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March 21, 2005

“The Airport Shuffle”

They used to say that “getting there is half the fun”. Whoever “they” were, they haven’t endured the challenges and indignities of air travel post-9/11.

Even getting to the airport can sap your strength, if not your wallet. Consider the alternatives.
A car service is certainly convenient. But at $120 one way to LaGuardia and $140 to JFK, getting to the airport can cost more than your air fare. Couldn’t solo travelers share a car with others? Is one passenger in a Lincoln Town Car an efficient use of limited space on I-95?

How about Connecticut Limousine? Now there’s a misnomer! Since when is a bus or cramped van a limo? And try explaining that receipt on your expense account to an out-of-town client.
On a few occasions I’ve actually rented a car at the airport, driven home and then dropped the car the next day in Stamford. A day’s car rental is about half the cost of a car service. OK… so call me cheap.

Some regular flyers hire neighborhood teens to drive their own car to the airport, drop them off and drive home, repeating the process on their return. That’s cheaper than a car service, but puts a lot of miles on your car.

My preferred airport transfer is in my own car. Airport parking is $24 a day ($10 - $12 a day in more distant long-term parking.) Not cheap, but certainly convenient. And nobody complains about my pre-flight cigar enroute to the airport.

Another alternative, believe it or not, is Metro-North. Get off at 125th Street and catch a cab and you’re at LaGuardia in about 15 minutes. Future plans call for some Metro-North trains to travel over the Hells Gate bridge, through Queens and into Penn Station. That could be a great chance to add a LaGuardia station with shuttle bus service to the terminals. But it’s a rail link our kids might see in their lifetimes, not ours.

And if you’re heading to Newark, definitely consider Amtrak. Most Northeast corridor trains stop at Newark Airport where a convenient connection to the airport monorail has you at the terminals in just minutes.

The proponents of ferry service on Long Island sound keep tempting us with talk about direct service to LaGuardia, but I’ll believe it when I see it. The old Pan Am Water Shuttle couldn’t make a go of it carrying business flyers from the Marine Air Terminal to midtown, so I’m skeptical that operators could fill ferry boats to Stamford and Norwalk. And do you really want a sea cruise in the winter?

Mind you, New York’s three airports aren’t the only choices. Westchester County airport offers non-stop jet service to many hub cities. Bridgeport’s Sikorsky airport used to get you to such cities as Philadelphia and Newark, but expansion of both of these airports is challenged by local residents. Hartford’s Bradley Airport offers another alternative, including low fare carriers like Southwest… if you don’t mind a two-hour drive.

Clearly, the trip to and from the airport can start and end a trip on a very sour, and expensive, note.




JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

March 07, 2005

“Saving Amtrak”

The wind is howling, the snow’s blowing. As we endure another late-winter blizzard, I-95 is its usual mess. The airports are as good as closed, but I’m on my way to Boston with nary a worry. I’m riding the fastest train on the continent… Amtrak’s Acela. I can use my laptop and stay productive as we shoosh along at 125 mph. Or I can nap in the cellphone-free Quiet Car… something I’ve been lobbying Metro-North to adopt for years. I’ll arrive in Boston rested, probably too-well fed, and most likely on-time. Is there any better way to travel?

We along Connecticut’s “Gold Coast” are truly blessed, especially thanks to our ancestors’ foresight in building what is still a great railroad infrastructure. As challenged as Metro-North may be, Amtrak has got it right. But our inter-state travels are again being threatened by Washington’s threats to end Amtrak subsidies.

The Amtrak board of directors, dominated by Bush appointees, wants to force the railroad into bankruptcy, they say, “for its own good”. Their hope is that they can force Amtrak President David Gunn to finally spin-off the few money-making services in the heavily traveled Northeast and California to private ventures, and then shut down the money-losing long distance trains in the West. But, as in past funding crises, Gunn is holding his ground, arguing that the entire system should be expanded, not Balkanized. And he’s right.

Gunn is a crusty old railroad guy. I met him first when I was a reporter at NBC News and Gunn had just arrived in New York City to save the subways. And did he ever! His career included similar successes in Boston with the MBTA and DC’s Metro. During his tenure in NYC he and I lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn and rode the same subways to work. We’d often ride together and discuss his job. He was honest to a fault and earned the respect of both riders and politicians.

In fact, he was lured out of retirement in Canada to take on the Amtrak challenge, a thankless task. He has nothing to lose in keeping his hard-line stance against the White House. But we all have much to gain.

Amtrak subsidies are sizable. But no railroad can run at a profit these days, which is why Amtrak was created. If private enterprise could run a railroad, they’d be doing so. The question isn’t the subsidy but the public benefit it buys us all.

Imagine travel without Amtrak. You think I-95 is crowded now? Amtrak’s Northeast corridor carries more passengers than the shuttles. It runs in all weather. And with Acela, it’s luring business travelers back from the airports. Lose Amtrak and our airports will be jammed and the highways impassable.

The economies of Connecticut cities like Stamford, New Haven and even Hartford depend on Amtrak feeding passengers into its businesses, hotels and restaurants. Without Amtrak, would a SwissBank really want to be headquartered in Stamford or a Pfizer in New London?

OK… I’ll admit it. I’m a rail fan. A certifiable “foamer” (so named by the railroads because we rail fans foam at the mouth at the sight of a train). And I hate flying, though I do so often because of my work.

But I can think of no other means of transportation as reliable, affordable and convenient as rail. Visit any civilized country in the world and you’ll see rail as a vital component of public transit. Why not the US? Amtrak must be saved and, in fact, expanded. Even if you never ride Acela you benefit from its being there. So call your Congressman and Senators. Write the President and tell him we need the trains.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct