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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”.