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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