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December 13, 2007

CDOT's "Big Chill" To Commuters

Winter’s here… the time commuters dread the most. Will the trains run? Will they have heat? What if it snows? And now, a new worry… which platform will they depart on?

To continue with the needed caternary (overhead power-wire) replacement program (now ten years late and $100 million over budget), CDOT recently told commuters they’d have to board their morning rush hour trains from the opposite, or New Haven-bound, platform. Worse yet, this disruption to their morning routines would continue for four months!

When the CDOT announcement was posted at stations November 28th, I called the agency in my capacity as Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council and asked, basically, “what are you thinking?!?” This was a major alteration with no notification to the Commuter Council and only days of notice to passengers.

I reminded the senior rail officials at CDOT that there is no shelter, no canopies or heat on those platforms. There are no amenities or vendors of coffee and newspapers, hard-working folks who could go bankrupt without business for four months. There are no ticket machines on the New Haven-bound platform meaning late-arriving passengers would be whacked $5 for on-board ticket purchases.

My CDOT contacts said “sorry, work must go on and this is the only way.” I said, “We’ll see”. And we did.

Members of the Commuter Council reached out to local elected officials warning them to expect some irate calls from constituents come Monday, December 4th when the scheme was to go into effect. Using my professional PR skills, I got in touch with the media and told them what was afoot. Both of these efforts reached the Governor’s office, and in less than one day the plan was killed.

(Read Governor Rell’s press release on this issue and you’ll see an almost verbatim transcript of the Commuter Council’s media release. That kind of plagiarism I love!)

The Governor told CDOT to find an alternative plan to keep caternary work going and keep commuters warm. And CDOT did, quickly… announcing that bridge plates would be erected from Milford to Stamford, perhaps delaying trains by a few minutes. Everybody wins… especially commuters.

Why did CDOT attempt the “Big Chill” in the first place? Are these bureaucrats evil or stupid? In fact, they are neither. But they are focused on the business of running the railroad, sometimes forgetting the passengers those trains carry. They are also under-staffed, over-worked and dangerously distracted, waiting for the Governor’s Commission on the Reform of CDOT to issue its report and tell them if they still have a job.

I’d also suggest that many CDOT staffers are probably demoralized by the constant second-guessing they receive from Governor Rell, well intentioned as it may be. None of which is to excuse this amazingly crazy, ill-conceived plan to send commuters into the cold all winter for the expedience of contractors working on the wires.

So this winter when you’re waiting “dark and early” for your morning train, huddled in a heated waiting room with a cuppa Joe warming your hands, think of what might have been if the bureaucrats had got their way. And then you’ll understand why the Rail Commuter Council exists.

November 22, 2007

"How To Fix the RR Station Parking Shortage"

With new rail cars coming in 2009, now’s the time to plan for additional riders by giving them a place to park at nearby stations. As all commuters know, station parking today is a nightmare.

Many stations have a four- or five -year wait for annual permits, which can cost up to $650; 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: a Dutch 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. And there wouldn’t necessarily be an increase in parking rates. It’s just that the people who most want and need parking would pay more than those who need it less. Isn’t that equitable?

The truth is, most towns oversell their available spaces. In Westport they issue 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 the 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 real 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.

More parking is planned in New Haven, the soon-to-be-built stations in West Orange and Fairfield and another deck will be added atop the existing lot in Bridgeport. But for the most southern part of the line between Norwalk and Greenwich, no new lots are in sight.

Everybody claims to want more parking… just not in their town where it will add to traffic. We all dream we’re living in the country but really want big-city amenities. Clearly, we can’t have it both ways.

CDOT spent five years and millions of dollars studying this issue, but the resulting “Rail Governance Study” recommendations have yet to be acted upon. I wonder why.

November 13, 2007

"No January Fare Surcharge, But..."

There’s good news and bad for Connecticut riders of Metro-North. The good news is there will not be a $1 per ticket fare surcharge effective January 1st 2008. The bad news is… instead there will be a 1% fare hike for each of seven years, starting in 2010.

Why are we even talking about fare increases on Metro-North when service often rivals that of a third world nation? Because 300+ expensive new rail-cars are coming and lawmakers want riders, for the first time, to bear some of their cost in their fares.

Previously, all capital cost improvements to the roads and rails were borne by taxpayers. But in 2005, to appease up-state legislators resentful of all us “Gold Coast fat-cats” getting billions of dollars in long-overdue investment in new rail cars, our local lawmakers gave a bi-partisan thumbs up to a $1 per ticket surcharge for Metro-North riders. To her credit, Governor Rell promised nobody would pay more until new cars were in service.

But the first few new cars won’t be here until 2009, and in any sizable numbers not until 2010. So that made a January ’08 fare surcharge problematic to the pols who want to keep their promises.


In addition, a flat $1 per ticket surcharge is grossly unfair, penalizing those we most want to attract to the rails, the intra-state rider. If it now costs $2.25 to go from Fairfield to Stamford, with the surcharge it would’ve cost $3.25, a 44% fare hike! But a rider from New Haven to Grand Central now paying $18.50 would only have had a 5% fare jump with a buck surcharge.


To lawmakers, the $1 surcharge seemed like such a simple solution. But when they heard from angry commuters, they back-tracked faster than a Danbury-bound locomotive on a slippery-track. The Governor asked Senators McDonald and Nickerson to crunch the numbers and come up with a better plan.


Their solution, the 1% fare hike for each of seven years, but not starting until 2010 seemed a done-deal, or so they told the Commuter Council this summer. Then came the bonding-bill impasse in Hartford with Democrats and Republicans both blaming each other for holding up a variety of necessary spending packages. Finally, last month, an agreement was reached and the plan was approved. But at what cost?


This latest $2.8 billion bond package is now added to our state’s existing $13.9 billion indebtedness. That gives our affluent state the third highest per capita debt load in the nation.


Each year, 11.5% of the state’s budget pays interest on those loans. In the Department of Transportation, 40% of their budget goes to debt service on bonds issued to fix our bridges after the Mianus River Bridge 20 years ago.


Why are we asking our grandchildren to pay for railcars that we’ll ride, but which may be worn out before they’re paid for?

"The Commute From Hell"

If misery loves company, riders on Metro-North often delight in tales of their commuting woes. Here are a couple of recent incidents that are real doozies.

On September 27th, the 4:50 pm Shore Line East “Silver Streak” from Stamford to New Haven made it just past Norwalk before the engine gave out. After 15 minutes, the conductor told passengers they were “working on” the diesel and that if it couldn’t be fixed, a replacement would be sent. An hour after the break-down, word came “a new engine is on its way”. After another hour (the delay now totaling two hours and fifteen minutes), the engine arrived from New Haven and the train lumbered as far as Bridgeport before further inexplicable delays.

In the meantime, passengers were in limbo with no communications. Not seeing any sign of a conductor, passengers roamed the three-car set seeking answers. One rider even commandeered the PA system asking “Does anybody know what’s going on?” Turns out the one lone conductor on the three-car train had taken cover in his booth!

Metro-North later apologized for the lack of communications and the conductor was chewed out for hiding rather than helping.

Then, just last week, a Danbury-bound train was similarly stalled-out, this time brought to a halt by slippery leaves. Branch riders had been warned that day they may have to take busses part of the way home due to the annual ritual of decomposing wet leaves and the steep grade combining to make even a multi-ton locomotive lose the friction war with Mother Nature.

So, on Friday October 26th, the 5:16 out of Stamford rolled out on time but never made it past Branchville. Try as it did to make it up the hill, several times, the train eventually gave up, dumping all of its weary riders in the tiny hamlet where a bus transfer was promised. An hour and 45 minutes later, one bus arrived. It was immediately filled, leaving a hundred passengers on the platform. A second bus didn’t show up for more than a half-hour. Mind you, all this was happening in the rain.

As one commuter recounted, “Not once (during the entire time) did the conductor make one announcement as to what was going on.” Once again, passengers were calling Metro-North’s help line to find out was happening on their train while being ignored by the onboard staff. When passengers finally tracked down the conductor he was, you guessed it… hiding in his booth. He claimed there was a PA problem, though he never walked through the three car train to explain what was going on.

If this is what happens when a train is brought to its knees by wet leaves, imagine what would happen in a real emergency? How would passengers know how to evacuate a train or deal with the injured when the lone conductor in the crew is too afraid to face the paying public?

I’ve written at length about conductors who neglect to collect tickets from all riders, but incidents like these lose the railroad more than money. They cost Metro-North credibility, goodwill and any confidence commuters might still have that things will ever get better on their commute from hell.

We can, perhaps, understand it when something mechanical breaks down. But the breakdown in communications is inexcusable. Maybe the conductors are tired of having to apologize for delays and such. That’s too bad. As the face of the railroad it is always their job to explain what’s happening and keep riders informed.

That incidents like these happen more and more often, tells me that Metro-North has some serious training problems… no pun intended.

October 01, 2007

Aboard Amtrak's Southwest Chief


A few weeks ago I wrote about the miseries of air-travel, pledging to do all I could to avoid the “not-so friendly skies”. Well, being a man of my word, I’m writing this column en route to LA by Amtrak on “The Southwest Chief”.


Chicago’s Union Station is a busy place on the Saturday of my departure on Amtrak’s crack train to KC, AZ and LA. Amid the bustle of downtown-bound suburbanites entering the station off METRA commuter trains, an opposite flow of older “land cruisers” gathers in Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge for my and other trains all leaving within hours of each other.


Grand old railroad names like “The Empire Builder” (to Seattle), “The California Zephyr” (to San Francisco) and “The Texas Eagle” (to San Antonio) all vie for attention. Later the calls will go out for “The Capitol Ltd.” (to Washington), “Lakeshore Ltd.” (to NY and Boston) and “City of New Orleans” (to the Crescent City.)


At 2:45 PM the boarding call is made for our nine-car train: two sleepers, a diner, a glass-walled and ceiling observation car, three coaches, a crew dormitory and a baggage car. We board and settle-in. I’m in a deluxe bedroom with plenty of seating, a wash-basin and WC (which doubles as a shower). Located upstairs on this bi-level Superliner, I also have two windows.


Firing up my radio scanner I hear the conductor proudly announce an on-time departure at 3:15 as my sleeping car attendant offers me complimentary juice and coffee and the dining car chief, Moses, give me a 6:30 reservation for dinner.


Coach fare from Chicago to LA rivals the airlines, starting at $146. Mind you, it is a 31+ hour journey. But the bedroom costs another $1,034 under Amtrak’s new policy to allow demand to meet their limited supply of accommodations. Good for them, say I, though my ticket is free. Zip. Nada. A free ticket to ride 2256 miles, including all meals.


Thanks to their frequent rider program, Amtrak Guest Rewards, my many jaunts on Acela between Boston and Washington have added up to this free trip. How sweet!


As we roll thru rural Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas I play a game of trying to figure out where we are, looking for names on water towers and passing highway signs. These hamlets are small town America at its best. Kids gather near the tracks and waive as we roll by. I wave back.


As I have dinner on disposable plastic plates in the once-proud diner (hot food is only prepared on ”The Empire Builder”, the rest is nuked), the sleeping car attendant makes up my bed. A couple of Tylenol PM’s assure a good night’s sleep despite the rocky roadbed. Sunrise brings us to Colorado. Later, New Mexico, Arizona and finally California.


One of my favorite reasons to travel is meeting folks I’d never encounter otherwise. Like the lady from LA returning home from England after a round-trip on the Queen Mary. “I never fly. Ever,” she says with pride. Or the retired engineer from a railroad family who knows ever town on the route. “Over there’s an old TB Sanitarium,” he says, adding “It’s still used by the Feds”. We joke about renaming this town in the middle of nowhere Rendition CO and hypothesize about the nationality of the current “guests”.


If you really want to see our great country and meet some true Americans, get out of that middle seat in coach and try taking the train. Getting there is more than half the fun.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

September 26, 2007

Designing the new M8 Rail Cars



Some people say I’m a curmudgeon with never a nice thing to say about Metro-North or the CDOT… always complaining… too negative. Well, this column will change your mind. I have seen the designs for our new M8 cars on Metro-North and I’m ecstatic!

Much of the credit goes to renowned designer Cesar Vergara, who has commuted for years from Connecticut and recently spent many months riding the Harlem and Hudson line cars to learn from their successes and mistakes.

From the outside, our new cars will look much like those M7 cars running in Westchester and on the LIRR. But on the inside, it’s all first class… though it’s still two and three seating. The color scheme is deep burgundy and rich cream with frosted silver and aluminum.

The windows are bigger. The overhead baggage rack has a soft, scalloped look. The lights run the length of the car and are offset by oval accents in the vestibules. The floors are a non-skid rubber made in Germany.

There are single leaf doors instead of doubles. An overhead LED displays the next stop, complimented by an automated PA system. The crew can talk to each other on their own intercom and there’s a separate intercom for emergency use by passengers to contact a conductor.

Yes, the seats are still two on one side and three on the other, but they look much more comfortable. Covered with naugahyde, each seat has its own headrest with airline style winglets to stop snoozers’ heads from landing on a neighbor’s shoulder. Between the headrests are grab bars to assist getting in and out. And wonder of wonders, the seats have an extra inch of “pitch”, or distance from the back of the seat to the next one. They will be soft, but not bucket-style as we now have.

The new M8’s will have vacuum toilets capable of holding five days of effluent, though pump-outs are promised more often… i.e., they shouldn’t stink. And thanks to ADA requirements, they’ll be roomy too!

Each train set will be equipped with GPS so it will always know where it is, as will the control room. Space is being built for the addition of WiFi gear, but none is planned for now pending a study with Amtrak.

Despite earlier plans to have cars share power conversion duties (with one car being powered by third rail and its mate fed by overhead catenary), all cars will now have both third rail and pantographs, but be permanently coupled in “married pairs”. New cars cannot run in train consists with the older M2’s, M4’s and M6’s.

AC traction motors will offer speedy acceleration and convert braking energy into generation of electricity to be fed back into the overhead wires. Because the new cars are heavier and there will be so many of them (300+), Metro-North and CDOT are worried about whether the existing power infrastructure can handle the load. (When the M7’s were first added to the Harlem division major upgrades to the power grid were needed).

The first eight cars will arrive in “early summer” 2009 for testing and acceptance by the end of that year. They’re being manufactured by Kawasaki in, of all places, Lincoln, Nebraska. Despite fears to the contrary, CDOT promises that the M8 maintenance facility will be finished by the time the first cars arrive.

Commuters can watch for a seat-drop in coming weeks with pictures and a chance for some final input on the design.

August 12, 2007

"I Don't Want To Fly!!!"

You won’t catch me on an airplane anytime soon. Well, maybe for a business trip to Europe (though another crossing on the Queen Mary II would be nice). No, I’m sorry, but the airlines have lost this road warrior as a customer. It’s back to Amtrak, driving or tele-conferencing.

It’s not that I’m afraid of flying. It’s not even the proctological screening by the TSA (though now I hear that cigarette lighters aren’t the terrorist threat we were told they were… but meantime, air cargo still flies unscreened.)

No, it’s the airlines that are at fault. After years of heavy losses, they have down-sized their planes and their service to the point that a trip on Greyhound seems more fun.

This summer is shaping up to be the worst in aviation history. On-time arrivals hover at 68% and are plummeting. Sure, the carriers blame the weather and antiquated FAA equipment, but that’s only part of the problem.

To save money, the airlines fly smaller aircraft, almost guaranteeing a full plane. And schedules are so tight, if there is a delay, forget about finding room on “the next flight.”

When flights are delayed, the horrors begin. You’ve heard the stories… passengers trapped on planes for hours, the AC turned down to save fuel, as planes await their slot for departure. Toilets backing up, no running water, passengers swelter… wouldn’t this be illegal if the cargo were cattle rather than humans?

Flight crews are also at the breaking point. Underpaid to begin with and now vastly over-worked with planes flying 90% full, the flight attendants are starting to crack. On one delayed flight a flight attendant had a mother and her baby ejected because the child kept saying “Bye, bye”. The stew said to the mom, “You’ve got to shut your baby up!” The mother couldn’t, so she and her child waved “bye, bye” to the plane from the terminal. How’s that for “the friendly skies?”

Not that things are much better in first class. Sure, the seats are a bit bigger, but long gone are the days when flying up-front meant a hot meal. On most carriers it’s the same crappy snacks, but in unlimited proportions. Gee, should I go for a third bag of pretzels or try a granola bar?

Access to airline lounges, while still an imperative to get away from the maddening throngs, grows more expensive and less rewarding. In Denver, United saves money by opening only one of its two Red Carpet Clubs meaning a half-mile walk for your free Diet Coke.

Sorry, but the airlines have lost me as a customer. I’ll enjoy an overnight sleeper on Amtrak rather than play on-time roulette at O’Hare. This spring, after being stranded in Charlotte with the promise their “might be” a flight in a day or two, I rented a car and drove home. Twelve straight hours on the interstate beat sitting around that fetid airport with five thousand weary fellow-travelers.

Flying used to be glamorous. Now it’s just tedious.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

July 30, 2007

"Summers In The Toll Booth"

One of my earliest exposures to transportation was a summer job in the industry. For three of my college years I spent my summers working as a toll collector for the NY State Thruway, both on the Tappan Zee Bridge and at the New Rochelle toll barrier. It wasn’t the sexiest of gigs, but the pay was good and I sure learned a lot about people on the road.

Like the elderly couple who came to my booth in Tarrytown asking “which exit is Niagara Falls?” Consulting my official NY Thruway Map (remember those?) I said, “That’s exit 50, sir.” Reassured they were heading in the right direction they then asked “Is that exit on the right or left?” I responded, “Bear right for 389 miles. You can’t miss it”

I had my share of celebrities while working at the Tappan Zee. One day an old jalopy pulled up and I immediately recognized the driver. “You’re Derwood Kirby!,” I said, recognizing the co-star from the old Gary Moore show. “Right,” he replied. But before I could ask for an autograph he asked, “Which exit for Nyack?” Gobsmacked by my brush with stardom I stuttered, “Exit 10”, and sent him on his way.

The Woodstock festival happened one of my summers in the booth. Of course, nobody expected a half-million kids would show up for the upstate event, especially the folks at the Thruway. But after the rock fest was well underway, the Thruway brass realized the mobs would eventually be heading home, clogging the bridge. Because the music was expected to end late on Sunday, many of us temp-collectors worked overtime into the wee hours of Monday morning.

Of course, the music didn’t end until Monday, meaning that the usual morning rush hour carried as many burned-out hippies as it did business commuters. I remember one station-wagon that pulled in to my lane, caked in mud up to the windows and stuffed with a dozen zonked-out kids. “Hey man,” said the driver with eyes that struggled to focus. “We don’t have any money” (to pay the 50 cent toll). “How about these instead?” That day, the Tappan Zee toll was an orange and a warm Coke.

Most days, life as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee was a delight, as I was usually assigned the outside lane, also known as “the country club” because of its green vistas and views of the mighty Hudson River. But then, as luck would have it, I was transferred to the night shift on the New Rochelle toll barrier.

Overnights on the New England Thruway (I-95) were dominated by trucks… hundreds of them. Most feared by all toll collectors was one vehicle that usually came through about 4 am… “The Chicken Truck”.

This flatbed truck was piled high with open chicken coops stuffed full of terrified live birds on their way to their demise at markets in New York City. Careening down the highway at top speed, the chicken truck left in its wake about a quarter mile of noxious effluent of chicken feathers and bird poop. So when the truck slowed to a stop to pay its toll, this cloud of noxious gas and seepage would continue into my lane.

As old-timer toll collectors would warn me, when “The Chicken Truck” chooses your lane, close your windows and door. Wait til the driver is ready with the toll money and open your door only wide enough to accept the cash, then seal yourself in the booth and don’t breathe!

Gee. And I thought the truck exhaust was bad!

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JIM CAMERON is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the organizations on which he serves. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

July 15, 2007

Reforming the Connecticut DOT

Once again, Governor Rell has taken a heavy, hands-on approach to running state government, big-footing her new commissioner by ordering a top-to-bottom reform of the trouble-child of state government, the Connecticut Department of Transportation. Good for her.

It wasn’t enough that she once publicly spanked the former Commissioner, Stephen Korta, for his agency’s messy handling of the used-Virginia commuter-rail car debacle. Or that she was embarrassed by the recent scandal over the $60 million I-84 drainage system. Or that we were all surprised that CDOT had secretly decided it could cut back on bridge inspections, ignoring the lessons of the Mianus River Bridge disaster 20+ years ago.

(For a fascinating, yet depressing, history of the CDOT, click here for a recent commentary in the Hartford Courant.)

Now the Governor has created a panel to completely reorganize CDOT. And they have ‘til December 1st to issue their recommendations. Headed by Pitney Bowes Chairman Michael Critelli, the panel is a strange mix of state bureaucrats, lawyers and business people, with no apparent outside experts in organization or transportation.

But, as they undertake their Sisyphean task, I hope they will give serious consideration to carving out a new agency: The Connecticut Transit Authority or CTA.

Until 1969, Connecticut used to have separate agencies for highways, transportation, aeronautics and steamships. Then they were all subsumed into the Department of Transportation, or as I think of it, the “Department of Asphalt and Concrete”. Highways always have and always will reign supreme at CDOT.

According to the widely respected Tri-State Transportation Campaign, in 2005 CDOT spent 76% of state transportation improvement money and 84% of Federal “flexible funds” on highways… at the same time Metro-North was at a near meltdown. While other states, like California, long ago halted new highway construction in favor of mass transit, CDOT lumbers on building new roads.

The six year, $1.5 billion expansion of the Q Bridge in New Haven will, by CDOT’s own admission, relieve traffic congestion for only three years before the I-95, I-91 intersection is again clogged tight. Those years of construction mess and billions of dollars will yield what?

But take that same money and invest it in expanded Shore Line East rail service and we’d relieve congestion on I-95 for decades.

While the Governor and legislature deserve credit for finally committing $3.6 billion to transportation in the last three sessions, we simply cannot trust the CDOT to allocate and administer those funds for mass transit without breaking out that priority under a separate agency.

Connecticut is the only state in the union that runs its buses and commuter trains out of its Department of Transportation… and it’s clearly not because we have some extraordinary vision or expertise. Transit, airports and water-borne transportation would all be better served by again being carved out of the CDOT and given their own budget, staff and goals.

As it stands, CDOT’s highway focus has pretty-much sublet our rail future to our vendor, Metro-North and its parent, the MTA in New York. We pay them to run our trains, set our schedules and even design our new M8 rail-cars… all without a vote on either board. We write the check but they call the tune.

Under-staffed and over-burdened, the few dedicated CDOT staffers working on bus and rail issues don’t stand a chance in an agency so clearly dominated by highway interests.

In its earliest deliberations five years ago, the state-wide Transportation Strategy Board considered creating a CT Transit Authority, but succumbed to the entrenched highway interests. Last session in the legislature a bill was introduced to reconsider the idea, but the Transportation Committee decided to wait a year.


Now’s the chance for real reform of the CDOT, and I hope the Critelli Commission seriously considers the potential for a CTA. Let’s get our trains and buses, our stations and ferries out from under the highway department!

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

July 01, 2007

"Bridge Inspections: The Unlearned Lessons of Mianus"

In June of 1983 a 100-foot section of the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich collapsed. Three people were killed, three others injured and a major stretch of I-95 was left in turmoil for six months during reconstruction.

The engineering reasons for the collapse were simple… rust and corrosion. But the NTSB investigation of the collapse also blamed inadequate inspections by the CDOT.

In the early 1980’s the state was in financial difficulty. Budgets for state agencies were being cut… and so were corners. CDOT had only 12 inspectors on staff for more than 5000 bridges. Had Mianus been inspected more often and more diligently, perhaps that tragedy would have been averted.

Fast forward to 2007. State coffers are flush with cash. In fact, we have a surplus of more than a $900 million. And transportation is a top priority for Hartford. Or so we thought.

Just days ago, The Hartford Courant broke the news that the CDOT had cut back on bridge inspections over the past four years “to save money”. Rather than inspect all the state’s bridges every two years, those structures rated as “fair” would be inspected only every four years. Admittedly, bigger bridges (more than 100 feet in height) and those carrying heavy loads would still be looked at every two years, but does cutting back on inspecting our bridges make any sense?

Amazingly, this move to cut inspections had apparently been blessed by the Federal Highway Administration which, you’d think, would remember back to what happened in 1983.

All our neighboring states mandate inspections every two years, so why did CDOT start pinching pennies here? And more importantly, why didn’t anyone know?

Governor Rell certainly didn’t know, judging by her speedy response to the news accounts. (She’s immediately ordered CDOT to return to inspecting all bridges every two years.) Senator Donald DeFronzo (D – New Britain), co-chair of the legislature’s watchdog Transportation Committee says he didn’t know about the CDOT cutback until the Hartford Courant came calling. But the ranking member of the Transportation Committee, Rep. David Scribner (R – Brookfield) said he had been told of the plan a year ago and trusted CDOT’s decision.

Mind you, none of those lawmakers are civil engineers. Nor am I. But if the policy for reduced inspections made sense, CDOT sure didn’t try to convince anyone by disclosing the move publicly.

If CDOT felt that “saving money” was a greater priority than safety inspections on the highways, how about the trains? Has Metro-North’s recent spate of wires-down incidents been tied to cost savings? What about our decrepit stations? Where else have corners (and budgets) been cut?

The sins of the past still haunt us. The billions of dollars in bonding issued after the Mianus disaster are yet to be paid off: forty percent of CDOT’s annual budget pay debt service on those bonds.

Connecticut is one of the richest states in the union. Yet, we carry one of the highest per-capita debt loads. Our grand children will curse us when these bills come due… unless they decide to roll those debts over another generation or two. So much for “the land of steady habits”.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

June 17, 2007

"Next Stop Penn Station?"

Will Connecticut rail commuters someday be able to travel directly from Fairfield County to New York City’s Penn Station? Someday… but not anytime soon.

As with many good ideas that seem so obvious, this one also has been studied thoroughly and found to be problematic in a number of respects. But once again, Governor Rell is challenging the Connecticut Department of Transportation to explain why good ideas like this can’t be implemented. Here, Governor, are a few of the reasons:

INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT: As any commuter on Metro-North can tell you, we don’t have enough seats for existing service to Grand Central let alone expansions to new stations. But now the Canadian rail-car manufacturer Bombardier, having lost the bidding war for the new M8 cars to Kawasaki, is lobbying Hartford to fund railcars we never asked for… double-decker cars with push-pull electric locomotives. They’d be perfect for new express service to Penn Station, they claim. Those cars may work in New Jersey, for which they were designed, but were long ago rejected by the Connecticut DOT for good reasons.

Now, I’m all for getting more rail cars. (Full disclosure, I’m a Canadian by birth). But why are we turning to a rail car vendor to tell us what kind of equipment we should run, and where?

ELECTRICITY: Our existing fleet of MU cars cannot take a left turn at New Rochelle and head over the Hells Gate Bridge onto Long Island, then hang a right, in through the tunnels into Penn Station. The cars’ overhead power catenary system operates under a different voltage than Amtrak. And in third rail territory on Long Island, our cars use a different kind of shoe to contact the third-rail power source. The proposed 2009 experimental direct train from Connecticut to Giants Stadium in New Jersey that was announced with such fanfare last week will actually be run with New Jersey transit railroad equipment.

CAPACITY: Even if we had the cars with the right electrical equipment to make it over the Hells Gate Bridge and through the tunnels to Penn Station, there’s no room in the station. For years now, the MTA has stalled our discussions about direct service to Penn Station, claiming there is no capacity… that the station is full-up serving Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad and NJ transit. Only if and when the $6.3 billion East Side Access project bringing some Long Island Railroad trains into Grand Central is completed many years from now, says the MTA, will there be room for any Metro-North trains to access Penn Station.

Once again, Connecticut is being told by the New York MTA what its transportation future will be. And Connecticut still has no say in the matter nor voting seat at the table, either on the MTA or the Metro-North boards. Connecticut may be the MTA’s largest customer, hired by CDOT to operate Metro-North trains in our state, but when it comes to important decisions, like expanding rail service to Penn Station, the MTA is clearly in control.

Years ago Governor Rell acknowledged the inequity in this position, and promised to fight for a seat on the MTA board. One might ask… what happened to that fight? Why, Governor, is a New York agency still in charge of Connecticut’s transportation future?

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

June 03, 2007

Saving the Bar Cars

Score one for the commuters! The MTA has backed down on plans to prohibit the sale of alcohol at Grand Central and on the trains, thanks in part to the organized efforts of the CT Rail Commuter Council and a petition drive by bar car fans.

An MTA task force was studying possible prohibition at the urging of an LIRR board member, who was worried that the railroad might be liable for injuries caused by people who were drinking on the train. Board member Mitch Pally started his effort after a young woman died after she fell into the gap between a station platform and the train; the victim was found to have been drinking before the accident.

But it turns out that dozens of people have fallen into such platform gaps when they were stone cold sober, so our suggestion was to fix the gap… not penalize responsible adult commuters who enjoy having a beer on their way home by train. Led by commuter Council Vice Chair Terri Cronin, concerned commuters gathered over 4,000 petition signatures, which were presented along with her testimony before the MTA panel.

To their credit, CDOT officials also testified that even if the MTA plan went forward prohibiting alcohol sales, Connecticut would not enforce it. It's almost a two hour ride from Grand Central to New Haven, and given the crowding, lack of seats, smelly bathrooms and spotty AC, don't commuters deserve (if not need) a drink?

(Full disclosure; I haven't had a drink in over 20 years, but I'll surely fight to defend the right of adults to enjoy such beverages responsibly.)

The panel also heard from MTA police, who said that there have not been reports of unruly drunks on the trains or injuries caused by commuters driving home after time in the bar cars. Bartenders, both at the carts at Grand Central and on the bar cars themselves, are conscientious about sales. Not only do they proof for age, but will only sell one drink at a time.

All of this apparently impressed the MTA panel studying possible prohibition as their initial recommendation to the full MTA is to leave the sale of alcohol alone.

The MTA earned over $700,000 last year from such sales, double that earned on the Long Island Railroad. Not that Connecticut commuters drink twice as much, but we're the ones blessed with the only bar cars on any commuter railroad in the US.

In the mid-1970s, 20 bar cars were built... ten for New York and ten for Connecticut. The New York cars were later converted to coaches to increase seating capacity. But Connecticut's bar cars live on and are almost “the holy grail” of the railroad.

Nine of the original bar cars are left, but eight new bar cars are on order as part of the M8 purchase. But the older cars are really in sad shape, being held together with gaffer's tape, so they’re undergoing rehabilitation, one at a time. The first rehab’ed bar car should be in service this summer.

So, next time you're on the train, join me in a toast to the MTA, CDOT and America's only commuter-rail bar cars! Cheers!
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

May 28, 2007

A Gas Tax Holiday This Summer?

Nobody likes to pay more for gas. But is the solution really the $120 million state gas tax “holiday” proposed by GOP lawmakers in Hartford, paid for from the $848 million budget surplus? Hardly! But as with the Democrats’ recent idea for free mass transit for senior citizens, who can argue against a “let them eat cake” style giveaway to residents.

Remember, these are your tax dollars we’re talking about. Rather than suggesting they actually be returned to you to spend, Hartford seems to think it knows best how to waste your money…

Like cutting the gas tax by 25 cents a gallon during the busy summer driving season. That would keep motoring cheap and subsidize further greenhouse gas emissions. But it would also cut funding to subsidize mass transit which is dependent on those taxes. Isn’t that a bit self-defeating, especially given we have the highest commuter rail fares in North America?

And those rail fares are going higher: effective January 1st 2008 we commuters face a $1 per ticket fare surcharge. Even the alternative plan from State Senators MacDonald and Nickerson would see a 7% fare increase by 2017 on top of whatever CDOT does to raise fares.

And why are rail commuters being asked to pay for the new rail cars? Bus riders don’t pay for buses and drivers certainly don’t pay for highway construction.

Here’s a better idea: why not use some of the $848 million budget surplus to eliminate the fare hike and keep mass transit affordable? Or accelerate the purchase of more new railcars? Or forgo some of their bonding so we actually pay for these cars, not our grand-children? Those would be investments in our transportation future, not a three-month escape from the reality of ever-climbing fuel prices.

This year’s legislative session began with promises of finally tackling the energy crisis. It remains to be seen if anything comes of those efforts. But clearly, offering freebies and handouts to short-sighted taxpayers is easier than making long-term decisions about our state’s energy and transportation future.

The near-annual effort to eliminate “zone pricing” for gasoline in the state was defeated, again, in the legislature. That means affluent towns’ high gas prices will continue to subsidize less well-to-do communities. But do we all really want to drive to Bridgeport to buy gas?

Subsidize gasoline and you only encourage consumption, driving those prices further upward. The way to lower gas prices is to decrease demand by getting motorists out of their cars and onto the train. Investing part of the state budget surplus in improving mass transit would help do that. But a short-lived summer holiday from gas taxes, like a beer binge on the beach, will only leave us with headaches.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 16 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Wires Down !

Metro-North commuters take a lot for granted. Sure, the trains are crowded and you can’t always get a seat. Yes, the fares are the highest on the continent. We all know the bathrooms stink and the cars are being patched with gaffers tape. But at least they run on time… usually.

Wednesday April 25th was anything but “usual”. As the first train of the morning, the 4:12 from New Haven rolled through Cos Cob, its aging pantograph snagged the overhead power wire. A following train, maneuvering around the stranded train, also caught the caternary, bringing down further power lines. It was the worst of all complications at the worst of all times… the beginning of the morning rush. “Wires down” went out the call, at least to some.

While many parts of the New Haven line have caternary dating from the administration of Woodrow Wilson, this section of power lines had recently been replaced. The fault, it seems, was with the 35-year-old car. Nevertheless, the morning rush was going to be a nightmare.

The commuter cognoscenti immediately went to Plan B: rather than driving to their usual station, they made tracks for White Plains to catch the Harlem Line trains. Initial e-mail alerts from Metro-North were not optimistic, promising 2+ hour delays. Some commuters did as I did… stayed home and telecommuted.

But for folks already on the train or at the station, the options were few and the information scant and often contradictory.

At Stamford, the PA said that trains were running from Rye, a few miles down the line. Hoards of New York-bound commuters dashed for cabs only to be gouged $60 for the nine-mile trip. But once they got to Rye, no trains! Five deep, they lined the platform, looking up the line for telltale signs of action. “The train to NY will leave from the New Haven-bound side,” bellowed the PA. And like lemmings, hundreds crossed over only to see “their train” fly through on their original train without stopping. Back over to the original track, a train finally showed up at 8:20 am and they squeezed in like sardines.

At some stations commuters waited in their parked cars listening to radio reports which often contradicted what the automated PA was advising. “Buses are coming,” some were promised, though no buses arrived.

A ten-car train on Metro-North can hold 1,000 passengers. A bus can carry 50. With 80 trains delayed, you can do the math. And that’s assuming buses are even available, it being morning rush hour, or that they can make their way through now-jammed highways to get to stations. Substitute buses would never work.

Ironically, some of the best information that morning went straight to commuters’’ Blackberries from the MTA by way of their new e-mail alerts. If you’re not signed up for this free service, you should be!

At the Commuter Council’s next meeting, Wed. May 16th, we will conduct a detailed post-mortem on what went so terribly wrong that April morning. We’ll cast special attention on the communications problems, a perennial issue with Metro-North. We invite your participation, in person or by e-mail. Check our website for more details: www.trainweb.org/ct
Metro-North riders can tolerate a lot, if they’re kept informed so they can make decisions. Sadly, that didn’t happen. The next time the call goes out “wires down”… and there will be a next time… will things be any better?
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 16 years. He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed are only his own and not necessarily those of these organizations. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Highway Service Areas Revisited

With warmer weather comes the annual cry… “road trip!”

Now, most of us don’t think twice about the decrepit service areas on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway. Their nasty fast food and over-priced gas are best avoided by knowing locals. But a study is underway by CDOT to rehabilitate these service and rest areas, and, hey… there’s hope for the future!

Last year I attended a focus group that examined the shortcomings of the 31 rest facilities, most of them in southwest Connecticut. The complaints I heard echo commuters’ gripes about Metro-North: facilities are too old, the bathrooms are dirty and there’s not enough parking.

Aside from the sticker-shock over gas prices, what kind of first impression of our fair state do these 1950’s eyesores (built, I was told, to double as bomb-shelters) give to tourists, now the fastest growing sector of the state’s economy?

And what about the truckers who ply our interstates and need to take a break? A 2001 CDOT study showed there are 1,200 truckers who must park roadside at night, even on I-95, because there’s no place else … and do so with the complicity of the State Police.

What’s the impact of these service areas on the towns that “host” them?
Darien, which hosts the two busiest rest areas in the Northeast (and the most profitable McDonald’s franchise in the US!) on I-95, and two smaller service areas on the Merritt Parkway, is a case in point.

Police say the Darien I-95 service areas are the town’s crime hot-spots. When the volunteer EMS unit “Post 53” answers a nighttime call at the service areas, they must have a police escort. Neighbors report prostitution and drug needles along the small fence surrounding the rest area… not to mention the environmental impact of run-off into neighboring streams or the air pollution from idling trucks’ refrigeration units (again made possible because State troopers look the other way).

There’s gotta be a better way. And a few ideas that came out of this CDOT sponsored study might give us all some hope.

Like the idea to use I-95 air rights to build a mall-style service area above the highway with parking on either side. Newly designed service areas would have better food, trained greeters to guide tourists to the local sights, maybe even WiFi access, weather and traffic information. Some even suggested farmers markets and solar-powered plug-ins for parked trucks. Or on the Merritt, where service areas are in the National Register of Historic Places and cannot be changed, how about picnic tables and dog-walks?

Review what’s being discussed and chime in with your ideas now at http://www.ctrestareas.org/ . CDOT admits it only has funding for the study and may never implement its suggestions, but in your travels this spring and summer maybe you’ll come across some fresh ideas on how to improve these important motorist services.
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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 16 years. He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the views expressed here are only his own. Reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .

April 09, 2007

"Commuters Cry Out for Quiet Cars!"

It takes a tough man to be President of Metro-North, and Peter Cannito fits the bill. A long-time “railroad man,” Cannito offers commuters a chance each year to face him with their questions, comments and, occasionally, compliments.

But guess what was the hot topic at this year’s “President’s Forum”? Not dirty bathrooms, fare increases or lack of seats… but obnoxious cellphone users.

Metro-North used to market “train time (as) your own time.” You could read, nap or work on your laptop. But these days, train time means sharing your space with a lot of newbie riders who are more selfish than courteous.

For several years now, I’ve been suggesting we give commuters a break… not by segregating the abusive cell-phonies into one car where they could yell over each others’ conversations, but by doing the opposite: dedicating one car to a cell-free zone.

Years ago, Amtrak offered passengers such an alternative: The Quiet Car ®… a car which, as conductors remind passengers, offers a “library like atmosphere” free of loud conversations, especially on cell-phones. The Commuter Council’s 2004 requests for tests of Quiet Cars® were rejected outright by Mr. Cannito who similarly rebuffed renewed commuter requests at this year’s meeting.

He argues that the railroad can’t ask conductors to “play cop” and enforce passenger behavior… and that trains are so full, doing anything to segregate passengers will only compound the problem.

He’s right. Trains are so crowded there aren’t enough seats for all ticketed passengers. But overcrowding makes it all the harder to put up with some noisy blowhard who insists on yapping the entire trip in a voice loud enough to be heard several rows away. And enough with the customized ring-tones already! Can’t you just set the phone to “vibrate”?

One commuter tells me she witnessed the following example of “cell rage”: A male passenger asked a cell caller to “keep it down”. He didn’t. He asked the conductor to instruct the passenger to be considerate. The conductor wouldn’t. So, this distraught vigilante grabbed the caller’s cellphone and threw it against a wall, smashing it to pieces. A quiet car would avoid such violence.

Amtrak says its Quiet Cars ® have been a marketing success, so much so they have trademarked the name. The service has attracted new passengers and brought in much-needed revenue.

Metro-North, apparently feeling it owns the market of commuters, doesn’t try to compete by attracting passengers. It has more than it can handle. Instead it has undertaken a timid PR campaign asking passengers to be considerate and keep their calls brief and in a low volume.

Admittedly, this has helped a bit. I sometimes see passengers get out of their seats and move to the vestibule for longer calls. Others cup their hands around the mouthpiece and speak in subdued tones. Blackberries and similar text messaging equipment have also reduced the drone. This is a good start.

But if Amtrak can enforce a separate car for those seeking a quiet journey, why can’t Metro-North? The Commuter Council has found other US commuter lines, both rail and bus, that have been successful, so why not at least give the idea a trial-run on Metro-North?
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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

March 26, 2007

"Commuters Speak Out!"

In the past two weeks, more than 500 commuters have spoken out about the planned $1 per ticket fare surcharge by taking the Commuter Council’s online poll. The results show a 9 to 1 opposition (see www.trainweb.org/ct for the details).

But most interesting to me were the 300+ commuters who took time to write comments, some of them quite lengthy. Here are a few excerpts:

>> “Our train fares are already among the highest in the country for daily commuters, and Connecticut should float bonds and find other creative financing options to fund new cars. The state should be encouraging ridership on the trains to resolve highway congestion and reduce pollution; raising fares works exactly counter to this objective.”

>> “Why should I have to pay a "penalty fare" of $1/extra to stand (which I do a few times a week) on a train to/from CT when the State of CT is about 10 years overdue purchasing new rail cars! This is nuts! We already pay some of the highest commuter fares in the country, with about 80% return at the farebox on the main line trains, so I hear.>> “If they’re going to do this, then they need to also put the tolls back on the Turnpike so all of those people have to pay to fix I-95 too.”

>> “Unbelievable that we have suffered through all these years of substandard train cars, and now we have to pay extra to catch up to the standard of almost every other major business city in the world! The quality and age of the train cars on the Metro North CT line is embarrassing. Fares from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago are less than half of what we pay from Fairfield County, and the trains are a lot nicer and less crowded”

>> “You guys (in Hartford) have some set of cojones, my friends. After we have endured woefully outdated cars and problematic service for the past 10 years, now you want to charge us for the 'privilege' of new cars!? Net: this idea is perhaps one of the stupidest ideas I have heard - I will be forwarding this to all of my fellow commuters. Have a nice day.”

>> “The citizens of the state should share the burden, not just commuters, as the entire state benefits from having this transportation system. The (fare) increases to CT commuters has been extraordinary these past years with little improvement, if any, in service. Stop sticking it to the CT commuters.”

>> “We should NOT have to pay anything extra for the new cars until the cars are delivered AND in service"

>> “The new equipment is desperately needed on the New Haven Line. However we are taxing the people who are using mass transit, who in turn are eliminating traffic/congestion on our roads/highways. It is those who drive who should be paying the tax”

>> “If surcharge is inevitable, you should make the commuting fare for poor and middle class people a deductible in their income tax.”

>> “This increase is another bad joke. The legislators should be forced to use this awful railroad to get back and forth to work. Maybe then they would be more responsive to those they serve.”

Those are the thoughts of many commuters. Share your views by taking the survey yourself at www.trainweb.org/ct !
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

March 10, 2007

"The Unfair Fare Surcharge"

Don’t look now commuters, but there’s a fare increase in your future… possibly as much as $40 on a monthly pass.

The $1 per ticket fare surcharge will take effect January 1, 2008, with the proceeds helping fund our order for new rail cars and maintenance facilities. And short of a miracle in the current legislative session, nothing can stop it.

When it was written into the 2005 budget, the feeling was that commuters who’ll be enjoying the new M8 rail cars should pay their “fair share”. Perhaps so, but at $1 per ticket, this fare surcharge is anything but fair.

In fact, the surcharge will hurt most the very people we’re trying to get out of their cars and onto the train… intra-state commuters. Right now, a ticket from Fairfield to Stamford costs $2.25 one way. Whack a $1 surcharge on that and you’re looking at a 44% fare increase… and another excuse to drive.

Monthly commuters who buy unlimited-ride passes may be in for the biggest shock. It’s possible they’ll be surcharged $40 a month (based on five weekly roundtrips, four weeks a month).

How about seniors and kids? If their discounted fares are surcharged $1 per ticket, that’s up to a 100% fare hike. And all this talk of a fare hike while lawmakers are debating another bill to give free mass transit to senior citizens?

The Commuter Council has asked the CDOT, the budget-writing Office of Policy and Management and the Governor’s office for clarification on how the surcharge will be applied, so far to no response.

Most galling is that this fare surcharge flies in the face of Governor Rell’s 2005 promise that commuters "should not be asked to pay for improvements until they actually see them, sit in them or park in them."

The new cars still are on the drawing board and, at best, won’t be delivered until late 2009 (though my money says 2010 is a better bet). So, there’s nothing to “see”… not even drawings, let alone “sit in”. And parking? Well, there are no new lots, even on the drawing board. In fact, we’re about to lose 800 parking spaces for five years with the planned demolition and reconstruction of the rusting, worn out old parking garage at Stamford station.

Commuters are a patient bunch. Just look at what they’ve put up with in the past decade while Hartford did nothing: decaying stations, five-year waiting lists for parking permits, trains without enough seats, insufficient AC in the summer and heat in the winter, derailments and fires. And now Hartford wants commuters to pay a fare increase to pay for new cars that should have been ordered and funded a decade ago?

I guess you can figure out where I stand on this issue. But to gauge commuters’ responses to the planned surcharge and its effect on their commute, the Commuter Council has launched an online poll. Just visit our website at www.trainweb.org/ct and click on the link to share your views online. When the poll is complete, we’ll post the results and share commuters’ opinions with lawmakers.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 16 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 25, 2007

Free Transit For Seniors?

It’s busy, busy in Hartford these days as the legislature considers hundreds of bills, many of them promising long overdue investment in mass transit. But one of the more interesting proposals, HB717, calls for free bus and rail tickets for senior citizens.

The bill’s sponsor suggests that by offering seniors free tickets they would flock to mass transit filling empty seats and forming an important advocacy group for this important service. Seniors, he argues, have “earned” a free ride.

Respectfully, I disagree.

As I testified to the legislature’s Transportation Committee studying the plan, the bill is a “feel good” measure based on a false premise. But who could argue against giving seniors a break? Me, because the numbers just don’t add up.

The problem is that it is just plain wrong to assume that fares are too high for seniors. They already get a 50% fare cut, meaning buses can cost as little as 75 cents a ride. Will making the fares free send hoards of seniors to buses? Not likely.

Seniors don’t ride the bus because it doesn’t go where they want, doesn’t offer frequency or quality of service and doesn’t make them feel safe. Free fares won’t change that. In fact, free tickets will cut operating income for buses, possibly leading to service cuts.

And what about others of lesser means… welfare moms, day-working immigrants and students? Shouldn’t they get a break? Not according to this proposal. Does a senior from Darien or New Canaan really deserve a free ride while poor folks from Norwalk or Bridgeport get none?

And as any actuary will tell you, the baby boom generation is now hitting senior citizenship. In the years to come the number of seniors will soar, further straining transit finances.

It’s also incorrect to assume that we have empty seats waiting to be filled on buses and trains. At rush hour, mass transit is already heavily patronized.

More problematic than crowded buses are the trains. As any commuter will tell you, seats on Metro-North are at a premium. Passengers pay as much as $24 one-way or $386 a month for commutation passes and often have to stand for lack of seats. And you’re going to give seniors a free ride? I could predict some ugly scenes en route as briefcase-totting commuters wrestle for seats with free-riding seniors, the former on their way to work, the latter on their way to a Wednesday matinee.

Even as new rail cars come online in 2010, we still won’t have enough seats to offer freebies to seniors. And even before those cars arrive, passengers are facing a $1 per ticket surcharge as early as next year. But no surcharge is suggested for the 65+ crowd under this bill.

I’m all for offering seniors a discount and the current 50% price reduction seems more than fair. But currently those discounts are good only on off-peak trains.

Another alternative to consider would be to make the “free tickets” good only on intra-state trains and buses… those that offer an alternative to I-95 or the Merritt Parkway. Off-peak and in-state-only trains and buses would serve seniors in Connecticut, not subsidize their jaunts to New York.

We’ll see if lawmakers have the courage and the smarts to oppose this bill. Now’s the time to call or e-mail your State Representative or State Senator and let them know where you stand… or sit.

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JIM CAMERON is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the organizations on which he serves. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

"More Money For Trains"

What a difference a decade makes. It was exactly ten years ago that then-Governor John Rowland introduced his budget calling for elimination of branch-line service on Metro-North to Danbury, Waterbury and the Shore Line East line to Old Saybrook.

Now, a decade later, Governor Rell has just submitted her third budget in a row calling for increased spending on mass transit, including plans for expanded service on Shore Line East (SLE). Not to be outdone, the Democrats in Hartford are falling over each other to out-spend even the Governor’s ambitious plans.

Following on two years of long-overdue but much appreciated legislative action that allocates billions for new rail cars and other transit initiatives, the latest Rell budget seeks…

>>Two dozen more M8 rail cars for Metro-North and SLE, in addition to the 342 already on order

>>$5 million to fix up our train stations, following the lead of the Commuter Council’s “Fix My Station Photo Campaign”

>>$35 million for expedited demolition and expanded rebuilding of the old Stamford station parking garage, adding 200 more spaces
Funding for bike racks and lockers at stations

>>$4.4 million to expand SLE service, adding two weekday trains and initiating new weekend service

Many feared that, given the largess of the legislature in the past sessions, the attitude in Hartford might be that transportation had been “fixed” in the state and it was time to move on to other issues… health, education and energy. But as any commuter can tell you, we’re far from “done” when it comes to our transit system.

Particularly heartening is the Governor’s recognition that service must be expanded on SLE. Since its opening in 1990, Shore Line East has been only half of a railroad, offering weekday-only westbound service to New Haven in the morning and eastbound in the evening. Despite the limited number of trains, SLE has seen a 7% ridership increase in each of the past few years.

And when the Q Bridge mega-construction project kicks in (costing $1.4 billion and running until 2014), ridership should soar because nobody in his right mind will want to drive I-95 through New Haven.

State Rep. Steven Mikutel (D – Griswold) is thinking bigger, calling for expanded service to New London. SLE trains used to run there, and could again… were it not for boaters.

Believe it or not, boating interests have an agreement with Amtrak (which owns the tracks east of New Haven) to limit the number of trains along the line so that bridges can remain open and boaters can sail through at will. Trains, both Amtrak’s Acela and SLE, filled with hundreds of commuters, are being capped by the selfish interests of a few sailors.

Amazing.

But assuming we can persuade the sailors to wait for bridge openings, why not think bigger still? Why not extend SLE to Mystic and beyond to Providence? This is the only section of the Northeast Corridor, from Washington to Boston, that doesn’t offer commuter rail in addition to Amtrak.

My hat’s off to Governor Rell and her ambitious budget plans. Now let’s hope the legislature sees her (vision), and raises her one.

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JIM CAMERON is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the groups on which he serves. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 01, 2007

The TSB's Vision of Our Transportation Future

Who is looking out for our state’s transportation future? The TSB, that’s who. Created by the legislature almost six years ago, the Transportation Strategy Board has just issued its updated vision of where we’re going, and it holds a number of exciting possibilities.

RAILROAD STATIONS & PARKING: The TSB calls for additional parking at all stations with uniform policies and pricing. They also want to expedite the replacement of the Stamford garage now set for demolition. New stations should be built in West Haven and, possibly, Orange. The new stations should be sites for transit-oriented development (TOD) (i.e. shopping and housing). Platforms at all stations should be lengthened to accommodate ten car trains. Intermodal connections between trains and residential / business areas should be enhanced.

NEW SERVICE: The TSB endorses plans for new commuter rail service between New Haven and Springfield, the integration of Metro-North and Shore Line East and future service to Penn Station.

BRANCH LINES: The Danbury branch signalization should (finally) move forward and “collector” stations should be expanded where the branch lines cross the Merritt Parkway to encourage commuters to drive, then take the train.

RAIL FREIGHT: At long last the TSB has recommended use of rail freight throughout the state as an alternative to truck transport. Much of this plan will depend on plans for a cross-harbor rail tunnel in New York harbor.

BUS TRANSIT: Fund an expanded bus network using clean (i.e. non-diesel) buses. Expeditiously implement the planned New Britain to Hartford busway.

MANAGING HIGHWAY CONGESTION: Perhaps the least popular and most controversial of its suggestions, the TSB endorses a study of EZ Pass-style tolls on major highways as a means of mitigating congestion and raising funds to support mass transit. Further, the TSB recommends development of an electronic system to inform drivers of congestion, including a statewide 511 phone system.

HIGHWAYS: Recognizing that we cannot build our way out of our current traffic problems, the TSB does not endorse construction of more interstate highways except areas of I-95 between Branford and North Stonington and I-84 between Danbury and Waterbury. The board also calls for greater north-south connections between our east-west oriented major highways.

AIRPORTS: Expand Bradley for greater passenger and freight service. Consider enhancements to New Haven’s Tweed Airport to improve service.

MARITIME: Expand feeder barge service between New York and Bridgeport to include New Haven which could be expanded as a commercial deep-water port with a rail link. Dredge New Haven and Bridgeport harbors.

Though this update to the TSB’s 2005 plans is long on vision, it is short on specifics, by design. Unlike the previous recommendations by the TSB, this year’s report leaves to the CDOT and its dynamic new Commissioner, Ralph Carpenter, the implementation of its vision, and correctly so.

Critics who have attacked this TSB report do so for several reasons. The pro-highway lobby of construction interests is angry because the TSB does not call for highway expansion which would fill its coffers. And weak-willed politicians are unhappy that more specific projects are not cited, leaving them to take the political heat for CDOT-proposed projects. So be it.

I, for one, am pleased with the TSB’s report as I know it to be the results of over a year of thoughtful review. Now it’s up to our lawmakers to fund this vision of our transportation future. None of this will be cheap, but remember that it was penny-pinching neglect that got us into our current mess.



JIM CAMERON is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the groups on which he serves. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

"Value Pricing Our Highways"

Tired of sitting in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic on I-95 and the Merritt? Well, esteemed economist Milton Friedman has the answer.

Almost a decade ago, Freidman realized that traffic congestion was just a matter of supply and demand: too much demand and not enough supply.

While some have suggested expanding the supply of roadways by double-decking I-95 or widening the Merritt Parkway, a simpler (and less costly) solution seems to be in managing the demand using “value pricing”.

Today, when we drive on highways at rush hour it costs us no more than if we drive off-peak. That is wrong. The value derived from being able to cruise (or crawl) on I-95 in morning rush hour is much higher, and should be priced accordingly.

Consider the other services we consume that offer off-peak pricing. Go to a movie on a Saturday night and you’ll pay more than on a weekday afternoon. Take a flight on a busy holiday weekend, when everyone else wants to fly, and you’ll pay more. Even Metro-North offers peak and off-peak (reduced) fares. So too should our highways.

Using electronic tolls (think EZPass), motorists who want or must drive at rush hour would pay a small price for the privilege. Those who don’t need to be on the roads at the busiest hours would wait, and pay less (or maybe nothing). That would mean fewer cars at rush hour and less congestion.

Those paying the tolls at rush hour would get faster trip times… real value for the price. And the money raised could pay for long overdue highway construction or, better yet, subsidies for mass transit to keep fares low and attract even more cars off the highways.

Is it worth, say, $4 to drive eleven miles at rush hour? You bet, if it means you pick up your kid at daycare on time and avoid their $1 per minute penalty for late pick-up… or if you can actually make that important 8:30 am meeting that wins you an important piece of business.

Value pricing is already underway on the George Washington Bridge. In rush hour, big-rigs pay $36 to cross. But off-peak it’s only $30 and overnight the toll drops to $21. Since its introduction, value pricing has evened out the traffic load, saving everybody time and money.

Why haven’t we put such technology to use in Connecticut? Three reasons: 1) people think tolls actually slow down traffic, 2) there are fears of another fiery truck crash into a toll booth and 3) there is a myth that if we reinstate tolls on our highways we’ll have to repay the Federal government billions of dollars. All are false.

Drive the Garden State or Jersey Turnpike using EZPass and you can sail thru the barrier at top speed. Trucks don’t collide into toll booths, and if you’re really worried about trucker safety, why not open the Greenwich inspection station 24 x 7? And even the Federal DOT acknowledges that it will approve highway tolls used as a traffic mitigation tool.

So, as you motor across the countryside, take a look around. Make note of the many state and private toll roads using new technology to collect tolls that pay for the roads you’re enjoying and ask yourself this: why aren’t we as progressive here in Connecticut?
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct