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October 13, 2014

Five Worst Ideas for Solving Traffic Congestion



The fall campaign has brought a welcome discussion of the state’s transportation woes, especially getting mass transit back into a state of good repair.  But gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley says he thinks the real issue isn’t the trains and buses but highway congestion.  Yet, he offers no solutions, saying only “we’ll figure it out.”  Really?
Tom, if there were easy answers, they’d have been implemented by now.  Look… this is really a matter of supply and demand: too much demand (highway traffic) and not enough supply (spaces on those roads).   I think the solution is in managing the demand.  But Foley says it’s a “supply side” issue. 
So here are a few of the crazier ideas for fixing traffic I hope he does not embrace:
1)    DOUBLE-DECK I-95:        Seriously, this was once proposed.  Can you imagine the decades of construction and billions in cost, with “upper level” roads having to soar hundreds of feet over existing bridges.
2)    ALLOW TRUCKS ON THE MERRIT PARKWAY:       There are two words to explain why this can’t happen:  low bridges.
3)    BAN TRUCKS FROM I-95:          Trucks are high-occupancy vehicles delivering goods to the stores that you, in your single-occupancy vehicle, drive to so you can shop.  No trucks, no goods, no shopping.
4)    DRIVE IN THE EMERGENCY BREAK-DOWN LANE: This was Governor Rowland’s idea and he even wasted a million dollars studying it.  But if you think of that far right-hand lane instead as the “emergency rescue lane” you’ll see why this doesn’t make sense.  This plan would also require re-striping traffic lanes to a narrower width, making driving more dangerous.
5)    WIDENING I-95 TO FOUR LANES:       Again, billions in cost and decades of construction.  And if you build it, they will come.  Traffic will expand to fill available space.  Then what, a fifth lane?
I think there are better ideas for managing congestion, some of them already being implemented:
OPERATIONAL LANES:     Adding a fourth lane from on-ramps to off-ramps gives traffic a better chance of merging on and off the highway without blocking the through-lanes.
WIDENING CHOKE-POINTS:      For example, the exit 14-15 mess in Norwalk.  But this $42 million construction project, discussed since 2002, has been under construction for more than two years and it’s still not done!
MANAGE DEMAND WITH TOLLS:       Tolls are coming, as I’ve predicted before.  And with time-of-day pricing they’ll not only raise badly needed funds but also mitigate demand.  Those who absolutely must drive at peak hours will pay for the privilege and get a faster ride as those who can wait will defer their trip.  We have peak and off-peak fares on Metro-North, so why not on highways.
ADD A ZIPPER LANE:      Sure, this may require highway widening, but just one lane that’s reversible depending on demand, a system that’s long been in effect on the Tappan Zee Bridge.    

As I say, there are no simple solutions to highway congestion.  So when any candidate says he or she has one, be skeptical.  It’s easy to identify the problems.  But fixing them will always be expensive.

September 29, 2014

Foley vs Malloy on Transportation



Regular readers of this column know that I’ve never been shy about criticizing Governor Malloy for his transportation policies.  But after hearing him and his Republican opponent, Tom Foley, discuss transportation in a recent forum, I am enthusiastically endorsing Malloy for re-election.
In my view, Tom Foley is clueless.  He doesn’t understand the issues, has no new ideas and often refuses to address specifics.  If he is our next governor, mass transit in Connecticut is in serious trouble.
Since early in the campaign Foley has said we spend too much on mass transit, often to the detriment of our roads.  He also says it is not the state’s job to “purposefully push people out of their cars and onto mass transit”.
Huh?   Does Foley think that state troopers are blocking commuter access to I-95 and forcing them onto Metro-North?  This is crazy-talk.
Both Foley and Malloy agree that traffic congestion is bad. But Foley offers no solutions, aside from saying we need more highways.
Malloy acknowledges the traffic mess but says that spending more on mass transit will give drivers alternatives, encouraging (not forcing) them off the highways.
As for Metro-North, one wonders if Foley has ever stepped out of his BMW sedan and ridden the train.  Foley says that the train from New Haven to Grand Central takes 20 minutes longer to make that run today than it did a century ago.  True, but that’s not because the trains aren’t capable of higher speeds.  They’re under speed limits by the FRA after the May 2013 Bridgeport derailment.
One issue where the candidates did show surprising agreement was highway tolls.  Both Foley and Malloy acknowledged toll revenue may be needed for projects like widening I-84 and I-95 (east of Madison). 
In campaigning, Mr. Foley’s constant mantra is that he’s a former CEO and knows how to get things done.  But running state government is not like running a business.  The Governor only proposes but the legislature disposes.  Foley’s only government experience was in two political patronage diplomatic appointments to Iraq and Ireland.  Like fellow Greenwich multi-millionaire and perennial GOP candidate Linda McMahon, Foley has never been elected to anything.  In June 2009 he said he would run for Senate against Chris Dodd, then chose a race for Governor.
Though he has been running for office for five years, he’s never bothered to learn about the issues, speaking in vague generalities and often refusing to answer questions. When he is pinned down, Foley’s answer is often “I don’t know.
When his campaign did take a position, on urban development, it turns out the Foley plan was plagiarized.
You may or may not like Dan Malloy, but at least you know where he stands.  He has an encyclopedic command of facts and figures and is clearly a hands-on leader.  Yes, he comes off as arrogant and a bit of a bully sometimes, but it’s clear that, unlike Mr Foley, he cares about these issues and has a vision.
In the long run, the citizens of Connecticut will get the kind of governor they deserve.  If they study the issues and really listen to the candidates, especially on this crucial issue of transportation, I hope that Dan Malloy will get re-elected.

September 18, 2014

TransformCT - Crowdsourcing our Future

Who is designing our state’s transportation future?  Urban planners? Academic visionaries? Highly trained engineering and planning professionals at CDOT?  No, unfortunately the state is leaving those decisions to you and me via a website, www.TransformCT.org
The idea is to give everyone in Connecticut a chance to voice their opinions about what roads and rails should be built, then debate and “vote” on others’ proposals. The top vote-getters will help determine what gets built.  Some call it “crowd-sourcing” though I prefer to think of it as a popularity contest for amateurs.              

(True confession:  45 years ago I wanted to be a civil engineer and help design “the train of the future”.  I attended Lehigh University but quickly discovered that I wasn’t cut out to be a Civil Engineer.  Instead, I got into broadcasting and journalism.
And while I have opinions about transport in the future, I’m smart enough to know I am not an engineer.  I can dream about things that just won’t happen.  As my daughter used to say, “We all want things, Daddy”.  But wants, needs and practicalities are all very different.)
In 2000 our legislature created a Transportation Strategy Board with subcommittees statewide (on one of which I was elected to serve).  The TSB’s mandate… to develop a 20-year vision for CT’s transportation future.  And that they did, calling for many improvements including the long-overdue order of new rail cars for Metro-North.
But the Transportation Strategy Board is now gone, wiped out of existence by Governor Malloy.  Why?  Because its priorities did not match his.
Instead of a statewide citizen / expert panel, now our Governor wants you to vote (and pay for) your transportation dreams.
So far TransformCT has attracted 13,500 visits and 2000 different ideas.  Check the website and you’ll find such revolutionary concepts as… “spend the gasoline tax on transportation”, “make our streets walkable”, provide “a quicker commute on Metro-North” and “bike lanes everywhere”. 
But buried further down the list are some real gems:  “build a subway from Bridgeport to Waterbury”, “add an upper level over (double-deck) our highways”, “high speed rail Hartford to NYC in one hour” (vs 3.5 hr today) and “hovercraft along the coast”.
But what also showed up in many “suggestions” was one key word describing what I think is the raison d’etre of this entire silly endeavor:  “tolls”.
There isn’t a politician in this state with the guts to support for the single best solution to our transportation money needs… tolling motorists.  But mark my words:  that is what TransformCT is all about… building a citizen-wish-list of transportation projects and then telling us, “you asked for it… but now you have to pay for it… with tolls.”  The CDOT is already priming the pump for the inevitable, bringing in out-of-state experts to sell us on the value of tolls.
In an e-mail to me the CDOT said “It is the job of the DOT to execute the will of our stakeholders.”  Really?  (Tell that to the 750 daily parkers at Stamford station who will lose their spaces to a secret deal with a developer putting up a high rise… with zero public input.)
I would much rather leave the planning for our transportation future to the professional planners, engineers and experts who know what they are doing.  But if our pols would rather let you dream big, realize it comes with a price tag.

Be careful what you wish for.

August 29, 2014

No Blue Ribbons for Metro-North

The long awaited MTA “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts has issued its report on Metro-North and its sister railroads, and it isn’t pretty.
Their 50 page report confirms much of what we already knew:  that the railroad placed too much emphasis on “on time performance” instead of safety… that there were serious repair issues unattended to for months… and that there has been an enormous “brain drain” of experienced railroad employees who have opted for retirement after 30 years.
All of those problems could have been prevented if then-MTA Chairman Joe Lhota had been doing his job, which he wasn’t. 
But the Blue Ribbon Panel was especially critical of the MTA for running its three railroads (MNRR, LIRR, NY Subways) as silos, not communicating with each other on best practices.  If the NYC subways had a cool parts-inventory system, MNRR never knew about it.  The “safety culture” at the LIRR may have been great, but it was never shared with MNRR.
But the Panel says the problems were far deeper than just that:
TENSION:    The Panel said there is a “tension” between the railroad workers who maintain the tracks and signals and their colleagues who run the trains over them.  The track workers aren’t given enough time to do their job.  To paraphrase Lincoln:  “A house (or railroad) divided cannot stand”.
TOOLS:        Compared to the LIRR and NYC subway, Metro-North is in the dark ages of technology.  Track inspection reports are still done on paper.  We don’t have state-of-the-art track inspection cars or autonomous bridge monitoring systems.  Much of the maintenance work is done manually instead of using machines.
TIDYNESS:   The panel even suggests the railroad clean up all the scrap and debris along the tracks to prevent tripping hazards.
TOP-DOWN:           Did they have to suggest this: “Periodically have management walk with track inspectors to reinforce (the crucial nature of this work)”?
TIME:           The Panel suggests MTA re-open union contracts to do track and signal maintenance work over-night when there’s lots of time and fewer trains.  (Japan’s Shinkansen high speed rail has gone 50 years without a track fatality thanks to inspections of every mile of tracks every night).
TRANSPARENCY:            After years of denying there were any safety problems, the recent derailments and deaths have forced MNRR to face its neglect of safety.  The Panel also suggests increased “customer engagement” on this topic with town halls, media opp’s and direct customer communications.

So, kudos to the Panel of industry experts and thank you for a year of hard work.  Now it’s up to the MTA and Metro-North to take the list of 29 recommendations to heart and make our trains on-time and safe.

August 18, 2014

Why Another Fare Hike Is Inevitable

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are we will see another fare hike on Metro-North in the coming months.
Not that any elected official would endorse such a plan (at least not before the November elections), but once again Connecticut is not totally in control of its financial destiny when it comes to our trains.
True, fare increases in Connecticut must be initiated by the state regardless of what NY does to its riders, but the financial numbers speak for themselves.
We are tied to NY’s operations by an antiquated contract going back 30 years.  The cost of running “our” trains is born by both CT and NY, and those costs are soaring from $70 million a year to $110 million thanks to remedial track work and expected contract settlements (with four years of retroactive pay hikes).
How will Connecticut make up this $40 million deficit?  There are only three choices:  raise fares, cut service or find that money elsewhere.  The latter two choices are either undesirable or impossible, leaving the prospect (necessity?) of fare increases.
After a year of slower, unreliable and often-disrupted service, it’s hard to explain to commuters they should be paying more… especially in an election year.  So when the rumored necessity of a fare hike was floated last week, Governor Malloy expressed outrage and bewilderment.
But our governor and his Dept of Transportation knew darn well this was coming.  They’re the ones who pushed Metro-North for badly needed track work after derailments and deaths.  Who did they think would pay for that?  And one wonders… does CDOT ever audit Metro-North’s ever-increasing budgets and bills to our state?
Fares in Connecticut are already the highest in the US because our subsidy of those fares is the lowest.  Upstate lawmakers who dominate our legislature loathe the idea of subsidizing fat-cat investment bankers’ trips to their high-paying jobs in New York City.  But they have no trouble taxing their incomes, do they?
Fairfield County residents represent 26% of our state’s population but pay 40% of its taxes.  Legislators made us subsidize Adriaen’s Landing ($770 million) in Hartford and the UConn football stadium ($90+ million), neither of which we are ever likely to use. So why can’t they keep residing in Fairfield County affordable by keeping Metro-North safe, on-time and affordable.
Since 2012 we’ve already had 12% fare hikes, thanks in part to Governor Malloy using rail fares to balance his budget (a move I called that more of a tax on commuters than anything else.)
The good news is that a fare increase in Connecticut requires 90 days notice and public hearings.  And with the November elections just weeks away, no right minded politician will pull that trigger.

Mind you, it was now-GOP nominee Tom Foley who recently told reporters he thought we in Connecticut spend too much subsidizing mass transit, so who knows?  It should be an interesting campaign season and my hope is that Metro-North will be a much debated topic.

August 02, 2014

To Vermont By Train

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there.
From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas each way.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive it’s not much better and about $150 each way. But there’s another alternative: Amtrak.
There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:
THE VERMONTER:          Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT, coming through Stamford at about noontime each day.  It also stops in Bridgeport and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction (Burlington), to name but a few.
It’s not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly beautiful and relaxing.  A frustrating reverse move at Palmer MA will be eliminated this fall with new tracks, shaving an hour off the run.
The Amfleet seats in coach are comfy. There’s also business class seating (for a premium).  The AmFood is tasty.  The crew is great… and there’s even free wifi.  Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.
Remember:  Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.
THE ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS:            If you’re heading to Rutland VT, this is your train. Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just before 9 pm with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton VT.  
Best strategy here is to catch this train at Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking available.  The hope is that the Ethan Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.
Same kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free wifi.
THE ADIRONDACK:         This daily train from NY’s Penn Station to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it gets you close… if you don’t mind a ferry boat ride.  Leaving NYC at 8:15 am, you detrain at Port Kent NY on the western shore of Lake Champlain about 2:30 pm, walk about 100 yards down to the dock and catch the ferry to downtown Burlington.
The Ferry takes 1 hr to cross.
Same kind of seating, wifi etc, but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Poutine anyone?  
In the Fall, The Adirondack often adds a dome car.
Thanks to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are very affordable:  on The Vermonter, Stamford to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $55 one-way ($47 for seniors and kids are half-price).  

So if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that getting there can be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak… the “green” way to travel.

July 20, 2014

We're Already Paying Tolls

Did it come to anyone’s surprise that Connecticut roads were recently named “worst” in the US in a White House study conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers?  They told us what we already know:  41% of Connecticut’s 21,000 miles of highways are in “poor” condition and 30% of our 4200 bridges are “structurally deficient”.
This comes as Congress could only come up with a short-term patch for the gaping pothole known as the Highway Trust Fund after Republicans rejected the President’s plan for a four-year $302 billion transportation plan financed by a gasoline tax and elimination of corporate tax breaks.
But kudos to our US Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) for having the political guts to call for a gas tax increase to make up for dwindling revenue as Americans drive more fuel efficient cars.  It’s nice to find a politician who will do the right thing, even if it’s politically risky.
On the other hand we have our Governor, Dannel Malloy, whose aspirations for re-election have him favoring political pandering instead of public policy.
Consider the recent visit to Hartford by US Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox in early July when Foxx was seeking support for the President’s transportation plan. At a press conference, the Governor joined the assembled Congressional delegation (all Democrats) and was quick to beat up on the Republicans for stalling progress.  But when a reporter asked about having Connecticut help pay its own way with highway tolls, the Governor reacted as if he’d found a turd in the punchbowl.
“We are a non-toll state,” he insisted. “They (tolls) are not actively in consideration.”  Oh, really?
Does the Governor not know that his own Dept of Transportation just held two major seminars as part of a study on managing traffic congestion by using tolls?  The panels in Bridgeport and Hartford brought in traffic experts from Miami, San Diego and Seattle to sing the praises of “value pricing” our highways.
Why another study on highway congestion problem that’ve been plaguing us for decades?  Because it’s always easier to “study” a problem than actually do something about the problem.
Make no mistake: our CDOT is starting a PR blitz to sell motorists on tolls while politicians won’t touch the issue.  Nobody running for state office this year has the guts to tell voters that tolls are necessary and will be implemented as gas tax revenues fail to pay for needed road repairs.
But aren’t we already paying tolls?  Not with EZ-Pass, but in car repairs. 
That’s why I loved the June cartoon by Connecticut’s own Matt Davies entitled “The Road More Traveled”.  It shows a jalopy bouncing along a pot-hole covered highway as the driver spies a sign reading “Connecticut Tolls in Effect:  Blown tire $200, Bent Rim $399, Damaged Suspension $200 to $2000.”
Let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no “free lunch” and there is no free ride.  Maintaining our highways is expensive and those costs should be borne by those who drive on them.

Can’t we find a politician honest enough to tell us that truth this election year?

July 07, 2014

Is It Safe To Ride Metro-North?

It has been seven months since a drowsy engineer drove a speeding Metro-North train off the tracks at Spuyten Duyvil, killing four and injuring 59.  Months earlier a derailment and collision near Bridgeport sent 70 to the hospital.
Ever since, the railroad has promised that improving safety is its top priority.  So does that mean the railroad is now “safe”?
Aside from taking the word of management, how are we to know?  Just because we haven’t had another accident doesn’t mean the railroad is safe.  Nobody suspected it was unsafe until those two accidents last year showed us just how dangerous our daily commute had become.
In April this year The Commuter Action Group surveyed 642 commuters and asked them “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” and 56% said yes, 15% said no and 29% said they “weren’t sure”.
Neither am I, but I ride those trains regularly, hoping for the best.  And so far, so good.  I take the railroad at its word when it says safety is its top priority, but I have no way of telling it that’s true.  As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Waiting on a station platform, how can the average commuter look at the tracks, the overhead wires or signals and know that Metro-North is safe?  We can’t even see the engineers because they hide in their control booth behind jerry-rigged cardboard curtains ‘lest riders should watch them at work.
Here’s what we do know.  The trains are running slower (on-time performance was only 79% in May).  And last week we also learned that an entire class of conductor trainees had been dismissed because they were caught cheating on a safety exam.  Good for the MTA for catching and disciplining them.  But the worry is this kind of cheating has been going on for years.  Reassuring?
The only way to be sure that Metro-North is safe is better federal oversight by the FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration.  That agency still hasn’t issued its final report on the May 2013 derailment… and only fined the railroad $5000 following a Metro-North trainee’s mistake, which killed one of their own track foremen.  As US Senator Richard Blumenthal put it, “The watchdogs were asleep.  The FRA has been lax and sluggish.”
That’s why commuters should be reassured that Senator Blumenthal will soon introduce a bill to give the FRA some real teeth:  increasing civil penalties for railroad mistakes, strengthening railroad oversight, mandating new safety gear, introduction of a fatigue management plan for personnel, requiring anonymous reporting systems for whistle-blowers, installation of cameras, alerters and redundant safety systems for track workers.   (Click here to see video of Blumenthal's announcement).
Further, the bill would also require stronger safety standards for crude oil rail-tankers, the “pipelines on wheels” carrying crude oil and petroleum products on US railroads.

The only thing missing?  Mandatory transparency.  I’d hope that the FRA would be required to explain its oversight and reassure all railroad riders of their safety in a simple, understandable manner.  That would make me feel safe.

June 22, 2014

A Railroad That Turns Heads and Makes a Profit

Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me… “Why doesn’t a private company take over Metro-North and run it properly?” 
The reason all US railroads got out of the passenger business is there was no profit to be made.  Even with the highest rail fares of any commuter railroad in the US, Metro-North’s tickets still cover less than 75% of their actual operating costs… and that’s not counting the billions in capital spending needed to keep the rails, bridges and signal system running.
But earlier this summer I rode a profitable, privately owned passenger train.  It only runs 45 miles but commands $85 - $175 per ticket (round-trip)(.  It’s been running for over 130 years and carries over 160,000 very happy passengers a year.
It’s Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, one of the most spectacular railroads in the world.          

“People will pay a fair price to see history,” says owner Al Harper who, along with his wife and three sons, is hands-on in running this National Historic Landmark every day.  His passengers come from around the world to the tiny town of Durango, just to take this ride.
The D&SNGR runs 3-4 steam power trains up the mountain to the tiny town of Silverton (with only one paved street) using restored passenger cars kept painstakingly in working order by dedicated craftsmen.
Unlike depressing historic rail lines in the east, which run a few cars two miles down a track then return, this is a fully working railroad with a paid, year round staff of 75 that, in the summers, swells to 200, many of them volunteers.  Damn, I would pay them to volunteer on this railroad!  And some folks do.
For $1000 (one-way), you can ride in the cab of their old steam locomotives wearing authentic overalls and cap and catch the bus or passenger coach back.  You can even help them shovel coal into the boiler.  

For $134 (round-trip) you can ride in the Deluxe Rio-Grande  open gondola car, or for a bit more, enjoy the 3 ½ hour ride sipping wine in a restored 1880 first class car.
While many who ride this line are railfans (“foamers”, as they are pejoratively called by most railroad folks, because they foam at the mouth when they see a train), history buffs or western fanatics, the D&SNGR’s owners know they have to grow their audience, so they offer discounts for kids and many other specialty excursions:  Brews and Blues, a Cowboy Poet excursion and many seasonal trips. But no, they have no plans for “Reefer and Rails” despite the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. (Durango has yet to authorize retail sales of pot.)
They are clever marketers, packaging the train ride with horseback riding, ATV’s, camping and other activities.  And, importantly, they have the support of their community which recognizes how much this little railroad means to the economy.  In 2001it was calculated that the railroad brought $100 million a year to Durango in business… hotels, meals, shopping… not to mention those employed by the railroad.
Imagine that:  a railroad that people will travel thousands of miles to ride, are willing to pay high fares because they get an amazing experience, owned by people making a good return but reinvesting for future generations of customers, while keeping the local economy thriving.

Yes, you can run a great railroad that people love and turn a profit!