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January 15, 2018

"Getting There" - Transportation Predictions for 2018

Recently I reviewed my transportation predictions for 2017 and gave myself a final grade of B+.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even own a crystal ball.

This week, I’m doubling down on some predictions and offering a few new ones.  So tuck this column away and give me a prognostication grade this time next year.

Commuters…  you’re not going to like this one.  With the Special Transportation Fund (STF) imperiled (see below) I predict that there won’t be money to pay for the additional M8 railcars on order for delivery in 2019.  Crowding will continue to the point that ridership will peak and start to drop.  Adding insult to toe-stepping injury, there will be calls for another fare increase of at least 10%.  Ouch.

As he threatened, Governor Malloy will cut transportation spending when the legislature does not act on new funding sources for the Special Transportation Fund.  Even before the STF runs dry, expect reduced or eliminated train service, fewer road repairs, less snow plowing, etc.   It’s going to be bad, really bad.

Before we see discussion of new tolls or taxes, we will need a lock-box on the STF.  We will have a chance to vote on that in a November referendum.  But I predict the vote will be “NO”… not because we don’t need a lock-box, but because the one proposed won’t be secure enough to persuade cynical voters it would be pilfer-proof.  A “no vote” on the lock-box will put any new tolls or taxes for transportation in question.

This is a hard one to call because none of the dozens of early-announced would-be candidates for Governor have said anything about transportation.  They all know this is going to be a crucial issue.  But they also know that voters don’t want any new taxes or tolls.  So, who among this gaggle of wannabe Governors will have the guts to be honest on this issue?  That’s the man (or woman) who’ll get my vote, if s/he exists.

In the wake of the recent Amtrak crash near Tacoma WA, this technology to control our trains is years late, millions over budget and in some peril.  Despite a three year extension by Congress, I fear that Metro-North will not have Positive Train Control up and running by the 12/31/18 deadline.

Fresh from his first (and only) legislative victory in 2017, President Trump will bask in the glory of his mighty tax cut but he will not be able to get Congress to make good on his promise to spend $1 trillion to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.  Why?  Because deficit-nervous Republicans won’t stomach the cost and so despise the Democrat-dominant Northeast that they’ll say “No way” to our multi-billion dollar projects.

Autonomous cars and trucks will start showing up on our roads.  The occasional accident will raise calls for better safety.  But the age of the auto-bots will continue, and we here in Connecticut will either get onboard or be declared irrelevant.


Elon Musk’s controversial system of high-speed tunnels will continue occupying the headlines despite predictions of its eventual failure.  A prototype has been completed and tested even as his Boring Company continues drilling.  But money problems at Tesla will drain his bank account and Hyperloop will be put on hold.

Those are my predictions for 2018.  Check back next year and see if I’m right.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 08, 2018

"Getting There" - Transportation Armageddon

Fare increases, reduced train service, less highway snowing plowing, postponed construction.  All of these and more are on the horizon, say Governor Malloy and the Connecticut DOT because our Special Transportation Fund (STF) is running dry.

I hate to say I told you so, but…

We’ve been talking about this issue for years and our lawmakers have done nothing.  In fact, they’ve hastened this transportation Armageddon by their own short-sighted political pandering.

Remember in 1997 when the legislature lowered the gasoline tax by 14 cents a gallon?  Seemed like a popular move in a state with such high gasoline taxes.  But those taxes are how we fund our transportation!  And with lower oil prices, greater fuel efficiency and electric cars, people are buying less gas and the STF is running on empty.  And our debt service on transportation is growing faster than CDOT’s spending on operations.

Last week the Governor warned us that Wall Street won’t buy even our General Obligation bonds, let alone transportation bonds, if the STF goes into the red.  So unless we find new revenue sources soon, any bonding will be more expensive if not impossible.

So pick your poison:  tolls, sales taxes, Vehicle Miles Tax, gas tax, higher fares… none of them are popular, but some combination will be necessary.

The alternative is to cut spending, cancelling things like new railcar orders for the standing-room-only Metro-North… eliminating off-peak and weekend trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches… cutting Shore Line East rail service by 50%... and three fare increases from 2019 to 2022.

Forget about rebuilding the crumbling Stamford rail station garage, a new station garage in New Haven, widening I-95 or rebuilding the disintegrating Route 7 – I84 “Mixmaster” in Waterbury.  And as CDOT faces further staffing layoffs, don’t be surprised if our highways don’t get plowed.  Agency insiders tell me they’re already down 50% in snow plow staffers in some parts of the state.

Oh, but here come the uniformed suggestions for a quick fix.  You’ve heard them and maybe thought of them yourself.

Why not cancel the new New Haven to Springfield rail line?  Sure… but because it’s being built with federal money, the state would owe Washington a $191 million refund it doesn’t have.

Why not stop the raids on the STF to balance the budget with a lock-box?  Great idea and you’ll get a chance to vote on that in a November 2018 referendum assuming you think it’s a real lock on that box.

Why not wrap all Metro-North trains in advertising… collect all tickets… sell naming rights for stations?  Sure, but that would bring in chump change compared to the $1B we need just to keep the STF solvent and the state afloat.

Tolls and taxes are the only realistic alternatives. But our legislators, facing an election year, have no stomach for either.  They’re still recovering from wrenched shoulders from patting themselves on the back for achieving an unbalanced budget while they’re in serious denial about the real mess we are in.

Come January the CDOT will start a series of public hearings on the necessary fare hikes and spending cuts.  It will be a great time to see who among our lawmakers will be honest with us about the financial crisis they created.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 05, 2018

"Getting There" - Handling Disruptive Passengers

We’ve seen a number of reports lately about “disruptive passengers” forcing a plane to divert after exhibiting some sort of frightening behavior.  Imagine being along for the ride when something like this happens:

·       An Air Canada flight to Tel Aviv lands in London after a female passenger starts randomly choking people on board.  She is restrained in-flight and arrested upon landing.

·       A Southwest Airlines flight from LA to Houston detours to Corpus Christi after a woman tries to open the emergency exit door in mid-flight.  Seen before departure screaming at people in the terminal, passengers wondered why she was even allowed on board.  On landing she is arrested.  The captain buys his passengers pizza to apologize for the delay. Classy.

·       A Hawaiian airlines flight to the mainland returns to the islands after a passenger becomes verbally abusive to his family and strikes a flight attendant.  On landing he’s arrested.

What happens to these “disruptive passengers”?  It’s hard to say, but in the last case the passenger pleaded guilty, was sentenced to three months probation and was fined $97,000 for the cost of the Hawaii diversion.  Not included in the fine was the $46,000 the airline had to pony-up for meal vouchers for the delayed passengers. (Obviously NOT pizza).

But that guy got off light.  Passengers who disrupt the duties of a flight crew member can face fines up to $25,000 and sometimes imprisonment.  In addition, the airline can choose to ban the problem passenger from any future flights… for life!

In some cases this behavior is a sign of mental instability.  But too often the boorish behavior is tied to alcohol, a situation worsened by the airlines selling booze in-flight to already inebriated flyers (the Hawaiian passenger had also brought his own bottle onboard).

Handling a misbehaving passenger at 35,000 feet is one thing, but on the train the rules are a bit different.

Metro-North conductors have the power to “de-train” a passenger at the next station and call the authorities.  And assaulting a Metro-North conductor can get you arrested as two fare beaters found after getting in a tussle while being ejected from their train.  Assaulting an MTA employee is a Class D felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.

But by far my favorite story of a troublesome traveler involved Amtrak and a passenger who would not shut up.

I’m not referring to the time that NJ Governor Chris Christie was asked to move his seat when he mistakenly sat in the Acela’s Quiet Car and started yapping on his cell phone.

No, this case involved a woman who carried on a 16-hour cell-phone conversation on Amtrak’s “Coast Starlight” enroute from LA to Seattle.  Despite being seated in the train’s Quiet Car she ignored the withering gaze of fellow passengers as she continued her chat.  Finally, a passenger confronted her, told her she was in the Quiet Car and was met with an “aggressive response”.

That prompted conductors to stop the train and have her escorted off, far from her destination.  She was charged with disorderly conduct and told reporters she felt “disrespected” by her fellow travelers and Amtrak police.

Imagine that happening on a Metro-North train where the Quiet Car rules are seldom enforced.  Well, I guess we can all dream.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 01, 2018

"Getting There" Transportation Predictions for 2017 Come True

This is the time of year when some commentators kick back and do end-of-the-year wrap up stories, as if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 12 months.  Bah, humbug.   I don’t review the past… I predict the future!

So let’s review my prognostications as published one year ago and see how good my crystal ball really was.

I said the new M8 cars would perform well, which they did.  But the tracks, switches and catenary wires would need repairs, often causing delays… check.  Ridership would rise, leading to further crowding.  Oh, yeah.  On this one I’ll give myself a Grade of an A.

As predicted, gasoline prices went up as OPEC tightened its controls. And they’ll probably rise further next year. Grade:  A

A year ago CDOT had finally pulled the plug on its ill-fated deal with a private developer to replace the Stamford rail garage with a high rise, moving parking a quarter mile from the station.  That was a prediction I’d made 2 years ago, but when it came true in 2016 I predicted that CDOT would learn its lesson on any new development, engaging the public early on in the process… which they did.  No progress to report, yet.  But this time I’m confident it will be an open decision-making process.  Grade: A

Another oldie but goodie, my annual prediction that CDOT would finally take over control and operation of all rail station parking, standardizing rates and waiting lists.  This one I got wrong.  Grade:  F

I was 100% accurate in predicting the retirement of the 747 from US skies… and a slowdown in orders for the mega-jumbo A-380… all because of fuel inefficiencies.  But ironically, there is renewed interest in supersonic transports, with a US company looking for orders in 2018.  Grade:  A

This was a no-brainer.  More traffic, increased congestion and no activity on Governor Malloy’s plans to widen the highway.  We are still waiting for results of the $2 million consultant’s study of that plan (previously studied and rejected in 2004). But whatever they suggest this time, it’s moot because we have no money.  This one was too easy to call, so I’ll only give myself a B+.

I accurately predicted that Gov Malloy’s 30 year, $100 billion transportation wish-list (not a plan) would remain stuck, “just like his political career”.  Though it wasn’t until April 2017 that Malloy declared himself a lame duck, it seemed clear to many he wouldn’t run again, given his unpopularity and the state’s failing economy.  What we didn’t see was the legislature would ignore warnings about the draining of the Special Transportation Fund, all but dooming Malloy’s transportation vision, not to mention snow plowing, road repairs, additional M8 rail cars, etc.  Grade:  A-

Sure enough, this issue was what I’d feared: “a wild card, just like Trump himself”.  All of us who take the roads and rails were hopeful that “Donald the Builder” would find the $1 trillion he promised to spend on infrastructure.  But given the recent battle on tax reform, generating about that same amount in a looming deficit, infrastructure spending dreams seem on life support.  Again, that wasn’t the gutsiest of calls, so I’ll just give myself a B

Final average grade:  B+

Next week I’ll share my predictions for transportation in 2018.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 15, 2017

"Getting There" - How will the Real ID Act affect you?

Something like 1.73 million Americans board airplanes ever day.  And each of them must go through a very necessary screening by the TSA, the Transportation Security Agency.  But beginning in late January 2018, a lot of passengers will be denied boarding because they don’t have the right kind of ID.

You can thank (or blame) the Real ID Act passed by Congress in 2005 after 9/11 to make sure people really are who they claim to be.  As any teen can tell you, it’s too easy to obtain a fake ID.  And if teens can do it, terrorists can also.

Because most people rely on their state driver’s license as ID, it’s been up to the states to gain compliance with the Federal rules.  A lot of those states are not in compliance, but Connecticut has passed the test, sort of.

If you’ve recently renewed your Connecticut license you know you were given an option:  get a “regular” license or a “verified” ID.  To get a verified license you needed to bring extra proof to the DMV:  a US passport, birth certificate, original Social Security card, etc.

Look at your CT license and you’ll easily see the difference.  If yours has a gold star in the upper right corner, you’re verified.  No gold star, NOT verified… meaning that as of 2020 your license will NOT be enough ID to get you on an airplane. That license clearly says “Not for Federal Identification”.  But for now, any CT driver’s license will get you past TSA.

Sure, you can always use your US Passport as ID.  It’s the gold standard and requires all kinds of identity proof to be issued. But if you don’t have a passport and don’t have a gold star on your CT driver’s license, starting in 2020 you’ll have to start thinking about taking Amtrak or driving.

Only about 40% of all Americans have a passport.  Compare that to countries like Canada (60%) or the UK (70%).  Considering the fact that millions of Americans have never even been out of the country, why would they need one? (PS:  Isn’t it amazing how those same people always say the USA is #1 having no point of comparison?)

Leaving aside the paranoids who think that having a passport is an invasion of privacy because they are now embedded with RFID chips containing who-knows-what kind of information about you, we should all have a passport. And getting one is pretty easy.

There are more than 8000 Passport Offices in the US, most of them US Post Offices or libraries which will process applications certain days each month.  But the main Passport Office for our state is in Stamford.  You can also file your application by mail, but only for renewals.  First time applicants must appear in person with all their documentation.

Mind you, US Passports are not cheap:  $110 for first time applicants, plus $25 application fee.  Renewals are also $110 and “expedited” passports are an extra $60.

Turn-around time on your application can be anywhere from two to six weeks.  There are also private services that claim to be able to get you a new passport in one day, but they’ll cost you.

So the bad news is:  if you don’t have a passport already, may need one eventually.  The good news is, December is a great time to apply as it’s the Passport Office’s “slow season”, compared to the summer travel rush.   Happy traveling!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 08, 2017

"Getting There" - Feeling Sorry for Dan Malloy

Six words I never thought I’d write:  “I feel sorry for Dannel Malloy”.

Sure, we’ve had our differences. And yeah, the Governor does have the personality of a porcupine and the disposition of a bully, sometimes.  But the man is not evil and he doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him now.  Nor do we.

Our Governor is a lame duck.  Because he’s announced he’s not running for re-election, he has the political clout of a used teabag.  And even though he’s our state’s leader for another eleven months, nobody cares about him or his ideas any longer.

Legislative leaders declared him “irrelevant” during the budget negotiations, ignoring his ideas and then handing him a billion dollar problem.  Sure, they met for weeks and hammered out a compromise budget, but it wasn’t balanced unless the Governor specified over $1 billion in cuts.

Lawmakers didn’t have the guts to order the cuts themselves. They made Malloy do it so he would take the blame, not them.  So when the Governor cut municipal aid, social serves and education, our lawmakers feigned shock and anger.

More importantly, whatever happened to the Governor’s (and our) transportation dreams?  What became of “Let’s Go CT”, his 30-year, $100 billion “plan” to rebuild our roads and rails?  It’s pretty derailed, like his political clout.

Sure, legislators scraped together a few million to “ramp up” the grand plan.  And about $5 million to do more studies on widening I-95 and improving rail service.  But our state’s Special Transportation Fund (STF) is going to run out of money within a year or so if we don’t find new funding sources.  No money in the STF means no new projects, no road repairs and, probably, cuts in mass transit.

None of the new funding ideas for transportation are popular, which is why lawmakers (facing re-election) couldn’t pull the trigger on tolls or taxes, knowing there would be no appetite for any added costs to transportation among skeptical voters… unless there was a “lock box”.

Even then-candidate Malloy broke his own promise to not use the STF like a petty cash box to balance the budget.  Which is why he pushed hard to safeguard those funds from future Governors:  with a lock box we would know that our tolls and taxes could only be spent on transportation.

Tolls could bring in $62 billion over 25 years, 20-30% of that revenue coming from out of state residents.  Imagine what that money would do for our roads and mass transit.

Yes, lawmakers did vote to move the lock box idea to a 2018 referendum.  But the Democrats’ lock box is no more than a sieve to Republicans who think it can be “picked with a bobby pin”.

Without a lock box, nobody will support new revenue.  And without money, the STF will be bone dry in a few years and Malloy’s transportation dreams will be dead.

Somewhere in Hartford, maybe at the State Library, I imagine there’s a special room where plans like “Let’s Go CT” go to die.  I envision that room as stacked ceiling to floor with scores of multi-million dollar consultant studies on how to fix our transportation crisis.   A few have been read.  Fewer still acted upon.  Almost none have been funded.

So yes, I feel sorry for Dannel Malloy.  But mostly I feel sorry for us.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 02, 2017

"Getting There" Seniors and Transportation

None of us is getting any younger.  Which is why we should all start thinking now about the challenges that seniors face when it comes to “getting there”.

That’s one of the top priorities of the SWCAA, the Southwest Connecticut Agency on Aging.  Because, to maintain an independent life, seniors need to be able to get from their homes to doctors appointments, social engagements and even volunteer work. And their care-givers need to be able to get to their clients’ homes.

In the SWCAA region (Greenwich to Stratford) 20% of all residents are over age 60.  By 2020 that proportion will be 25%.  And with aging come issues of vision and cognition, especially behind the wheel.

Giving up your private car is a much-feared rite of passage for seniors, usually prompted by coaxing from their kids who start noticing dented fenders.  The DMV has no mandatory retirement age for driving, though if you accumulate enough points on your license you may need re-testing.

That’s not to say there aren’t folks over the age of 90 who are still good drivers.  But seniors are also smart enough to avoid driving on the interstates and the parkways and they don’t like driving at night.

With both parents often holding down daytime jobs, it’s often the senior who’s tasked with picking up grandchildren after school in addition to tending to their own numerous medical appointments.

But what happens when seniors lose their cars and the sense of independence they provides?  They become isolated, sometimes going days without social interaction, provoking depression and even accelerating dementia.

That’s why SWCAA is doing a regional assessment of all our towns and cities to see what alternatives might be available.  Clearly in big cities like Stamford and Bridgeport there’s mass transit.  But in rural towns like Monroe and Weston, there’s none.

Most communities do have some sort of ADA transportation, but that’s only if you can prove you’re disabled.  While mandated by the Federal government, such senior shuttles only guarantee a 30 minute window when it comes to pick-ups, often leaving clients anxiously waiting outside in the cold, worrying if they’ve missed their ride.

Even in communities with bus service, seniors may not be big fans if they have to walk long distances to the bus stop… or cope with long walks home carrying groceries.

Sometimes church groups will organize driver-volunteers while in more affluent towns there are non-profits that specialize in assisting their residents aging issues, including transportation.

Another attractive alternative are services like Uber and Lyft which whisk you door to door, on demand.  But even these services have problems:  they’re not affordable if you’re poor and not accessible if you don’t know how to run a smartphone app.

SWCAA is hoping that a special “senior version” of Lyft and Uber can be developed where seniors can call a dispatcher to book a ride and handle payments.  That way the seniors have someone they can talk to, someone who can also follow-up and make sure they got to their destination safely.  That “human touch” means a lot.

Self-driving cars may soon be on our streets, but we’ll see if seniors feel comfortable with that tech, too.

Whatever the alternative, transportation is essential to keeping our seniors active and engaged.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - The New Canaan Club Car

We all dream about traveling first class.  Big comfy seats, real food and free drinks.  This is the only way to fly.

But did you know that there used to be a handful of private, first-class “club cars” on the New Haven Railroad’s commuter trains?  Among the most legendary was one that ran from New Canaan from 1908 to 1976, car # 5113.

Fortunately, the New Canaan Historical Society has preserved all of the original paperwork for private club known as “The New Canaan Car” (NCC).  And the story is fascinating.

The plush custom-built car carried about 60 passengers, half the load of a regular coach.  The car had its own buffet from which an attendant, Willie Spaulding (who worked for 26 
Attendant Willie Spauling at Christmas
years), dispensed continental breakfast in the morning and poured adult beverages in the evening.

Pulled on train #331 in the morning, the private car left New Canaan at 7:43 am, arriving at Grand Central by 8:48.  The return run on train #332 left at 5:09 pm and was back in New Canaan by 6:15.

Membership was not cheap.  In 1966 initiation fees were $200 and the monthly surcharge was $100, not including the price of the ticket.  By 1974 the NCC was paying Penn Central $69,300 a year to haul its private car.

Over the years I had heard rumors about this railroad “unicorn”… often reported but seldom seen.  And one of the rumors was that this gentlemen’s club did not allow women members.  Not so from reading their By Laws.  But neither did their membership directory ever show a female’s name as far as I could find.

Members were allowed to bring guests (even women!) with permission of all other 
Interior of The New Canaan Car
members.  And the NCC was famous for its birthday parties and holiday fests.  One set of minutes went into great detail about the BYO liquor cabinet which used to operate on the honor system but which by 1968 needed a lock and key.

Memberships in the NCC were handed down from father to son but there was no apparent waiting list.  In 1972 the Membership Committee was asking members to help identify “goodly and likely candidates” to replace retirees.

After the bankruptcy of the New Haven RR, Penn Central took over and the railroad raised its hauling fees.  Even though many of the NCC’s members were CEO’s of companies doing a lot of freight business with Penn Central, the railroad didn’t care.  It was broke.

The arrival of Metro-North saw the railroad convert from old, heavyweight cars pulled by locomotives to the all-electric M2’s, and this marked the end of the line for the NCC.
In 1976 Metro-North parent MTA said it was willing to rebuild a Bar Car just for the NCC; but at a cost of $70,000, that seemed too rich even for the New Canaan crowd.  Worse yet, then-Governor Ella Grasso said the state should not subsidize millionaire commuters in private cars.

The last run of the NCC’s private car was April 1st 1976.  When the train arrived in New Canaan at 6:15 pm, the party continued ‘til 8.  The next day members stripped the car of all its furnishing (which were owned by the club), including 64 chairs, six bridge tables and three smoke stands (ashtrays) which went into storage.  By 1979, the furniture storage fees had drained the NCC’s treasury and after 71 years, the club was dissolved… a sad end to such an illustrious history.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

November 20, 2017

"Getting There" - Updates on past columns

This week, a few updates on some recent “Getting There” columns:

HYPERLOOP:         In July I wrote about tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s idea to build a 700+ mph tube system to whisk passengers from Washington DC to NYC in 29 minutes.  Using a combination of a near-vacuum and linear induction motors, I noted that Musk has yet to build a working full-scale prototype, and called him “the PT Barnum of technology” offering “more hype than hope”.

At the time, Musk had just gone public after a meeting at the White House saying he’d been given “approval” to start boring giant tunnels for his project.  I scoffed at the notion, but have been proven wrong.

Sure enough, a faithful reader of this column told me that several weeks ago Maryland’s Governor has given Musk permission to start digging 10 miles of tunnels under the Baltimore – Washington Parkway to eventually link the two cities.  Boring will cost up to $1 billion a mile.  So, though I remain skeptical of Hyperloop’s future, I stand corrected.

MYTH OF THE THIRD RAIL:                 In October I wrote about our state’s complex electric system to power Metro-North… how in Connecticut those trains rely on overhead catenary to get power, but in Westchester County and into Grand Central, the trains convert to third rail for their power.

Given the perennial problems with the overhead wires, both old and new, I explained why converting to a third rail system in Connecticut didn’t make sense:  the trains would accelerate slower, we would still need catenary for Amtrak, etc.

What I did not know was that third rail power had been outlawed by the Connecticut State Supreme Court back in 1906 after a center-track third rail power system installed near Hartford by the New Haven RR resulted in several electrocutions.

Clearly, the current third-rail power system in use today is much safer than the one experimented with a century ago, but in this “land of steady habits” overturning that ban might be a challenge.

HIGH SPEED RAIL:          This summer the FRA and Amtrak released plans for a new high-speed rail (HSR) corridor through our state.  The very fuzzy drawings we had at the time showed new tracks running somewhere near I-95, not the current Metro-North tracks.

Now we have more detailed maps and, as feared, the mostly-elevated HSR system will fly over the interstate, smoothing out the curves to allow 200+ mph speeds.  But don’t get too enthused (or exasperated, depending on where you live): nobody likes the plan… our Congressional delegation, the CDOT and even local officials, all of whom must approve and fund the idea. And, oh yeah, we don’t have the money.

THE BILLION DOLLAR BRIDGE:          Preliminary work to replace the 121 year-old Walk Bridge in South Norwalk continues apace, even as local elections have turned the project into a political hot-potato.  Some oppose the cost and disruption of replacing the swing bridge with a two-section lift bridge while others, more nostalgic, want the new bridge to resemble the old.  Those proposing a fixed bridge, effectively closing the Norwalk river to commercial boat traffic, are keeping their hopes alive even though CDOT has rejected that idea.

Rumors that construction of the new bridge might require demolition of the Norwalk Aquarium’s Imax theater seem to have been confirmed.  But the real heavy construction won’t begin until 2019, so there’s plenty of time to catch a movie.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 13, 2017

"Getting There" - Repaving Our Roads Is Costly

Tired of driving on potholed roads?  Who isn’t?  We may not (yet) have tolls, but the terrible condition of our highways takes its toll on our vehicles with bent rims, alignments and other repairs.

There are more than 10,000 lane-miles of state highways in Connecticut, of which only 300 are repaved each year.  But that work involves more than just slapping a new layer of asphalt on those roads.

Repaving costs anywhere from $305,000 per mile and is funded with 20 year bonds.

PLANNING:            Years of planning go into repaving projects, making sure that all necessary utility work, drainage projects and water mains are finished before the CDOT comes in. Catch basins must be realigned, curbs replaced and sometimes even the guard rails raised before any work can be done.   Nothing pains the state more than to see a newly repaved road get dug up, creating cracks that can lead to potholes.

CDOT issues contracts for all repaving projects rather than using their own crews and those contractors must be sensitive to abutting neighbors, including businesses, which don’t want to be interfered with during construction.

As a result, most work is done at night with contractual obligations to return the road to use by the morning rush hour.  CDOT inspectors monitor every step of the project.

MILLING:     The repaving work begins by “milling” the old asphalt off the roadway, removing anywhere from the top inch to as much as six inches.  Some highways have up to 15 inches of old asphalt! 

The old asphalt is recycled and about 10% of it is re-used after necessary refining. 

Ideally, milling is quickly followed by the repaving, often in a day or so.  But as with the recent Route 1 repaving in project in Darien and Stamford, the contractor’s other obligations can leave the highway milled but unpaved for days or weeks.

REPAVING:            Laying down the new layer of asphalt can progress quickly if the road isn’t heavily traveled at night.  The fresh layer of new (and recycle asphalt) is usually two to three inches thick.

STRIPING:              CDOT always works with the local communities on how to designate the new traffic lanes with striping, coordinating with each town or city’s Local Traffic Authority.

Some towns want narrower lanes and wider shoulders, either for bicyclists or pedestrians.  But because these are state highways, CDOT always has the final say. 

A subsidiary of CDOT, the Office of the State Traffic Administration sets the speeds limits, sometimes higher than the local authorities might like.  CDOT says it’s looking for consistency in state roads going through towns, so a two-lane highway with a speed of 40 mph doesn’t go to a one-lane highway at 25 mph and back to two lanes as it crosses the town line.

The latest technology used in striping is a recessed epoxy compound, where the new pavement is carved out to about the depth of a penny before painting. This increases the striping’s lifespan after tough winters of plowing and sanding.
After the work is done, inspected and approved, the new paving can last anywhere from eight to 15 years, depending on traffic.  So, happy motoring!

SIDEBAR:  Annual repaving miles & cost

2017: 259 miles; $69 million
2016: 302 miles; $72.9 million
2015: 330 miles, $74.6 million
2014: 305 miles, $68.9 million
2013: 242 miles, $57 million
2012: 223 miles, $57 million
2011: 271 miles, $50 million
2010: 241 miles, $50 million
2009: 216 miles, $49 million
2008: 265 miles, $54 million
2007: 165 miles, $48 million
2006: 191 miles, $42 million
2005: 253 miles, $49 million


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 06, 2017

"Getting There" - CT's Budget Crisis & Transportation

“Why don’t they build a monorail down the middle of I-95?”

So began the latest in a series of well-intentioned emails I regularly receive from readers, anxious to offer what seem like smart solutions to our transportation crisis in Connecticut.
Why no monorail?  Because we don’t have the money.

So let me ask — and answer — a few questions:

Why do we issue 20-year bonds to pay for highway repaving that, at best, will last 15 years?
Why does 40 percent of the state’s Department of Transportation’s annual budget pay for debt service on old bonds instead of buying new trains?  Because we don’t have the money.

In China, they spend 10 percent of their GDP on infrastructure. In the U.S., it’s more like 2 percent. Why the under-investment?  Because we are paying so much to play catchup on the lack of savings in previous decades for things like pensions for state worker and teachers.

In other words, we don’t have money for new trains — let alone a monorail — because we’re stuck paying the bills passed down to us that our parents didn’t pay. But nobody in Hartford has the guts to tell you that truth.

But objective experts who follow the budget process for a living have some ominous warnings:
  • The state has authorized $3 billion in transportation bonds we can’t even issue because we don’t have the money to pay for them.
  • We are in so much debt that some towns have been forced to issue bonds (IOUs) to pay for snow removal.
  • The state has issued bonds to make payments on other bonds — like taking out a second mortgage to pay your first.
  • Connecticut’s debt now adds up to $14,800 for every man, woman and child in the state. That compares to a national average of $4,300 in other states.
  • We have a $6 billion “balloon payment” upcoming on the underfunded teachers’ pension, and we don’t have the money. Yet, pandering politicians now give teacher retirees a 25 percent state income tax exemption on their pensions — soon to rise to 50 percent. Why? The average teacher pension in Connecticut is $59,700.
  • Pensions and medical care for teachers and state employees plus debt service will soon be 60 percent of the state’s budget.
  • Experts say it will soon be legally and mathematically impossible NOT to raise taxes in Connecticut. The latest deal with state workers promises no layoffs for four years and declaring bankruptcy is not legally possible.

So you wonder why our roads are potholed, our rails so rickety and our airports so poorly ranked? It’s because we don’t have the money.

The economic piggy bank known as Fairfield County still provides 40 percent of all the income taxes in this state, but it’s no longer growing by double-digits like previous years. A handful of billionaires in Greenwich and New Canaan could throw us into chaos if they all decided to pull up stakes and move elsewhere. And if train service on Metro-North gets much worse, they’ll have even more incentive to leave.

Yet, our elected officials in Hartford continue to lie to us about what’s coming, more concerned with their re-election by not being seen as raising taxes than telling us that Armageddon is just around the corner.

So expect our transportation infrastructure to get much worse before it gets any better. And no, we will not be building a monorail.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media