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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”?