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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 .