasting and journalism.
And while I have opinions about transport in the future, I’m smart enough to know I am not an engineer.  I can dream about things that just won’t happen.  As my daughter used to say, “We all want things, Daddy”.  But wants, needs and practicalities are all very different.)
In 2000 our legislature created a Transportation Strategy Board with subcommittees statewide (on one of which I was elected to serve).  The TSB’s mandate… to develop a 20-year vision for CT’s transportation future.  And that they did, calling for many improvements including the long-overdue order of new rail cars for Metro-North.
But the Transportation Strategy Board is now gone, wiped out of existence by Governor Malloy.  Why?  Because its priorities did not match his.
Instead of a statewide citizen / expert panel, now our Governor wants you to vote (and pay for) your transportation dreams.
So far TransformCT has attracted 13,500 visits and 2000 different ideas.  Check the website and you’ll find such revolutionary concepts as… “spend the gasoline tax on transportation”, “make our streets walkable”, provide “a quicker commute on Metro-North” and “bike lanes everywhere”. 
But buried further down the list are some real gems:  “build a subway from Bridgeport to Waterbury”, “add an upper level over (double-deck) our highways”, “high speed rail Hartford to NYC in one hour” (vs 3.5 hr today) and “hovercraft along the coast”.
But what also showed up in many “suggestions” was one key word describing what I think is the raison d’etre of this entire silly endeavor:  “tolls”.
There isn’t a politician in this state with the guts to support for the single best solution to our transportation money needs… tolling motorists.  But mark my words:  that is what TransformCT is all about… building a citizen-wish-list of transportation projects and then telling us, “you asked for it… but now you have to pay for it… with tolls.”  The CDOT is already priming the pump for the inevitable, bringing in out-of-state experts to sell us on the value of tolls.
In an e-mail to me the CDOT said “It is the job of the DOT to execute the will of our stakeholders.”  Really?  (Tell that to the 750 daily parkers at Stamford station who will lose their spaces to a secret deal with a developer putting up a high rise… with zero public input.)
I would much rather leave the planning for our transportation future to the professional planners, engineers and experts who know what they are doing.  But if our pols would rather let you dream big, realize it comes with a price tag.

Be careful what you wish for.