April 26, 2017
Jim Redeker has the best job in transportation. And the toughest.
As Commissioner of Transportation for CT for the past six years, he’s guided the agency through hundreds of millions of dollars in spending while managing three competing taskmasters: his boss, Governor Malloy… the legislature, which controls his budget… and commuters / drivers who depend on his product.
Redeker has successfully managed all three.
I’ve known the Commissioner for all his years in Connecticut and always considered him the smartest guy in the room. But last Monday I watched him in action in a venue he told me he actually enjoys: a commuter forum sponsored by Danbury line politicians.
Organized by St Rep Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton), the single best commuter advocate in the State House, it was held on the first night of Passover in a week of school vacations, so the crowds were thin. The 780 seat Clune auditorium at Wilton HS was empty aside from the 30 or so commuters spread across the room. On the dais, a long table filled with area State Representatives and Senators looked like The Last Supper with Commissioner Redeker as the main course.
“Why was there no publicity for this event on the trains or at the stations?,” asked one commuter. No answer. “Why was I stuck three times this winter on diesel trains with no explanation from conductors?” No answer. “Why do we pay all the taxes but get nothing back from Hartford?” No answer, even from the pols.
Redeker was pacing himself, giving each complainer a chance to vent, then cherry-picking which issue to address. When he didn’t have an answer (which was rare), he said so. But when he did have a response (most often), he nailed it.
“Why does the New Canaan branch have more trains at lower fares?” Easy one: the New Canaan branch is electrified and has twice the ridership. “The Danbury branch only has 1400 daily passengers,” said Redeker. “That works out to a per-trip subsidy of $17. Now if we had better service we’d probably have more riders. I just don’t have the money.”
Surprisingly, only a few of the 11 Hartford lawmakers on the dais said anything all evening. Given their budget-juggling skills, they offered no explanation or optimism for improved funding of mass transit.
But to the downtrodden Dashing Dans and Danielle’s, the Commissioner offered some hope: new rail cars for the branch lines are coming (in about 4 years) and old diesel locomotives are being rebuilt.
Less satisfied were residents of semi-rural Georgetown and Redding who complained about the trains’ noise pollution: constant horn-blowing and bell-ringing at crossing gates. Three folks from Metro-North sitting in the auditorium were mute as neighbors said they were afraid to complain ‘lest train engineers retaliate by leaning on the horn.
“We want express trains,” said several commuters. “We want you to re-open the Wall Street station in downtown Norwalk,” said others. Well which do you want, asked Redeker… more stations or fewer stops? “Both,” seemed the reply.
The highlight of the evening for me was when a woman from Norwalk said she actually supported highway tolls. The table of lawmakers looked like they’d found a turd in the punchbowl while Redeker suppressed a grin.
I’ve had my fights with Commissioner Redeker over the years, but I’ve never envied his job. We are lucky to have him with us as CDOT Commissioner.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media
April 14, 2017
What happens when a great transportation idea gets ahead of itself? Consider the story of the greatest American railroad that never got built.
We are all familiar with The Twentieth Century Limited and The Broadway Limited, the crack trains of the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads that ran for decades between New York and Chicago.
Those daily trains defined deluxe, pampering passengers with plush Pullman cars, fine dining and even an on-train barber shop. But they each took 16 hours to make the run because they took different circuitous routes. The NY Central followed the “water level route” north to Albany, then across upstate New York and down the coast of Lake Erie. The Pennsylvania RR journeyed south to Philadelphia, then west to Pittsburgh and beyond.
Today on Amtrak the NYC to Chicago run takes 19 hours following the route of the Twentieth Century. Compare that to modern Chinese high speed trains that run from Beijing to Shanghai (about the same distance as NY to Chicago) in just five hours.
But way back in 1905, inventor Alexander Miller had a better idea: build a brand new, flat and straight interurban railroad that would run directly between the two cities, The Chicago – New York Electric Air Line Railroad.
The train would be “faster than the limited” and make the run in 10 hours for $10 a ticket. Powered by the new marvel of electricity, the train could operate at a third the cost of steam engines. And by running in a straight line the 743 mile route would be 168 to 237 miles shorter than its competitors. In principal, it was brilliant. And the timing was perfect.
Mind you, its interurban cars (think trolley cars on steroids) might not be as plush, but they would average 70+ mph thanks to the almost flat grade of one percent and no pesky grade crossings. There would also be few stops as the route would bypass all major cities. And this train would be fast… 100 mph on the straight-aways!
Five million dollars worth of stock was issued with shareholders promised first priority for thousands of potential jobs. Railroads were the dot-coms of the era, and people rushed to invest.
With no bonded debt, the company’s prospectus promised stock dividends of 14% on top of the shares’ appreciation. You just couldn’t lose!
Construction began from west to east, as the railroad opened in stages to help pay for itself and further building toward New York. A mighty four track railroad, akin to Metro-North, was envisioned and it was hoped that the project would be completed in just ten years. Spur lines would be constructed to serve the cities by-passed by the “air line”.
Then, reality set in with the depression of 1907 – 1908. Construction got as far as Gary Indiana, about 25 miles from Chicago, when the money started to run out. The engineering of this mighty railroad was just too expensive.
Shareholders revolted when news came that the railroad’s officers were getting fat paychecks as the coffers were drained. A hoped-for bailout by British banks never happened.
Shareholders lost everything. And the impending arrival of automobiles might have doomed the line anyway. Even The Twentieth Century and Broadway Ltd eventually succumbed to the competition of true “air lines”.
But for a brief moment, a century ago, a dream almost became a reality in the greatest railroad that never was.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media
April 10, 2017
Nobody likes the idea of paying tolls. But tolls are coming back to Connecticut and I just wish that lawmakers in Hartford would honest with us about why.
We are running out of money for the Special Transportation Fund, that’s why. And none of the re-funding alternatives are attractive: vehicle miles tax, sales tax, gas tax and yes, tolls. But tolls on our highways would not be a tax.
Tolls are a user fee. You only pay a toll if you drive. If you use mass transit or ride a bike, you pay no tolls. Doesn’t that seem fairer than taxing everyone, even those who don’t drive?
Let me dispel a few other myths about highway tolling being spread by dishonest pols:
TOLLS ARE NOT SAFE: When is the media going to stop telling us that tolls were eliminated in Connecticut because of the “fiery truck crash” at a toll barrier in Stratford in 1983? Tolls are collected thousands of times a minute in NY and NJ without a single toll booth or fiery truck crash. EZ-Pass toll collection is fast and safe.
WASHINGTON WON’T LET US TOLL: Not so. The Federal Highway Administration has told Hartford that we can toll I-95 and I-84 if tolling is used to manage traffic as opposed to just raise money.
TOLLS SLOW TRAFFIC: In fact, the opposite is true. With barrier free tolls, cars don’t slow down. And by making people pay for the privilege of driving on a major highway (especially at rush hour), those that don’t want to pay won’t drive then, making for less traffic and a faster ride for those who are willing to pay.
LET’S JUST TOLL OUT-OF-STATERS: Sorry, that’s against the law. These are our highways so we all should pay for them. And PS: we all pay tolls when we drive in NY and NJ, so why are we now giving those states’ residents a free ride in Connecticut?
TOLLS WILL DIVERT TRAFFIC TO LOCAL ROADS: Maybe so for the first week or two. If people would rather drive on Route 1 instead of paying a 50 cent tolls on I-95 they obviously don’t value their time, so let ‘em: it will just mean a faster ride (and less traffic) on the toll road for us who do.
TOLL MONEY WILL BE MIS-USED: I share this concern and think nobody will support tolls or taxes until we have a “lock box” on transportation funds to be certain they are not mis-appropriated. But the absence of a lock-box is not an excuse to deny the need for funding.
THE ROADS SHOULD BE FREE: Every time we hit a pothole on a highway or bridge that should have been repaired, we’re paying a toll. Maintaining our interstates is expensive and paying a toll for road repairs seems cheaper than paying for blown tires, alignments and bent rims. A recent study says those car repairs average $864 a year for every Connecticut motorist.
But why am I the only one talking about the value of tolls? Where’s the Governor, our transportation advocate? Where’s the Commissioner of the DOT? Why aren’t they explaining the why’s and how’s of modern tolling?
Even the Democrats who voted tolling bills out of committee for broader debate are reluctant to make the case that it’s time for tolls. And nay-saying opponents of tolls, pandering to the public, are offering no alternatives.
Shame on all of them.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media
April 01, 2017
You may start your day with a cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast. I start my day by reading complaints about Metro-North: e-mails, tweets and social media posts by fellow commuters who don’t know where to turn for help. Such is the life of a “commuter advocate”.
The problem is that every ride on Metro-North is controlled by many different agencies and there’s no way for commuters to know who’s responsible. For years I offered a simple solution: a sign at every station explaining who was in charge of parking, the station, the conditions on the trains, etc…. and names and phone numbers of whom to contact.
Lacking this simple signage, I suggest the following:
HOW TO COMPLAIN: You must be specific: date, time, location and names. Simply saying “my train is always late” gives nobody any actionable information. But saying “train #634, the 7:31 out of Westport has a standing-room-only condition on dates X and Y because it is operating with six cars and used to have seven” gives folks a chance to analyze a problem and maybe find a solution.
WHERE TO COMPLAIN: Here’s where it gets tricky. You must direct your complaint to the proper agency with operating authority.
STATION PARKING: In most cases, station parking is run by the Town where the station is located, so call Town Hall. (Stamford and Bridgeport are notable exceptions as the CDOT manages both the stations and the adjacent parking.)
THE TRAIN STATIONS: Though owned by the CDOT, the stations are operated by the Towns. If your station waiting-room is locked, leaving you standing on a freezing platform, call City Hall.
TIMETABLES: The trains operate on a schedule jointly agree to by CDOT and Metro-North. But don’t waste your time appealing to either because you don’t like the service. Instead, got to the folks who control their budgets: your state elected officials. You’ll find a search engine for those pols on our Commuter Action Group website (see below).
CONDITIONS ON THE TRAIN: In this case, Metro-North is responsible. Buried on their website you’ll find an e-complaint template (there’s also a direct link to it on our www.CommuterActionGroup.org website. Fill it out with specific information every time you see a problem and ask for a follow-up. Sadly, once acknowledged, we have no way of knowing if the railroad ever does anything to address the issues.
TRAIN PERSONNEL: Unhappy with a conductor or train engineer? Complain to Metro-North with specific information, including names or descriptions. Get the names and contact info for other witnesses. If a complaint actually escalates to disciplinary action, be prepared to attend a hearing.
GRAND CENTRAL: Don’t like the fact that your train always arrives on the lower level? Unhappy that the bar carts are still missing after three months. Complain to Metro-North and cc your elected officials.
FARES: Fares in Connecticut are set by CDOT, not Metro-North. There’s always a public hearing process before new fares go into effect, but it’s all just “political theater”: cathartic but ineffective. The people who really control fares are your elected officials in the legislature.
It shouldn’t be so confusing as to where to complain. Nor should we be so cynical about the lack of response. But we are dealing here with local and state agencies running a monopoly, not a competitive, for-profit, customer-oriented business.
Still, as Edmund Burke once said: “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. So do something: complain!
Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media
March 25, 2017
It looks like the fate of Uber (and Lyft, the other popular ride sharing service in CT) will be decided in Hartford in a lobbying war, not in the competitive marketplace.
In the 3 years since Uber launched in Connecticut it’s enjoyed strong growth, now using 9000 drivers who carry hundreds of thousands of passengers annually. Full disclosure: I am one of those customers and am very happy with their service.
I tried Uber after getting sticker-shock for the “black car” limo fees to go to NY airports: over $180 one way from my home to JFK vs $80 by Uber. Mind you, the rides are different: the limo is a real limo, but the Uber X is some guy’s personal car.
The limo driver has a commercial driver’s license and has undergone extensive screening and drug testing. Uber screens its drivers but now will consider non-violent felons to join their fleet (and I’m OK with that… everyone deserves a second chance).
The limo driver has tons of insurance. The Uber X driver is covered by Uber’s policy when he’s carrying a passenger. CT law says that taxis and limo’s must undergo extensive safety inspections each year. The Uber X driver doesn’t.
But if you have a problem in a taxi or limo, who do you complain to? All cars for hire in Connecticut are regulated by the state DOT and we know how responsive they are to public complaints. But if you have a bad Uber ride you can complain immediately using their app. I have done that, on rare occasion, and got an immediate response… and a small refund.
There’s a big difference between a shiny limo and a beat-up taxi. Local taxis tend to be older and in pretty bad shape. Their drivers are rarely the owners, so what do they care about the condition of the vehicle?
Uber takes heat for their “dynamic pricing” model where rates go up with demand. Need an Uber during a bad storm? You’ll pay more to incentivize drivers to stay out on the road. But taxi meters know no “surge pricing”.
Neither driver is making a lot of money. One study pegged Uber-X drivers to an average $15.68 an hour. And Uber prides itself on its no-tipping model, though I always tip for good service. These folks are just trying to make a living.
But if you believe recent testimony in Hartford, the taxi industry in this state is on the verge of collapse. They say they can’t compete with Uber and Lyft if they can’t have a level playing field of regulations. And I think they make a good point.
Is it fair that Uber and Lyft pay no state sales tax? Is it fair that out-of-state Uber drivers can pick up Connecticut passengers, but CT drivers have to return empty from NYC runs? Is it fair that CT taxi and limo drivers are held to a much higher safety, licensing and screening standard than the college kid driving his Toyota for Uber on weekends?
Uber tells me all these issues are up for grabs as they negotiate with lawmakers in Hartford. For three years Uber has been able to kill bills that would have regulated their industry, once hiring a lobbyist for $20,000 for a single day to thwart an unpopular bill. I guess even lobbyists have “surge pricing”.
I like Uber (and Lyft) and hope they survive. But I also like reliable and affordable taxis and black cars and think they are over-regulated. Let’s level the regulatory playing field and allow competition to see who serves customers best.
Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media
March 20, 2017
It’s the bridge we love to hate. Congested, expensive ($15 toll) and nowhere near as modern as the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the George Washington Bridge is best to be avoided, but often you can’t.
The “GW” was not the first New York City bridge designed to cross the Hudson River. Back in 1885 there were discussions about building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at 23rd Street. Tunnels proved a better idea in 1904.
By the 1920’s it was automobile traffic that needed access and designers conceived of a double deck, 16 lane wide roadway (with an additional 12 tracks for railroads on the lower level), crossing at 57th Street.
But it was in 1927 and farther uptown that construction finally began on the George Washington Bridge, crossing from the NJ palisades to 179th Street. The $75 million single-level bridge opened in 1931 with six lanes of traffic, widened by another two lanes in 1946.
Initially the span was to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise, but a naming campaign by school kids ended up honoring our first President.
Fortunately, the bridge’s designers had planned for future growth and in 1962 the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” section of the bridge was opened, increasing capacity by 75%.
If you’ve ever wondered why trucks are only allowed on the upper level, think post 9/11 terrorism fears.
Unless you see the bridge from the Hudson River, it’s hard to take it all in. Highway approaches from the east and west don’t give you much perspective. And it’s hard to play sightseer when you’re coping with all that traffic.
Original plans called for the bridge to be clad in concrete and granite, but the open criss-cross girders and bracing are much more elegant. Though we take it for granted, the GW is recognized by architects as one of the most beautiful bridges in the word.
In its first year of operations the bridge carried 5.5 million vehicles. In recent years the counts exceed 100 million per year. While vehicles pay tolls, there’s one way to cross the bridge for free: by walking.
While offering great views, the bridge’s pedestrian walkways have a dark side. In 2012 they were the scene of 43 attempted suicides, 18 of them successful.
Though motorists never see it, the bridge also has its own bus terminal on the New York side, sitting astride the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx) serving 1000 buses and some 20,000 passengers each day. Officially known as The George Washington Bridge Bus Station, the terminal is undergoing a $180 million renovation.
The bridge itself is also getting a facelift. In 2011 the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace 529 vertical suspender wires holding up the roadways. At the same time lanes on the upper level will be closed on the overnights to allow replacement of steel plates on the surface.
A great time to cross the bridge is on important civic holidays, including President’s Day, when the world’s largest free-flying American flag is displayed on the New Jersey tower. Measuring 90 feet in length and 60 feet wide, the flag weighs 450 pounds.
Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.
March 15, 2017
Our love affair with the automobile depends on one thing: free parking. After driving on our “free” highways, we have to park someplace, and we all hate to pay for the privilege. It’s as if there’s some constitutional right to free parking.
But free parking is actually expensive and paid in more than just dollars.
The industry standards setting group known as the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) has defined 266 different types of businesses and has determined the amount of nearby parking they require. So when your local Planning & Zoning Commission is looking at proposals for, say, a new restaurant, they consult the ITE manuals on what parking would be needed.
Mind you, a fast food joint like a McDonalds will require less parking than, say, a fancy steakhouse, given the number of patrons and how long they stay there. But when it comes to the rules of parking, we’re talking about more than restaurants.
Consider convents. For whatever reason the ITE’s “bible” says religious convents must have one parking space for every ten nuns or monks in residence. Hello? They’re in a religious retreat! They’re not going anywhere! Wouldn’t it be smarter for the convent to be able to use its land for better purposes than an empty parking lot, like growing its own food?
Or how about hotels? Their parking regulations are based on the assumption that they are sold out, something that may not happen very much. Wouldn’t it be easier for the hotel to make special arrangements on those sold-out nights than have acres of asphalt baking in the sun most of the year?
Drive up the Boston Post Rd and see the bitter fruits of this short-sighted planning. Thanks to zoning regulations a lot of big-box stores devote 60% of their land to parking and 40% to the stores themselves. Just think of what that means to how they price things. Isn’t it any wonder that Amazon can compete on price?
Awhile back I drove through New Britain where I once lived. I hardly recognized the downtown with its empty stores and sidewalks next to a ten storey parking structure. They “built it”, but nobody came.
If you look at the communities with the liveliest downtowns you’ll see people, not cars. People attract people as they go into shops, walk along and window-shop. It’s pedestrians we want, not parking lots.
UCLA’s Donald Stroup wrote a great book, “The High Cost of Free Parking”, and made his point with a tale of two cities:
A decade back both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new downtown concert halls. LA’s included a $10 million, six storey parking structure for 2100 cars. But in San Francisco, they built no additional parking, saving developers millions.
In LA after a concert the music-lovers scurry to their steel cocoons and drive away. But after a show in San Francisco, patrons leave the concert and stroll the streets, spending tens of thousands of dollars in nearby bars, restaurants and bookstores. Guess which city’s economy has benefited most from its investment in the arts.
The buzzword these days in Harford is TOD, Transit Oriented Development. By putting stores, mixed use office buildings, housing and amenities near train and bus stops, people will use mass transit to get there instead of their cars. That doesn’t mean we don’t need parking at train stations. But even a parking structure can have stores at street level.
City planners need to remember that human beings come with two legs, not just four tires.
Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media
March 10, 2017
Does reading this column depress you? That’s what I’ve heard from a few faithful readers.
But in opining on transportation issues my goal is not to bum you out but to get you thinking. So this week, just to cheer us all up a bit, I’m only going to comment on good news. (Trust me, it’s taken awhile to accumulate these cheerier dispatches, but here goes.)
FAST(ER) TIMES AT THE DMV: A friend of mine who runs a limousine company reports he recently went to the DMV fully expecting to waste a day on paperwork but got out of there in record time. Given the horror stories last summer of long lines and never-ending computer problems, that is good news.
FOOD TRUCKS AT THE STATION: When the Fairfield Metro station was built on the Metro-North line it was supposed to be part of a P3 (public-private-partnership) complete with offices, a hotel and full passenger amenities. But the private company lost its financing, leaving CDOT to build the station which ended up with no waiting room or bathrooms, not even porta-potties. As consolation the CDOT is now looking to bring food trucks into the parking lot to serve commuters. Care for an empanada with your morning coffee?
WALL STREET NORWALK: As “the train guy” I thought I knew everything about the New Haven Railroad. But until a reader in Norwalk told me, I never knew there used to be a train station in the old downtown at Wall Street. Efforts are underway to rejuvenate that station, situated as it is next to 2000 new housing units, the bus station and the under-utilized Yankee Doodle garage. The project won’t be an easy sell as CDOT says it’s not interested because the Wall Street station is only a mile from the South Norwalk station. Funny… they didn’t offer that as an excuse when Gov Malloy promised Bridgeport a new $300 million Barnum train station just a mile from its downtown station.
DONALD TRUMP LIKES TRAINS: Recently our new President met with a group of airline CEO’s, regaling them with promises to rehab old airports and streamline air traffic control. But he also used the occasion to lament the lack of high speed trains in America. “You go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place,” Trump said. It remains to be seen if Trump will keep his campaign pledge to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure or how much of it will go to rail vs roads, but it seems our new President is pro-trains.
HIGH SPEED TRAINS IN CT: Much has been written about the Federal Railroad Administration’s plans to build a high-speed rail line along the Connecticut coast. But fuzzy drawings of potential routes along (or atop) I-95 have given local mayors and selectmen a lot of concern. Last week I was invited to attend an FRA briefing in Darien where many of those fears were lessened. The FRA says it doesn’t know where it will build these tracks. And it may all be moot, given opposition by our Governor, the Commissioner of CDOT and most of our Congressional delegation to the plan which would require state approval and funding to move forward.
So, there you go. Good news, or at least hopeful signs of improvement on the transportation front. What do you see in your daily commute? Any rays of sunshine?
Send your comments by e-mail or post on social media and let’s keep the conversation going with news both good and bad. Just follow the hashtag #GettingThereCT
Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media
February 27, 2017
I feel sorry for the folks who live in Bridgeport.
Parts of the city are quite beautiful but others look like the bombed-out South Bronx, especially lots alongside the Metro-North tracks. The most populous city in the state with residents paying some of the highest taxes really needs help.
But is a proposed $300 million new “Barnum” train station in East Bridgeport the right answer, or just a political boondoggle?
Bridgeport already has a downtown train station right in the business center, next to the new bus station and ferry terminal. But the new Barnum station, just over a mile away is in the middle of nowhere. Sure, there are some folks who live nearby, but the proposed station only makes sense if huge new housing and office complexes get built.
It’s this dream of TOD (transit oriented development) that’s the only possible argument for a new station. If they (CDOT) build it (the station), will they (developers) come?
Others think the station idea is more political than practical. They point out that it was Governor Malloy who announced plans for the station just weeks before his re-election. At a recent public hearing on the plan one skeptic called it a political payoff to gain votes in a tight campaign.
My sources at CDOT told me they were given scant notice about the Governor’s announcement in July of 2014. There had been no vetting of the scheme in long range plans. Even the State Bond Commission was surprised when the Governor slipped a $2.75 million appropriation for initial planning onto its agenda.
Initially the Governor called for a $75 million station with one platform on each side of the local tracks to be open by 2018. Now the plan has morphed into a $300 million station with center-island platforms, serving both local and express tracks.
There would also be a 500 space parking lot. But there are no plans for a waiting room, washroom facilities or commuter amenities.
About 25 people turned out at the public hearing, including locals who said that Bridgeport “deserved” this new station. They said the former glory of the “Brass City” could be restored only with others’ investments.
Some even thought that the new station would be served by Amtrak’s Acela, which doesn’t even stop at the downtown station. I think the chances of that are slight. Acela only stops at thriving business centers like Stamford, not rubble-strewn neighborhoods like East Bridgeport.
The most chilling testimony came from Mathew Hallock, of Fairfield. He reminded the audience about the strange timing of the Governor’s announcement and then wondered aloud who owned the neighboring land that would suddenly appreciate in value. He even called for the Attorney General to investigate the matter, implying impropriety in the proposal.
Noticeably absent from the public hearing was Mayor Ganim, a man who has served time on federal felony corruption charges. If the Barnum station was so important for his city, why wasn’t he there?
Metro-North has so many needs: positive train control, more rail-cars, better and more frequent service, improved safety and affordable fares. But do we really need to pour $300 million into a Barnum train station built only on the hope that it might encourage development?
This station is far from being a done deal. There will be more plans, more hearings and, of course, the search for funding. But as Bridgeport’s own PT Barnum once said: “There’s a sucker born every minute”.
Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media
February 21, 2017
Enjoying a speedy (148 mph) ride to Boston last week on Acela, I started thinking about the differences between Amtrak and Metro-North. Both are railroads, but each has a different mission. Still, there are a few things Metro-North could learn from its national counterpart.
QUIET CARS: Amtrak invented the concept in 2000 and it’s been a big success. The cars are well marked and the “library-like atmosphere” rules are explained and enforced, both by conductors and passengers. But on Metro-North, the QuietCalmute concept didn’t happen until 2011. The cars are not marked and the rules are seldom enforced.
WI-FI: Here again, Amtrak was an early adopter offering free Wi-Fi in 2010. The response was so great that the “tubes” were quickly clogged, forcing a major tech upgrade. Today on any Northeast Corridor train (not just Acela) the Wi-Fi is fast and dependable, allowing passengers to be productive all through their journey. Metro-North says it has no plans for Wi-Fi.
FIRST CLASS: For those that want it, first class seating is available on Amtrak complete with at-seat dining options. The upgrade from coach isn’t cheap, but highly popular and the cars are usually full. When the New Haven RR ran our trains, there were private parlor cars on some commuter runs. Given the demographics on MNRR, I’m pretty sure a premium seating option would be quite popular. But none is planned.
DYNAMIC PRICING: Book an advance seat on Amtrak and you’ll find three different ticket prices, the cheapest akin to airlines’ no-show / no-refund pricing, and others with higher fares giving you more flexibility. Because Metro-North doesn’t book seats, they only offer peak and off-peak fares. You can walk up and grab a ride anytime on Metro-North. But on Amtrak you usually must have a reservation and be pre-ticketed.
REFUNDS: Once I was on an over-booked Acela with literally no empty seats. After arrival I contacted Amtrak and was given a full refund for being a standee for 3+ hours. On Metro-North your ticket only gets you a ride, not a guarantee of seating.
REWARDS: Amtrak has a great Amtrak Guest Rewards program where your loyalty gets you points toward upgrades and free tickets. Last year I went from Chicago to LA (in a private bedroom, meals included) for free, just using points I’d earned riding Acela. There’s also a co-branded credit card where everyday purchases earn you these perks. On Metro-North, no points, perks or rewards.
NEW CARS: To its credit, Amtrak has already ordered the next generation of its popular “high speed” Acela trains long before the current rolling stock has worn out. On Metro-North the railroad and CDOT waited until 2005 to order the new M8 cars to replace older cars that were 25+ years into their 20-year life expectancy and were being held together with gaffers tape.
ON-TIME PERFORMANCE: If your train is running late on Amtrak, they’ll text or e-mail you, just like the airlines. On Metro-North, they only Tweet or e-mail if several trains are affected. On Metro-North trains are considered “on time” if they’re up to six minutes late, so the railroad’s 90+% on time record is dubious. Still, it’s better than Amtrak where even Acela, the pride of their fleet, is on-time only 74% of the time (even including a 10 minute leeway).
Apples and oranges? Sure. These two railroads are quite different. But Metro-North has a monopoly while Amtrak must compete with everything from discount buses to the airlines. Maybe that’s why Amtrak is better?
Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media.
February 17, 2017
Don’t look now, but our legislature is back in action considering dozens of bills affecting transportation. Everything from tolls to train fares, from airports to Uber could be up for grabs in this session.
But how is a citizen supposed to voice their views, let alone follow these machinations from afar? Aside from my journo-hero Ken Dixon (Hearst’s excellent reporter in Hartford), and websites like CT Newsjunkie, CT Mirror and The Capitol Report, there’s not much left of the “fifth estate” to keep us informed. Of course, you can watch CT-N, the state’s answer to C-Span, for the blow-by-blow… assuming you have the time.
Some bills, like State Rep Gail Lavielle’s (R - Wilton) HB773 deserve our support. That bill would require a vote of the legislature to approve any proposed fare increase on Metro-North. But offering your support (or disapproval) of any of these bills isn’t easy.
Sure, you can submit testimony by e-mail. There are 36 members of the Transportation Committee, each juggling hundreds of bills coming before this and the many other committees on which they serve. Will your e-mailed comments make a difference or just be seen as spam?
Forget about lawmakers coming to you for a public hearing. You must go to them. I can't remember the last time our elected officials held a hearing downstate, can you?
For decades I traveled to Hartford to testify on various bills in my capacity as a member of the Metro-North Commuter Rail Council, as a commuter and just as a taxpayer. But not anymore. It’s a waste of time.
You have to give up an entire day to go to Hartford, arriving early in the morning to sign up on the testimony list (or enter a lottery for a slot).
Knowing where you are on the testimony list, you then settle into the hearing room waiting your three minutes of time. With almost 50 bills up for consideration at a single hearing and scores of people who wish to testify, you’d better be patient.
Oh, and don’t forget to bring 50 copies of your written testimony to give to the Clerk.
The first hour of the hearing is usually given over to the Commissioner of the CDOT who explains why his agency opposes most of the bills up for consideration. Then, elected officials get to speak… their time being far more precious than any citizen who’s given up a day to watch this sausage-making.
Even with three dozen members of the Committee, you’ll be lucky to see more than a handful in attendance as they must flit from hearing room to hearing room, trying to juggle their calendar conflicts.
What you will see are the lobbyists, designated by a special colored badge. They’re well known to lawmakers and you’ll see them making sure their clients’ views are known on pending bills. Media come and go as well, occasionally grabbing folks for a sound-bite after they’ve spoken.
Your turn to speak may come early or late in the evening. You’ll read your remarks and hope there are follow-up questions before the egg-timer goes “ding” and you’re sent home.
It’s all political theater and you (like me) may come away quite cynical about the process. The real power lies with the Committee Chairs and your favorite bill may never make it out of that body for consideration, let alone a full vote.
As demonstrators love to chant, “This is what democracy looks like”. And this part of it ain’t pretty.
Reposted with permission of CT Hearst Media
February 06, 2017
If we want to get cars off of the highways, we need to turn drivers into rail commuters. But even the most motivated would-be rail rider faces an immediate problem: the lack of rail station parking.
Many stations have wait lists for annual permits of more than five or six years. And the permits themselves can cost as much as $1100 a year! Even day-parking is expensive and hard to find.
Keep in mind that most station parking is owned by the CDOT but leased to the towns and cities to administer. It’s those municipalities that set the rates and handle the wait lists. But there’s the rub: every town’s rules are different.
In Darien (where I’m lucky enough to live), just to keep your name on the wait list costs $10 a year. But the prize is a $400 a year permit. Most towns “grandfather” existing permit holders, meaning that once you have a permit you can renew it.
Because many permit holders hoard their permits, using them only rarely, towns sell twice as many permits as there are parking spaces. That makes the permits really just a “license to hunt”, i.e. if you find a space you can park there, but there’s no guarantee there will be room. That makes sense.
A beach permit doesn’t promise you 15 sq feet of sand, just access to the beach. As with parking it’s first come, first served.
What it comes down to is a classic case of supply and demand. The demand for parking spaces is high but the supply limited. Because CDOT isn’t adding more parking capacity at stations, towns are left to manage the demand.
And I have a great new suggestion on how to do that: a Dutch auction.
Parking spaces would start selling online on a certain date and time with the first permit going to the highest bidder. The second space would go to the second highest bidder, and so on. There would be no preference given to existing permit holders nor by town of residency (all state-owned lots are open to anyone).
Using an auction where all bidding is transparent would be like selling an antique on EBay. The permit should go to the person who wants it most and is willing to pay.
Is it fair that somebody can keep a permit they don’t use just because they’ve had it for years? Shouldn’t that parking space go to the person who needs it the most, the daily commuter? The days of “hoarding” would be over if we let the marketplace decide the value of the space, not bureaucrats.
If an annual parking permit is $400, I’m sure there’s somebody who’d pay $600 or $700 to be sure they got one. After the greatest demand is met, the average prices would be much less, maybe even less than $400.
And, by the way, towns shouldn’t be profiting from parking permits. That money is supposed to be spent on security, snow-plowing and station improvements.
Of course, the best solution to the parking mess is to have supply meet demand. We need to build more parking lots at all of our train stations. That will get folks out of their cars and onto the trains, benefiting everyone.