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January 13, 2017

"Getting There": CDOT's Doomsday Scenario

As the legislature reconvenes this week in Hartford, all are buzzing about filling the predicted $41 million deficit in the state’s budget.  While the Governor is again pledging no tax increases (we’ve heard that before!), the alternatives are looking pretty ugly.
For the state’s Department of Transportation it may mean drastic cuts in services and staffing with long term implications… what I’m calling the “Doomsday Scenario”.

A few months ago, the state’s Office of Policy and Management asked each department to come up with a plan for an additional 10% budget cut on top of last year’s reduction of the same amount.  Commuters will remember how that last cut was partially funded:  with fare increases.  But this time, CDOT planners say that’s not an option because it would take too long.

According to the CDOT’s own plan, here’s what another 10% budget cut would mean to that agency and everyone in the state:

HIGHWAYS:    Patching potholes and repairing cracks on our highways would be curtailed.  Tree removal, fence and drainage repairs would be reduced or eliminated.  Highway Rest Areas (not Service Areas) would be closed, replaced by porta-potties.

IMPACT:   Worsening road conditions causing more damage to cars and costly repairs.  Predictions of vandalism at closed Rest Areas.


WINTER:   Elimination of 220 contract snow plow operators would mean cycle times for plowing would go from 2 hours to 3+ hours on secondary roads (but not Rt 1, I-95 or the Parkways).

IMPACT:  Less plowing means some secondary roads will be impassible during heavy storms.


RAIL SERVICE:   Postpone the planned opening of the new Hartford Line (commuter rail from New Haven) to 2018.  Reduced weekend and weekday off-peak service on Waterbury and Danbury Lines and 50% cut in service on Shore Line East.

IMPACT:   Delay in opening Hartford Line could make the Feds request refund of $200 million in construction funding.  Cuts in rail service would affect state’s economy and “attractiveness” to people looking for a new home.  Highways could gridlock as more commuters are forced to drive.


BUS SERVICE:   Cut subsidies to municipal transit districts by 50%.  CT Transit bus service would be cut 15 – 20%.  Funding for new bus purchases would be cut.

IMPACT:   Greatest impact on minority, economically stressed populations with no transportation alternatives.  Less bus service, more car traffic, more delays.  Funding cut would mean new bus purchases would have to be bonded instead of bought with 80% Federal funding.


CDOT STAFF:   Layoffs of 6% of existing workforce, 213 positions.  Curtailed planning for widening I-84 in Danbury, West Rock Tunnel on Wilbur Cross, design of I-91 / 691 / Rt 15 interchange and planning and design for widening I-95.   Staff cuts in Finance and Administration would delay contract awards, contractor and municipal payments, highway safety campaigns and environmental permits.

IMPACT:   Though one of the largest state agencies as measured by number of employees, these layoffs on top of last year’s staff cuts would leave CDOT 15% below predicted staffing needs projected for 2019.  Planning for new projects would be in gridlock, possibly imperiling Federal funding grant applications.


If any of these cuts happen it will hasten a vicious cycle of less service and more delays encouraging even more people to leave the state, further reducing tax collections.  Now would be the time to tell your lawmakers in Hartford that we must avoid “Doomsday”.

"Getting There": Transportation Predictions for 2017

Everybody writes “year in review” stories, but not me.  Instead, I’m going to predict the future and tell you what’s going to happen in transportation next year!


METRO-NORTH:   The new M8 cars will perform well in the winter, but the aging tracks, switches and catenary (overhead power lines) will continue to suffer breakdowns, causing delays.  Ridership will continue to climb, causing further rush-hour crowding until new railcars start arriving in 2019.

GASOLINE PRICES:    The party’s over, folks.  Gasoline prices will continue to rise as OPEC gets its act together to limit oil production.  These rising prices will nudge American drillers and producers back in the game, but it may be months until resumed domestic consumption matches reduced imports.

STAMFORD GARAGE:   As I predicted last year, CDOT finally pulled the plug on its 3+ year unsigned deal with private developer JHM Group to demolish the old station garage and build a mixed use office / condo / hotel building.  But CDOT vows to revisit the P3 (public private partnership) concept, only this time I predict they will have learned their lesson and will find ways to engage and inform the public in their planning.

STATE TAKE-OVER:   They’ve been quietly working toward this for years, but I predict that the CDOT will finally announce they plan to takeover all rail station parking on the New Haven line, standardizing rates and permit wait lists.  Expect a huge fight from the towns, but the state will win. Doesn’t it always?

FLYING:    It’s the beginning of the end for the 747, especially with fuel prices increasing.  Fewer of the jumbos will be flying, replaced by much more fuel efficient mid-sized craft like the 787.  Even the mega-jumbo A380 double-deckers may have seen their day.  Ironically, in 2017 there will be renewed interest in a commercial supersonic jetliner to save time for the ultra-rich who are willing to pay.

INTERSTATE 95:   Traffic will only get worse on I-95 as the legislature hems and haws over Gov. Malloy’s call for its widening.  Despite a 2004 study that said that using break-down lanes for rush-hour traffic was unsafe and would yield little traffic improvement, the CDOT’s new $2 million consultant study will, (surprise!),  support the scheme.  But budget cuts may kill the plan, for now.

LET’S GO CT:   Governor Malloy’s $100 billion transportation scheme will remain stuck, just like his political career.  (Hillary didn’t get elected and he didn’t get plucked from his budget-balancing woes in Hartford to serve in her administration.)  Still, the Governor will continue to criss-cross the state, ballyhooing the need for transportation spending. But without a legislative “lock box” on transportation dollars, none of his funding mechanisms (tolls, vehicle-miles and sales taxes) will be embraced by lawmakers.

TRUMP MONEY:    This is the real wild card which, like the President-elect himself, is hard to predict.  “Donald the Builder” has spoken about spending $1 trillion to rebuild America’s roads, rails, airports and ports.  But he has to get a reluctant Congress to find and then agree to spend that money.  If he does, expect even the bluest of states like Connecticut to be clamoring for their share.  And maybe, just maybe, Connecticut will get some, meaning the Malloy transportation “plan” (being “shovel ready”) will find new life.


No guts, no glory.  Those are my predictions for the year ahead!

December 26, 2016

"Getting There" - Why Metro-North's Quiet Cars Aren't Quiet

What happens when a good idea goes bad?  Consider Metro-North’s “Quiet Car” initiative.
Sixteen years ago a group of regular commuters on Amtrak’s early morning train to DC had an idea:  why not designate one car on the train as a “Quiet Car”, free from cell phone chatter and loud conversations.  The railroad agreed and the experiment proved a great success.  Now all Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor have a Quiet Car.  They are a major selling point for taking the train… the chance to nap or read in a quiet environment.
But as early as 2006 when I suggested the same idea to Metro-North it was rejected outright.  Then serving on the CT Rail Commuter Council, I persisted and finally, in 2011 the railroad agreed to a trial with one car on each rush hour train dedicated to what it called a “Quiet CALMmute”.
Almost immediately the plan ran into trouble.  Not because it wasn’t wanted but because it wasn’t enforced.
There were no signs designating which were the “quiet” cars and only occasional PA announcements before departure reminding folks who sat there of the quiet, library-like environment that was expected.  Most of all, many conductors refused to enforce the new rules.  But why?
Conductors seem to have no trouble reminding passengers to keep their feet off the seats, put luggage in the overhead racks or refrain from smoking.  But all that the railroad gave conductors to enforce the Quiet Car rules were bilingual “Shhh cards” to give to gabby violators.
It seemed left to passengers to remind fellow riders what a Quiet Car was for and confrontations resulted.
This spring the railroad surprised even me by announcing an expansion of the program:  every weekday train, peak and off-peak, would now have two Quiet Cars!  Two Quiet Cars on a ten car train gives everyone a choice.  That sounds great, but still without signage, education or enforcement, the battles continued.

A commuter recently emailed me about an evening train from Grand Central with a group of rowdy drunks in the Quiet Car.  When commuters asked the offending passengers to chill out or move their seat the tipsy  group told the complainer, “screw you”.  The quiet-seeking commuters then asked the conductor for help but he simply declared the train was too crowded and the Quiet Car was being eliminated on that run. “Have fun” he told the drunks. Really?
On Amtrak trains those violating Quiet Car rules have been thrown off the train and arrested.  Even NJ Governor Chris Christie had to move his seat on an Acela once for yabbering with his staff in the wrong car.
Nobody wants these kinds of altercations on Metro-North.  So why initiate and then expand such a passenger amenity as Quiet CALMmute without proper education and enforcement?  A few signs and friendly reminders from conductors should make passengers aware that “train time may be your own time” (as the railroad’s old marketing slogan used to say), but it’s also shared time. 
Commuters want Quiet Cars.  The railroad gave them to us, but until they can get their staff to enforce the rules, consistently, they might as well not exist.

If you’re in a Quiet Car and the rules are not enforced, report it to Metro-North on their website complaint form.  If we all raise our voices, we can get some peace a quiet.
Reprinted with permission from Hearst CT Media

December 18, 2016

"Getting There" - Winter Prep for Transportation

With the arrival of winter, now is the time to be sure you’re ready to stay mobile, whatever Mother Nature may throw at us.  Here are a few tips…

FOR YOUR CAR
1)     Get your car’s battery checked.  If it is weak or the terminals are corroded you won’t be able to start your car, especially in cold conditions.  New batteries are worth the investment, if only for the peace of mind.

2)    Check your tires.  Colder weather means the pressure in your tires will go down so check your car’s manual and re-inflate if necessary.

3)    Got antifreeze?  It should be replaced every two years to a 50-50 mixture with water.

4)    Oil change:  as with your tires, lower temperatures will affect your engine’s “blood”, thickening it as it gets colder.  Your mechanic or oil-change shop will know what’s right for your car.  And forget that old myth of oil changes every 3000 miles:  5000 to 7500 miles between changes is now OK according to experts.

5)    Windshield wipers should be replaced annually, an easy do-it-yourself project at any auto store.  And don’t forget to fill the wiper fluid reservoir with something freeze resistant.

6)    Be a Boy Scout and check your trunk for an inflated spare tire and all the emergency gear you might need:  flares, jumper cables, first aid kit, thermal blanket, etc.

FOR THE TRAIN
Except in the worst blizzard conditions, the train will usually keep running (though sometimes at a reduced frequency). Though dependable, riding Metro-North and Amtrak in the winter is not without its challenges

1)    Never assume it’s “business as usual” and that trains will be running on time in bad weather.  Listen to the radio and consult apps like the MTA’s “TrainTime” and my favorite, “Clever Commute” for updates on service.

2)    Give yourself extra time to get to the station and watch those icy platforms! 

3)    Dress for the bad weather.  If your station’s waiting room isn’t open, call town hall or the police dept.  In sub-zero weather that’s not just an inconvenience, it could be a safety hazard.

4)    If you find a railcar that’s lacking heat, ask the conductor to write it up.  Or use the www.MTA.info website to file a report yourself.

5)    Most of all, give yourself extra travel time.  Don’t stress about delays.  At least you’re not driving on an icy parkway!

IF YOU’RE FLYING
1)    When booking your flight consider your options.  If you can’t find a non-stop, avoid connections in weather-plagued hubs like Chicago or Denver.  Charlotte or Dallas have less chance of being snowed in.

2)    Watch the weather and anticipate delays.  If the airlines know a storm is coming they often waive re-booking fees if you want to fly before the weather hits or have to delay until after the airport re-opens and schedules get back to normal.

3)    If the highways are a mess, try taking the train to the airport.  LaGuardia and Newark are accessible by Metro-North and Amtrak, respectively, but Kennedy airport is a challenge.
Whatever your mode of travel, a little prep time now will help you get through winter unscathed.


Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - More Railcars, More Passengers

Riders on Metro-North just got an early holiday gift from the railroad and CDOT:  a bright, shiny new train set… not toy, but real!   We’ve been promised 94 more M8 rail cars!  And just in time…(though they won’t start arriving until 2019).

We’ve been enjoying the new M8 cars since their introduction in 2011 and they have proven highly reliable.  Unlike the old M2 cars, many of which were older than the passengers who rode in them and were prone to breakdowns each winter, the new M8 cars are champions.  They go over 460,000 miles between mechanical breakdowns which is 53% better than the railroad’s own goals for the Kawasaki designed and built cars.

Work on the M8’s started in 2006 with an initial order of 300 cars.  Another 80 cars were optioned in 2011 and 25 more single, unpowered cars were then added to the fleet, bringing us to the 405 cars we have today. (When the newest cars start arriving in three years the last of the old M2 cars will finally be scrapped).

Because of their unique design, operating on three different power systems, the M8 cars were not cheap. The first cars cost $2.326 million but Kawasaki is now commanding $3.83 million for the 60 now on order and $3.71 million for another 34 cars on option.  Part of the price hike is attributed to improved design and addition of the long-awaited PTC (Positive Train Control) and CCTV (closed circuit TV) safety equipment.

The costs will be born 65% / 35% by Connecticut and MTA, respectively.  Our share will probably be paid for through bonding. Ten planned “CafĂ© Cars”, to be fabricated from older, original M8 cars, will be 100% paid for by Connecticut.

Why is the railroad going to all of this expense?  Because they became victims of their own success:  ridership has been soaring in recent years.

When the first M8 cars were ordered, Metro-North thought they’d have enough cars to handle ridership until 2020. But we blew through those numbers years early.  That meant more passengers than seats and crowded, often times SRO (standing room only) conditions at rush hour.

Why the surge in ridership?  A stronger economy, which means more jobs in NYC.  Worsening traffic on I95, which means the train is an attractive alternative.  Reliability, even in the winter.  And yes, people really like the new cars with their power plugs at every row, redundant HVAC and pleasing design.

All of those attractions have seemed stronger than the negatives to train-taking:  lower gas prices, higher rail fares and insufficient station parking.   
     
So the question now is, are we ordering enough new cars to keep up with demand?  Given the three year lag-time between ordering and delivery, will a 499-car fleet be enough if ridership keeps growing as fast, if not faster?

As new cars start arriving in 2019 they’ll first be used to add capacity to existing trains to deal with rush-hour crowding.  As more cars arrive, 24 of our M8’s will be shifted over to Shore Line East service between New London and New Haven.  And maybe, if we’re lucky, by 2020 we’ll have enough cars to actually increase service, adding more trains to the timetable.

If we don’t want to waste billions of dollars on Governor Malloy’s idea to “widen I-95”, let’s instead invest in our railroad and order more cars now.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media





"Getting There" - Slow Down In Town

You’ve seen the signs in many neighborhoods… “Drive like your kids lived here” or “Slow down in town”.  They’re probably as effective as bumper stickers that say “Drive now, Text later”, i.e., not very.

In our own neighborhoods we want everyone to chill behind the wheel.  But when we are driving in someone else’s area, it’s pedal to the metal, the kids be damned.  When the major roads are jammed, quicker short-cuts through the back roads seem attractive, often at higher speeds than may be safe.

First of all, why is it that kids are playing in the streets anyway when they have perfectly good lawns and nearby parks?  Do they think they’re living on the Lower East Side, playing stickball?  C’mon parents!  Get your kids off of the streets!

Recognizing that persuasion doesn’t seem to help, traffic engineers are finding newer ways to get folks to stay safe using what’s called “traffic calming”, forcing them to drive slower.  And believe it or not, one of the first US cities to develop a master plan for traffic calming was Hartford.  Stamford isn’t far behind.

You’ve probably seen these calming devices, but cursed their presence that physically forces you to slow down or risk damage to your car’s suspension.

SPEED BUMPS:     You can’t drive around them, so you better slow down driving over them.

SPEED TABLES:    Like speed bumps on steroids, these have a six foot long ramp up onto a ten foot flat table and down another six foot ramp.

ROUNDABOUTS:   The guys at Mythbusters have proven that these traffic circles can move more cars through an intersection than a four-way stop, but they’re confusing enough that you’re going to slow down and keep wondering “Who has the right of way?  (Answer:  the car in the traffic circle).  If it’s me, does that other guy know it?  Will he slow down and let me in?” 

CHICANES:            Usually seen only on private streets in ritzy neighborhoods, these stubby looking sections of gates placed alternately on the right and left hand sides of the street make drivers slow down to zigzag down the street.  Really annoying, but effective.

BULB-OUTS or NECK-DOWNS:  These are when the sidewalk extends into car parking areas at corner crossings.  That way folks who want to cross a street are more visible and already closer to the other side.

CROSSWALKS:      Nothing empowers a pedestrian like stepping up to a crosswalk and stopping all oncoming traffic as they saunter across the road.  This assumes, of course, that the drivers know they must yield and that there is sufficient signage to tell them so.  Otherwise, it’s a messy scene.

But believe it or not, one of the most effective safety devices is also the most common…

SIDEWALKS:          Still, it’s amazing how many suburban towns don’t offer sidewalks, leaving nervous pedestrians walking on the same roadways as cars.  You’d think that would encourage motorists to slow down, but it doesn’t.  Getting the walkers (and joggers) off the road and onto the sidewalks may not stop speeding but it does save lives.

None of these physical solutions to traffic safety is cheap, but they have proven effective in saving us from our own worst instincts to rush to our destination.  So, slow down in town, and in the ‘burbs.  What’s your hurry?

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

November 30, 2016

"Getting There" - All Tickets Please !

Imagine you’re in a store and you see somebody shoplifting.  You’re embarrassed to say anything or to make a scene, but inside you’re pissed-off.  You pay for your merchandise, so why should that guy get it for free?  And if he’s ripping off the store, doesn’t the merchant actually make you pay more to make up for that loss?

It’s morally wrong and it’s just not fair.

Yet this is what happens every single day on Metro-North when conductors don’t collect all riders’ tickets.

Here’s a typical scene:  your train leaves Grand Central and the conductor makes his way through the train collecting tickets.  Sometimes he leaves a colored seat check, punched to show your destination, but not always. Why?

Your train makes some intermediate stop (New Rochelle, Greenwich or Stamford) to discharge some passengers and take on new ones.  You know who the new riders are, but does the conductor?

So when the conductor comes through again saying “All Stamford tickets, please” and you see that new rider not responding, you know the railroad got ripped off and that cheater just got a free ride.

Now, if the conductor had issued a seat check he’d know who got off, who got on and who owes him a new ticket.  Simple enough, but not for Metro-North which for years has not enforced their use.  Conductors who are too busy or too lazy, don’t use seat checks and we all end up paying more.

Metro-North acknowledges this problem and admits it loses millions of dollars a year to uncollected tickets.  But they’ve crunched the numbers and say that staffing trains with more conductors to be sure all tickets are collected would cost even more.

Hey!  Here’s a concept:  make the existing conductors do their jobs instead of hiding out in their little compartments.  From Grand Central to Stamford you’ve got 45 minutes without stops to collect everyone’s ticket, give ‘em a seat check, say “thank you” and still have time for a cat-nap.  And there’s still time to ask people to keep their feet off the seats and to stop yapping in the designated Quiet Cars.

Back in the good ol’ days before the TVM’s (Ticket Vending Machines) came along, conductors collected cash fares to the tune of $50 million a year.  They had a money room at Grand Central that looked like a casino.  Now most fares are bought from the machines or on your smart-phone.  That means conductors should have a lot more time to make sure all tickets are collected.

Conductors on Metro-North make good money.  And they do a very important job keeping passengers safe, operating the doors, answering questions.  They’re the face of the railroad and most passengers give them high marks.

So what can you do if you see someone getting a free ride due to uncollected tickets?  Try this, which always work for me:

When I see a conductor miss a passenger’s ticket, I’ll wait until the conductor comes back and say something like “Excuse me conductor.  I think you missed collecting that gentleman’s ticket”, and then smile innocently at the conductor and the chagrined would-be thief.

If I see the same conductor always missing ticket collections, day after day, I report it on the Metro-North website complaints page, detailing the incident by name, date, train number, etc.  That allows the railroad to “re-train” the offending staffer.

So if you’re tired of all these fare increases, let’s stop the shoplifters.  Make sure everybody pays for their ride by having conductors collect all tickets. Please!

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.


November 21, 2016

"Getting There": Should we widen I-95 ?

Governor Malloy wants to widen I-95 to alleviate traffic congestion and has commissioned a $1.2 million study to support the idea.   But I found a similar study from 2004 that looked at the idea and rejected it for a number of reasons.

Trust me, it wasn’t easy to get hold of the earlier study.  I knew it existed but somehow it had disappeared from the CDOT website.  And despite numerous requests, nobody at CDOT could ever tell me what they paid for this study!

Why are the Governor and CDOT re-studying the same issue and spending valuable tax dollars to do so?  Because the first study rejected their widening idea completely and they don’t like that answer.

Here’s the background:

When I-95 was built in the 1950’s it was designed to handle up to 90,000 vehicles a day.  Today, CDOT says it handles 150,000 and congestion is almost constant from 6 am – 7 pm, especially in southwest Connecticut.  In most sections the road is three lanes wide with a “breakdown lane” on both sides.

So, rather than widen the entire highway with a decade of massive and messy construction, why not use one of the lanes… probably the right shoulder… as a travel lane?  Wouldn’t that help reduce congestion?

No.  And here’s why…

NARROW LANES:     The right shoulder is only 10 feet wide so it could only be used by cars.  But the other three lanes are now 12 feet wide and would have to be permanently narrowed to 11 feet width, even outside of commuting-congested hours.

I feel nervous enough driving next to big-rigs and tandem trailers.  Do I want them a foot closer to me hurtling along at 70 mph?  Narrower lanes are not safe.

ACCIDENTS:          The 2004 study looked at other states that had tried using shoulders as travel lanes and found a 60% increase in traffic accidents, most of them rear-end collisions.

EMERGENCY RESCUES:    First responders hated this widening idea and said so at numerous public hearings (I was there and heard them).  They didn’t see the right shoulder as a “breakdown lane” but as an “emergency rescue lane” necessary to reach accident sites.  If that lane is filled with bumper-to-bumper commuters, people will die.

MORE TRAFFIC, NOT LESS:     The study said that allowing driving on the shoulder would actually attract 1050 additional vehicles per hour.  If you build it, they will come.

ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS:        More traffic means more noise and more air pollution.

SPEED IMPROVEMENTS:          The biggest argument for driving on the shoulder is that it would speed up traffic, right?  Wrong.  This 2004 study said that with an additional lane the average speed on I-95 would go from 27 mph to 31 mph, just a 15% improvement. Is that tiny speed increase worth all the safety and environmental costs?

So clearly, the idea of widening I-95 doesn’t make sense.  And we’ve already paid the expert consultants to study the idea and tell us so.


So why is the Malloy administration and CDOT paying for yet another study on a topic already examined and rejected?  Because they didn’t remember the other study had been done?  Or they couldn’t find it?  Or is it because this consultant will give them the answer they want to hear?

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

November 10, 2016

"Getting There": The Billion Dollar Bridge

This commentary was originally published in October 2016 in our blog "GettingThereCT"

Could it really cost $1 billion to replace the 562 foot  Walk railroad bridge in South Norwalk?  Or is there a cheaper alternative that CDOT is hiding from us.

We all know the woes of this 120 year old swing bridge that sometimes refuses to close, stranding thousands of Metro-North and Amtrak riders.  But the plan to replace it (using $161 million in Federal Sandy relief money) has ballooned from $600 million to $1 billion thanks to added rail yards and such.

Many in Norwalk are opposed because of the cost, others because they will lose their land by eminent domain.  And everyone’s concerned about the years of construction and mess.  The Norwalk Hour’s ace reporter Robert Koch even discovered that the Maritime Aquarium IMAX Theater may have to be demolished!

The CDOT has considered all sorts of new bridge designs… truss, lift, bascule, counter-weight and even an elevated fly-over.  But I think I’ve found one design conspicuously missing that might be cheaper.

TRANSPARENCY

First, the good news.  The CDOT is doing a great job of making this project open and inclusive.  They have a website, they Tweet updates (@WalkBridgeCT), and host public meetings galore.  They even have translated all their plans into Haitian Creole.

Unlike the horrendous Stamford rail station garage project, mired for three years in secrecy and rumors of political payoffs, the Walk Bridge project is certainly more transparent than the murky waters that flow under its tracks.

But that doesn’t mean people are having any luck slowing this juggernaut down.  Until now.  Because now we find that CDOT has been hiding a simpler solution.

WHY NOT A FIXED BRIDGE ?

Why not just “close the river” and replace the old bridge with a new, fixed bridge?
That option is not even discussed in the voluminous Environmental Assessment Report. Why?  I think I’ve found the answer… or at least an excuse. 

Blame the US Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers.  They want to keep the mighty Norwalk River, all two miles of it, open and navigable.  But do they really have that much power?  Isn’t it possible to force those Federal agencies to, in effect, close the river to boat and barge traffic by edict or a bill put through Congress?

Couldn’t the few companies still on the river… a concrete company, an idle asphalt plant and a small marina… be bought-out with money saved by building a cheaper fixed bridge that doesn’t raise or lower?

And most telling of all… why isn’t this alternative even discussed in the crucial Environmental Impact Study (still open to public comment, now extended until November). Why?

A CHAT WITH THE COMMISSIONER

At the recent Metro-North fare increase hearings I cornered CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker and asked him.  (Spoiler alert:  critics of the bridge plan won’t like his answers.)

The Commissioner says that CDOT did ask the USG and ACE about a fixed bridge that would close the river and were told “no way”… though critics say such concessions have precedents.

More telling, Commissioner Redeker says whether fixed bridge or movable, construction will still disrupt the neighbors just as much and for just as long.  And, says the Commissioner, the cost savings for going to a smaller, simpler fixed bridge would only be 10 – 12%.  Really?  Hard to believe.

But I know Commissioner Redeker and trust his word… though many Norwalkers and environmental activists do not.  There is only one way to resolve this debate, get the bridge fixed and keep the trains rolling and that’s face-to-face talks.

‘Til then, it’s all just rumor, speculation and misinformation feeding on itself. And the old bridge just keeps getting older.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.



"Getting There": CDOT Fare Hearings are just political theater

This commentary was originally posted in September 2016 in our "GettingThereCT" blog:

The CDOT is holding the last in a series of public hearings on proposed 5% fare hikes this week (Wednesday 9/14 in Stamford and Thursday 9/15 in New Haven).  This will be your last chance to be heard if you support or oppose the plan.

Not that these hearings will really matter. It’s pretty much a done deal and the way past hearings have been conducted mean they won’t make much difference.  I think of them as so much “political theater”:  lots of drama with a sad outcome.

If you chose to attend, here’s what to expect:  

The CDOT will make a brief presentation on the need for the fare hikes, then members of the public will be allowed to speak in the order that they signed up.  Each will be given about three minutes.

People will rant and rave about how expensive our trains and buses are, about how service has again been deteriorating.  They’ll threaten to abandon mass transit and start driving again.  They’ll call this the final straw and promise to move out of state.

The CDOT folks will listen and take notes.  But after all is said and done, the fares will go up.  Their only alternative is to save money by cutting service, and nobody wants that.

I’d expect a lot of State Representatives and Senators to also speak in opposition to the proposals. It is an election year, after all.  But that’s kind of ironic, as their budget votes made this hike necessary.  This is their fare hike, not Governor Malloy’s.

The legislature left a $192 million hole in the state’s budget and said to Governor Malloy “you fix it”.  And he did, with budget cuts and layoffs in many departments.  Now it’s the CDOT’s turn to share the pain.  Or commuters’.

Fares on Metro-North are the highest for any commuter railroad in the US because theirs is a captive audience.  People going to jobs in New York City from their leafy suburban homes really have no alternative to taking the train.

Yet, those fares only cover 69% of the costs of each ride.  On Shore Line East the fares cover only 7% and on CT Transit buses 21%.  The balance is made up by state (taxpayers’) subsidy.  By comparison, fares on the Long Island Railroad cover only 51% of operating costs, meaning that NY state is offering a much higher subsidy for LIRR riders than CT does.

Why?  Because NY State, like most others in the nation, wants to keep fares low to encourage people to use mass transit.  While lawmakers in Hartford pay lip-service to the same theory, their actions (and votes) prove otherwise.

And yet, every time there is a fare hike, ridership goes up.  Go figure.  Even in a time of cheap gasoline prices, Metro-North has seen an almost 2% ridership increase in the past year. That means trains are, once again, crowded.  

But wait.  Didn’t we just order new rail cars increasing the size of our fleet?  Yes, but we didn’t increase it enough.  The M8 cars we ordered (at $2.5 million apiece) were insufficient to handle the increase in passengers.  We should have ordered more.

Now is the time for CDOT to order more railcars, either M8’s or to start designing the M10’s.  It takes about five years from such a decision ‘til new cars are delivered, so now is the time to say “go”.  We know ridership will increase, so what is being done to plan for the future?

But in the short term, fare hikes on our railroads and buses are pretty much a done deal.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

"Getting There" Politicians & Promises

This commentary was published in October 2016 in our blog "GettingThereCT"


I don’t trust politicians.  They tend to over-promise and sometimes just plain lie, telling you what you want to hear and then doing the opposite.

I’m not talking about Clinton and Trump.  I mean right here in Connecticut where our State Representatives and State Senators are all up for election next month.  They’re all talking about “fixing transportation”, but I don’t trust them.

Case in point:  the upcoming fare hike which, amazingly, will take effect after the election.  Metro-North fares will jump 6% and CTtransit bus fares by 17%.  Nice timing, eh?  If they needed the money so bad, why not raise the fares before we go to the polls?

As I’ve been explaining for months, that fare hike was not created by the Governor, the CDOT or Metro-North, but necessitated by the majority Democrats’ budget passed last spring in the legislature.  They didn’t fully fund mass transit and left the Governor to raise the fares.

But what really galls me is to hear those same budget-writers come out in their campaigns and say they opposed the fare hike.  They created it, and now oppose it?  I think that’s called hypocrisy.

Or do you remember when Dannel Malloy was running for Governor in 2010 and he promised he would never, ever raid the Special Transportation Fund to balance the budget?  I do, and I admired him for that pledge.  So imagine how I felt when he did what every predecessor, Republican or Democrat, had done… turn the Special Transportation Fund into a petty cash box, raidable at will to fix his budget.  Was that a lie, a broken promise or a necessity?

Governor Malloy redeemed himself in his second term when he embraced transportation as his keynote agenda.  He didn’t just embrace it, he mated with it and produced an amorphous, amoeba-like off-spring:  a 30-year, $100 billion “plan” to rebuild transportation state-wide.

Well, it really wasn’t a “plan” as much as a laundry list, maybe a wish-list, with something for everyone… trains, planes, roads, rails, you name it.  It wasn’t just  ambitious, it was unaffordable.  So he did what any good politician would do who had an unfunded dream:  he appointed a task force to figure out how to pay for it.

He wanted the credit for this amazing, Robert Moses-like plan.  But he didn’t want his fingerprints on the stone tablets detailing how to pay for it.  I understand that.  “Love my vision but don’t blame me for the painful taxes required to build it.”

His task force came up with a lot of great funding ideas, all of them practical, none of them popular.  But what did legislators in both parties do?  They rejected them all, out of hand.
Even the Governor’s BFF Senator Bob Duff, the Senate Majority leader, said the Task Force’s idea of a vehicle miles tax was dead on arrival and would never be considered. And you can imagine the glee of Republicans in attacking the idea, a concept which nobody ever had a chance to explain let alone study before it was snuffed out.

To a man (and woman) every candidate will say they support transportation, but they will reject all of the necessary means of paying for it.   Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.

So be an informed voter.  Ask for specifics, not generalities.  Ask exactly how your candidates will pay for their plans.  And compare those promises against past votes on things like the CDOT budget.

PS:  Lest you should think I have ambitions for higher office, I can reassure you I don’t want any job in Hartford.  The only thing I’m running for is the train.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.