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May 22, 2006

"SRO On Metro-North"

On Broadway, SRO (Standing Room Only) is a good thing. On Metro-North, it’s not. While Broadway hasn’t had boffo box-office of late, mass transit has, and it’s affecting all riders.

With higher gas prices, rail ridership is up. But the number of available seats on the trains is not. That leads to over-crowding and on many trains, especially in rush hour, standees. The Commuter Council has received an increasing number of complaints about this issue and I’ve endured a few rides to Grand Central myself, standing the whole way in the vestibule along with other angry passengers.

Crowding is so bad that conductors are encouraging standees to switch trains in Stamford to catch “locals” with more seats but later arrivals.

Why is this happening? Why can’t they just add extra cars to crowded trains? Why are trains regularly “short” of their needed number of cars? The answers are simple, but discouraging.
Metro-North President Peter Cannito reminded the Commuter Council last week that as far back as 2002 he was warning of a car shortage. I reminded him that the Council made that call even earlier. The problem is, both our pleas fell on deaf ears in Hartford. The Rowland Administration said it supported the trains but constantly vetoed CDOT’s requests for investment in the fleet, and the legislature blindly followed along.

When Governor Jody Rell came to office, the tide turned and we’re now designing new rail cars, the M8’s, but they won’t be on the rails until 2009.

Meantime, our aging fleet is falling apart. Cars that were expected to last 25 years are now pushing 30. On a good day, 15% of the fleet is shopped for inspection or repairs. Our inadequate shops run 24 x 7 trying to keep up.

The New Haven line has only an 80% “consist compliance” meaning only four trains out of five have enough cars for their regular passenger load. Granted, that’s improved from a dismal 65% last spring, thanks to a mild winter, but in rush hour… where the greatest load is placed on the system… “consist compliance” is much lower.

New, earlier trains into GCT are being blamed by some for shorter trains later in the morning. But, like water seeking its own level, commuters will have to find the “best” train for them based on available seats and their need for a reasonable arrival time in NYC.

Last week Governor Rell toured the plant where the used Virginia rail cars we acquired in 2005 are being re-worked. She said the same thing then that she said over a year ago: “Let’s put them into service.” But that political photo-op didn’t explain why CDOT let those cars sit, gathering dust, for a full year when they are so desperately needed. As it is, the 33 VRE cars won’t be in service until 2007.

Meantime, ridership will continue to climb and the lack of seats will, undoubtedly, worsen. As I’ve been warning you for several years… conditions on Metro-North are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.

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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 . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

May 07, 2006

"Solving the RR Station Parking Mess"

Before we can get cars off the roads by persuading drivers to become passengers on the trains, we first have to give them a place to park their cars at the train stations. As all commuters know, station parking is a nightmare.

Many stations have a four or five year wait for annual permits, which can cost up to $600, and day-parking is expensive, if you can find it.

As I’ve explained before, parking at most rail stations is owned by the Connecticut Dept. of Transportation, but administered by the local towns. That’s why we’ve ended up with a crazy quilt of rules and pricing.

Take Rowayton for example. Every year annual permits are handed out on a first-come, first served basis one hectic Saturday morning in May. Nobody is “grandfathered-in”. Everyone literally waits in line, often all night, every year. This may seem fair, especially to newcomers, but it’s hardly an efficient way to manage a scarce resource.

I have a better idea: an auction. Spaces would start selling online on a certain date and time with the first permit going to the highest bidder in a 24 hour period. The second permit would go to the next highest bidder, etc. There’d be no preference to those who already have permits nor by town of residency. The scarce supply of spaces would moderate the demand by price.

As it is, most towns oversell their available spaces. In Westport they sell twice as many permits as there are spaces. Why? Because the permits are too cheap and there’s never a time when everybody who has one tries to park on the same day.

People hoard their annual permits, renewing them even if they don’t use them regularly.
True confession: I have an annual parking permit in Darien that costs me $288. Having waited four years to get it, I’m not likely to give it up, even though I use it only one or two days a week.

Is that fair to the daily commuter who needs that space but hasn’t risen to the top of the waiting list because guys like me won’t let go? Probably not. But unless my town raises parking permit prices and squeezes my greed out of the equation, I’ll keep hanging onto my permit. An auction would change that. My space would go to the highest bidder, not the weasel like me who thinks he “paid his dues” by waiting on some list for a few years and deserves tenure.

I’m all for keeping parking “affordable”. The problem is, it’s too affordable. We should let the marketplace define the price of affordability, and that’s what an auction would do most efficiently.

Of course, the other solution is to add more parking spaces. When CDOT tried adding a few spaces in Rowayton a few years back, they were pilloried. When they came to Darien and proposed more parking at Noroton Heights, they were booed out of town.

I guess the NIMBYs won because they’ve never had to wait in line all night for a parking permit.
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident 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