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May 22, 2016

Our Infrastructure: Dangling by a Thread



The recent fire under the Park Avenue viaduct in Harlem, which disrupted commutes of a quarter million Metro-North riders got me thinking:  our aging, crumbling and vulnerable transportation infrastructure is close to collapse, and the effects of such failure could be catastrophic.   Consider this track-record:
JUNE 1983:  Inadequate inspections and repairs cause the collapse of the Mianus River
Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich. Three people were killed and three others injured.   For almost five months, 80,000 daily vehicles had to detour through city streets.
MARCH 2004:         An oil tanker crashes on I-95 in Bridgeport and the ensuing fire is hot enough to melt steel supports on the Howard Avenue overpass.  Traffic was disrupted for a week.
SEPTEMBER 2013:    Con-Ed plans to replace a crucial electric feeder cable for Metro-North in the Bronx.  The railroad decides to forgo the $1 million cost of a temporary back-up cable and the main cable fails, disrupting train service for weeks, both on Metro-North and Amtrak.
JUNE 2014:    Twice in one week the Walk Bridge in South Norwalk (built in 1896) won’t close, cutting all rail service between New York and Boston.  Cost of replacement will be more than $450 million.
MAY 2016:  Illegally stored chemicals and propane tanks at a gardening center under the Park Ave viaduct catch fire.  The flames’ heat melts steel girders, cutting all train service out
of GCT and stranding thousands.  Limited train service in the following days leads to subway-like crowding and lengthy delays.
Mind you, this list does not include fatal accidents and disruptions caused by human error, like the Metro-North crash at Spuyten Duyvil that killed four.
Our lives, our jobs and our economy rely on safe, dependable transportation.  But when the roads we drive and the rails we ride are museum pieces or go uninspected and unrepaired, we are dangling by a thread.
A single fire, whether caused by accident or act of terrorism, can bring down our infrastructure in an instant, cutting us off from work for days and costing our economy billions.
What can be done?  Safety inspections by engineers and Fire Departments looking to prevent disaster are obvious.  Better enforcement of speed limits and safety are as well.  But prevention of accidents cannot make up for decades of neglect in reinvestment in our roads, rails and bridges.
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ annual infrastructure report card gives the US a D+.  They estimate we will need to spend $3.6 trillion to get things back into good shape… less than the cost of the last 15 years of US fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
As the old auto-repair ad used to say, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later”.  But sooner or later, we will have to pay.

May 08, 2016

Legislative Lockbox Logjam

I hope you’ve been following CT-N to watch our dysfunctional legislature in recent weeks as they struggle to fill a $900 million budget gap.  Not only could they not get a new budget together before adjourning (only to be summoned back mid-May for a special session), but the legislative logjam left several important measures in limbo.  Among them, the long debated “lock box” for special transportation funding.

As I wrote weeks ago, none of Governor Malloy’s plans to spend $100 billion to rebuild and expand our transportation systems over the next 30 years can go anywhere without an agreement to safeguard those funds from mis-appropriation by putting them in an untouchable “lock box”. 
Because the legislature couldn’t pass such a bill or even put it on the ballot as a potential constitutional amendment referendum, that puts the entire Malloy plan on hold.  Without a lockbox nobody trusts Hartford with money raised by tolling or taxes, nor should they.
The lockbox idea is not new.  In fact, it was Republicans who suggested it years ago.  But when Malloy appropriated the idea as his own, GOP lawmakers saw the Governor’s version as more sieve than safe, and they held up a vote.
Folks, if lawmakers can’t agree on an annual budget, let alone a way to keep transportation funding secure, how can we trust them with $100 billion in new money?
The Dept of Transportation’s track-record on private-public partnerships for transit oriented
Original plans for Fairfield Metro that never happened.
development also gives one pause.  For example, consider the Fairfield Metro train station where a private developer went belly-up, leaving CDOT to finish the job, sort of:  the beautiful new station they built still has no waiting room.

Or consider the ongoing saga of the Stamford rail station garage.  It’s been almost three years since CDOT tapped a private developer to demolish the old garage, replace it with a high-rise office / condo / hotel and build new commuter parking lots within a quarter mile from the station.  In three years, nothing has been done because there is still no signed contract.
Developer John McClutchy Jr
Yet, that project is wrapped in such secrecy that nobody understands the delay.  Or why the CDOT is even still negotiating with this laggard “developer of choice”. It couldn’t be because the developer contributed $165,000 to the Malloy campaign that he’s being given so much time, could it?  Nah, that would never happen.

 So here we are, fellow Nutmeggers.  Lawmakers deadlocked.  A $900 million budget deficit to fill this year and another $2 billion hole in years ahead.  State workers are being laid-off.  State funding to towns for education is being cut (meaning local taxes rise).  Billionaires are bailing (a third of our taxes are paid by the top 1%).  And no prospects for a lock-box let alone more funding for transportation.  Yup, just the same old stuff as ever.

No wonder they call us “the land of steady habits”.

April 23, 2016

The Quiet Car Conundrum



Sixteen years ago a group of regular commuters on Amtrak’s early morning train to DC had
a great idea: why not designate one car on the train as a “Quiet Car”, free from cell phone chatter and loud conversations? The railroad agreed and the experiment proved a great success.

But as early as 2006 when the same idea was suggested to Metro-North it was rejected outright. Then serving on the Commuter Council, I persisted and finally, in 2011 the railroad agreed to a trial with one car on each rush hour train dedicated to what it called a “Quiet CALMmute”.

Almost immediately the plan ran into trouble. Not because it wasn’t wanted, but because it wasn’t enforced.

There were no signs in the cars and only occasional PA announcements before departure reminding folks who sat in the car that a quiet, library-like environment that was expected. Most of all, conductors wouldn’t enforce the new rules. But why?

Conductors seem to have no trouble reminding passengers to keep their feet off the seats or put luggage in the overhead racks. 

But all that the railroad expected them to do to enforce the Quiet Car rules was to pass out bilingual “Shhh cards” to gabby violators.

It seemed left to passengers to remind fellow riders what a Quiet Car was for and confrontations resulted.

Then this spring the railroad surprised even me by announcing an expansion of the program: every weekday train, peak and off-peak, would now have two Quiet Cars! Sounds great, but without signage or education, the battles continued.

One commuter from Fairfield recently e-mailed me with a typical tale: riding in a Quiet Car he became annoyed when a fellow passenger was yakking on her cell phone. He tapped her on the shoulder and told her “we’re in a Quiet Car” and she freaked, telling him to “keep your @&%! hands off of me” and continuing her chatter by telling her caller that "some guy" just tried to tell her to get off her phone and what a fool he was to think this was some kind of quiet car.

Of course there was no conductor around (all tickets having been collected) and lacking any signage in the car to point to, the offended passenger was made to feel like some sort of jerk.


On Amtrak trains those violating Quiet Car rules have been thrown off the train and arrested. Even Chris Christie had to move his seat on an Acela once for yabbering with his staff in the wrong car.

Nobody wants these kinds of altercations on Metro-North. But why initiate and then expand such a passenger amenity as Quiet CALMmute without proper education and enforcement? A few signs and friendly reminders from conductors should make passengers aware that “train time may be your own time” (as the railroad’s marketing slogan says), but it’s also shared time. And I, for one, want a quiet commute.

March 26, 2016

Why There Never May Be Wi-Fi on Metro-North

A few weeks ago a friend was showing me his new Chevy Volt.  Not only does the hybrid-electric car get 42 mpg, it has its own Wi-Fi hotspot.  That’s right.  The car is a Wi-Fi device, so kids in the backseat can watch YouTube.

Days later we were on a road-trip from the Maryland shore when we caught the Lewes – Cape May ferry.  Onboard the vessel they offered passengers free Wi-Fi.  Airlines have offered flyers Wi-Fi for years now. 
Discount bus lines like Megabus have free Wi-Fi.  Even Connecticut’s new CTfastrak commuter bus system to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi.
Commuter railroads across the US offer Wi-Fi, including Boston's MBTA, Seattle's Sounder and even San Francisco's Caltrain.
But there is no Wi-Fi on Metro-North.  And the railroad says none is planned, even though the new M8 railcars are ready for the needed gear.  And therein lies a story.
Offering Wi-Fi on a moving vehicle usually involves cellular technology.  That’s how the first airline Wi-Fi was offered by companies like Go-Go, though JetBlue and Southwest now rely on proprietary satellite systems which are much faster (up to 30 MB sec!).
When Amtrak first offered Wi-Fi on its Acela trains between Washington and Boston, they immediately had bandwidth issues.  So many passengers were using their cell phones and tablets, speeds dropped to 0.6 mb per second and the complaints came pouring in.

That’s part of the reason that Metro-North is reluctant to offer Wi-Fi:  if an Acela train carrying 300 passengers can’t handle the online load, how could a ten-car train carrying a thousand commuters?  The railroad has enough complaints as it is.


Pay phone on Japanese train
Metro-North’s experience with on-board communications has left them feeling burned.  Remember years ago when the railroad installed cellular pay-phones on the trains?  Great idea, until a year later when costs came down and everyone had their own cell phone.  Those pay cell phone booths went unused and were eventually removed.

Back in 2006 then-President of MNRR Peter Cannito said Wi-Fi would be built into the new M8 cars, both for passengers and to allow the railcars to “talk” to HQ by beaming diagnostic reports.  The railroad issued an RFP for ideas and got a number of responses, including from Cablevision, with whom they negotiated for many months.  They even initiated on-train testing of Wi-Fi gear on one railcar.
But Metro-North insisted any Wi-Fi would have to cost the railroad nothing: that all the expense and tech risk would be borne by Cablevision or its customers.  And that’s where the negotiations deadlocked.

Today the railroad sees Wi-Fi as just a convenience.  Smart phones and cell-card configured laptops can access the internet just fine, they say, using cellular technology.  But to their credit the railroad is trying to get cell providers to fill in the coverage gaps, like in the tunnels and at GCT.

So don’t look for Wi-Fi anytime soon on America’s biggest and busiest commuter railroad.  It’s not seen as a necessity… except perhaps by its passengers who really have no other transportation option.

March 14, 2016

Is Uber Really a Bargain?

In the almost two years since Uber rolled into Connecticut, the state’s car/taxi service business has been rocked to its core.  But is Uber competing on the same level as taxis and car service companies?  Of course not, which is why it’s so successful.
I spoke with Uber’s Connecticut Manager Matt Powers and Drivers Unlimited (a Darien car & limo company) owner Randy Klein to try to get an objective comparison of the services.  (Full disclosure:  I have been a customer of both firms.)
While Uber does offer a “black car” (premium) service, my comparisons are with their more popular Uber X service… private cars driven by non-chauffeurs, 7000 of whom have signed up as drivers in CT, according to Powers.
VEHICLES:     Car services opt for Lincoln Town Cars and SUV’s.  Uber X just requires drivers have a 4-door car, less than 10 years old with a trunk big enough to carry a wheelchair.
MAINTENANCE:  Klein owns and maintains his own fleet, inspecting all cars weekly.  Uber relies on its X drivers to do upkeep.
DRIVER SCREENING:   Klein does his own background checks on top of the DMV screening required for a CDL (commercial drivers license).  Uber says it does “rigorous” screening of drivers, including terrorist watch lists, but requires only a regular driver’s license.  Klein’s firm also does random drug testing of his drivers.
INSURANCE:    Klein has coverage of up to $1.5 million for every driver.  Uber relies on the individual driver’s personal insurance but layers a $1 million policy on top when they are driving Uber customers.
RATINGS:    Uber asks drivers and passengers to rate each other after every trip.  Klein asks passengers to rate drivers but says it’s unfair to allow drivers to rate customers. “We’re in a service business,” he says.
BOOKING:    Klein says most of his reservations are made 2-3 weeks in advance.  Uber doesn’t do advance bookings, though in personal experience I’ve never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a car.
FARES:   Though not an apples-to-apples comparison, an average car service ride from Darien to LaGuardia Airport is anywhere from $130 - $180, one-way.  Uber’s quote for an X car is about $75.
SURGE PRICING:    When demand is highest, Uber adds a surcharge to fare quotes, sometimes doubling the fare.  Klein says his rates are the same 24 x 7.
IF YOU HAVE PROBLEMS:    Klein says his office can be reached anytime by phone, toll-free.  Uber’s website offers a template to file complaints online.

So, is Uber really a bargain?  Let me answer with a hotel analogy.  Sometimes I love staying at the Ritz Carlton with its plush rooms and fabulous service.  Other times, a Motel 6 or LaQuinta is fine, though there’s always the risk of a “surprise”.

I see car services the same way.  With a plush Lincoln SUV and chauffer you get what you pay for.  But sometimes all you want is to get from home to the airport and an Uber X is just fine… and a lot cheaper!

February 24, 2016

Cross-Country by Amtrak

A recent business trip took me to Dallas on a crowded, turbulent 3 ½ hour flight from LaGuardia.  But the return trip was a real treat:  2 days and nights on Amtrak, for free.
Riding a lot of Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor, I’ve built up a ton of AmtrakGuest Rewards® points, augmented by their co-branded credit card.  So when I checked my calendar and the Amtrak website, I saw an opportunity to enjoy a leisurely ride home in a full bedroom, meals included, gratis.
The long distance trains I rode from Dallas to Chicago (The Texas Eagle) and Chicago to
Washington DC (The Capitol Ltd) were all “Superliners”, ie double-deck cars with a variety of accommodations, including coaches and sleeping cars.

Each train also had a diner and an observation car, though the sightseeing through Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois wasn’t exactly memorable.  But the second leg of the trip thru the hills and river 
Observation Car
Photo by Nick Sweeting
valleys of Pennsylvania and Maryland was gorgeous. “Fly over” country sure looks different from an elevation of about 20 feet.


My bedroom was equipped with a big couch that folded down into an almost queen-sized bed… surprisingly comfortable for sleeping.  The private commode doubled as a shower. 
Firing up my radio scanner, pre-set to the railroads’ frequencies, I followed the action as the conductor and engineer received instructions from a dispatcher hundreds of miles away.
The food was good… all cooked to order… and included in my first class fare.  Dining was communal, one of the fun parts of train travel:  getting to meet real folks from across the US, chatting about their travels, their work… everything except politics.
In Chicago and Washington DC, where I had time between train connections, I enjoyed Amtrak’s “Metropolitan Lounge” for first class passengers, complete with free Wifi, snacks
and priority boarding.  I also had time to explore those cities’ beautifully restored train stations jammed with commuters, Amtrak passengers, shops and restaurants.
To their credit, Amtrak does a great job with their money-losing long distance trains.  The service is truly First Class, the ride smooth and, for the most part, on-time (thanks to a heavily padded timetable).  We had only two small delays… one caused by another Amtrak train colliding with a truck at a grade crossing (no injuries), the other by a boulder on the tracks that needed to be removed.

Because demand is high and the supply of sleepers is low, fares for long distance Amtrak trains are pricey and booked many weeks in advance.  Roundtrip airfare from NY to Dallas is as low as $230.  But one-way on Amtrak is $299 in coach and $700+ in a roomette.  Of course with Amtrak it’s like getting two nights of hotel plus meals, but to me it’s well worth it.


So next time you’re planning a long distance trip, turn it into a journey.  Take the train!

January 31, 2016

Tolls, Taxes and Transportation

I hate to say “I told you so”, but…  Just as I’d predicted, Governor Malloy’s hand-picked Transportation Finance Panel has finally issued its recommendations for paying for the governor’s 30-year,  $100 billion transportation “plan”. 
First off, the Governor’s “plan” is not a plan but a wish-list of projects for all 169 towns and cities in the state.  It has been vetted by no one and has no priorities, (though CDOT
Commissioner Redeker says about two-thirds [$66 billion] would be for repairs and replacement of what we already have, not any grandiose schemes for monorails down the middle of I-95.)
Interestingly, as it began work last summer the Transportation Finance Panel wasn’t allowed to debate the merits of anything in the Governor’s “plan”, so all they could do was suggest how to fund the whole thing. 
Atop their newly issued report is a telling quote:  “If something’s worth having, it’s worth paying for.”  Duh!  But that’s a pretty soft sell on this mega-plan given the unpopularity of their funding suggestions:
  • ·       Raise the gasoline tax two cents a year for seven years
  • ·       Hike bus and rail fares 2.5% annually
  • ·       Introduce electronic tolls on highways with congestion (time of day) pricing.
  • ·       Land value capture at transit sites

That last idea is a doozey.  It suggests that if someone owns private land next to a new transit station and it appreciates in value, the increased taxes collected by the town should be shared with the state.
That is perilously close to last year’s Machiavellian bill that would have created a quasi-state agency, the Transit Corridor Development Agency (all of whose members would be appointed by the Governor) which would have the power of eminent domain on any land within a half mile of a bus or train station.  Though rejected, that idea is already being re-thought by OPM, so watch out this session.

But before you set your hair on fire… don’t worry.  All of this is moot.  Nothing is going to happen, and here’s why.
The Governor says that none of his panel’s proposals should even be discussed until there is a transportation “lock box” in place.  That won’t happen until November’s election and will depend on passage of a constitutional amendment ballot question.
Why the delay?  Because the Democrats in the legislature don’t want to have to vote on something as unpopular as tolls or taxes before the next election.
Meanwhile, even Governor Malloy seems distracted from his transportation mega-plans, as he is rumored to be lobbying for a cabinet seat in the Clinton administration come 2017. And the Presidential campaign season will doubtless see Governor Malloy on the road quite a bit on behalf of his could-be boss.


So don’t look for a widened I-95, high-speed rail or new deep-water ports anytime soon.  The legislature will be busy with more important things, like getting re-elected, before they can deal with funding the Malloy “plan”.

January 26, 2016

Don't Blame the Trucks



Driving to Hartford the other day (no, you cannot really get there by train) I saw a beautiful sight:  hundreds of trucks!  Yet, motorists hate trucks and mistakenly blame them for traffic congestion and accidents that cause hours of delays.
Readers of this column know I’m a “rail guy” and would love to see freight trains replace trucks, but that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.  But as motorists we should not blame truckers for traffic woes of our own creation.
Check the facts and you’ll find most highway accidents are caused by motor cars, not the trucks.
Do trucks drive too fast?  Sure, but don’t we all?  Next time you’re on I-95 check who’s in the high-speed left lane and you’ll see cars, not trucks.
Should there be better safety inspections of trucks?  Absolutely!  But for every over-weight truck or over-worked truck driver there are doubtless hundreds of unsafe cars and equally road-weary warriors behind the wheel whose reckless disregard endangers us all.
Truckers drive for a living.  They are tested and licensed to far more rigorous standards than anyone else.  And because they drive hundreds of miles each day, overall I think they are far better drivers.  When’s the last time you saw a trucker juggling a cellphone and a latte like some soccer moms?
And remember… they’re not out there driving their big-rigs up and down the highway just to annoy us.  We put those trucks on the road by our voracious consumption patterns.  Every product we buy at stores large and small, including the very newspaper or iPad you hold in
your hand, was delivered by trucks.  Want fewer trucks on the road?  Just stop buying stuff.
By definition, trucks are high-occupancy vehicles.  Compare the energy efficiency of a loaded truck delivering its cargo to you in your “SOV” (single occupancy vehicle), even if it is a hybrid.  Only rail offers better fuel efficiency.
Why are trucks jamming our highways at rush hour?  Because merchants require them to drive at those times to meet the stores’ delivery timetable.  If big-box stores and supermarkets only took truck deliveries in the overnight hours, our highways would flow much better at rush hour. 
Truckers must use the interstates while passenger cars can chose among many alternate routes.  Why is the average distance driven on I-95 in Connecticut just eleven miles?  Because most of us drive the ‘pike for local, not interstate trips.
If we were smart enough to “value price” our highways (ie return tolling) we’d see fewer vehicles of all kinds on I-95, and those that were willing to pay for the privilege of motoring there would get real value in a faster ride.
I’m hardly an apologist for the trucking lobby.  But neither is it fair for us to blame anyone but ourselves for highway safety and congestion.  It’s the SOV crowd, not the truckers, who are to blame. 
Let’s be honest about this mess of our own making and stop trying to blame truckers as our scapegoat.  As the great philosopher Pogo once put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

January 01, 2016

Speed Limits, Safety and Fuel Efficiency



Crawling along I-95 the other day in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic, I snickered when I noticed the “Speed Limit 55” sign alongside the highway.  I wish!
Of course, when the highway is not jammed, speeds are more like 70 mph with the legal limit, unfortunately, rarely being enforced.  Which got me thinking:  who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?
Why is the speed limit on I-95 in Fairfield County only 55 mph but 65 mph east of New Haven?  And why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the NY border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”?  Why does the eastern half of the state get a break?
Blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT.  This body regulates everything from speed limits to traffic signals, working with local traffic authorities
(usually local Police Departments, mayors or Boards of Selectmen).
OSTA is also responsible for traffic rules for trucks (usually lower speed limits) including the ban on their use of the left hand lane on I-95 in most places.
It was the Federal government (Congress) that dropped the Interstate speed limit to 55 mph in 1973 during the oil crisis, only to raise it to 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the ban altogether in 1995 (followed by a 21% increase in fatal crashes),  leaving it each state to decide what’s best.
In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads support 80 mph.  Trust me… having recently driven 1000+ miles in remote stretches of Utah, things happen very
fast when you’re doing 80 – 85 mph!
About half of Germany’s famed Autobahns have speed limits of 100 km/hr (62 mph), but outside of the cities the top speed is discretionary. A minimum of 130 km/hr (81 mph) is generally the rule, but top speed can often be 200 km/hr (120 mph).
Mind you, the Autobahn is a superbly maintained road system without the bone-rattling potholes and divots we enjoy on our highways.  And the German-built Mercedes and Audis on these roads are certainly engineered for such speed.
American cars are designed for maximum fuel efficiency in the 55 – 60 mph range.  Speed up to 65 mph and your engine runs 8% less efficient.  At 70 mph the loss is 17%.  That adds up to more money spent on gasoline and more environmental pollution, all to save a few minutes of driving time.
But an even bigger for the loss of fuel efficiency is aerodynamic drag, which can eat up to 40% of total fuel consumption.  Lugging bulky roof-top cargo boxes worsens fuel economy by 25% at interstate speeds.  So does carrying junk in your trunk (or passengers!):  a 1% penalty for every 100 pounds.
Even with cheaper gasoline, it all adds up!