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May 26, 2015

Summer Getaways Without the Traffic

Watching the Friday afternoon traffic crawling up I-95, I was struck with a thought:  there has got to be a better way to get to the Cape and Islands than playing Mad Max on the bumper-to-bumper interstate for endless hours.  
Six million people visit the Cape each year, four million of them in the summer and fall.  And on most summer weekends they all seem to be directly in front of you on the roads, right?  There’s got to be a better way.
There used to be a direct Amtrak train from Washington DC to Hyannis, stopping at major stations in Connecticut. “The Cape Codder” ran from 1985 to 1996 but only carried 1200 passengers in its final season due to its 5+ hour running time from Stamford.  And once you detrained in downtown Hyannis you were still miles from the beach.
There’s still express bus service running from New Haven to Hyannis but it’s no faster (though a lot cheaper at $42 one way). (All fares quoted are based on a June Friday departure)
The newest option is high speed ferry.  The Seastreak runs from East 35th Street in
Manhattan to Martha’s Vineyard ($165 one way) and Nantucket ($175 one way) in five and six hours respectively.  Nice boat, but still a long ride even with the flat screen TV’s, full bar and comfy seats.  .
Seastreak also operates high speed from New York to Port Jefferson LI where you can connect with the Hampton Jitney (bus) to that tony beach community in 3 ½ hours.  Or you can chug across to PJ from Bridgeport on the traditional ferry, and then hop the bus.
If money is no object, you could always fly.  JetBlue flies non-stop in an hour from JFK to Hyannis or the Vineyard for as little as $179 one way.
Or there’s Cape Air whose Cessnas will whisk you from White Plains to the islands in just over an hour for $565 one way.  Faster and more exclusive are charters from firms like Trade Winds whose fleet includes private jets.
Really?  Are we this desperate to decamp to the sun and surf when we have perfectly lovely beaches right here in Connecticut?
State-run Sherwood Island is right off I-95 in Westport and bikeable from the Greens Farms stop on Metro-North.  And Bridgeport’s city-owned Pleasure Beach reopens in June after a two decade absence.  The free water taxi runs seven days a week.  
Another alternative is the Jersey shore.  Catch Amtrak to Newark (or Metro-North to Grand Central and switch to Penn Station) and NJ Transit’s “Coast Line” will easily get you to all the shore communities from Long Branch to Bay Head. 
So wherever you’re heading for fun and sun this summer, don’t be a slave to bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Try transit!

May 11, 2015

Personalized Airfares

Last time we were talking about mass transit systems collecting fares on the honor system.  This time, something completely different.  But to understand it, consider this analogy:
Let’s say you’re in a store shopping for a commodity.  You and another shopper each select one of the same items at the same time and head for the cashier.  But before you can pay, the cashier asks for your name and some identification.
You’re from Darien or New Canaan and a new customer.  The other shopper is from Hartford, but a regular at the store.  The cashier plugs in that info and you’re told that your purchase will cost 10% more than the other shopper’s.
What?  Well, welcome to the world of “personalized prices”.
You may not realize it, but this happens all the time when you’re buying gasoline, thanks to “zone pricing” where gas stations charge higher prices in more affluent communities, not just in Connecticut but nationwide.
And giving discounts to “best customers” is also quite common.  Monthly pass holders on Metro-North pay only half of what their peak fares would cost purchased separately.
But never before have these concepts been combined in some secret algorithm to apply to purchasing airline tickets… until now.
IATA, the International Air Transport Authority, has petitioned the US to allow its 250 members to capture and use new kinds of personal information about would-be flyers before quoting them a fare.
Most frightening of these could be some sort of “means test”.  In other words, as in a bazaar when the salesman sizes you up and asks “how much do you want to pay?” the airline would figure out that answer itself based on your zip code and flying patterns. 
So if you live in a rich town, they’ll assume you can pay more and quote you higher fares while folks in poorer communities are offered discounts.
To his credit, our US Senator Richard Blumenthal along with others in Washington are questioning the fairness, if not the legality, of all this.  They’ve written to the US Transportation Department asking if this plan isn’t hurting more consumers than its helping.
Airline flights have never been fuller.  Because they’ve shrunk their fleets and customer demand has come back, almost 80% of all seats are full on domestic and international flights.
Gone are the glory days of my mis-spent youth when students could fly “stand-by” hoping
for an empty seat just before departure in return for a 50% discount. That only worked because planes were empty.
Today the incentive to get a cheap seat is to book early, weeks in advance, not to show up at the last minute hoping to find an empty seat.  There are none.
But to price the same seat bought at the same time at two different prices simply because of shoppers’ demographics seems unethical if not illegal. 
Airlines are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, national origin.  So why would we allow them to, in effect, look at our credit report before quoting us a fare?

April 27, 2015

Collecting Fares on the Honor System

Connecticut’s newest mass transit system, CTfastrak, is off to a great start.  The bus rapid transit system running from New Britain to Hartford is carrying up to 10,000 passengers daily.  Mind you, that’s coming off of its debut week when all rides were free.

In fact, it’s the fare collection process on CTfastrak that makes it innovative:  it’s on the honor system.
Unlike most buses, CTfastrak passengers pay before getting onboard, purchasing tickets ($1.50 for 2 hours’ use) at the stations or online.  This reduces the “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 in these early days they’re mostly giving warnings.
Only a handful of US transit systems have adopted the honor system for fare collection, including the San Diego Trolley and the MUNI subway 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 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 $1.50.
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 and a “money room” at Grand Central processing a million 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 penalty… even on a $2 ticket.  Senior citizens get a break as do those boarding at stations that don’t have ticket machines.
The bigger problem on Metro-North is uncollected fares. The railroad admits it loses money by not collecting all tickets… but 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 leave Stamford.  Everyone can see that dozens of commuters got off there and scores more got on.  But the new arrivals’ tickets are seldom collected unless conductors have issued seat checks to the original NY passengers.
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.

April 11, 2015

Paying for Malloy's $100 Billion Wish List

There is no question that Governor Malloy’s proposed $100 Billion transportation plan for our state is, as he puts it, “bold”.  The question is, is it achievable?  When asked which projects are important and should be prioritized, he insists it’s “all of them”.
Really?  Is turning little Oxford Airport into an international terminal, just 58 miles from Bradley, as important as fixing Metro-North?  Can we really spend $780 million on bike and
The 118 yr old Walk Bridge
pedestrian thoroughfares when we don’t have money to repair crucial bridges on the New Haven line?  And is spending $1.6 billion to widen I-95 from Stamford to the NY state line even necessary?
The problem is, the Governor’s plan isn’t a plan.  It’s a wish list, with something for everyone in the state.  His “plan” is of unknown origin.  Nobody has vetted these projects to say what makes sense and what doesn’t.  Nor has the Governor offered any ideas on how to pay for them. Instead he’s created a panel of experts tasked with coming up with those answers by the end of this summer, an unenviable job indeed.
As my Daddy taught me, “there is no free lunch”.  And there is no way to pay for any of these projects without significant pain.  A $100 billion plan would cost each man, woman and child in this state $27,800 to pay for it.  Even spread over 50 years, that’s $556 per person per year.  Are you in?
Even the Governor admits that highway tolls wouldn’t be enough, covering only one-third of the total cost.  And we know how popular tolling is.  So where else do we get the money?
Among the alternatives… a sales tax increase, higher gas taxes and real estate transfer fees.  Anything on that list to your liking so far?
How about “privatization”, in effect selling off state-owned roads and bridges to private companies, allowing them to charge whatever they’d like to use them?
Is it just by chance that this alternative is being floated by former Malloy campaign manager
Occhiogrosso & The Governor
and top aide Roy Occhiogrosso 
who just happens to now be working for a firm, HNTB Corp,  that specializes in such deals?  What does Mr. Occhiogrosso know about the Governor’s plans that we don’t, but should?
Privatization has been tried before.  In 2006 cash-strapped Indiana sold its 50-year-old East West Toll Road (“The Main Street of the Midwest”) to an Australian–Spanish conglomerate, netting the state $3.8 billion in return for the right to operate the crucial highway for 75 years. (PS:  Goldman Sachs earned a reported $200 million just for brokering the deal.)   In the first year of operations, tolls almost doubled. Surprised?

Let’s face it:  Governor Malloy is very shrewd.  He gets to look like Santa Claus, dolling out transportation goodies across the state while being able to blame his financing strategy team for assigning the costs.  This entire debate warrants very close scrutiny because, whatever its outcome, we will all be paying for it for many years.

March 31, 2015

Re-Thinking First Class

Any regular reader of this column knows that I hate flying.  I love travel, but getting there by air is a pain… and getting worse.  Our local airports are vying for third-world status.  The security searches by the TSA make a colonoscopy look like fun.  And once on the plane, the airlines’ seats and service make The Fung Wah Bus seem like a viable alternative.
Why is it that airlines are all vying for the cheapest products instead of the best?  Why this race to the bottom where low-cost-carriers like Spirit and Southwest are the models instead of overseas service exemplars like Singapore and Emirates?

I, for one, am willing to pay more to get more.  I may not opt for first class, but I will only fly in business class on flights to California.  It’s worth it.
But the legacy carriers like American and United ask for $1600 one-way from NY to LAX, and they get it.  Their business class is full thanks to frequent flyer upgrades. But now there’s a cheaper, better alternative:  JetBlue.
When JetBlue began as a low-cost carrier in 2000, it found a loyal following by offering high frequency, friendly and comfortable flights.  Today they are an international carrier serving 87 destinations with more than 200 aircraft.  And they have one of the hottest terminals at JFK, T5.
And ten of their newest planes, A-321’s, now offer a new product, “Mint”, with truly first class seating at lower-than-business class fares.  I finally had a chance to sample the service on a recent flight to LAX.

First, there’s the seating. There are just 16 seats with full, six foot lie-flat beds. I lucked out and got one of the four “private cabins” with 22-inch wide seats and a sliding door to the corridor.  My TV was a 15-inch flat-screen with live satellite feed, movies and SiriusXM Radio.  I had two AC outlets and a pair of USB plugs keeping all my gear fully-charged.
When I boarded I found a welcome note, written by hand, from the flight crew thanking me for my business.  Also awaiting was a full duvet and pillow, an amenities kit and free Wi-Fi, coast to coast.
After take-off came the usual beverages and a most unusual meal… the choice of three tapas-like entrees from a menu of five on offer, prepared by Saxon+Parole.  The lobster mac-and-cheese was to die for.  But they also had Kosher, vegan and gluten-free options.  And coming soon, an on-board cappuccino machine.
The service was amazing.  This was one of the best flights ever, and I’ve logged miles for decades on five continents.  And the ticket was only $599 one-way. I’d gladly have paid more.
The bad news is this amazing product is only available on flights from JFK to LAX (7 a day) and San Francisco (5 times daily).  Rumor has it they may also add transcon flights from Boston, but you won’t by flying “Mint” on your way to Orlando anytime soon. To the Caribbean, maybe.
So kudos to “New York’s hometown airline” for continuing to be innovative in offering more for less and making flying fun again!

March 14, 2015

Malloy's Transit Land-Grab

Don’t look now, but Governor Malloy’s trying to take your land, or at least control of the land around your local train or bus station.
Proposed Stamford TOD Project
When the CDOT recently tried to shove a private development down the throats of Stamford under the guise of “transit oriented development” in replacing the garage at the train station, city fathers were justifiably upset.  They voted through a zoning change giving them some say on the project, as well they should.
As revenge Governor Malloy is now proposing a statewide “Transit Corridor Development Authority” (TCDA) that would bigfoot the towns and cities, giving the state control over land, buildings and development within a half-mile of all transit stations. 
Your favorite coffee shop across from your Metro-North stop could be torn down and replaced with offices.  Parking lots could be enlarged with fees set by the CDOT, not the towns where the lots reside.  If the state wants to erect a building taller than local zoning laws allow, too bad… they can and will. As one critic described it, this is “eminent domain on steroids”.
The TCDA would be run by political appointees, a majority controlled by the Governor and not answerable to the local residents whose land would be affected.  The agency could issue its own bonds financed by rents and taxes on the very structures they want built. And the agency would continue with this power forever, under “perpetual succession”.
The TCDA would have the power to condemn property that it alone claims it needs to further its goals.  Town and regional planning and zoning boards can just go pound sand, powerless to stop them.
Because train and stations are usually in the downtown of cities and towns, those municipalities would lose control of the development destiny of their very core.  The Governor’s bill would have us believe that Hartford, or this new agency of political hacks, knows what’s best for us, not our elected mayors and first selectmen.
It’s been proven that the private developer chosen for the Stamford garage project just happened to have donated $165,000 to the State Democrats  before and after his selection.  Yet, there’s nothing in the Governor’s TCDA bill (HB 6851) to prevent such “pay for play” activities.
Were Dannel Malloy still mayor of Stamford he would scream bloody murder if a bill like this was introduced in Hartford.  But as Governor he seems to have no qualms at telling 169 towns and cities in this state that he knows best… that Hartford will determine if skyscrapers built by private developers should be plopped down in your town and mine.
“Transit oriented development” makes sense and should be encouraged.  We all need to promote housing and commercial growth focusing on our train and bus stations.  But this is a local issue, not a state right.
If we are to preserve the local identity and feel of our communities, we must stop the Governor’s land grab and keep control of our destiny.  Tell your State Representative and State Senator you oppose HB 6851 and Malloy’s land-grab.

March 02, 2015

Why We Love to Hate the DMV

What three letters strike fear in the hearts of every Connecticut motorist?  DWI?  NSA?  No, the DMV, our beloved Department of Motor Vehicles.
I had the pleasure of getting my new “verified” drivers license at their Norwalk office recently, girding myself for what the DMV’s own website promised would be a two and a quarter hour ordeal.
Arriving at 1 pm to a full parking lot, I knew I was in trouble.  After eleven minutes in the first
line, “Information”, I received my number, A104, and was told to wait.  At that point the automated system was calling A70 along with D759 and a few B numbers.  As numbers were called, people would scurry to the assigned window, but as time wore on, people moved from griping to just bailing out, leaving some numbers called but nobody appearing. That helped move things along.
My number was finally called at 2:15 pm for a transaction that lasted all of four minutes.  The clerk was pleasant and efficient.  I paid my $72 fee (set by the legislature) on a credit card, waited another six minutes for my picture, and was out the door at 2:37 pm.
There are 2.6 million active drivers licenses in Connecticut and 430,000 are renewed each year, most of them by mail.  But every six years your renewal requires a new photo and more recently, an in-person visit, thanks to Homeland Security’s “Real ID” program.
As of October 2020, only “verified” drivers’ licenses (or a passport) will get you past the TSA and onto a plane.  “Verified” means your license has been issued after you show the DMV a slew of documents… passport, W2, birth certificate, bank statement, pilot’s license… proving both legal residency and identity.
And as that 2020 deadline draws closer and people realize their driver’s license is really an ID card giving you permission to fly, the lines will get even longer.

My approval for a new license took just minutes because I had more than enough documentation.  But anyone ahead of me in line lacking even one crucial certificate slowed up the process. ( After my ordeal I found that, as a AAA member, I could have got my license at one of their offices for a small convenience fee.)
Add to the mix the thousands of undocumented aliens seeking drivers’ licenses now allowed under a new law, and you get the sense that the DMV is getting very busy.
The agency has added staff, but the offices are still jammed.  The DMV says that Wednesday and Friday mornings have the shortest waits, but who’s got a job that lets them take off that much time for a paper chase?
All told my experience at the DMV wasn’t too bad.  The clerks were as speedy as their cumbersome process allowed and they even had a nice little coffee and snack stand in the waiting area.  I just am grateful this is only necessary once every six years.  Seeya in 2021!