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August 27, 2015

Railroad History is Deja Vu All Over Again

Train crashes, passenger deaths, grade-crossing accidents, derailments.  These are not just the recent history of Metro-North, but events dating back decades.
A friend of mine, Paul Zajkowsky, loves reading the microfilms of our town’s weekly newspaper and has been feeding me clippings of all the stories about the New Haven line.  The news reports sound all too familiar.
APRIL 1939:           Two lads on their way to hunt bullfrogs are almost killed crossing the railroad tracks near Noroton Heights.
JANUARY 1944:     An empty train heading to New Haven smashes into a stopped local train at Darien, creating an explosion heard two miles away.  The engineer is killed and 14 passengers are injured.
FEBRUARY 1944 (and many subsequent dates):     A delivery truck runs off the road at the Hoyt St crossing on the New Canaan branch, gets caught on the tracks and drove into an oncoming train.
JANUARY 1949:     A ten-year-old playing with a length of wire comes in contact with the 11,000-volt overhead caternary.  The resulting flash frightens but does not harm him.
DECEMBER 1954:  A Darien man exits Ernie’s Tavern and clambers up an embankment to cross the railroad tracks.  Struck by a NY-bound express, he suffers a broken leg.
JULY 1955:             Service has become so bad on the New Haven RR that Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, petitions the Interstate Commerce Commission to fine the railroad “as a hazard to public safety”. Cousins complains that trains are so crowded that a dozen passengers must ride standing in the vestibule while others ride in the washrooms.
JULY 1955:             New Haven RR President Patrick McGinnis tells the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce that local commuters will now have to pay $5 a month for station parking.  “I’m a businessman,” he tells them. “I’m not the Ford Foundation”.
OCTOBER 1955:     A flash flood washes out tracks near Noroton Heights just as a 78-car freight train passes thru at 35 mph, derailing 23 of the cars and causing $10 million in damage.  Round-the-clock repairs continue for months.
FEBRUARY 1957:   A Bridgeport man, running to catch a train, sees it pulling out of the station and chases after it.  Grabbing the door of the last car, he’s unable to board and falls to the tracks.
JANUARY 1958:     Within hours of each other, two locomotives catch fire in the Park Avenue tunnel, shutting down all train service in and out of Grand Central.
JULY 1958:             The AM commute is disrupted when 11 cars of a freight train derails near Bridgeport.

DECEMBER 1958:  Citing mounting losses, the New Haven RR threatens to eliminate commuter service unless it receives $900,000 from CT counties and gets NY to waive $1 million in taxes on Grand Central.  Railroad President George Alpert warns “I do not propose longer to peril the New Haven RR by subsidizing NYC, Westchester and Connecticut”.  (The NHRR goes into bankruptcy (for the second time) in 1961.)

August 16, 2015

“The Fairest (and Least Popular) Way To Pay for Roads”

Back in April I wrote about the challenge we face to pay for Gov. Malloy’s $100 billion transportation plan.  And I expressed sympathy for his bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel tasked with coming up with funding alternatives, the Transportation Finance Panel.
To be honest, I think that panel may be on a fool’s errand.  They’re trying to pay for a wish list of projects not of their making and many of which may not be necessary let alone affordable.  Maybe we only need $50 billion.  But it’s not their mandate to question our “transportation Governor”.  Someone else will have to do the “vetting.”
But even as the Finance Panel does its work, exploring all manner of funding options, they are being second-guessed by politicians and public alike.
How about tolls?  Too expensive… they’ll slow traffic… and don’t forget those flaming truck
Hi speed toll collection... NO booths!

crashes at toll barriers!  (Not true… no they won’t… and there won’t be toll barriers).
Gas tax?  Unfair… out-of-state motorists won’t pay… improved gas mileage means dwindling revenue.  (Totally fair… maybe so… and absolutely correct).
Which brings us to what would seem to be the fairest, most equitable fund raising mechanism for paying for our roads, but which brought a bipartisan crap-storm of response when suggested:  a mileage tax, or VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax.
The concept is simple:  have each motorist pay a tax for the number of miles he/she drives each year.  The data could be collected electronically by GPS or with an odometer check when you get your annual emissions inspection.  You drive more, you pay more… whether you drive on I-95 or back-country roads.  Take mass transit, you’d drive less and pay less.
The VMT idea was discussed at the Finance Panel’s July 29th meeting, and the public and political reaction was immediate and universally negative.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) called it “unproven”, despite successful trials in the Netherlands and Oregon and VMT’s endorsement by the US Government Accountability Office.
Republican St Senator Toni Boucher calls VMT nonsensical and an invasion of privacy, though testimony proved both claims wrong.
Face it:  nobody likes a tax that they have to pay.  Tax the other guy… the trucker, the
out-of-state driver, the real estate transferor… but don’t tax me! 
Driving a car is not free.  Paying for gasoline is only part of the cost and even Connecticut’s relatively high gas tax comes nowhere near to paying for upkeep of our roads. Our deteriorating roads are a hidden toll as we pay for car repairs.
The Transportation Finance Panel will find there is no easy or popular solution to paying for the Governor’s $100 billion untested and unattainable wish list of projects.  Whatever they recommend, citizens will scream bloody murder and their lawmakers will vote it down.
But shame on reactionaries in Hartford for calling the VMT, or any funding alternative, “dead on arrival”.  Let’s at least let the Finance Panel do its diligence before saying they have wasted their time.

August 03, 2015

PT Barnum Takes on The Railroads

What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and I have in common?  No, not just a love of circuses.  We are both “rail advocates” fighting for the interests of commuters.
This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his showmanship and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford broadcast on CT-N (every policy wonk’s favorite channel).  The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum Kathleen Maher.
She explained that Barnum was more than a showman.  He was also a railroad advocate. (He also went on to be part-owner of a cross-Sound ferryboat service that’s still running today.)
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”.
Earlier, 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 had protected 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 hooked as passengers for their daily ride into and out of NYC, he jacked up fares by 200 – 400%. 
Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which “The Commodore” had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad.  Barnum said his only ally in the fight was then-State Senator Ballard of Darien.
So spirited were they in their lobbying that the railroad’s “man” on the state Railroad Commission “took to his bed some ten days before the end of the session and actually remained there ‘sick’” until the legislature adjourned.” (Sound familiar?)
Fast forward to the present and we could again use Barnum’s help.
Though Connecticut hires Metro-North to run “our” trains on “our” tracks, our contract with that New York state agency gives us little say and no seat on it board.  As one lawmaker noted, the CDOT defendsMetro-North much as a kidnap victim fights for its captor (what he called the Stockholm syndrome).

July 19, 2015

The Secrets of E-ZPass

As a college student in the early 1970’s I had a summer job as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge.  Boring job but great pay.  But it was clear, even then, that toll collection would become automated, at first with special lanes with those baskets you’d throw your change into (assuming you had the correct change).
By the early 80’s, NY and Pennsylvania toll authorities (which between them make up two-thirds of the US’s $3 billion a year tolling industry) began experimenting with electronic toll tags, as much to reduce congestion at booths as to replace human collectors. But it was Oklahoma that introduced the first electronic toll system, The Pikepass in 1991.
Today you can travel toll roads from Maine to Illinois to Virginia and use the same E-ZPass. 
And Connecticut drivers… get ready, as everyone admits that tolls are in our future.
The E-ZPass technology is simple.  Each “pass” contains an RFID chip which, when “pinged” by an outside reader, transmits a unique code identifying you as the pass holder.  Your ID is recorded and the toll deducted from your account.
As an incentive, most systems offer E-ZPass users a discount.  For example, the cash toll for cars on the Tappan Zee Bridge is $5.00 but E-ZPass holders only pay $4.75.  The Tappan Zee even offers high-speed (35 mph) lanes that read your E-ZPass without stopping.
But gateless toll lanes are taken advantage of by some.  The Port Authority estimates that two percent of all vehicles drive through E-ZPass lanes without paying, costing the agency about $7 million a year in lost revenue.
On the Henry Hudson Bridge linking Manhattan and the Bronx, all lanes are E-ZPass as there have been no human collectors since 2014.  If you don’t have a toll-tag for the $2.54
fee, they snap a picture of your license and send you a bill for $5.00.  But the MTA says it has been unable to collect $4 million in tolls from those who were billed.
Even law-abiding E-ZPass holders should know that Big Brother may be watching them,  miles from any toll lane. The NYC Dept of Transportation uses hundreds of E-ZPass readers in Manhattan, it says, to monitor the flow of traffic.  But the NY Civil Liberties Union calls that an invasion of privacy.
E-ZPass Locations in New York City monitoring traffic flow

Combined with the millions of data points collected by NYPD license plate readers, it’s pretty hard to keep your whereabouts a secret. (Never mind that your cell phone is constantly broadcasting your location.  And have you checked your Google Location History lately to see everywhere you’ve been and when?)
Your E-ZPass could even let authorities determine if you were speeding as you pass between readers, though the NY Thruway insists that’s not in the plans and wouldn’t stand up in court.
The choice is yours:  pay cash, wait in long lines and remain anonymous… or get an E-ZPass, enjoy the discounts and speedy trips but leave a record of your travels.

July 04, 2015

Updates on Transportation News

It’s time to update you on some of the hot topics we’ve discussed in recent weeks:
MALLOY’S TRANSIT LAND GRAB:      Remember the Governor’s stealth proposal for a “Transit Corridor Development Authority”, described by some as “eminent domain on steroids”?  Well, the initial idea to allow the state to acquire any land within a half-mile of train stations was modified, then killed in the legislature.  I predict it will be back.

BRIDGE WOES:     Just as planning begins to replace Norwalk’s 118 year old railroad bridge, which opens but doesn’t close, another ancient bridge is suffering the same engineering arthritis.  On July 1st the Devon Bridge in Stratford was raised but wouldn’t close, delaying every train that ran across it for days.  Estimated replacement cost, $750 million.

STAMFORD GARAGE:     It has been two years since the CDOT tapped Darien developer John McClutchy as their choice to demolish the old rail station garage.  (That announcement came ten days after, just coincidentally, McClutchy’s wife donated $10,000 to the state Democrats.)  But a final deal has yet to be signed for reasons unknown, so any work is still many months away.  Meanwhile in April of this year the old garage was crumbling so badly that the CDOT closed it for safety inspections.  Those inspections were completed, but the garage is still closed, displacing 700+ daily commuters.

THIS IS “SAFETY FIRST”?:       On June 29th, Metro-North allowed two trains to run toward each other on a single track just south of New Canaan.  Fortunately they stopped before a collision and one of the trains backed up and out of the way.  When reporters first
asked Metro-North what happened, they insisted nothing was wrong.  Later, they described the incident as “undesirable train routing”, an amazing euphemism for a near collision.

TAKEN TO COURT IN HANDCUFFS:    Is it reassuring to passengers to see MTA conductors and engineers on a “perp walk” for the news media?  Thirteen current and
former employees of the MTA were taken to court last week, indicted on charges of cheating on safety exams that were testing their knowledge of signals, speed limits and safe operation of trains.  The cheating ring ran for more than two years in a period just before Metro-North was hit with a series of derailments and collisions.  Eight different exam cycles were compromised before the MTA’s internal investigators started their probe.

HOW LATE WAS YOUR TRAIN:           When the 11:39 pm left Grand Central on the night of July 1st, passengers settled in for a nap enroute to Stamford and a 12:48 am  arrival.  But instead of taking one hour, their journey took three.  Near Woodlawn, the train entered a section with inoperative third-rail and coasted to a halt.  The train sat there for 90 minutes before a rescue train arrived, taking 40 minutes to pull them to a station where passengers got on another train.  To their credit, the crew did pass out water to the stranded passengers… never a good sign when you’re on a stranded train.

June 23, 2015

The Merritt: Queen of All Parkways

Cruising along on the Merritt Parkway awhile back I was struck by its natural beauty, unique bridges and amazing landscaping.  But until I did some research, I didn’t appreciate its history.
A hundred years 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.
As the Merritt was being planned, a major real estate scandal caught Darien real estate agent G Leroy Kemp in cahoots with two brokers as they paid inflated prices for land for the parkway and split the proceeds.
The Merritt, named after Stamford resident, Congressman Schuyler Merritt, is best known for its natural beauty, though most of it was planted:  22,000 trees and 40,000 shrubs.  And then there are the 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.  Their adornments were better appreciated when cars were
poking along at half of today’s speeds, but they are still beautiful. 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 now preserved in Stratford at the Boothe Memorial Park.
The Merritt’s right of way is a half-mile wide, the vistas more obvious now since massive tree clearing after the two storms in 2011 and 2012 where 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 is the Merritt Parkway Conservancy which has fought to preserve the road’s unique character.  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.

June 07, 2015

The Budget's End Did Not Justify the Means

As someone who has battled two decades for more spending on transportation, you’d think I would be happy with the state’s new biennial budget.  But when you drill down into the details, there’s reason for concern.
Governor Malloy promised a down-payment on his $100 billion transportation dreams.  And he did get one-half of one percent of the state sales tax re-purposed for that… but it only pays down the CDOT’s enormous debt service.
That must have come as a surprise to his recently appointed Transportation Funding Task Force which is just getting started.  Why have a task force when you’re playing a shell game with transportation funds?
Not kept was the Governor’s promise for a “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund.  Nor did he keep his promise to not raise taxes, having the chutzpah to blame the legislature for that when it was very clear that the budget’s new taxes were negotiated by his team with his blessing.  As the Governor signs the new budget into law, he owns those hikes and broken promises.
There will be tax hikes on the middle class, sin taxes (cigarettes and Keno – a tax on ignorance) and corporations.  You know it’s bad when GE, Aetna and Travelers all scream in pain, though they’ll doubtless be paid off to stay put just as UBS was paid $20 million years ago.
Any budget that narrowly passes the House 73-70 and the Senate 19-17 in an “emergency vote” without debate bears closer scrutiny, especially in a state with one party so clearly in control.
CT-N’s coverage of the marathon two-day final session showed lawmakers who were deliberately sleep deprived, kept at their desks all night
debating measure after measure until they were exhausted.   Sleep deprivation is a great interrogation technique for terrorists but no way to pass new laws.
I am told that Democrats who did not toe the party line on this budget and threatened to vote “no”, were told to “go home” rather than cast a negative ballot.  Indeed, in the final House tally eight lawmakers did not vote, some because they were said to be “sick”, others because they were “absent on other business”.  What legislator misses the final ballot on a two year, $40 billion budget that passes by a single vote?
So divisive was the final debate, the Governor didn’t even have the guts to speak to lawmakers after the budget session ended, a long-standing tradition.
I have respect for the office of Governor, but also believe strongly in open, transparent government “of the people, by the people”.  Beware the tyranny of any one party when majority power is so brazenly wielded and the public is ignored.  Governor Malloy did deliver on his promise to start funding long-neglected transportation projects.  I just disagree with the way he did it.
Keep your eyes on the prize but embrace the process.  Whatever good came out of this year’s budget process, those ends did not justify the means.