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July 15, 2018

"Getting There" - Metro-North's Quiet Car Debacle

Train time is your own time” was the old marketing slogan of Metro-North, encouraging commuters to kick back and enjoy the ride while reading, working or taking a snooze.

But in reality, train time is shared time.  They don’t call it “mass transit” for nothing as passengers much share their space with a hundred other commuters on each railcar.  

Assuming you get a seat, this means you’re squeezed in next to one or two fellow riders.
Usually commuters are respectful of each other and don’t blare their radios or carry on loud conversations, with each other or on cell-phones.  Or so we’d hope.

It was almost 20 years ago that Amtrak first introduced the concept of The Quiet Car, following suggestions of daily commuters riding to DC.  It was such a success that quiet cars were soon added to other Northeast Corridor trains and Acela.

The concept was simple, as conductors reminded passengers on every trip:  maintain a “library like atmosphere”.  That meant no cell phone calls and only quiet, subdued conversation.  You want to yuck it up over a beer, go to the CafĂ© Car.  Got an important phone call… sit in any other coach.

Other commuter railroads picked up Amtrak’s cue… but not Metro-North. While serving on the CT Metro-North Commuter Council I regularly beseeched the railroad to give us a break and dedicate just one car to peace and quiet, convinced it would attract riders.  Finally in 2011, the railroad took the hint and launched such a car, branded as a “Quiet CALMmute”.
Victory for the sonically overloaded?  Not by a long shot.  This is Metro-North and if anyone can screw up a good idea, they can.

First, they offered the worst car location on the train to their CALMmute:  the last car in-bound and the first car out-bound from GCT.  And there were no signs indicating which car was “quiet”.  Worst of all, conductors all but refused to enforce the quiet rules, leading to altercations between passengers.

Conductors have no trouble enforcing other rules:  luggage on the overhead racks, no feet on the seats, no smoking etc.  But asking people to keep down the chatter was apparently too much.  All they would do, at first, was hand “Shhh cards” to offenders.

In 2016 the quiet car program was expanded to two cars per train, peak and off-peak.  But, still no signage (until just recently) and no enforcement.

Now, a major change.  The railroad announced that effective immediately there would be only one quiet car per off-peak train.  And the PR team at MNRR spun the story so well that some local media made it sound like the program was being expanded, not cut in half.  Brilliant.

There was no explanation for the cut in quiet cars though one official told me we have had no reports of quiet car demand exceeding availability in the off-peak”.  In other words, people who ride off-peak just prefer to yap.

That’s an amazing PR “spin” on what is really an admission of failure.  Metro-North never wanted quiet cars and clearly didn’t want to enforce the rules.  The people have literally “spoken” and the Quiet CALMmute won’t be as accessible anymore.

This is what happens when you have a monopoly, answerable to nobody, especially its customers.  I’d raise my voice in protest but… I’m in the quiet car.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


July 09, 2018

"Getting There" - The Automotive - Construction Complex

How did Americans develop their love affair with driving?

Visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington and the transportation exhibit “America on the Move” will sell you on the commonly held theory that when Henry Ford made cars affordable, Americans loved them and demanded more and more highways.

Of course, that exhibit is sponsored by General Motors, which donated millions to put its name on the collection.

But University of Virginia history Professor Peter Norton, author of “Fighting Traffic:  The Dawn of the Motor Age in American cities” says that’s a myth.  Just as outgoing President Eisenhower warned us of the military industrial complex, Norton says an automotive – construction complex took over our country, paving from coast to coast. 

Sure, Americans like their cars.  But it was a conspiracy of economic interests that turned us into a car culture.  Where cities once enjoyed a network of cheap, fast streetcars, GM, Firestone and the oil companies bought and wiped them out, replacing them with buses and cars.

“This country destroyed and rebuilt its cities in the 20th century to serve automobiles,” says Norton.  And those same interest groups are alive and well today in Connecticut.

Groups like “Move CT Forward” aren’t pro-transportation as much as they are pro jobs… their jobs, in construction.  And they’ve spent a lot of money lobbying in Hartford to keep their members, the unions and contractors, busy.   While I’m happy they’re promoting transportation, their motives are hardly altruistic.

This is nothing new, says Norton.  The original interstate highways built in the 1950’s used Portland Cement because that company lobbied so hard for its product over cheaper asphalt.  And now that rusting rebar and crumbling cement is costing us a fortune.

Another myth from that era was that President Eisenhower built the interstates to move troops quickly for national defense.  That may have been the pitch to Congress, but the real reason for the highways was to evacuate civilians from the big cities in the event of nuclear war.  Lucky we never had to test that idea.

Last August when hurricane Harvey hit Houston… the most urbanized highway city in the country… authorities didn’t even try to evacuate people because they knew more would die on congested roads than in the storm.

Who pays for all this road building?  You do, in the form of income taxes and, yes, gasoline taxes.  But Norton says gas taxes are hardly a fair way to pay for all this.

Why does the motorist driving on a dirt road pay the same gas tax as one driving I-95?  The costs they place on road maintenance, the environment and our stress levels are grossly different, so why isn’t the cost?

“It would be like having Best Buy selling everything by the pound.  People would flock to the electronics (our crowded interstates) instead of the towels,” he notes (though I’m not sure Best Buy even sells towels, but I take his point).

He reminds us that before the interstates, the nation’s first “super highways” like the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the New Jersey Turnpike were built not as freeways but toll roads, and they still are today.

Driving may seem to be free, but it isn’t.  And until we ask drivers to pay for its real cost there is no incentive to do anything but drive (and pave) more.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

June 25, 2018

"Getting There" - Welcome to Connecticut

First impressions count.  Arrive at any airport or train station, and you immediately start forming opinions of your destination.  Is it clean and modern, warm and welcoming?  How does the place make me feel?  Are the locals proud of themselves?

Well, the same “first impressions” rule is true when you are driving.

“Welcome to New Jersey,” said the perky young lady behind the Tourism Desk at the first service area in New Jersey when we pulled off Interstate 80 recently driving from Pennsylvania. I was just looking for the rest room, but this gal made we feel welcome, offering me maps and brochures and ready to answer any questions I might have about the Garden State. 

I got the same vibe arriving in Maryland, driving south on I-95 where a big, mall-sized rest area in the median offered me about a dozen restaurant choices, relatively cheap gas and room to stretch my legs.  On the far side of the building there was parking for about fifty trucks and electric hook-ups so they didn’t need to idle their refrigerator units. 

In Virginia, the Tourist Center looked like a mini-Monticello and the helpful staffers were ready to answer all of our questions about our planned tour of Civil War battlefields.  These local guys were better than TripAdvisor and the AAA Guidebook.

Contrast that with the “first impression” we give tourists arriving on I-95 in Connecticut. 
On crossing the NY state line, they will immediately hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, for no apparent reason, no matter the time of day.  No accidents, just normal conditions on our major interstate.

The large electronic sign flashes “Delays:  Exit 2 -16, next 16 miles” as visitors inch along over the Mianus River Bridge, site of the 1983 collapse of a span that killed three.  But there’s no plaque or historical marker noting the tragedy.  In fact, the bridge has been renamed after State Senator Michael J Morano, as if a name change would erase what happened.

“Are we there yet?” the kids ask from the back seat.  “Not even close,” moans Dad, wondering if they’ll ever get to The Cape.  “I just hate this traffic,” he moans.  “But Dad, I gotta go,” says Junior.  “I’ve been ‘holding it’ ever since The Cross Bronx!”

Then, like a mirage on the horizon, Dad sees hope:  not a break in the endless traffic, but the state’s first Service Area in Darien.  “Hang on Junior, we’re stopping in just a minute.”
Not to buy gasoline, of course.  You never want to buy gasoline in Connecticut.  No, these folks are in the tourist equivalent of “fly-over” mode.  They’re just stopping to “rest” and maybe pick up a map and a snack.


Arriving at the shiny new Service Area, complete with solar collectors and a Tesla charging station, they are met with such culinary options as “It’s Sugar”, “Chipotle” (hold the e coli, please) and the recently closed “Cheese Boy”.  Yummy.

But inside there is no perky tourism guide, just a few brochures strewn about. No, we don’t have the funding to guide the tourists.   Imagine the business the state’s $8 billion tourism industry loses because we can’t staff a simple information desk at a Service Area where thousand stop each day.

First impressions do count.  And the first impressions we give visitors to our state aren’t really positive, are they?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 11, 2018

"Getting There" - Amtrak vs the Freight Railroads


We are all familiar with Amtrak’s local operations in the Northeast… the sleek Acela zooming along to Boston at up to 145 mph and the slower “traditional” trains making the local stops along the CT coast.

But Amtrak is a national railroad and its long distance trains to points west face some challenges our speedy service in the east does not:  delays that can run into many hours, not just a few minutes.

The problem is that Amtrak owns and operates the trains, but not the tracks they ride on.
From Washington to Boston, the Northeast Corridor is all owned, maintained, dispatched and operated by Amtrak.  The one small exception is here in Connecticut, from Greenwich to New Haven, where the track is owned by the state but run, under contract, by Metro-North.

But in the rest of the country, Amtrak operates on what it euphemistically calls “host railroads”, all of them freight operators.  Think Norfolk Southern, CSX, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (owned by Warren Buffet) and the Canadian railroads, CN and CP.  Those railroads charge Amtrak for riding over its tracks and don’t always give the passenger trains priority over their more profitable freight traffic.

In 1979 Amtrak was ready to take Southern Pacific to court with evidence that The Sunset Limited running between Houston and New Orleans was regularly “sidetracked” in favor of freight runs.  Though there was no trial, the courts ordered SP to give Amtrak trains first dibs to improve on-time performance.

The railroads said “no way”, arguing that federal agencies had no right to tell them how to run their railroads.  And the freight operators won, twice, with courts slapping the wrists of both the Federal Railroad Authority and the Surface Transportation Board.

Environmental and advocacy groups appealed to the US Supreme Court, arguing that it was in the national interest to have an efficient, reliable, on-time national passenger railroad.  But the high court declined to hear the case.

Today Amtrak uses both a carrot and a stick to deal with its freight railroad “hosts”, offering financial incentives to keep its trains on time and public shaming if they don’t.  On the Amtrak website the best (Canadian Pacific) and worst (Norfolk Southern & Canadian National)  freight railroads are graded from A to F.

On long distance passenger runs, Amtrak trains like The Texas Eagle (Chicago to LA) now run up to five hours late, requiring Amtrak to bring in substitute buses and accommodate passengers who miss their connections.

Freight railroads say they have their own problems without being burdened by Amtrak.  In a booming economy, the freight operators can barely keep up with customer demand on a track network saturated with mile-long oil trains (“pipelines on wheels”) and double-stack container trains moving east from California.

But all of these Amtrak complaints may be moot as the days of long-distance trains seem numbered.  While fast trains like Acela can actually turn a small profit, multi-day “land cruises” on celebrated trains like the California Zephyr and The Empire Builder just hemorrhage money.  Their days are limited, so ride them while you can.

We’ll always have Acela, but the glory days of long-distance rail travel in the US are nearing an end, probably to the delight of the freight operators.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 03, 2018

"Getting There" - Collecting Fares on The Honor System


In mass transit there is no “free ride”.  But there are various ways of making sure everyone pays their fair share.

Take, for example, Connecticut’s innovative bus rapid-transit system CTfastrak which runs between New Britain, Hartford and Storrs.  Unlike with most buses, CTfastrak passengers pay before getting onboard, purchasing tickets ($1.75 for 2 hours’ use) at the bus stations or online.  This reduces the bus’s “dwell time” at each stop as passengers can board through any door. A similar system is running in NYC on certain “Select Bus” routes and seems popular.

But without paying a fare to the bus driver as you board, how do they know you have a ticket?  Ah, there’s the rub.  The “honor system” relies on “Fare Inspectors” making random checks.  Getting caught without a valid ticket means a $75 fine.

Though widely used in Europe, only a handful of US transit systems have adopted the honor system for fare collection, including the San Diego Trolley and the MUNI light-rail in San Francisco.  In Minneapolis getting caught on a bus without a ticket is a $180 lesson in “doing the right thing”.

In Los Angeles the Metro had so many problems with free-loaders they finally converted to turnstiles.  Even a $250 ticket for fare evaders didn’t encourage payment, resulting in a $9 million loss in ticket sales. And the fare there is only $1.75.

On Metro-North fare evasion doesn’t seem to be a problem.  If you don’t have a ticket they’ll just throw you off the train (at the next station, of course).  Or get an MTA cop to issue a fine. 

Until a few years ago you could buy a ticket on the train for the same fare as on the platform.  That meant wasted time for conductors selling tickets and making change and a “money room” at Grand Central processing a million dollars in cash each week.  Now if you don’t have a ticket and buy one on the train, there’s a $5.75 - $6.50 “Service Charge”… even on a $2 ticket.  Senior citizens get a break as do those boarding at stations that don’t have ticket machines.

The good news is that on-board purchases can now be made by credit card.

The bigger problem on Metro-North is uncollected fares. The railroad admits it loses money by not collecting all tickets… but loses less money than it would cost to properly staff trains with enough conductors to collect them all.

Most infuriating is when trains from Grand Central then depart Stamford.  Everyone can see that dozens of commuters got off there and scores more got on.  But the new arrivals’ tickets are often uncollected unless conductors have issued seat checks to the original NY passengers.

More often, the conductors just walk through the cars asking for “Stamford tickets”.  The scofflaws avoid eye-contact, are seldom challenged, and ride on for free.

Watching someone traveling from Stamford to, say, Bridgeport get a “free ride” is like watching someone shoplift in a store.  You just know you’ll be paying more to subsidize their larceny, with neglectful conductors as their willing accomplices.

Is it so much to ask that all passengers pay for their ride?  Those of us who do, don’t think so.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

May 28, 2018

"Getting There" - Connecticut - Love It Or Leave It

The recent debate over tolling our highways should remind us of just how divided our state has become.  Not red vs. blue and not even just upstate vs. downstate.  The real divide is between those who commute by car vs. those who take mass transit.

I’ve written for years about the fact that riders on Metro-North pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US, and those fares will only keep going up.  Most rail riders have little choice, especially if headed to New York City.  What are they going to do… drive?

Yet every time the fares go up… and they have increased 55% since 2002… ridership goes up as well.  Why?  Because conditions on the highways keep getting worse and worse.

But those who chose to drive, or must because there’s no viable mass transit option, seem to literally hate rail commuters.  I think its jealousy.  During the tolls debate, the venom was dripping and one Tweet in particular hit home.

“Just because your commute (by train) is so expensive doesn’t mean mine (by car) should be too (because of tolling),” read the post.

The driver had clearly missed the point.  We aren’t looking for tolls to subsidize rail fares, just to get motorists to pay for the upkeep of their roads and bridges before we have another Mianus River Bridge collapse, which we will.

But it gets worse.

The anti-toll forces now sound like Howard Beale, the deranged newsman from the movie “Network” who was “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”   Doubtless, much of this is directed at Governor Malloy who enjoys (suffers from?) the lowest popularity rating in the history of polling.  Sure, the economy of our state is in bad shape.   But Malloy didn’t create this economic mess.  He just inherited it and mishandled it.   

And it will get far worse, whoever succeeds Malloy in the fall.  The solutions will be few and all will be painful.  Forestalling tolls and gasoline taxes today won’t stop the bridges from rotting.

But this opposition to tolls or modest gasoline tax increases to pay for roads has now been taken to a maniacal pitch predicting that “everyone is leaving the state”, conditions are so bad.   That’s fine with me.

I was recently at our town dump and saw a young man unloading a bunch of items.  “My parents are moving,” he told me.  “Everyone is leaving Connecticut!” he exclaimed.  

“Really?”, I asked.

“It’s all Malloy’s fault,” he said, sounding like a Pied Piper leading a caravan down I-95 to some promised land.

I asked him one question:  “Did your parents sell their house?”   “Sure,” he said.  “And at a profit over what they paid for it.”

“Well,” I said, “I guess not everyone is leaving.  Your folks are moving out and someone else is moving in.”  Someone who wants to live here.

To those who hate it so much living in Connecticut, I extend an invitation:  please leave.  Enjoy your low-tax destination.  And don’t forget to pay those highway tolls as you drive down I-95 through NY, NJ etc.

But enough already with the “I hate Connecticut” mantra.  Some of us actually like living here.  And losing ‘the haters” will only mean fewer cars on our roadways.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

May 05, 2018

"Getting There" - Transportation Cuts Will Hurt Us All


For weeks I’ve been writing about the CDOT’s impending bus and rail service cuts and fare hikes and their profound impact on commuters, local businesses and real estate values.  But with just weeks to go, the folks who can prevent this pain… our legislature… seem to be doing nothing.

 The deadline is July 1st this year when proposed CDOT cuts will go into effect:   A 10% fare hike on Metro-North will be matched with elimination of off-peak trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines as well as Shore Line East.

How are local officials responding?  By complaining that the proposed cuts on them aren’t fair.  “Don’t cut my mass transit, cut someone else’s!”, seems the plaintiff cry.  “Why is my bus service being cut but Hartford and Stamford’s isn’t?,” one official asked me.

I told him he was asking the wrong question.  Instead he should be asking why any bus or train service was being cut.

It’s as if a crowd was trapped in a burning building with one narrow fire escape and everyone’s screaming “I deserve to survive. Let the others get burned” while nobody is working to douse the flames.

The answer isn’t to push away the pain onto others but to turn off the pain at its source.
 Legislators can easily stop CDOT’s plans by just raising the gasoline tax four cents a gallon and diverting the car sales tax into the Special Transportation Fund.  Instead, they’re blaming everyone but themselves for the mess they got us into.

Remember:  it was the legislature that pandered to voters by lowering the gasoline tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997, a move that cost the STF $3.4 billion in lost transportation spending that could have repaired roads and fixed bridges.

Now the Republicans are so focused on the fall campaign they’re deceiving voters in a “big lie” PR move only Sean Spicer could enjoy: trying to argue that proposed highway tolls are “taxes”.  

They are not.  Tolls would be a user fee, paid only by those who drive on those roads.  Train fares aren’t taxes, are they?  You only pay those fares if you take the train.

Do Republicans really think voters are that stupid?  Apparently so.

The pols are also piling on the CDOT for being late in opening the new Hartford Line, the commuter rail line between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.  Our legislature can’t even deliver a budget on time, let alone understand the complexity of a $769 million railroad construction project that’s taken over a decade.

It’s not by chance the Republicans are known as the “party of no”.  For all their complaining they have offered no new ideas or embraced the ones that thoughtful observers think are obvious:  asking motorists to pay their fair share with gasoline taxes and tolls.

Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US, fares that have risen 53% since the year 2000…  while motorists haven’t seen a gas tax increase in 20 years. How is that fair?

If the July 1st service cuts and fare hikes go into effect, commuters should know it’s their legislature that’s to blame.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 28, 2018

"Getting There" - The Hartford Line

There’s finally some good news on transportation:  a new commuter rail line, The Hartford Line, is set to open this spring.

Decades in the dreaming and years in the planning, the state-owned commuter line will run 17 trains a weekday between New Haven and Hartford, stopping at State St (New Haven), Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin and Union Station in downtown Hartford.  Twelve trains on weekdays will continue north, stopping at Windsor and Windsor Locks before ending their run in Springfield.

Parking will be free at Berlin, Wallingford and Meriden, at least until the fall.  When service expands there will be a train every 30 minutes in peak hours and every 60 minutes off-peak.  In some parts of the 62-mile run the trains will hit speeds of 110 mph, compared to the 79 mph max currently on Amtrak.

Some of the runs will use Amtrak equipment, but all trains will honor new, lower CT Rail fares.  While Amtrak currently charges as much as $47 one way from New Haven to Springfield, all trains on The Hartford Line will sell tickets for just $12.75 for the same trip.  And New Haven to Hartford will be just $8.

There will be the usual discounts for seniors, 10 trip and monthly commuters.

Those fares, coupled with free parking and a massive marketing campaign, should lure road-weary commuters off of I-91 and onto the rails.  At least that’s the hope, and there’s a lot of money riding on this plan.

Connecticut got lucky in 2011 when Florida Governor Rick Scott turned down federal money for mass transit in his state and we quickly grabbed the funding.  Millions were spent double-tracking the line and building beautiful new stations, which are hoped to be the catalyst for TOD (transit oriented development) nearby.

Also new is the railroad’s operating agency.  CDOT by-passed Amtrak (which operates Shore Line East and still owns the tracks for The Hartford Line) and went with TransItAmerica Services and Alternate Concepts, a joint venture which won the 5 year, $45 million operations contract.

Insiders tell me they’ve got a waiting list of job applicants for conductors and engineers, most of them Amtrak and Metro-North veterans fed-up with their experiences there.  The new operators promise great customer service.  Compared to Amtrak and MNRR, there’s nowhere to go but up.

One big disappointment for all concerned is that the train service will start, not with shiny new rail cars, but hand-me-down rail cars from MBTA in Massachusetts.  The original plan was that MNRR’s electric-powered M8 cars would be running on Shore Line East by now, freeing up that line’s diesel push-pulled equipment to run on the Hartford Line.  But that hasn’t happened, so CDOT went scrambling looking for railcars, which are in short supply nationally.


What they got were 16 cars, each 30 years old, which have been rehabilitated and “deep cleaned” inside and out and given FRA’s stamp of approval to run.  They’ll be fine for now and eventually The Hartford Line will get its own new railcars.

Start date was supposed to be late May, but I’d prefer they wait ‘til everything is perfect rather than rush to open “on time” and disappoint riders in any way.  Right now it looks like opening-day will be in mid-June.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


April 24, 2018

"Getting There" - Second Guessing the CDOT

Years ago a US official touring China’s amazing new 225-mph high speed rail network commented: “It’s amazing what you can do in a country that only needs three people to make a decision”.  No public hearings, no environmental impact studies… no dissent.

In this country we have a different system.  Consider CDOT’s many multi-million dollar projects, their public process and, as a result, how slowly they progress.

The “billion dollar” Walk railroad bridge replacement in South Norwalk is a perfect example.

The CDOT deserves a lot of credit for their transparency on this project, including a  dozen or so open houses, information forums and public hearings they have held. They’ve even opened a walk-in information center nearby.  There are weekly updates and a robust website, in multiple languages, to keep Norwalkers updated on the nine-year project.  

Nobody can say the public isn’t involved.

The project has been brewing since 2015, but only now are the protests really ramping up in the form of a lawsuit.  At issue is whether replacement of the swing bridge is really necessary or whether a fixed (unmovable) bridge would suffice.

Plaintiffs say that a fixed-bridge wasn’t considered, but should have been, even if it meant getting the Norwalk River upstream officially closed by act of Congress after buying out the local marinas and oil terminals that might lose barge service as a result.

But the CDOT says that option was cost-analyzed and would only save 11% of the construction cost, while still disrupting the area and the demolition of the Aquarium’s IMAX theater.

I’m not a lawyer (or an engineer), so I can’t opine on either the legality or engineering decisions.  But that hasn’t stopped others from questioning the CDOT at this late point in the process.  Everyone seems to have an opinion, whatever their qualifications.

Some are even waxing nostalgic about the Victorian-era look of the bridge, hoping its iron superstructure could be preserved or replicated, because it is such a part of the city’s identity. Maybe the city’s motto should be “Norwalk:  We live in the past.”

But where were these people three years ago when the project was in its development phase?  How much work (time and money) might be lost if their litigious second-guessing further stalls this crucial project?

Remember:  this bridge is being replaced because it is used by 200 daily trains carrying 125,000 passengers on Amtrak and Metro-North.  There’s a lot at stake if it isn’t fixed.

Another case in point: the Cribari Bridge over the Saugatuck River in Westport built in 1884.  This swing bridge carries vehicular traffic on Rt 136 but is so old and crumbling that CDOT recently put a 20-ton weight restriction on the span.  That means fire trucks can’t get across.  But the town and CDOT have been battling for years over replacing the Cribari bridge. 

Preservationists want to keep its ornamental steel truss filigree even though it’s regularly struck by traffic.  It’s another battle of nostalgia over practicality.

I’m all for citizen engagement in transportation planning.  But at some point we have to trust the professionals, yes… the engineers, to do the right thing and build for the future.  The time for kibitzing should have a statute of limitations.

Our crumbling infrastructure cannot wait to be rebuilt.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


April 01, 2018

"Getting There" - Saving Money Riding Metro-North

Whether you’re a daily commuter, an occasional day-tripper or have friends visiting from out of town, everyone can save money when you go into NYC on Metro-North by following this time-tested advice:

TRANSITCHEK:     Get your employer to subscribe to this great service, which allows workers to buy up to $260 per month in transit using pre-tax dollars.  If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings on commutation.  A recent survey shows that 45% of all New York City companies offer TransitChek which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries. 

GO OFF-PEAK:      If your train arrives at Grand Central weekdays after 10 am and you can avoid the 4 pm – 8 pm peak return hours, you can save 25%.  Off-peak fares are also in effect on weekends and holidays.  Your train may be less crowded, too.  These tickets are good for 60 days after purchase.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE:      Buy your ticket on the train and you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 - $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once!  (Seniors: don’t worry, you’re exempt and can buy on-board anytime without penalty). There are ticket machines at most stations, but the most convenient  tickets are those bought online using the new e-Tix app.  And go for the ten-trip tickets (Off-Peak will save an additional 15%).  They can be shared among family members and friends and are good for six months.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES:          Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50% over adult fares.  Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours).  

Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50% off the one way peak fare.  But you must have proper ID and you don’t get the discount in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING:         Even train stations that require local parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends.  Check with your local municipality. 

CHEAPER STATION PARKING:           If you're a regular commuter, don’t waste money parking at comparatively “expensive” station garages like South Norwalk ($ 12 per day), Stamford ($11) or New Haven ($18).  Instead, park at the day-lots in nearby towns for as little as $4.  But be sure to pay at the pay station before boarding the train.

Once you’re in the city, you can save even more money.

METROCARDS:     Sorry Grandpa, subway tokens are no more.  The nifty MetroCard can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some incredible deals:  put $5.50 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 5% bonus.  Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus.  You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a week ($32) or a month ($121).  There’s now even an ExpressPay MetroCard the refills itself like an EZ-Pass.

BUT…  IS IT CHEAPER TO DRIVE?:      Despite being a mass transit advocate, I’m the first to admit that there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than take the train, especially with three or more passengers.  You can avoid bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure.  

Check out www.nyc.bestparking.com  to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination, some offering discount coupons.   Or drive to CitiField (it’s still Shea Stadium to me) where parking is cheaper and take the # 7 subway from there to GCT.

The bottom line is that it isn’t cheap going into “the city”.  But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money.  Enjoy!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 18, 2018

"Getting There" - Public Hearings or Political Theater?

In recent weeks I’ve been criss-crossing the state talking to folks about our transportation crisis:  the proposed fare hikes on trains and buses coupled with service cuts on the branch lines, and the multi-billion spending cuts at CDOT.

I call it the “Winter of our discontent” magical misery tour.   Here's a link to a video of one of my talks:  https://vimeo.com/258249483

From Woodbridge to New Canaan, from Old Lyme to West Haven, I’ve talked to crowds large and small, explaining what’s going to happen July 1st and why.  Most folks knew something about our impending doom, but they all left unhappy about the cuts’ specific impact on their lives.

Like the First Selectwoman from Old Lyme who said taxpayers were going to have to spend $600,000 repairing a local bridge because, for the third year in a row, CDOT doesn’t have enough money to share with municipalities.

Or the manager of The Roger Sherman Inn in New Canaan who said she’d probably have to close if off-peak train service was cut on the branch, making it impossible for her cooks and waiters to get to work.

But the culmination of all these presentations was last Tuesday night’s public hearing in Stamford before an SRO crowd of 200+ angry residents.  I’d come more to listen than talk, but couldn’t resist and used my allotted three minutes to ask…

“What are we doing here?  Why are we at this hearing when nothing that you or I say tonight will do anything to change the inevitability of these fare hikes and service cuts?  This may be cathartic, but it’s just political theater.  The folks you should really be talking to are not from CDOT but your State Rep and State Senator.  The legislature created this funding problem and only they can fix it.  If they raise the gas tax and get serious about making motorists pay their fair share, none of these service cuts or fare hikes will happen”.

I was speaker number 11 of more than 80 who signed up to speak.  Some of them waited 4 hours for their few minutes in front of the mic.

But not the politicians.  As State Rep’s arrived, they were whisked by the CDOT Commissioner to the front of the speaker’s line, jumping the queue.  The Commissioner is no fool.  He knows who controls his budget and it isn’t the old guy with a walker complaining about the buses.

When the pols spoke it was the usual platitudes but no new ideas.  “Don’t raise fares, find other funding sources,” said one.  What funding sources?  To their credit, some of the pols did stay to listen, but others (including at least one gubernatorial hopeful) did their grandstanding and split.

One State Rep did have the guts to poll the crowd on their appetite for raising the gasoline tax and tolling our roads, both of which got loud support, much to his surprise.  The people have spoken so now’s the time for action.

By the way… what kind of message does it send when scores of New Canaan residents go to the Stamford hearing to oppose rail service cuts but take a chartered bus instead of the train?

People are angry.  But they need to direct their anger not at the CDOT but at the legislature, holding them accountable for their inaction.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 10, 2018

"Getting There" - A Private, For-Profit, Passenger Railroad

There is no profitable passenger railroad in the United States. 

Amtrak and commuter lines like Metro-North all operate at a loss as a public service, their deficits borne by tax dollars.  But in January all that changed as America saw the launch of “Brightline”, a privately owned, for profit passenger railroad in Florida.

Running between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, the railroad is owned by Fortress Investment Group, which has ties to Florida East Coast Railways over whose freight tracks the new passenger trains will run.

So far the $3 billion invested in the railroad has delivered only 46 miles of track but plans are to extend the line south to Miami and north to Orlando Airport by 2021.  The trip from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach takes just 34 minutes, averaging 79 mph and costs $10 one way in “Smart Coach” class, $15 in “Select Coach” (first class).  That’s hardly enough time to get settled in let alone enjoy the comfy Acela-style seats, complimentary Wi-Fi or free snacks in the pricier seats.

Trains run every 90 minutes on weekends, more frequently on weekdays.  Eventually they hope to offer four trains an hour (compared to two an hour on Metro-North). The commuter-line TriRail runs between the same stations (for $5.65 one way) in about an hour, thanks to nine intermediate stops compared to Brightline’s nonstop express.

Driving the same distance on Florida’s I-95 would take 47 minutes, assuming an average 65 mph, which is nearly impossible on that crowded interstate, in some places 16 lanes wide!

On its opening weekend, a VIP inspection-train killed a pedestrian crossing the tracks (after
the warning gate had been lowered) in Boynton Beach FL.  Since testing began of the new trains, six people have been hit by the trains, four of them killed.  Despite the fatalities, local residents are trying to force the railroad to suspend use of its horns as locomotives fly along at speed.  That’s pretty stupid, if you ask me.

Brightline’s owners aren’t counting just on passengers to make their railroad profitable.  Wisely, they are expecting real estate (which they own) adjacent to their stations to become quite desirable.  They’re building a 290-unit residential building in West Palm and another 816 units in a mixed-use, 11-acre site near the railroad’s eventual Miami hub.  Not only will they have a captive ridership but their rent money as well.

This is also Connecticut’s dream:  transit oriented development.  The only difference is that in Florida Brightline owns the land near their stations.  CDOT does not, with the exception of parking lots like Stamford station’s which have long been eyed as a revenue source to subsidize our trains.


In Hong Kong the privately-owned Mass Transit Railway (MTR) turns a profit of $2 billion a year not just by running one of the world’s best subways, but by owning the shopping malls and skyscrapers above its stations.  Turning an 85% operating profit, the MTR can invest in new trains and passenger amenities while still keeping fares at about 50 cents a ride.

We’ll see if Brightline can find its audience and turn a profit.  If they do, their success may be a model for other private investment in this crucial public service of mass transit.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media