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December 24, 2008

Travel Now, Talk Later

I love my cell phone. But I’m not crazy about other peoples’ cellphones, especially when they use them in a selfish or illegal manner.

You do know it’s against the law to talk on a cellphone while driving in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, right? Yes, cellphone addicts are allowed to drive and talk if they use a “hands-free” device, but even this begs the question of where their attention should be, i.e. on the road.

I honestly wonder what soccer moms with an SUV full of kids are thinking when they drive down busy streets juggling a latte in one hand and a cellphone in the other. Don’t they love their kids?

Local police have told me writing tickets for this offense is like shooting fish in a barrel. The first offense is usually just a warning, but some people never learn and have piled up three or four tickets.

Once, when stuck in crawling traffic on I-95, I actually saw a guy reading a book. I’ve seen other drivers shaving or putting on make-up. Give me a break!

In the words of the NPR “Car Talk” guys’ bumper sticker: “Drive Now, Talk Later”. But I’d carry that message to other travel environments as well, especially on the train.

When people leave the personal cocoon of their private car and move into mass transit they cannot take their selfish behaviors with them. In my car I can turn up the radio and enjoy a cigar, but on the train I have to share my ride with others.

For several years now the CT Rail Commuter Council has been trying to persuade Metro-North to establish “Quiet Cars” on commuter trains… cellphone- free environments where riders seeking peace don’t need to hear some self-centered hedge-fund dealer yelling at his trading desk in a voice that carries through the entire car.

Amtrak pioneered the “Quiet Car”® concept to rider acclaim, but Metro-North refuses even to experiment with the idea, instead pushing its “please be considerate of other riders” public service campaign, to only modest success.

If we used to have smoking and non-smoking cars, why can’t we have “Quiet Cars” as well?

What I enjoy most is watching cellphone users with the new Bluetooth wireless ear clips, chattering away to nobody in particular… “It’s me.” Who cares? “I’m on the train”. Yeah, I can tell. “Just thought I’d check in.” I wish I could check out. “What’s happening?” “My blood pressure is rising!”

But wait, fellow travelers… it could possibly get worse. Recently the FAA was considering allowing cellphone use in-flight. Could you imagine a 5 hour trans-con, crammed into a center seat, between two people determined to talk the entire way… and who’ve brought extra back-up batteries just to be sure? Fortunately, saner minds prevailed and that idea was shot down.

On a recent flight I had to ask the Gen-X’er sitting next to me three times to turn off her cell phone and stop texting her “buds” as we revved up for take-off. Finally, a call to the stewardess separated the gal from her toys until we landed. But if looks could kill…

OK…I’ll admit that I do use my cellphone on the train, but I always make the call short, and cup my hand around the mouthpiece… something like “I’ll be home by 7, but you guys go ahead and eat.” If a longer call is necessary I get out of my seat and use the vestibule area so as not to intrude on others’ peace. And to make sure that incoming calls don’t bother anyone, I leave my phone on vibrate.

Remember: A ticket on the train buys you transportation, not the right to annoy your fellow passengers with a recitation of your woes. And when you’re driving, will you please hang up?

December 13, 2008

Bankruptcy is the Only Way to Save Detroit

One of the most chilling images of the debacle that was the Vietnam war was a US soldier using his Zippo lighter to ignite the thatched hut of a small village, setting it ablaze as residents looked on in shock. “We had to destroy it to save it,” he said.

The same is true with the big three auto makers in Detroit. Bankruptcy is the only way to save them.

THE UNIONS:
Any tax dollars spent on “bailing out” Detroit would be a waste. Sure, they might prop up a few over-paid UAW jobs and pensions for awhile and maybe keep some local auto dealers afloat, but they are all doomed.

UAW auto workers make an average of 30% more than non-union labor at Japanese auto plants in the US. Union wages and benefits add more than $2000 to the cost of a big-three built car. Sorry guys… the party’s over.

Bankruptcy will allow Detroit to go back to square one and negotiate reasonable labor contracts. Sure the union workers would be screwed, but they’ve been living pretty well for years, even getting paid for not working.

THE FRONT OFFICE:
Big three’s management must go. These guys drove their industry into this problem agreeing to fat union contracts while designing cars that Americans don’t want.
Robert Lutz, is the Vice Chairman of GM now in charge of the make-or-break Chevy Volt electric car. Yet he admits he doesn’t believe in global warming and recently described the car’s potential buyers as “no make-up” lady environmentalists with hairy legs.

This guy needs to be taken out of the executive gene pool. Ignorance and arrogance like Lutz’s have no place in Detroit’s future.

Grounding your fleet of corporate jets and agreeing to work for a dollar a year are sacrifices of too little and far too late.

THE PRODUCT:
Why has Detroit continued to build gas-guzzling behemoths while the Japanese have innovated with hybrids to great success? Gas may be cheap today, but the days of $4 and $5 a gallon will return.

Watching “60 Minutes” the other night, I heard the Saudis unapologetically explain that because their future is in selling oil, they’ll do all they can to stop an electric car from being built.

Detroit’s big-three are clearly OPEC’s best customers, so why not let Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar bail them out?

But please, do not waste another US taxpayer or Treasury dollar on a bailout of Detroit. They’ve squandered their own money. Don’t let them misspend ours.
Detroit and the big-three’s unions are victims only of their own greed and incompetence. A bailout is like handing booze and the car keys to an alcoholic because he promises to drive to an AA meeting. Bankruptcy would give them a clean slate, like going to rehab.

THE FUTURE:
One silver lining: Senator Chris Dodd’s observation that Detroit used to build more than cars and trucks. GM also used to build passenger trains and buses.

So in a post-bankruptcy auto industry, let’s use their engineering expertise to think of transportation as more than one person in two tons of steel guzzling gasoline.

As of today the US doesn’t have a single large domestic rail passenger car builder: Kawasaki, Bombardier, Alstom and the others are all foreigners with token domestic plants. This lack of competition drives prices up: the new M8 cars on Metro-North cost $2.5 million each.

Imagine a post-bankruptcy Detroit putting its engineering skill, production facilities and labor to work on mass transit and maybe, just maybe, there’s a silver lining in this mess.

November 22, 2008

A WPA Project For Transportation

How can our nation pull itself out of this economic tailspin, create new jobs and actually give something to generations? Why, by repairing and reinvigorating our country’s transportation system. What we need is a new, 1930’s style WPA Project for transportation!

The recent election saw a number of states and cities endorse spending for mass transit, mostly for overdue improvements transportation, but with the side benefit of thousands of jobs.

In California voters approved an almost $10 billion bond package to build high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The full plan will cost $42 billion and employ a half-million workers. Construction of the 220 mph train system could begin in 2011.

In Los Angeles voters also approved a half-cent sales tax hike to fund new roads and rails. Over the next 30 years that should mean $40 billion for transportation alternatives to road-weary commuters.

Contrast those visionary voters’ decisions with the muck and mire of us living here in “the land of steady habits”.

We’re not building a transportation bridge to the future but paying for the collapse of one 20 years ago! Today, 40% of the budget of the CDOT still pays debt service on bonds issued after the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 fell down due to engineering neglect.

Right here in Darien we’re watching CDOT spend over $5 million to replace the Hollow Tree Ridge Road bridge over I-95. So far, the seven month-long project seems to be employing just a handful of workers and more time has been wasted since the bridge was closed to traffic than has been spent in actual construction.

Face it. We need to fix what we have before dreaming of a maglev running down the center of our freeways.

The Merritt Parkway opened in 1938. Interstate I-95 came along twenty years later. Both are in bad shape and jammed with far more traffic than designers had ever imagined.

We all know that new M8 rail cars are on their way for Metro-North. Sadly, they are being built by a Japanese company (Kawasaki) and not in Connecticut (but Nebraska). Imagine if those millions were spent in-state for local labor.
And PS… your grandchildren will still be paying for the M8 cars when they’re of commuting age.

But enough grousing. It’s a new day in America, even if it is cloudy and cold. The Obama – Biden team understands the value of transportation spending and hopefully will turn on the federal spigot.

According to APTA, the American Public Transportation Assoc., an industry group, $1 billion in federal investment creates 35,000 jobs. And APTA says there are 559 “ready to go” transportation projects worth $8 billion.

So let’s go! The way to jump-start our ailing economy is not to send out “stimulus” checks to consumers who we hope will shop for LCD TV’s (made in China) for sale at Circuit City (now bankrupt).

Let’s think big. A super-Acela truly offering high speed rail service. How about finally fixing our air traffic control system so a light rain doesn’t close LaGuardia. And what about those feeder barge test-projects designed to get container cargos off of our highways.

Let’s build roads and rails, airports and shipping terminals. Let’s make jobs and leave something our grandchildren can envy.

November 03, 2008

Leaves and Loco's

It sounds like a question on a kid’s quiz show: “How do you stop a train?”

A) Hail it like a cab? B) Pull the emergency brake? C) Put wet leaves on the track?

If you chose “C”, you were correct… and you must be a regular commuter on Metro-North.

This is the time of year that tries train engineers’ souls and commuters’ patience. One day last week, 60 rush-hour trains were delayed by “slippery rails” when wet leaves caused trains to “slip-slide” on their usually solid tracks.

You may not realize it, but the flanged wheel of a train only contacts the rail in a surface area the size of a dime. That’s why trains can move so smoothly with minimal power… riding a small, but firm area of friction.

But when the leaves fall and later get wet, they are ground into one of the slipperiest substances known to man, a compound called pectin. As the train rolls along, its computer senses the slip and tries to apply the disc brakes which eventually scrape off the goo.

But often the brakes are applied so hard that a locked wheel is ground against the track creating a flat-spot on the usually round surface. In years past these flat wheel issues have taken 25% of cars out of service for regrinding.

Sophisticated train computers don’t like it when they think the train can’t stop, so on the new M7 cars running in Westchester county the railroad had to reprogram the safety systems to reassure them the train wasn’t out of control and didn’t need emergency braking.

Worse yet, on some lines the slippery leaves can virtually leave the trains unable to move. Case in point, the Danbury branch line is almost a continual up-hill climb from Norwalk to “The Hat City”, 397 feet above sea level. On this branch, diesel locomotive-pulled trains can’t stop on hills at stations like Cannondale, so on some days they skip such stops and make a running start for the steeper climbs.

On an MU (multiple-unit) mainline train, all cars are locomotives, spreading out the traction-power the full length of the train. But on a branch line, a single Genesis locomotive weighing 120+ tons has only eight wheels touching the track, seeking enough traction to pull a fully loaded eight car train.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as sand dropped from special hoppers on the train just in front of the drive-wheels. The resulting friction gets the train going or helps it stop.

This is a problem for railroads worldwide, not just here in the northeast.
Of late, Metro-North has brought in heavier armament… a specially designed car dubbed “Water World” equipped with high pressure hoses that blast the tracks free of the gooey mess.

They’re also experimenting with chemical sprays. And one inventor in the UK is proposing to zap the goo off the rails with lasers!

So in the fall when we appreciate the gorgeous foliage, remember the words of Paul Simon: “Slip sliding away, slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.”

Confessions of a Road Warrior

What idiot said that “getting there is half the fun”?

That’s the thought that went through my mind last week when I did a “day trip” to LA: two door-to-door 10-hour trips just for a three-hour face-to-face meeting with my most important client.

I knew my trip was doomed when I went to pick up my rental car at LAX and there were no cars. Pleading with the dispatcher that I’d been up since 1 am local time and had a crucial meeting I could not be late for, she said “I can give you a mini-van.” Fabulous! If it has an engine and wheels, I’ll take it. Even in LA where people drive their egos, I abandoned my Ferrari persona for a Chevy minivan.

I should have known there was a problem as it was the only van left on the lot, but a road warrior never gives up. Throwing open the door to the van I was met with the unmistakable odor of vomit. The vehicle was clean, mind you. It just reeked.
So, off I drove, windows down and made my meeting on time! When I returned the van five hours later it still reeked of vomit, but now with a nice overtone of cigar.

Another time a few years back I’d booked the last evening flight from JFK to LAX on TWA. I rushed to the airport, arriving just in time to find that the 6 pm flight was delayed due to incoming equipment. A promised 8 pm departure never happened, and the delays kept coming in 30 minute intervals until it was clear we were going to be on a red-eye. Worse yet, after all other flights had left, every bar and restaurant in the terminal closed up.

In its generosity, TWA wheeled out some MRE’s (meals ready to eat) from a back closet and we feasted on stale crackers and government surplus cheese, until one passenger took the initiative and picked up the phone.

A half-hour later (and still hours before departure), a pizza delivery-man arrived with ten pies. “We’re not paying for those,” screamed the TWA supervisor. “We’re not asking you too,” smiled the passenger, who then sold every slice at about $5 apiece. PS: We did eventually take off, arriving at LAX about 3 am.

Then there was the time I arrived late one night at Newark airport from a sad trip to see my dying mother. I had a crucial meeting in central NJ the next morning, so I’d booked the last hotel room within 30 miles at a run-down Howard Johnson’s.

In the dark airport parking lot, I got off the bus at the wrong stop and in a pouring rain (with no coat or umbrella) was soaked by the time I found my car. God was telling me something.

Digging thru my suitcase, I found the only dry clothing I could safely use to dry off … a pair of underwear. And off I drove to Route 287. An hour later I found my Ho Jo’s motel, tired and hungry, ready for a meal of those famous fried clams and at little ice cream. No such luck. The restaurant was closed as were all other eateries within ten miles. That night dinner consisted of Pop Tarts with a side order of humble pie.

September 21, 2008

Tech Tools to Avoid Traffic

When you’re hitting the highway, a little information can save you a lot of headaches. Knowing where the traffic jams are before you’re caught in them can help you find a detour and avoid lost time.

While some roads are always a mess… I-95 and the Merritt between Greenwich and Norwalk, for example… it’s the unexpected jackknifed tractor trailer and 10- mile back-up that can ruin your day. But how do you get good “intel” on such disasters? Let me share a few tried and true tips from fellow road warriors.

RADIO: I’m a big fan of WCBS 880 AM for its “traffic and weather on the 8’s” reports, which almost always include mention of Connecticut. In AM and PM drive-time, their reports on tri-state traffic can run to five minutes and are almost always accurate. They also encourage “cell-mates” to call in their eyewitness traffic reports, which I do frequently (call 1-212-975-8888).

HIGHWAY RADIO: You might not realize it, but there’s a network of local, low-power radio stations in Connecticut doing nothing but traffic reports. Known as “Highway Advisory Radio”, they’re found at 1610 and 1670 on the AM dial, depending on location. Their looping reports last a minute or two and are generally accurate, originating as they do from State Police offices in Bridgeport where they have access to a network of cameras watching our highways. Traffic info on the large illuminated highway signs (and those helpful reminders to buckle-up and put down the cell-phones) originate from the same place. But like WCBS, they can use your help in finding accidents, so hit 911 on your cell if you see trouble unfolding that affects personal safety and share that info with CT State Police.

TRAFFIC CAMERAS: The same traffic cameras the troopers use are also available online in real time (but as still pictures, not full-motion video) at www.ct.gov/dot Scroll down the list, pick the cameras along your intended route and see for yourself how things look.

CABLE TV: Our friends at Cablevision have their own answer to “traffic and weather together”… Metro-Traffic, found on channel 61. It’s not exactly compelling TV, though they also use the video feed from the traffic cams together with an area map showing color coded traffic flow. Even the Weather Channel is getting in on the act, adding a traffic report to their “Local on the 8’s” forecast showing the average speed on major arteries, again with color coding. (Yes, the speed on the Cross-Bronx was 14 mph the other day. That’s “free flowing” by NYC standards.)

E-MAIL: Thanks to the efforts of State Senator Andrew McDonald of Stamford, the CT DOT was recently persuaded to share its traffic updates in a user-friendly format. Just register your e-mail at www.ct.gov/dot and CDOT will send you free e-mail alerts of major traffic snafus along with guesstimates of how long it will take to clean them up (usually an average of 2 – 3 hours). They’ll also send you a follow-up when things get back to what passes for normal. In its first five months of operation, five thousand e-mails have been registered. By the way… Metro-North offers a similar e-mail alert for train problems. There’s a link from the CDOT website.

TELEPHONE: In many parts of the country you can dial 511 and ask for the latest traffic. Using voice recognition technology and a speech synthesizer, the system will give you an update. There’s no such system in the NYC metro area, though I have heard of pay-per-call systems which probably rely on the same traffic resources listed above. Save your money and just turn on your radio.

None of these technologies will prevent traffic accidents, but they may lessen ensuing traffic jams if the cognoscenti know where they are and can avoid adding to the delays.

September 07, 2008

America's Getting Into "Training"


Any occasional reader of this column knows that I’m a “train nut”… a “foamer”, as the railroad folks describe us (because we supposedly foam at the mouth at the sight of a train).

I’m a big fan of rail travel, both on Metro-North and Amtrak, and I’ve written extensively about both. Last October I wrote about my two-day, two-night journey from Chicago to San Diego on “The Southwest Chief”. This week, a less cheerful report on my recent trip to the Windy City and back.

We who live along the Northeast Corridor are spoiled with speedy and frequent rail service. Acela can whisk you to Boston or Washington in just a few hours, admittedly at a premium fare. And the reason is that Amtrak owns and maintains its tracks, or “right of way”, where you’ll seldom encounter any slow-moving freight trains.

Not so in the rest of the nation, where freight “rules”. Consider my recent trip to Chicago by way of Washington DC.

Train # 29, the Capitol Ltd, rolled out of DC on time at 4:05 pm. But I knew we had only a 14% chance of pulling into Chicago the next morning at 8:40 am as scheduled, in time for a business meeting. That’s because Amtrak’s own website warns this train is late on 86% of its 17-hour journeys.

The reason: CSX and Norfolk Southern, the freight railroads whose tracks Amtrak uses to make the trip. Amtrak pays a pretty penny to use these tracks, but to the freight operators passenger trains are second class citizens.

Sure enough, minutes after leaving DC my radio scanner crackled with the sound of a CSX dispatcher trying to route us around the slow-moving coal trains that dominate this two-track railroad through the mountains.

By morning as the sun rose over the steel plants of Indiana we were two hours late. It was stop and go, the rail equivalent of “bumper to bumper” traffic, all the way into Union Station where it was almost 11 am CDT by the time we de-trained, much too late for a full-day of business.

The return trip was even slower. Departing Chicago ten minutes late (7:15 pm) we immediately were delayed in the Indiana rail freight log-jam. Next morning’s 5:45 am scheduled arrival in Pittsburgh was more like 8 am (also delaying the connecting 7:20 am “Pennsylvanian” to Harrisburg and NYC). As we crept toward Washington I kept calling “Julie”, Amtrak’s automated phone agent, asking her our ETA in DC.

As it turned out, we were “only” 2 ½ hours late, but it still gave me just 15 minutes to connect to the last train to Stamford of the day. All told, Chicago to CT was 25 hours.

Mind you, the train ride was enjoyable. My bedroom compartment was comfortable and included a private bathroom / shower and tasty meals in the dining car. The on-board staff was professional and communicative.

But the train was packed! Every sleeping compartment had sold out weeks in advance and coach seats were jammed with new converts sent to “training” by high gas prices.

Amtrak has become a victim of its own success. Like Metro-North, trains are running at capacity, but there are no more cars to be added to handle the crowds… or, in this case, funding to design, let alone order them.

In the Northeast, Acela’s seats are almost always sold out. And the slower, newly branded Northeast Regional trains are increasingly packed. Congress has told Amtrak to become financially self-sufficient. And now’s their chance, if they could add cars to capture this huge surge in ridership and revenue.

Americans are getting into “training” alright. I just wish Amtrak could carry them all.

August 29, 2008

Parking Chaos Coming to Stamford

If you are one of the thousands of commuters who use the Stamford station, either for Metro-North or Amtrak, get ready for two years of parking headaches: the old garage at the railroad station is coming down.

We’ve known about the pending demolition of the garage for two years now. And the deteriorated condition of the structure has been known for a decade. To blame is its shoddy original construction plus the wear and tear of water and salt corrosion. Believe it or not, parking garages only have a 40-year “life expectancy”. This one won’t have lasted half that time.

A CDOT study in 2006 estimated that repair of the garage would take nine years and cost $35 million. But demolition and new construction would cost $30 million (now up to $35 with price hikes and inflation) and take at least two years.

For the past two years CDOT has been trying to negotiate with an adjacent private land owner to do a swap: allow CDOT to build a new garage on the developer’s land, then tear down the old garage and allow the private developer to build an office / residence on the site of the old garage.

This plan would have made the parking transition seamless. While construction and demolition would have been messy, there would be no loss of station parking.

For over a year the Commuter Council has been asking CDOT to see the designs for this proposed swap and offer its input, but the agency refused. Negotiations with the private developer were, well, private. When the deal was done, then we could have a look.

Now, all that is moot. The private-public partnership deal has fallen through and we’re back to the worst case scenario: demolish the old garage then build a new one in its place on the same site.

In breaking this bad news to the Commuter Council this month, CDOT’s Deputy Commissioner stressed that, when finished, the new garage would be a perfect aesthetic match to the private developer’s building. However, he seemed less concerned about the impending chaos for commuters.

What does this mean to rail riders? Well, the loss of 800 daily parking spaces at Stamford for more than two years. And an ungodly mess during demo and construction on the confined site and its narrow roads.

Worst of all, the garage replacement project will probably start in 2010, just as the long awaited Transit Way road project is finished… and as the new M8 cars come into service, expanding potential ridership.

But if it’s any consolation, the new garage will have 200 additional spaces. And it should be pretty.

CDOT says that talks are underway with private developer Antares to use a new surface parking lot on the west side of Washington Blvd. with a walkway being built to the rail platform, but that site is far short of 800 spaces.

Stamford officials have previously talked of running shuttles from the Target and Bell Street Garages, the latter still filled with cars from an auto dealership. While this may make up for lost spaces, who wants to park so far from the station?

What can a Stamford commuter do?

First, start thinking about commuting from stations other than Stamford! Call town hall in Darien, Stamford and Greenwich and get on their 4+ year waiting list for parking permits. You do not need to be a resident of these towns to park at their rail stations.

Second, consider alternative ways to get to your station: car pooling, “kiss-N-ride” spousal drop-offs and bikes would all work (bike racks are plentiful at stations, according to a recent SWRPA audit).

Lastly, stay involved with this issue. Two years ago CDOT promised they would make sure enough parking was available during construction. And they pledged public informational hearings on their plans. The Commuter Council will hold them to their word.

After a decade of reconstruction of the Stamford train station, now we have this. It’s all necessary and when it’s done we’ll have a spectacular transportation center. But it’s going to be a painful few years getting there.

July 26, 2008

"How To Complain About The Trains"

All that is necessary for the success of evil is that good men do nothing.

Now, this is no way to imply that the folks who run Metro-North are in any way evil. For the most party, I think they do an admirable job running our trains, given the decrepit equipment allocated them by the state. But when things do go wrong, if human error is at fault, it’s important that you complain. Otherwise, bad service is perpetuated.

Each week I get dozens of such complaints by phone and e-mail. Folks must think I’m the Michael Clayton of the commuting world… “the fixer”. Far from it, though I usually know where to send the aggrieved party for real help.

Here are six simple rules to follow to get your complaint heard:

RULE #1: Be sure you have all the facts. To fix a problem you need the date, time, location and name of employees involved (or a good description if they refuse to show you their badge). Gather the names and contact info from other eye-witnesses to corroborate your story.

RULE #2: Be sure to complain to the right party. If it’s a problem involving station parking, you probably have to talk to Town Hall. Same with the stations. But if it’s something that happened on the trains, take it to Metro-North.

RULE #3: Use the www.mta.info website complaint form to officially file your complaint. (Look under FAQ / Contact Us, then E-Mail). Fill out the template and print or make a copy for yourself.

RULE #4: Be patient. You will get a response. The folks in Customer Service have a truly thankless job, but they do it well. Your complaint can bring about real change including disciplinary hearings, changes in schedules and even refunds.

RULE #5: Be ready to follow-through. If a hearing is scheduled and you can’t or won’t appear, you’ve wasted everyone’s time. If the written response you get from Customer Service seems unresponsive or patronizing, fire back!

RULE #6: If all else fails, turn to the Commuter Council. Our job is to be your advocate. By raising an issue at our meetings, the potential media coverage alone often prompts the agencies to action.

Mind you, some complaints we get seem misplaced.

Like the rider last week who “complained” to me about new Naugahyde seats recently installed in an old rail-car. She thought this was a cosmetic tweak to lousy service and a warning sign that the new M8 cars would be delayed. Both her fears proved wrong.

Or my favorite complaint ever was from a woman who screamed at me on the phone that the railroad wouldn’t reimburse her. Seems that she had caught the last, late-night train from 125th Street to New Rochelle, but had mistakenly boarded the express that ran non-stop to Stamford… a unfortunately common occurrence which should be solved by better signage and PA announcements. (The local and express are only minutes apart).

So I assumed that, on arriving at Stamford, she had caught a cab back to New Rochelle and was asking the railroad to reimburse her for cab fare… a plausible and perhaps reasonable request given that she’d missed the last southbound local.

No, she said, when she got to Stamford she decided she was so far from home (in fact, just 16 miles) that she walked across the street and checked into a hotel for the night and wanted the railroad to pay for her $200 hotel room.

See what I mean when I say working in Customer Service is a thankless job?

June 30, 2008

The New Haven Rail Yard Budget Mess

Once again, our elected officials in Hartford have outdone themselves. At a time when mass transit seems the only alternative to high gas prices (ridership is soaring and trains are jammed), they are nickel and dime’ing our state’s transportation future.

The issue: the over-due rail yard maintenance facility in New Haven.

In 2005, lawmakers approved $300 million for these vital shops and repair facilities for our soon-to-be-delivered M8 rail cars. Now, everyone in Hartford seems shocked, stunned or amazed that the project has grown to $1.2 billion.

Mind you… the cost quadrupled partly because the project more than doubled in size, so let’s keep our apples and oranges straight.

At recent hearings, legislators have suggested that CDOT slash its plan, and indeed, the agency itself came up with $11 million in cost cuts. “That’s no more than a ‘rounding error’”, grumbled one lame-duck Senator.

At first, Governor Rell denied that she knew anything of these rising costs, sending her stalwart budget czar, Robert Genuario to fall on his sword by admitting that he had been told about the cost increase but neglected to tell the Governor. Good solider, bad boy.

Then a newspaper FOI suit found out that the Governor’s Chief of Staff, Lisa Moody (remember her… disciplined for soliciting campaign donations for Rell from state workers on ‘company time’?) knew about the price increase all along. And a CT-N videotape of a ribbon-cutting (which I personally attended), showed the Governor 10 feet away from CDOT officials when the media asked, and the agency disclosed, hard numbers about the necessary cost increases. Somebody wasn’t paying attention.
So, what is the Governor’s answer to the soaring cost increase? Why, hire more consultants and spend more money, of course! That’s right… Governor Rell wants to pay $630,000 for another audit of the CDOT plan.

Mind you, CDOT itself just finished paying other consultants to “value engineer” their design, and they’re the ones who found only $11 million in potential cuts.
What’s going on here? Who’s to blame? Or is this just “business as usual in Hartford”?

In my view… Let’s not blame CDOT for designing the kind of rail facility we really do need. Instead, blame our elected officials for not having designed and built it a decade or two ago when we should have and could have done so for much less.
Playing catch-up in the expensive transportation business is, well, expensive.
Lawmakers were shocked to hear that the MBTA built a similar locomotive shop for $258 million. But that was in the 1990’s when Hartford was ignoring transportation under the Rowland administration. Rome was burning and we all danced a jig to Rowland’s fiddling with taxes.

More recently, George Bush’s $3 trillion war in Iraq is also costing us dearly. The US dollar has plummeted in value, oil is soaring and construction materials are doing likewise because of Pentagon demand.

Engineers told lawmakers they now must factor in 10% annual inflation, not 3% as in years past. And because the New Haven rail yard project continues to 2017, well, you do the math.

I have seen the CDOT plans for the New Haven shops and, while neither our lawmakers nor I am engineers, they seem to make sense to me. We need these facilities! They are not a Lexus… just a Chevy as outside consultants have confirmed.

CDOT was wrong to low-ball the costs at $300 million without having finished the necessary design work. And maybe $1.2 billion is a bit high. But CDOT has explained the added costs and the longer we dicker, or waste more money on more consultants (the only people making money on transportation these days), the higher the cost will ultimately be.

We should have made these investments in transportation decades ago. Now we are paying the price. Let’s not compound these problems with further delays and political posturing. Get on with it!

June 15, 2008

"Flying This Summer?"

My last column (“Doomsday: What Happens When Gas Hits $10 a Gallon”) seems to have struck a chord. Many of you said I was unduly pessimistic, while a few said “right on… we’re screwed”.

Little did I know that many of my worst fears were already coming true. Take air travel, for example.

I remember the good old days of flying when passengers would get dressed up for the adventure. Flights were roomy and the service was extravagant… not pretzels and soda, but filet and champagne. Getting there really was half the fun! Going “on the road” was almost enjoyable.

But no more. Now, even getting to the airport can be a challenge.

Most major cities in the civilized world have rail service to their airports, but not New York. That AirTrain to JFK is fun, if you can reach its northern terminus by subway or LIRR. But for those of us in Connecticut, the price of car service to Newark or JFK can be higher than the airfare to our destination… though not for long.

And when you arrive at the terminal, the fun really begins. Long lines to check bags (soon to be even longer!) and longer lines to go through security. And does anybody really think the TSA is keeping us safe? Not me!

First, no liquids. Now, three ounces or less. Then, no lighters. Now lighters are allowed again. And don’t you love the TSA agents barking at you as you strip down, almost to your skivvies, just to clear the metal detectors?

True, the TSA is experimenting with a Zen-like security area at BWI airport, complete with mood lighting and soft-music. I doubt that will help as you still have to take off your belt and shoes.

Then, there’s the airlines’ new policy of charging for even the first checked bag. That will doubtless mean more hassles on boarding as the cheapskates demand space for their two carry-on’s. And that will probably mean departure delays as airlines mismanage the turn-around times for in-coming aircraft.

Let’s face facts: Most airlines won’t survive the energy crunch. We’ve already lost Aloha, ATA, Skybus, Silverjet Maxjet and Eos, to name a few. Frontier has filed chapter eleven and US Air, American, United and Continental are rumored to be in trouble.

The merger of Delta and Northwest will just create one terrible airline out of two bad ones.

Most carriers still flying are already cutting back on capacity, grounding less fuel-efficient aircraft and laying off staff. That will mean fewer flights, each more crowded and expensive

So look for fewer scheduling options, more over-booking and a bidding war at the departure gate as airlines bid for who’s willing to take a later flight… if there’s room.

The good news is that fewer flights might mean less delays in air traffic control, but it still seems that a drop of rain in the NYC area translates into departure delays nationwide.

Then there are the fares. The big carriers have already gone through six rounds of fuel surcharge increases this year, but the best (or worst) is yet to come. As the carriers are facing billions in losses from soaring fuel costs, there’s every reason to expect massive fare hikes in the months ahead.

And so it should be. Airlines shouldn’t be expected to fly at a loss. Mobility of all sorts should come at a cost. And at some point the alternatives to flying -- Amtrak, the bus or even teleconferencing -- will find their market.

So next business trip, ask yourself: Is this trip really necessary, affordable… or tolerable?

June 02, 2008

"Doomsday: What Happens When Gas is $10 a Gallon"

For decades we’ve lived (and driven) in denial, somehow assuming we have the “right” to cheap gas, and therefore, low-cost transportation. Now it’s time to face reality and consider what will happen when (not if) gas hits $10 a gallon.

The following are my hypotheses. (Follow the embedded links for recent news coverage that contribute to my theories.) These things haven’t happened… yet:

AIR TRANSPORT: Following the demise of a dozen airlines and the shrinking of the remaining carriers, air fares soar and service is cut. Air travel becomes affordable to few. Airport congestion fades as business trips are replaced with tele-conferencing. Hotels are shuttered as “leisure travel” becomes unaffordable.

HIGHWAYS: Rush-hour on I-95 is a breeze as half of all motorists can no longer afford to drive. But the highways are a mess of potholes as the price of asphalt, made from petroleum, quintuples making it impossible to maintain the roads because gas tax revenues have dropped with decreased sales. With more people working from home or on flex-time, traffic congestion is a thing of the past. But with home heating oil at $12 a gallon, people close off rooms in their “McMansions” and huddle in the few remaining spaces they can afford to heat, usually with wood stoves which are also in short supply. Office buildings, by law, can heat to no more than 60 degrees in colder months.

MASS TRANSIT: Delivery delays in the long awaited M8 cars and fears their manufacturer Kawasaki may declare bankruptcy send rail commutation into a tail-spin. Seats are pulled out of cars to create standing room capacity and Metro-North offers cheaper fares to those who can’t get a seat. As in Tokyo, “pushers” (click here for video) are assigned at Grand Central to squeeze passengers into trains. Few can afford to drive and park at rail stations, so most spaces there are turned over to bike racks. Despite fare increases, ridership soars.

AROUND TOWN: Local traffic drops as people consolidate their few truly necessary shopping trips. Because they are so dependent on oil (for fertlizers, packaging and transport), food prices soar. Food imported out of season becomes an occasional treat. Few can afford to eat out at now-chilly restaurants dealing with the same food shortages. Wagons and carts, bikes with racks, mopeds and scooters replace the SUV. Kids take the school bus daily instead of being chauffeured by Mom. Suburban housing prices continue to fall as people flock to the walkable cities with good mass transit. Local taxes rise, encouraging further migration. Schools can’t afford good teachers who must still commute from far away due to lack of local affordable housing.

THE ENVIRONMENT: Oil drilling begins in the Alaskan wilderness, but no supply of oil will reach the lower-48 for three years. In a panic, Congress weakens clean air laws to permit increased use of coal in power plants. Air pollution worsens and acid rain decimates much of the Northeast. Increased CO2 emissions hasten global warming. The sea level rises and coastal communities risk greater flooding as more numerous and powerful hurricanes ravage the US.

THE ECONOMY: The recession becomes a Depression as the impact of decreased mobility and soaring energy costs hit home. China decides to stop buying US Treasury notes and the US dollar hits new lows, making imported oil even more expensive.

Will any of these predictions come true? Time will tell. What can we do to prevent this Doomsday scenario? Not much.

So enjoy what’s left of the era of cheap oil. We’ll all have a lot of explaining to do to our grandchildren.

For more, see www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net and www.oilcrashmovie.com or just Google “peak oil”.

May 04, 2008

"The Folly of a Gas Tax Holiday"

Once again, politicians are pandering to our worst instincts. They’re suggesting a summer vacation for our 18.4 cent per gallon Federal gasoline tax, telling us it will make driving more affordable in the busy travel months again. Hogwash!

If anything, lowering gas prices will only drive up demand, and thus, lead to even higher prices.

And cutting the gas tax would mean $10 billion not collected to pay for long overdue road maintenance and repairs. Good for car repair shops, but bad for motorists.

This assumes, of course, that the oil companies won’t raise prices. And it doesn’t explain how to deal with the post-summer shock of reinstating that tax in the fall, just before the election.

The same gas tax scheme was floated last year on a state level in a plan that would have lost us $120 million in subsidies for mass transit. Fortunately, wiser minds prevailed in ‘07 and I hope the same will happen this year.

Even if the Federal tax holiday went through, it would save the average motorist, by most estimates, a whopping $1.83 per week. Oh yeah, that’ll help.

If this is how lawmakers respond to our energy crisis, God help us. McCain and Clinton must think we’re na├»ve and short-sighted… and maybe they’re right. (To his credit, Obama is standing alone in opposition to this idiocy).

If a patient is an alcoholic, you send them to rehab. You don’t just subsidize the price of booze hoping to postpone the inevitable.

The inevitable is ever-higher gasoline prices. For years I’ve been writing that gasoline is too cheap, and I still believe that. Americans are still spoiled with cheap fuel, even at $4 a gallon. Last week in London petrol sold for $8.20. (My daughter helped me with the math, converting pounds to dollars, Imperial gallons to US). Admittedly, some of that price is taxes used to subsidize mass transit. But consider the vast network of trains and buses available in the UK, and I think you’ll agree they’re funding some great alternatives to the single occupancy motor vehicle.

I only wish we had such choices. Sad old Metro-North is enjoying a huge surge in ridership, but because short-sighted lawmakers in Hartford didn’t act a decade ago to order more rail cars, we’ll have subway-like, standee-only conditions on most trains by the time the new M8 cars arrive next fall.

I’ll tell you how to save money on gas: drive less. Trade in your Hummer for a Prius. Be sure your tires are fully inflated. Drive at 55 mph instead of 70. Coast when possible. If you’re stopping for more than ten seconds, turn off your engine. Take unnecessary weight out of your car (unless it’s another passenger). Keep your engine tuned up. Ride a bike (but not on the train). Try walking.

Sure, take a vacation this summer. You can even do it by car if you’d like.

But first, check how much your next road-trip will cost at the AAA’s nifty website www.fuelcostcalculator.com . Then, price out your alternatives by mass transit. That train or bus is making the trip with or without you, so get onboard.

And while you’re traveling, drop a note to your elected officials and ask them why they still pay only lip-service to our nation’s energy strategy. Ask them why Congress is letting tax credits for solar and wind energy lapse just when we need them most. Lawmakers found time last week to vote for “National Watermelon Month” (really!), but they couldn’t agree on a long range plan to provide energy for our nation. Nero is fiddling while Rome burns.

A gas tax holiday this summer? Give me a break.

April 21, 2008

Bicycles on Trains ?

Much has been written in recent weeks about allowing bicyclists to bring their vehicles on board Metro North commuter trains, and I wanted to add my two cents just as a commuter and not as Chairman of the Commuter Council. (Never be confused when I write here as I am always and only speaking for myself and not the many groups on which I serve.)


What is it about “bikers” that they feel their rights trump those of other commuters? How can such a well organized and vocal lobby be so blind to the sad realities of commuting on Metro-North that they would ask commuters to straddle their two-wheelers in standee-filled vestibules in the name of personal liberties and “being green”?


Bikers have no more “right” to bring bicycles on crowded rush-hour trains than I have to haul aboard a steamer trunk. (At least you could sit on a steamer trunk). Yet, they rant against everyone in their personal strivings for two-wheeled freedom.


In the interest of personal disclosure: I do not ride a bike, but I do commute and often must stand for an hour or more due to lack of seats.


Bikers… here are the facts of life:

Fact #1, there’s no room for bikes at rush hours. Heck, we don’t have seats for paying passengers, let alone space for bicycles. And the new M8 cars that are coming won’t change that crowding for many, many years given annual ridership increases averaging 5%.

Fact #2, bikes are already allowed on non-rush hour trains. And they’re carried for free. So quit your whining.

Fact #3, if you’re heading for New York City, you don’t need a bike. Mass transit is plentiful in the city, so leave your Cannondale in Cannondale.

Fact #4… or maybe an opinion… I don’t think there’s any demand for bikes among city-bound commuters.


The pro-bike lobby is well organized, very vocal and relentless. But they’re also unreasonable in their demands that every Metro-North train accommodate a special car filled with bike racks.


They point to such services in the San Francisco bay area, but Caltrain has only 37,000 daily riders carried on 100 double-decker passenger cars compared to Metro-North’s Connecticut ridership of 110,000 each day crammed into cars with much less space. If Caltrain’s ridership continues to climb, I predict they’ll rip out the bike racks and add seats.


If bikers really wanted to build support for their cause, I have a suggestion. Rather than rant against those who reasonably argue against bikes on trains, the bikers should instead lobby for bike racks and lockers at rail stations. Attract more people to two-wheeled transportation to catch the train by persuading local towns which operate those stations that this would be a great way to cut parking permit waiting lists. Towns like Westport do a great job with bike racks. Why can’t the other towns use parking revenue to similarly serve their residents?


The bottom line: until every paying passenger gets a seat for their Metro-North ticket, let’s allocate room on the trains to people, not their bikes.

April 09, 2008

Going The "Green' Way

Earth Day is coming and with the reawakening of the planet, our thoughts turn to “going green”. We drink our overpriced lattes in cups made with recycled material, feeling pretty good about saving our planet as we drive away in our SUV, getting 12 miles to the gallon. We’re in denial and reluctant to change our selfish habits.

As the US dollar plummets in value, we wonder why lower gas consumption doesn’t lead to lower prices. And we shake our heads in amazement as the third world mimics us by embracing the automobile, adding to competition for this dwindling resource of energy.

Transportation is one of the biggest energy hogs in the US. And now that gas has reached more realistic levels compared the rest of the developed world, we’re all wondering what we can do to drive and spend less.

A few ideas:

Live Closer To Work: If we didn’t have to travel an hour to get to and from our jobs, the savings would be immense. Of course, this assumes we can find affordable housing… another topic altogether. But if you’re house-shopping, factor in transportation time and expense into the “total cost of ownership”.

Car Pool: Even if just occasionally, share the ride to work or the airport. Check out www.nuride.com for an incentives-based solution. Or for regular commutation, www.metropool.com or www.rideshare.com can help you find someone to share the ride with. Even soccer moms have their own network to get their kids from games to dance class: www.dividetheride.com

Try A Bike: For local trips in good weather, the exercise will do you good. And if you bike to or from the train station you can chuckle as you skip the four-year waiting line for a $300 annual parking permit. Not enough bike racks at the station? Call town hall and demand they spend that parking money on this simple, green amenity.

Take The Bus: Our region’s bus service is improving and is increasingly popular. “The Coastal Link” bus from Milford to Norwalk along Rt. 1 runs seven days a week and costs only $1.50 (vs. $3.50 on Metro-North). And the “I-Bus” from Stamford and Greenwich to White Plains has been running now for a decade and still costs only $2.50. Coming soon, BRT or “Bus Rapid Transit” offering faster speeds in cool new coaches.

Put Your Kids on the School Bus: Your tax dollars pay for them, so why do so many moms insist on driving their kids to school each morning in “the SUV parade”? What are you teaching your kids about avoiding mass transit?

Walk: Health officials say Manhattan dwellers are healthier than their suburban counterparts because they walk so much. Cars offer convenience, but going to the store for a quart of milk doesn’t have to involve moving two tons of steel with you to achieve the purchase.

Take The Train: Commuter rail is the most fuel efficient transportation alternative, far better than even the bus. On longer journeys, an Amtrak Acela uses a third less fuel per passenger than a jetliner and emits 3 times less CO2 . And by train, you don’t have to take off your shoes or enjoy a TSA-massage on your way to the boarding lounge.

If You Must Drive, Plan Your Itinerary: Don’t just drive roundtrip from home to the store. Save up errands and plan multiple stops along the way.

Clearly, there are alternatives to the single-occupancy, gas guzzling automobile. What’s your energy-saving transportation tip? Share it with me and I’ll include it in a future column.

March 29, 2008

"The Secrets of Grand Central Terminal"

There is possibly no more beautiful railroad station in the world than New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. As the destination of over 55,000 daily rail commuters from Connecticut, it’s a place we where spend a fair amount of time. But rather than rush to or from your train, next time you’re in GCT, look around and enjoy some of its hidden secrets.

Based on my 40+ years of commuting experience, here are some of the nooks and crannies within the station that I find most fascinating… and useful.

Underground Access: Sure, you can enter Grand Central from street level, but in bad weather you can find your way underground from blocks away. The new north-end access entrances at Madison and 47th St., Park Ave. and 48th Street and the Helmsley Building walk-ways are dandy, though not open on weekends. But did you know you can also access from 43rd or 45th Street, west of Vanderbilt, from inside the Chrysler Building, the Hyatt on 42nd Street or via the shuttle station, on the south side of 42nd Street, just west of Park?

Fastest Way from/to the Lower Level: If your train dumps you on the lower level, forget about the ramps or stairs for the long climb to street level, especially with luggage. Walk to the forward end of the train and look for the elevator near Track 112. It’ll take you to the upper level or, better yet, to within steps of Vanderbilt Avenue (see below). Getting to the lower level platforms from street level is just as easy. On the main level look for the elevators and take them down to “P” (Platform) level avoid two flights of stairs.

Best View of the Main Concourse: Ever notice the elevated glass walkways at the east and west ends of the station? They’re accessible (though public access is seriously discouraged). Just go to the entrance to Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse on the mezzanine level near Vanderbilt Ave. and take the elevator up two or three floors. When you get off, go left and through the un-marked door on your left. Walk out and you’ll have a panoramic view of the station from almost roof-level.

Washrooms with No Wait: The new washrooms at the west end of the lower level have helped a lot, but still there’s often a line. Take the nearby escalators up one level, turn around, and on your left is the Stationmaster’s Office complete with a waiting room and lav’s. Or, go right and just before the ramp up to 42nd St. and Vanderbilt, look on your left for the sign for the Oyster Bar. Go down the steps into the bar and you’ll find ornate bathrooms known only to a few.

Best Place To Get A Cab: Forget about the long line at the taxi stand on 42nd St east of Vanderbilt. Instead, go out the west end of the Main Concourse, up the stairs and out onto Vanderbilt Avenue. Cross the street and wait at the corner of 43rd. Taxis flow through here, dropping off passengers every few seconds. If you’re heading west you’ll avoid the traffic on 42nd Street too.

Where to Have A Smoke: Want to enjoy a cigar before your train? Forget about lighting up anywhere inside the station. Instead, visit the old taxi stand on Vanderbilt and you’ll be “outside” but still under shelter. Or go to the Hyatt, up two levels to their taxi stand and you’ll find yourself on the raised Park Avenue as it wraps around GCT.

These are a few of my favorite “secrets” of Grand Central. Drop me an e-mail with yours and I’ll include them in a future column.

March 12, 2008

"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 wrote that traffic congestion was just a matter of supply and demand: too much demand and not enough supply. Some have suggested expanding the supply of roadways by double-decking I-95 or widening the Merritt Parkway. But can you imagine the billions of dollars in cost and years of disruption? And how would the “upper deck” look soaring 90 feet in the air to cross existing bridges? A simpler (and less costly) solution to gridlock seems to be in managing the demand using “value pricing”.

Today, when we drive our 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 than at midnight, 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 E-ZPass), 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 improvements 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. Time is money.

Value pricing is already underway on the George Washington Bridge. In rush hour, big-rigs pay $40 to cross. But off-peak with E-ZPass it’s only $35 and overnight the toll drops to $27.50. Since its introduction, value pricing has evened out the bridge’s 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, let’s 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.

While other states rapidly embrace “congestion pricing”, Connecticut’s still trying to get together a study of the concept. Seven years after it was formed, you can expect the state-wide Transportation Strategy Board to finally discuss such a plan next month.

Studies, debates, delays. Is this why we’re called “The Land of Steady Habits”?

February 15, 2008

Fixing the Connecticut DOT

It’s the government agency we love to hate. Who hasn’t been stuck in endless construction delays on I-95 and not cursed the Connecticut DOT? And what commuter hasn’t shivered on an aging Metro-North train lacking heat and not asked “Who’s running this darn railroad?”

Mind you, I have a lot of respect for the CDOT and its 3,800 employees, most of whom labor long and hard to improve transportation in our state. [Full disclosure: I wanted to be a transportation engineer and studied that at Lehigh University for about one semester before the Arts College seemed more viable.] The problem is, the CDOT is so unwieldy and poorly managed that the staff can’t get things done.

Remember the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge 20 years ago? CDOT took most of the blame, but it was the governor and legislature that cut funding and forced a reduction of safety inspections.

Sure, there are corruption and payoffs. The mess over the I-84 storm sewers showed us that, but again it was lack of oversight that didn’t catch that problem. And yes, there’s even an arrogance among some staffers which doesn’t endear the agency to the public.

True story: a CDOT engineer was at a public meeting over a planned highway widening project requiring the felling of some old trees. When a citizen asked why it was necessary to chop down the trees, the CDOT engineer answered… “You wouldn’t understand. You’re not an engineer.” Nice.

The recently issued Critelli Commission report on reform of the CDOT recounts dozens of such problems within the agency. And to her credit, Governor Rell has not only read the report’s recommendations but is acting upon them.

In her recent budget address, Governor Rell called for splitting the CDOT into two agencies… a Department of Highways and a separate Department of Public Transportation, Aviation and Ports. Connecticut would thus follow the lead of the other 49 states that recognize the need to carve out separate agencies for these disparate duties.

For years now I’ve been calling for creation of a CTA… Connecticut Transportation Authority… and this comes pretty darn close. It’s time to get mass transit away from the asphalt and concrete interests that dominate CDOT.

In 2005, when Metro-North was at a near melt-down due to lack of investment in new rail cars, CDOT spent 76% of state transportation improvement money and 84% of Federal flexible funds on highways.

While states like California have long ago halted new highway construction in favor of mass transit, we in “the land of steady habits” see our DOT spending six years and $1.5 billion on the Q bridge project in New Haven. Were that money instead invested in expanded Shore Line East service, we’d lessen traffic for decades and avoid years of construction delays.

On the mass transit side of the current CDOT there’s too little staff and far too much work. Long over-due projects to repair our stations and expand parking languish on the “to do” list as rail and bus administrators just try to keep the system running week to week.

But a new day is dawning for Metro-North riders come the delivery of new rail cars in 2009 – 2010. We have much to do to prepare for their arrival… including an $800 million maintenance shop in New Haven that’s way, way over budget. But that’s the topic for a future column.

February 04, 2008

“The Critelli Commission”

The Governor’s “blue ribbon” commission studying the reform of the Department of Transportation, headed by (Darien resident and) Pitney Bowes Chairman Michael Critelli, has finally issued its draft report.

While much of the report addresses the dysfunctional organization of this immense agency, I am personally pleased that the Commission also picked up on some suggestions for improving rail service. Among them…

  • Expanding parking at all rail stations, but leaving the towns to price and administer the issuance of permits.
  • Revisit the Metro-North contract for the operation of our trains with an eye toward greater parity between the railroad and CDOT.
  • Focus on the maintenance and repair of our railroad bridges, 206 of the 325 of which are rated as being in less than satisfactory condition.
  • Better coordinate bus and rail schedules to offer riders of both an inter-modal transit experience.
  • Evaluate an independent Transportation Authority (like the MTA or NJ Transit) which could serve the interests of mass transit apart from the highway interests which dominate our current CDOT. (Connecticut is the only state in the union that runs mass transit out of its DOT).
  • Speed up construction of commuter rail on the New Haven to Springfield corridor.
  • Expand service on the Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East branch lines.
  • Finally do something to offer a rail freight alternative in Connecticut.

But, beyond rail, the Critelli Commission also suggested some ideas to make CDOT more “user friendly”, following the lead of other states.

  • Have a website where consumers can actually find information. For example, when construction projects are scheduled and, if they are running late, why and when they’ll be completed.
  • Offer a 511 dial-in service for all traffic and transit updates. Using such a service a traveler could ask “If I leave Stamford right now, how long would it take under current conditions to get to New Haven?”, and be told travel time by road and rail.
  • Finally, the Critelli Commission deserves commendation for embracing an often forgotten transportation alternative… pedestrians and bikers. Think of how many additional auto parking spaces could be found at stations if bike paths and bike lockers were available at stations for local commuters… or even sidewalks to walk safely to mass transit.

The Critelli Commission report is now added to that ever-growing pile of studies and reports on what ails our state’s transportation systems. Nay-sayers will claim this study, like scores before it, will add up to nothing. But I’m an eternal optimist and feel otherwise.

If the current national search for a new Commissioner of the DOT turns up someone with organizational skills and vision, the Critelli Commission’s recommendations could become a roadmap to our future.

January 21, 2008

"A Report Card for Metro-North"

True to its legislative mandate, the CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council has just issued its annual report to Governor Rell, the legislature and MTA. The full 97 page report is available on our website, but here are the highlights.

The Council gives the railroad high marks for running an on-time system despite our aging and decrepit fleet. In 2007, 97.1% of all trains ran “on-time” (defined as arriving at their destination within five minutes and 59 seconds), a new record.

When things have gone wrong, such as several wires-down episodes, the railroad got things up and running again with admirable speed.

The problem is, such an on-time record makes commuters expect such service, and when things go wrong, they need to understand why. Here is the railroad’s greatest shortcoming.

Communication with passengers on the platforms, on the trains and through the media is spotty at best. While automated PA announcements have improved, passengers stuck on delayed trains can’t rely on train crews for updated information.

In several cases last year, trains were delayed for several hours. Passengers seeking information from on-board crew members not only didn’t receive it, they found conductors hiding from customers in their control-cabs. This is just wrong, and while the railroad says it agrees with the Council, these problems persist.

Metro-North’s new e-mail alert system and website seem the most reliable sources for updates, but in several incidents CDOT confused the situation by sending out conflicting e-mails. By “trying to help” they just messed up communications.

In its work with the railroad, the Council has encountered similar problems. Senior management of Metro-North has, on at least two occasions, responded to the Council’s efforts to improve communications with an attitude of arrogance and denial. We should all be on the same side, not adversaries.

On a positive note, the Council’s efforts did bring about positive change for commuters… halting the plan to dump morning rush-hour riders on unheated, unsheltered platforms all winter for the sake of needed catenary work… replacing an ill-conceived $1 per ticket fare surcharge with a 1% fare hike for each of seven years starting in 2010… persuading MTA not to ban alcohol sales at stations and on bar-cars… convincing the railroad to add more service on the growing Waterbury line… and getting Metro-North to add a special e-mail alert system for branch riders.

Best of all, design and construction moves forward on the new M8 cars, still due to start arriving in August of 2009. These will truly be world-class rail cars, delighting passengers and adding badly needed seats.

But one huge unresolved problem is that of station parking. With new seating capacity coming down the track, the Council remains concerned that nothing is being done to add more parking at stations to encourage ridership.

Sure, a new station is planned in Fairfield with 1,500 parking spaces, but there are already 3,400 commuters on the waiting list for annual permits there. A new garage is planned in Stamford to replace the old one which must be demolished, but the private / public partnership building it remains a mystery and despite numerous requests, the Council can get no information about the design or local traffic flow. Waiting lists for parking permits at most stations run three to four years.

Finally, it’s been 18 months since the Commuter Council launched its “Fix My Station” campaign documenting dozens of stations with safety issues, yet the $6 million allocated by the state to repair these hazards remains unspent. Why?

Commuters in Connecticut deserve better, and the Commuter Council will keep fighting to make sure they get it.