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July 17, 2017

"Getting There" - Commuting in the Good Ol' Days

You think that commuting is a modern phenomenon?  Guess again!  “Getting there” (to work) is as old as our state.

As early as 1699 Connecticut had roads that had been laid out on routes we still use today.  But whereas today those roads are lined with trees, by the mid-1700’s most of southern Fairfield county had been cleared of all trees to allow for farming. 

In the 1770’s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as Old Kings Highway) was the responsibility of the locals.  Every able bodied man and beast could be enlisted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape.  But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians. 

By 1785 there was only one privately owned “pleasure” vehicle in all of Stamford, a two-wheeled chaise owned by the affluent Major John Davenport.

At the end of the 18th century it was clear that we needed more roads and the state authorized more than a hundred privately-funded toll roads to be built.  The deal was that after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were revert to state control.  Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal!

One of the first such roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1, the Boston Post Road.  Another was the Norwalk to Danbury ‘pike, now Route 7.

Four toll gates were erected:  GreenwichStamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge and Fairfield.  No tolls were collected for those going to church, militia muster or farmers going to the mills.  Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier.

The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls, which got them the nickname “shun-pikes”.

Regular horse-drawn coaches carried passengers from Boston to NY.  And three days a week a local coach to Stamford connected to a steamboat to New York.

The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York & New Haven Railroad started service.  An 1850 timetable showed three trains a day from Stamford to NYC, each averaging two hours and ten minutes.  Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour.  The one-way fare was 70 cents (that’s about $21 in today’s money) vs today’s fare of $15.25 at rush hour.

In the 1890’s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade and eliminating street crossings.

In the 1890’s the trolleys arrived.  The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road connecting with the Norwalk Tramway; the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.

Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride.  There were so many trolley lines in Connecticut that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents a ride.  The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.


Fast forward to the present where we are again debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in some cities and T.O.D. (“transit oriented development”) is all the rage.  Has “getting there” really changed that much over two hundred years?


Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 10, 2017

"Getting There" P.T. Barnum - Train Advocate

What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and The Commuter Action Group have in common?   Both are “rail activists” fighting for the interests of commuters.

This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his circus and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford.   The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum, Kathy Maher.

She explained that Barnum was more than a showman.  He was also a business man (he once owned the local water company) and railroad advocate.

In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street, enlisting the support of local merchants such as the Brooks Brothers and “the carpet men, W & J Sloan”.

Back in 1865, Barnum went to Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican. (Later he became mayor of Bridgeport.)  As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House who’d protect their monopoly interests in the state.

Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New Haven RR!  Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.

Then he turned his sights on helping commuters.  Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail lines (now the Hudson and Harlem divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters.  Once Vanderbilt had them as passengers for their daily ride into and out of NYC, he jacked up fares by 200 – 400%.  There’s nothing like a monopoly!

Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which Vanderbilt had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad. 

Just as in Barnum’s day, our transportation future seems to be in the hands of powerful forces in New York.  “Our railroad” is run for us by the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), a New York State agency answerable to that state’s Governor, not our own.  Though we are Metro-North’s biggest customer and Connecticut’s rail lines boast almost as many passengers than MTA has in its home state, we have no seat on either the MTA or Metro-North boards.

True, Governor Malloy hasn’t been shy about holding the MTA and Metro-North to task when their neglect caused derailments and service cuts.  But hauling the New Yorkers up to Hartford (they drove) and publicly excoriating them in front of the media didn’t win Malloy any friends.

The one area where Connecticut does maintain control is in setting fares.  New York sets its fares and we set ours.  But in recent years Metro-North fare hikes have become more of a “commuters’ tax” used to plug state budget gaps than spent on improvements in service.

As Barnum once said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 03, 2017

"Getting There" - Trump's Transportation Plan

Though it was lost in all the recent Comey kerfuffle, President Trump has finally released his plans for a trillion dollar infrastructure initiative.  And it’s as disappointing as it is confusing.

There is no doubt the nation needs to spend on repairing its roads and bridges, its airport and railways.  The question is, where to find the money.  And with a Republican dominated Congress which is loathe to spend any new funds, the alternatives to government spending are few.

The answer may come in an acronym… P3, which stands for “Public-Private Partnerships”.  The President proposes leveraging $200 billion in Federal money with $800 from the private sector.

Mind you, this is not outright “privatization” of public resources like toll bridges and highways.  That’s been tried and really backfired.

Consider the City of Chicago’s 2008 selling control of its 36,000 parking meters to an LLC for $1.15 billion in badly needed cash.  The 75 year deal was rushed through in just one day, giving lawmakers little chance to consider its long-term implications.  The city’s own Inspector General later estimated the city under-priced the deal by $1 billion.

Almost immediately the new owners jacked up parking rates, made the parking spaces smaller and reduced the number of handicap spots.  Not only were motorists and citizens outraged, but the reduced availability of parking had a profound effect on business.

Even partnering with private companies on infrastructure deals is fraught with peril as we have seen right here in Connecticut.  Our own DOT got snookered in a P3 to build the Fairfield Metro train station when its developer partner couldn’t get financing.  The CDOT got left holding the bag, paying to finish the station (which still has no waiting room).

Or consider the horrible experience at the Stamford rail station garage where it took the DOT over three years to walk away from a deal they could never close with a developer with financial ties to Governor Malloy’s re-election.

Most government agencies aren’t as smart as private businesses when it comes to analyzing infrastructure for investment.  When government owns the assets they are held for the public’s benefit.  When business comes on board, their only concern is their bottom line.

And even the $200 billion Trump proposes the government will spend will only go to states that can match Federal money with their own.  And we know how little money is left in most state coffers, like our own, to spend on road repairs.

Even Democrats, like Congressman Jim Himes, who were anxious to partner with Trump on infrastructure were disappointed by the President’s plan as it was so short on details.

The one privatization the President did detail was a plan to takeover our nation’s air traffic control system, now costing $10 billion a year.  The concept has worked in Canada and several EU countries and our airways could certainly benefit from a tech upgrade to GPS from old radar-based systems.

But upgrading any of these crucial infrastructures is like changing a fan-belt on a moving car.  At stake are human lives as all of these systems are, as they say, “mission critical”.  There is zero margin of error, especially for our impatient President.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media



"Getting There" Merritt - Queen of the Parkways

Sometimes, not changing is a good thing.  After all, Connecticut is the “land of steady habits”.
Those were my thoughts one day driving through the spring foliage on The Merritt – Queen of the Parkways.  What an amazing road.
A century ago the only way to drive between New York and Boston was on Route 1, the Post Road.  If you think traffic is bad today, imagine that journey!  So in 1936, two thousand men began work on the state’s largest public works project, the $21 million four-lane parkway starting in Greenwich and running to the Housatonic River in Stratford.  (The adjoining Wilbur Cross Parkway didn’t open until years later when the Sikorsky Bridge across the Housatonic was completed.)
The Merritt, named after Stamford resident, Congressman Schuyler Merritt, is best known for its natural beauty, though most of it isn’t native, but planted:  22,000 trees and 40,000 shrubs.  And then there are the amazing bridges, since 1991 protected on the National Register of Historic Places.
Architect George Dunkleberger designed 69 bridges in a variety of architectural styles, from Art Moderne to Deco to Rustic.   No two bridges are exactly alike.  In short order the Merritt was being hailed as “The Queen of Parkways”.
The parkway at first had tolls, a dime (later 35 cents) at each of three barriers, not to pay for the parkway’s upkeep but to finance its extension to Hartford via the Wilbur Cross Parkway, named after Wilbur Lucius Cross who was Governor in the 1930’s.  Tolls were dropped in 1988.
The old toll booths themselves were as unique as the Parkway, constructed of wooden beams and covered in shingles.  One of the original booths is still preserved in Stratford at the Boothe Memorial Park.  There’s also a nearby museum (just off exit 53) highlighting the parkway’s construction and history.
The Merritt’s right of way is a half-mile wide, the vistas more obvious since massive tree clearing after the two storms in 2011 and 2012 when downed trees pretty much closed the highway.
Since its design and opening in 1938 the Merritt Parkway has been off-limits to commercial vehicles and trucks.  But as traffic worsens on I-95, debates rage from time to time about allowing trucks on the Merritt and possibly widening the road.  Either move would probably mean demolition of the Parkway’s historic bridges, so don’t expect such expansion anytime soon.
The best watchdog of the Parkway’s preservation is the Merritt Parkway Conservancy which has fought to keep the road’s unique character.  They have a lot of clout.
In 2007 the group won a court battle against CDOT plans for a massive LA-like cloverleaf interchange where the Merritt meets Route 7.  Their latest battle is against plans for a multi-use trail along the south side of the roadway. Costing an estimated $6.6 million per mile, the Conservancy worries that the trees and foliage that would be clear-cut to allow bike and pedestrian users would despoil the eco-system.

So for now, the best and only way to enjoy The Merritt is from your car.  This is one road where bumper-to-bumper traffic can actually give you time to appreciate the incredible natural and man-made beauty.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 12, 2017

"Getting There": Legislature fiddles while Rome burns

Days before a new state budget is due, our legislature seems as dysfunctional as ever.  Rome is burning and our “Neros” are just fiddling around.

To date only seven bills have passed and been signed into law compared to an average 275 in recent years.  Lawmakers debate such crucial issues as bear hunting, playground surfacing and dairy cows, while our roads and rail repairs remain unfunded.

True, it looks like long-debated reinstatement of tolls may yet happen this session, but another potential funding mechanism has been killed before it was even studied, let alone debated.  I speak of the “mileage tax” or VMT (vehicle miles tax).

What could be fairer to all Connecticut motorists than to ask them to pay for the miles they drive?  Unlike tolls, this user-fee could not be avoided.  The more you drive, the more you’d pay.  But take mass transit and you’d drive less and pay less.

We already pay a VMT of sorts every time we fill up at the pump.  But the gasoline tax hits high mpg vehicles (think Prius and Tesla) less than low mpg cars and trucks.  Is that fair?

The VMT idea is already being tested in progressive states like Oregon and has been endorsed by the US Government Accountability Office. It was also recommended by the Governor’s Transportation Finance Panel.  But the VMT idea is DOA in Connecticut.

The State Senate recently voted unanimously to prohibit even the study of a VMT.  Our CDOT was even prohibited from attending a conference on that idea without permission of lawmakers.

The regressive Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) proudly proclaimed that the bill would guarantee “that the study that we know is never going to happen, never happens once and for all.”

The regressive Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) proudly proclaimed that the bill would guarantee “that the study that we know is never going to happen, never happens once and for all.”

Before even understanding how a VMT might work, how much money it could raise and how easy it would be to implement, our prejudiced State Senators have killed the concept in a unanimous gesture of stupidity.

Of course a VMT was unpopular because it had never been explained, let alone studied.  So shame as well on our Governor and CDOT Commissioner for floating such a concept without explanation.

Critics said it would be “big brother” tracking where we drive, though our cell phones and E-ZPass devices do that now without their complaints.  We even submit to odometer checks every time we get an emissions inspection. Privacy is a myth.

Nobody likes a tax they have to pay. Tax the other guy… the trucker, the out-of-state driver, the real estate transferror… but don’t tax me!  Make them pay for my roads.

Hypocrisy, prejudice, ignorance and denial are feeding inaction in Hartford.  We won’t get tolls without the long-promised “lock box” for transportation funds and we won’t get even that without a referendum on a constitutional amendment before 2018.

Meanwhile our roads deteriorate.  According to the national transportation research group TRIP, 57% of Connecticut roads are in “poor condition” which costs state motorists $2.2 billion annually in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs.

Do our lawmakers think we are chumps, willing to pay for front-end alignments and bent wheel rims while they are unwilling to even study a VMT?


Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media



June 05, 2017

"Getting There": Ride Along with a State Trooper - Part 2

Last week I started telling you about a recent ride-along with CT State Trooper Shawn Mansfield as he patrolled I-95.  It was a real eye-opener to see the road from his perspective as we answered accident calls and pulled over at least one motorist for talking on his cell-phone.

Trooper Mansfield works five days on and three days off.  He gets to bid for his favorite shift, in his case starting at 5:30 am.  He also gets to drive “his” car home each night as he’s technically always on duty.

Mansfield’s car is an unmarked, super-charged beast that easily hit 80 mph as we zoomed to assignments, its hidden lights flashing and siren wailing.  He told me his favorite patrol is to drive in the middle lane just waiting for unsuspecting speeders to pass him on the left.  The day I rode, he sounded disappointed.  “I can’t believe nobody was trying to blow my doors off,” he chuckled.

Our patrol included visits to the DMV in Norwalk and a stop where we walked through an I-95 Service Area.  “I like to be visible,” he said as travelers and shop keepers nodded his way.

But when we were back on the road, the post-rush hour traffic was moving at the usual 70 mph.  “Aren’t we and most of these vehicles violating the speed limit,” I asked?  I wanted to know what the real speed limit is on our interstates and how Troopers choose whom to ticket.

“I can’t comment on that,” he said, noticing my pen poised to quote him.  But he did offer what seemed a logical and fair answer:  “I’m looking to catch the people whose driving might cause an accident.”

In other words, if you’re going with the flow a bit over the speed limit but using your turn-signals and not hogging the left hand lane, you’re probably OK.  But when you start weaving between lanes or driving much faster than the rest of the vehicles, Mansfield will get you.  At least that’s what I think he was saying.

“We can’t use radar on 95.  There are just too many cars.  But I do have a laser speed-gun which is very accurate,” he said.

But the best way Trooper Mansfield catches motorists is to compare his car’s speedometer (calibrated monthly) as he catches up to an offender.  That’s how your speed is most often clocked.

Going too slow or not staying in-lane is also suspicious, often leading to DUI (driving under the influence) arrests.  The Trooper said he’s seeing more and more DUI’s tied to drug use, not just alcohol.

Once stopped, your car can be searched if the Trooper has probable cause… an aroma of marijuana, for example.   If you refuse a search, they can always call out the canine unit whose olfactory skills are finely tuned.  Last January Mansfield says a highway stop lead to the seizure of 10,000 fentanyl tablets, an opiod 50 times more powerful than morphine.

Ending my “ride along” I was duly impressed with Trooper Mansfield, an earnest young man who takes his job of protecting the public very seriously.  Driving on I-95, I even feel a bit safer knowing he and his colleagues are out there.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

May 27, 2017

"Getting There" Ride Along with a State Trooper - Part 1

Shawn Mansfield drives I-95 for a living, occasionally at 120 miles an hour.  Five days a week you’ll find him in his super-charged muscle car, sipping a coffee and listening to his FM radio, driving up and down the highway starting at 5:30 am.  You see, Shawn is a Connecticut State Trooper.

“I love my job,” he tells me during a recent ride-along in his unmarked car as I was squeezed next to his on-board computer and wearing an under-sized bullet-proof vest.

Shawn’s been a Trooper for almost three years following a stint as a corrections officer and six years in the US Navy, including a deployment to Afghanistan.  “Six years in the Navy and I was never on a ship,” he says as we race down the interstate enroute to an accident.

It’s 8:30 am and the southbound highway is bumper-to-bumper, yet he weaves his way through the cars, choosing not to drive on the breakdown lane.  “There’s too much debris there,” he says, adding that he loves to issue tickets to impatient motorists who think the “emergency rescue lane” is their express lane through the delays.

He’s also quick to ticket trucks driving in the left lane.  But his favorite targets are “distracted drivers”, especially people on their cell-phones.  Sure enough, we stealthily pass a Colorado van with the guy oblivious to our unmarked police vehicle.

Shawn pulls him over and the driver immediately ‘fesses up.  “Honesty is always the best policy,” says Shawn, issuing the out-of-stater a $150 ticket for his first offense.  Troopers’ cars even have an on-board printer so they can hand the driver the citation and a pre-addressed envelope.

In the course of four hours we make four stops, most of them accidents… a few rear-enders in congested I-95 traffic, another on Super 7.  In addition to tickets for “following too close”, several stops found unregistered vehicles or unlicensed drivers.  “She won’t be going anywhere today,” he says as we watch a tow-truck remove her from the highway.

Even illegal aliens can get a Connecticut driver’s license, and should.  But illegals have nothing to fear from their interactions with State Troopers… or nothing more than any other motorist.  “We don’t toss anybody to ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement)” he notes.

At every stop Shawn uses his onboard laptop to “run” the license plates of the vehicles involved as well as their drivers’ licenses.  He writes up his accident reports on the scene with his dispatchers at Troop G in Bridgeport able to follow every key-stroke.  They also know his location, minute-by-minute, thanks to the GPS transponder mounted on his roof… the only telltale sign that his super-charged speedster is part of the State Police.

In each case, the motorists involved in the accidents are patient and friendly, some of them even shaking hands after receiving their citations.  “You can be a nice guy and still do your job,” Shawn said with a smile.

But sometimes, he says, he has to break up fights.  Or deal with people who don’t speak English.  “My Spanish isn’t great”, he says, “but one time I used Google Translate to talk with a Korean gentleman.”

Next week, our discussion with Shawn about speeding on our interstates.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.



May 22, 2017

"Getting There" - The Stamford RR Station Garage - Take Two

The CDOT is back again with another proposal to demolish the old parking garage at Stamford’s train station and replace it with a new facility.  After the embarrassment of the first TOD (transit oriented development) effort, which languished for over three years before being killed, let’s hope they learned their lessons from past mistakes.

LISTEN TO COMMUTERS:         Commuters want a new garage where the existing one stands, right across the street from the train station, not a quarter mile away.  But CDOT insists the land is “too valuable” and should be developed for public gain.

Last time there was zero public input on CDOT’s proposals.  This time I hope there are many public information sessions and that CDOT will actually listen to its customers, daily commuters who need access to their trains with close-in parking.  This land is owned by taxpayers and they should have a voice in its development.

INVOLVE THE CITY:         Last time CDOT thumbed its nose at the city of Stamford telling developers that this was state-owned land not subject to city rules.  The city responded by rezoning the area around the train station, looking out for its interests.  This time I hope CDOT works with the City for everyone’s benefit.

LIFT THE VEIL OF SECRECY:   In its previous TOD effort the developers’ bids and detailed plans were secret.  The public never saw the specifics nor were they given a chance to comment.  That is just wrong and cannot be repeated.

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS:           So far all we know is that CDOT proposes a 950-1000 car garage at the corner of South State Street and Washington Blvd.  There are no plans so far on its design, traffic flow or how the old garage across from the station will be demolished while still keeping access to the station, the busiest on the line (after Grand Central). 

Both the construction and demolition will wreak havoc on traffic for months, probably years.  There must be a plan to accomplish both with minimal impact on the thousands of daily Metro-North and Amtrak passengers.  But so far, all that CDOT says is “we don’t know” how the work will be done.

AVOID CORRUPTION:      Was it by chance that the previous developer (John McClutchy) just happened to donate $30,000 to the CT Democrats days before being chosen for the TOD project?  Perhaps so, but the later indictment of some of his business partners on corruptions charges did not make for “good optics”, as they say.

While CDOT still doesn’t know what will be built on the site of the old garage, whatever is designed and whoever is chosen must be above reproach and be seen as selected on merit, not money.

The saga of the Stamford garage has gone on since 1983 when, during its initial construction, cracks were found in beams.  And it’s been since 2006 that CDOT has been hemming and hawing about its demolition and replacement.  All during that time the agency has been secretive and arrogant in its deliberations. 

Let’s hope that this time planning for the future of the garage is an inclusive, transparent process.  Commuters, taxpayers and residents deserve no less.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.



May 12, 2017

"Getting There" - Is It Safe to Fly?

I hate to fly.  It’s mostly an irrational fear of turbulence and crashing… little stuff like that.  But in recent years, the whole experience of air travel has turned from uncomfortable to unbearable.

Getting to the airport is expensive and slow.  LaGuardia Airport is just a complete mess what with reconstruction.  And arriving there 2+ hours before departure seems like such a waste of time, until you encounter the long check-in lines and TSA inspections.

No, what really bugs me about air travel is getting crammed onto a plane with little room to move and then enduring my fellow passengers’ behavior like caged animals.  Those conditions really bring out the best in us, don’t they?

Enough has been written about recent air rage incidents and airlines dragging passengers off of over-booked flights.  But the issue goes beyond discomfort to a question of real safety.

Connecticut’s own US Senator Richard Blumenthal has co-sponsored the SEAT Act, or “Seat Egress in Air Travel” Act.  The bill would force the FAA to provide minimum standards for seat width and pitch (the distance between rows).  If passed it would stop airlines from cramming more and more seats on already crowded planes.

The proposal has less of a chance of passage than I have of getting a free upgrade to First Class, but at least somebody is finally talking about “the 300 pound gorilla” sitting next to me in coach:  there are just too many people being crammed onto airplanes. 

The FAA requires aircraft manufacturers to prove they can evacuate a full flight in 90 seconds with half of the exits blocked.  Of course, these certification tests are done with company staff who know what’s going to happen (a escape drill) and what’s on the line (their jobs).

But that’s not how emergencies happen in real life, so I don’t trust those tests.  Evacuating a full A-380 with 873 passengers of all ages, some of them drunk or disabled or grabbing their laptops, is not the game I want to play.

The global airline industry is expected to make a profit of $30 billion this year on record passenger loads.  And some of the most popular airlines are the ones with the lowest fares because they cram the most possible fare-payers onto every flight.

To me this sounds like a disaster in the making.  But given the FAA’s shoddy record on aviation safety, this is not surprising.  They are more “cheerleader” for the industry they regulate than watch-dog.

As always, it will probably take an otherwise survivable crash that could not be evacuated in time to save lives to bring about a change.  We are a nation that seems to lurch from crisis to crisis, though simple preventatives are right in front of us.

Meantime, good luck this summer traveling in coach.  Better read that seat-back safety card and watch the evacuation demonstration as you curl into your seat for that 6 hour flight.

As for me, I’ll be traveling on Amtrak and stretching my legs.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.



May 06, 2017

"Getting There": A Free Ride for Seniors ?

You’ve gotta keep an eye on our Hartford lawmakers because every now and then they come up with a wacky proposal that makes no sense, except perhaps for their re-election plans.  Case in point, the suggestion a few years ago by then State Senate President Don Williams that senior citizens be given free transit rides statewide.  He said that they had “earned” it.

(Full disclosure here:  I am a tad over 65 and am all-in for my senior benefits, though I’m not sure how I might have “earned” them simply by my age.)

The Senator’s theory was that by offering free rides, seniors would flock to the state’s buses and trains and form an important advocacy group for public transit.  Really?

The reason that seniors don’t ride our buses is not the fares, which already kept low.  With a senior discount a bus ride in Stamford and Bridgeport just 85 cents.  There is no cheaper form of transportation except for calling your son-in-law for a ride to the mall.

No, I don’t think it’s the fares that are keeping seniors off our buses:  it’s the service.  Our bus service doesn’t go where they need to go and doesn’t offer the frequency of service that makes it convenient.  Worst of all, I’m guessing that many seniors don’t feel safe on buses.  Reducing the fare to zero will change none of that.

What about the people that do take the bus… the working poor, immigrants without cars or drivers’ licenses and even students?  One could argue that they deserve a price break.  Does a Senior in Greenwich deserve a free ride to Stamford while a low-income Mom in Danbury or Bridgeport must pay full fare to get to her minimum wage job?

As it stands, bus fares cover only one third of the cost of each ride.  That means they enjoy a 66% subsidy from taxpayers (compared to a 24% subsidy on Metro-North).   Certainly the marginal cost of adding additional riders on a less than full bus is pennies, but giving seniors a freebie probably means that other passengers, or taxpayers, will pick up the difference.

And while we may have empty seats on some city buses, the Senator’s proposal would also have included Metro-North and Shore Line East, where we know we have crowding already.
Commuters from, say, Bridgeport to Grand Central, pay a one-way fare of $19.50 at rush hour or $14.75 off-peak.  Senior fares (only good outside of rush-hour) are $9.75, half of the usual one-way fare.  That’s quite a bargain.

Now imagine if the Senator’s bill had passed and a senior, riding free, was vying for a seat on a over-crowded train filled with paying passengers.  That could make for an interesting conversation.

Clearly, Senator William’s plan was just not thought through, which is why it was killed in committee.  Or more likely, coming from the bucolic burgh of Brooklyn CT, he’d rarely ridden Metro-North at rush hour… something I’d suggest all state lawmakers should do… and didn’t know the implications of his bill.


I’m all for doing what we can to encourage everyone to use mass transit, seniors included.  But the answers are not in offering a free ride, but in providing the kind of service they, and all of us, are willing to pay for.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 30, 2017

"Getting There" - Who Sets Our Speed Limits ?

Crawling along I-95 the other day in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic, I snickered when I noticed the “Speed Limit 55” sign alongside the highway.  We wish!
Of course, when the highway is not jammed, speeds are more like 70 mph, with the legal limit, unfortunately, rarely being enforced.  Which got me thinking:  who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?
Why is the speed limit on I-95 in Fairfield County only 55 mph but 65 mph east of New Haven?  And why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the NY border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”?  Does the eastern half of the state get a break because nobody lives there?
Well, you can blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT for all the above.  This body regulates everything from speed limits to traffic signals, working with local traffic authorities (usually local Police Departments, mayors or Boards of Selectmen).
OSTA is also responsible for traffic rules for trucks (usually lower speed limits),  including the ban on their use of the left hand lane on I-95 in most places.
It was the Federal government (Congress) that dropped the Interstate speed limit to 55 mph in 1973 during the oil crisis, only to raise it to 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the Federal speed limit altogether in 1995 (followed by a national 21% increase in fatal crashes),  leaving it to each state to decide what’s best.
In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads permit 80 mph.  Trust me… having recently driven 1000+ miles in remote stretches of Utah, things happen very fast when you’re doing 80 – 85 mph!  Fast means dangerous.
Driving too slow can also get you in trouble as many states are now ticketing drivers hanging out in the left-hand passing lane if they’re slowing down traffic.
About half of Germany’s famed Autobahns have speed limits of 100 km/hr (62 mph), but outside of the cities the top speed is discretionary. A minimum of 130 km/hr (81 mph) is generally the rule, but top speed can often be 200 km/hr (120 mph).
Mind you, the Autobahn is a superbly maintained road system without the bone-rattling potholes and divots we enjoy on our highways.  And the German-built Mercedes and Audis on these roads are certainly engineered for such speed.
American cars are designed more for fuel efficiency than speed. Best gas mileage is achieved by driving in the 55 – 60 mph range.  Speed up to 65 mph and your engine runs 8% less efficient.  At 70 mph the loss is 17%.  That adds up to more money spent on gasoline and more environmental pollution, all to save a few minutes of driving time.
But an even bigger for the loss of fuel efficiency is aerodynamic drag, which can eat up to 40% of total fuel consumption.  Lugging bulky roof-top cargo boxes worsens fuel economy by 25% at interstate speeds.  So does carrying junk in your trunk (or a lot of passengers!):  a 1% penalty for every 100 pounds.

Even with cheaper gasoline, it all adds up… at any speed.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

April 26, 2017

"Getting There" - The Smartest Guy In Transportation

Jim Redeker has the best job in transportation.  And the toughest. 

As Commissioner of Transportation for CT for the past six years, he’s guided the agency through hundreds of millions of dollars in spending while managing three competing taskmasters:  his boss, Governor Malloy… the legislature, which controls his budget… and commuters / drivers who depend on his product.

Redeker has successfully managed all three.

I’ve known the Commissioner for all his years in Connecticut and always considered him the smartest guy in the room. But last Monday I watched him in action in a venue he told me he actually enjoys: a commuter forum sponsored by Danbury line politicians.

Organized by St Rep Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton), the single best commuter advocate in the State House, it was held on the first night of Passover in a week of school vacations, so the crowds were thin.  The 780 seat Clune auditorium at Wilton HS was empty aside from the 30 or so commuters spread across the room.  On the dais, a long table filled with area State Representatives and Senators looked like The Last Supper with Commissioner Redeker as the main course.

“Why was there no publicity for this event on the trains or at the stations?,” asked one commuter.  No answer.  “Why was I stuck three times this winter on diesel trains with no explanation from conductors?”  No answer.  “Why do we pay all the taxes but get nothing back from Hartford?”  No answer, even from the pols.

Redeker was pacing himself, giving each complainer a chance to vent, then cherry-picking which issue to address.  When he didn’t have an answer (which was rare), he said so.  But when he did have a response (most often), he nailed it.

“Why does the New Canaan branch have more trains at lower fares?”   Easy one:  the New Canaan branch is electrified and has twice the ridership.  “The Danbury branch only has 1400 daily passengers,” said Redeker.  “That works out to a per-trip subsidy of $17.  Now if we had better service we’d probably have more riders.  I just don’t have the money.”

Surprisingly, only a few of the 11 Hartford lawmakers on the dais said anything all evening.  Given their budget-juggling skills, they offered no explanation or optimism for improved funding of mass transit.

But to the downtrodden Dashing Dans and Danielle’s, the Commissioner offered some hope:  new rail cars for the branch lines are coming (in about 4 years) and old diesel locomotives are being rebuilt.

Less satisfied were residents of semi-rural Georgetown and Redding who complained about the trains’ noise pollution:  constant horn-blowing and bell-ringing at crossing gates.  Three folks from Metro-North sitting in the auditorium were mute as neighbors said they were afraid to complain ‘lest train engineers retaliate by leaning on the horn.

“We want express trains,” said several commuters.  “We want you to re-open the Wall Street station in downtown Norwalk,” said others.  Well which do you want, asked Redeker… more stations or fewer stops?  “Both,” seemed the reply.

The highlight of the evening for me was when a woman from Norwalk said she actually supported highway tolls.  The table of lawmakers looked like they’d found a turd in the punchbowl while Redeker suppressed a grin.

I’ve had my fights with Commissioner Redeker over the years, but I’ve never envied his job.  We are lucky to have him with us as CDOT Commissioner.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media