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March 25, 2017

"Getting There" - Is Uber Playing Fair ?

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

"Getting There" - The Secrets of the George Washington Bridge

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

"Getting There": Free Parking Isn't Really Free

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

"Getting There" - Finally, Some Good News on Transportation

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

"Getting There" - The Bridgeport "Barnum Boondoggle"

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

"Getting There": What Metro-North Can Learn from Amtrak

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

"Getting There" - Testifying in Hartford

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

"Getting There": Solving the Rail Station Parking Mess

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.

"Getting There": The End of Jumbo Jets

Hard to believe, but it was 45 years ago that the first 747 carried passengers when KLM debuted its commercial service.  Since then, the iconic jumbo jet has carried millions in relative comfort and safety.  But now, its days are numbered.

Last summer Boeing said it was possible that it would end production of the 747 (with the possible exception of a pair of replacements for Air Force One, if the Trump White House doesn’t kill the plan). Even the much larger A-380, a double-deck Airbus, may have seen its sales peak.

Airbus spent $25 billion to develop the world’s largest passenger plane, but only 319 have been ordered (compared to more than 1500 747’s).  And of that number, 125 have yet to be delivered, 60 of those destined for Emirates Airline.  In 2015, the A-380 (which can carry over 850 passengers) saw just three new orders.

Why are the jumbo jets losing favor?  It’s a matter of simple economics:  they’re too expensive to operate compared with newer planes like the smaller 787 and A-350. 

It takes a very busy travel corridor to fill an 800-seat airplane.  And flying one jumbo instead of two smaller planes means fewer departure time options for passengers.  The A-380 makes sense for hub-and-spoke airlines like Emirates which routes all its flights through Dubai for connections.  But rival airlines can fly direct, city to city, up to 8000 miles non-stop using the smaller jets.

Sure, the 787 doesn’t offer the First Class suites ($21,000 one way) that you’ll find on an A-380 (each with its own min-bar, gourmet meals, lie-flat bed and a shower spa).  But those amenities are out of reach to all but the plutocrats.  And even Arab oil sheiks are pinching pennies these days.
But even as the major airlines are shrinking their planes to save on fuel, one airline is doing the opposite. Virgin Atlantic is thinking of bringing back the supersonic transport, or SST.

Tentatively named “Boom”, the new craft would carry 45-50 passengers at mach 2.2, faster than the old Concorde which was retired in 2003.  And the smaller craft would be capable of longer distances:  5000 miles vs. the Concorde’s 4500).  That means that New York to London (3441 miles) would take just 3.5 hours compared to 7 hours on a jumbo jet.

But the extended range of Boom would also make it possible to fly Seattle to Tokyo (4763 miles), something Concorde could never achieve without stopping for fuel.  And given a new design, Boom would operate cost efficiently at sub-sonic speeds over land to avoid the sonic boom.  The Concorde burned about a ton of fuel per passenger crossing the Atlantic.  Just taxiing from the terminal at Heathrow for take-off, the old Concorde burned more fuel than an A-320 flying from London to Paris.

They’re still crunching the numbers on the Boom, but with roundtrip first class fares JFK to London now standing at $8000, the Branson team at Virgin think they could offer the same trip for $5000!  A small prototype of the Boom is being built to test the concept.

So enjoy the jumbo jets while you can.  Their days may be numbered and your aviation future may be smaller… but much faster.  If you’re like 99% of all fliers who sit in “the back of the bus”, you may not miss the jumbos a whole lot.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 27, 2017

"Getting There": Who Should Pay for Sound Barriers?

Building and maintaining our highways is expensive.  But here’s a quiz question:  on interstates 95 and 84, what costs a half-million dollars a mile to construct?  The answer:  sound barriers.

Why are we spending that kind of money to enshroud our interstates simply to protect the peace and quiet of its neighbors?  Didn’t they know that living that close to a highway came with the twin costs of increased noise and air pollution along with the benefits of proximity to the highways?

Do you have sympathy for people who live near airports and then complain about the jets?  Neither do I.   But the solution to highway noise is not to create a walled canyon paid for by others.

Sound barriers, in my view, are a waste of precious resources.  They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or do anything about congestion.  And they’re a magnet for graffiti artists.  Three miles of sound barriers on both sides of an interstate would buy another M8 railcar for Metro-North, taking 100 passengers out of their cars.

Worse yet, sound barriers really just reflect the sound, not absorb it, sending the noise further afield.  But there are alternatives:

1)     Why not sound-proof the homes?  That has worked well for neighbors of big airports and would be a lot cheaper than miles of sound barriers.  Plus, insulation against sound also insulates against energy loss, saving money.

2)    Rubberized asphalt.  Let’s reduce the highway noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”.  Using the latest in rubberized asphalt some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise.  And rubberized asphalt, as its name implies, is made from old tires… about 12 million a year that would otherwise be junked.

3)    Pay for it yourself.  Create special taxing zones in noisy neighborhoods and let those home owners pay for their sound barriers.  They’re the ones who are benefiting, so shouldn’t they be the ones who pay?  And that investment will easily be recouped in increased property values.

4)    Penalize the noise makers.  Let’s crack down on truckers who “Jake brake”, downshifting noisily to slow their speed instead of using their real brakes.  And motorcyclists or those cars with busted mufflers, they too should be penalized.

5)    Go electric.  Electric cars are virtually silent.  And there are electronic ways of using noise cancellation technology that, on a large scale, can induce quiet at a lower price than building wooden barricades.

6)    Go absorbent.  Where there is room, erect earthen berms alongside the highway which will absorb the sound.  Or if you are constructing sound barriers, fill them with sound absorbing material, treating the noise like a sponge, not bouncing it off a hard, flat reflective surface.

Our interstates, especially I-95, are carrying far more traffic than they were ever planned to handle.  And there is no sign of it decreasing.  In Fairfield County the rush hour starts about 6 am and runs continuously until 8 pm without a break.

If our state’s economy depends on these highways we will have to live with the karmic cost of a little noise.  But if it’s too much to take, why ask others to pay for its remediation when they are the only ones benefiting from that spending?

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 13, 2017

"Getting There": CDOT's Doomsday Scenario

As the legislature reconvenes this week in Hartford, all are buzzing about filling the predicted $41 million deficit in the state’s budget.  While the Governor is again pledging no tax increases (we’ve heard that before!), the alternatives are looking pretty ugly.
For the state’s Department of Transportation it may mean drastic cuts in services and staffing with long term implications… what I’m calling the “Doomsday Scenario”.

A few months ago, the state’s Office of Policy and Management asked each department to come up with a plan for an additional 10% budget cut on top of last year’s reduction of the same amount.  Commuters will remember how that last cut was partially funded:  with fare increases.  But this time, CDOT planners say that’s not an option because it would take too long.

According to the CDOT’s own plan, here’s what another 10% budget cut would mean to that agency and everyone in the state:

HIGHWAYS:    Patching potholes and repairing cracks on our highways would be curtailed.  Tree removal, fence and drainage repairs would be reduced or eliminated.  Highway Rest Areas (not Service Areas) would be closed, replaced by porta-potties.

IMPACT:   Worsening road conditions causing more damage to cars and costly repairs.  Predictions of vandalism at closed Rest Areas.

WINTER:   Elimination of 220 contract snow plow operators would mean cycle times for plowing would go from 2 hours to 3+ hours on secondary roads (but not Rt 1, I-95 or the Parkways).

IMPACT:  Less plowing means some secondary roads will be impassible during heavy storms.

RAIL SERVICE:   Postpone the planned opening of the new Hartford Line (commuter rail from New Haven) to 2018.  Reduced weekend and weekday off-peak service on Waterbury and Danbury Lines and 50% cut in service on Shore Line East.

IMPACT:   Delay in opening Hartford Line could make the Feds request refund of $200 million in construction funding.  Cuts in rail service would affect state’s economy and “attractiveness” to people looking for a new home.  Highways could gridlock as more commuters are forced to drive.

BUS SERVICE:   Cut subsidies to municipal transit districts by 50%.  CT Transit bus service would be cut 15 – 20%.  Funding for new bus purchases would be cut.

IMPACT:   Greatest impact on minority, economically stressed populations with no transportation alternatives.  Less bus service, more car traffic, more delays.  Funding cut would mean new bus purchases would have to be bonded instead of bought with 80% Federal funding.

CDOT STAFF:   Layoffs of 6% of existing workforce, 213 positions.  Curtailed planning for widening I-84 in Danbury, West Rock Tunnel on Wilbur Cross, design of I-91 / 691 / Rt 15 interchange and planning and design for widening I-95.   Staff cuts in Finance and Administration would delay contract awards, contractor and municipal payments, highway safety campaigns and environmental permits.

IMPACT:   Though one of the largest state agencies as measured by number of employees, these layoffs on top of last year’s staff cuts would leave CDOT 15% below predicted staffing needs projected for 2019.  Planning for new projects would be in gridlock, possibly imperiling Federal funding grant applications.

If any of these cuts happen it will hasten a vicious cycle of less service and more delays encouraging even more people to leave the state, further reducing tax collections.  Now would be the time to tell your lawmakers in Hartford that we must avoid “Doomsday”.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There": Transportation Predictions for 2017

Everybody writes “year in review” stories, but not me.  Instead, I’m going to predict the future and tell you what’s going to happen in transportation next year!

METRO-NORTH:   The new M8 cars will perform well in the winter, but the aging tracks, switches and catenary (overhead power lines) will continue to suffer breakdowns, causing delays.  Ridership will continue to climb, causing further rush-hour crowding until new railcars start arriving in 2019.

GASOLINE PRICES:    The party’s over, folks.  Gasoline prices will continue to rise as OPEC gets its act together to limit oil production.  These rising prices will nudge American drillers and producers back in the game, but it may be months until resumed domestic consumption matches reduced imports.

STAMFORD GARAGE:   As I predicted last year, CDOT finally pulled the plug on its 3+ year unsigned deal with private developer JHM Group to demolish the old station garage and build a mixed use office / condo / hotel building.  But CDOT vows to revisit the P3 (public private partnership) concept, only this time I predict they will have learned their lesson and will find ways to engage and inform the public in their planning.

STATE TAKE-OVER:   They’ve been quietly working toward this for years, but I predict that the CDOT will finally announce they plan to takeover all rail station parking on the New Haven line, standardizing rates and permit wait lists.  Expect a huge fight from the towns, but the state will win. Doesn’t it always?

FLYING:    It’s the beginning of the end for the 747, especially with fuel prices increasing.  Fewer of the jumbos will be flying, replaced by much more fuel efficient mid-sized craft like the 787.  Even the mega-jumbo A380 double-deckers may have seen their day.  Ironically, in 2017 there will be renewed interest in a commercial supersonic jetliner to save time for the ultra-rich who are willing to pay.

INTERSTATE 95:   Traffic will only get worse on I-95 as the legislature hems and haws over Gov. Malloy’s call for its widening.  Despite a 2004 study that said that using break-down lanes for rush-hour traffic was unsafe and would yield little traffic improvement, the CDOT’s new $2 million consultant study will, (surprise!),  support the scheme.  But budget cuts may kill the plan, for now.

LET’S GO CT:   Governor Malloy’s $100 billion transportation scheme will remain stuck, just like his political career.  (Hillary didn’t get elected and he didn’t get plucked from his budget-balancing woes in Hartford to serve in her administration.)  Still, the Governor will continue to criss-cross the state, ballyhooing the need for transportation spending. But without a legislative “lock box” on transportation dollars, none of his funding mechanisms (tolls, vehicle-miles and sales taxes) will be embraced by lawmakers.

TRUMP MONEY:    This is the real wild card which, like the President-elect himself, is hard to predict.  “Donald the Builder” has spoken about spending $1 trillion to rebuild America’s roads, rails, airports and ports.  But he has to get a reluctant Congress to find and then agree to spend that money.  If he does, expect even the bluest of states like Connecticut to be clamoring for their share.  And maybe, just maybe, Connecticut will get some, meaning the Malloy transportation “plan” (being “shovel ready”) will find new life.

No guts, no glory.  Those are my predictions for the year ahead!

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media