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May 31, 2009

Unfinish Work at CDOT

Here’s a quick update on some issues I’ve written about recently, but first some breaking news!

FARE INCREASE: In desperation to find a way to balance our state’s budget, Governor Rell is playing her “trump card”, calling for a 10% fare hike on Metro-North. Her reasoning? “New York raised their fares, so should we”.

But remember… the NY fare hike came because of MTA’s budget crisis. Having spent billions for decades on rail improvements, they couldn’t get up-staters to pay the bills, so they threatened service cuts and 30% fare hikes. Bottom line: a 10% fare boost in NY looks cheap.

That is not our situation in Connecticut, where there wasn’t spending as train service deteriorated, ridership rose and fares remained steady. Yes, the long promised new M8 cars are coming, but will be paid for (in part) by long-planned annual fare hikes that begin January 1, 2010 and continue to rise 1% per year for the seven years.

Governor Rell’s call for a 10% fare hike now is a break of her promise of “no new taxes”. A fare hike now is a tax on commuters and another disincentive to live or work in Connecticut.

If the legislature approves the fare increase there will be public hearings, but they’ll be a meaningless, moot exercise. If you oppose a fare hike, call your state lawmakers now!

PARKING TASK FORCE: In January Governor Rell trumpeted a fresh new look at the issue of rail station parking, calling on CDOT to create a Parking Task Force (on which I was invited to serve). Five months later, CDOT’s Task Force has yet to meet, not even once. Blame it on foot-dragging by the regional planning agencies or lack of focus by CDOT, but nothing has been done to add parking at the stations even as the new M8 cars are scheduled to arrive, increasing capacity on our trains.

THE BRAIN DRAIN: In a call to save money, the state recently offered senior staffers at agencies like CDOT a sweet retirement deal. And many took it. So this week a former Deputy Commissioner and the Rail Bureau Chief have left the agency, taking nice pensions and a combined 50 years experience with them. (At least one is going to a consulting job where he’ll work on CDOT projects at better pay). A state hiring freeze means these men can’t be replaced. That means more work at CDOT for fewer, less experienced staffers.


RIDERSHIP IS DOWN:
You can finally get a seat at rush hour on Metro-North, as the railroad has seen ridership plummet 4% month over month thanks to the economic carnage and resulting jobs losses in NYC. Fewer riders means more pressure for fare increases.


WATERBURY WOES:
However nasty your commute may seem, some have it worse… the riders of the Waterbury branch. At a recent CT Rail Commuter Council meeting in Naugatuck a mob of 50 angry passengers gave CDOT and Metro-North representatives an earful.

They have no stations, just bus shelters. Despite a 34% increase in ridership last year, they have only half as many trains as the Danbury branch. Cars are often filthy… in one case spewed with vomit that wasn’t cleaned up from the night before.
Automobiles parked in Waterbury are frequent targets of vandalism with local cops and the MTA Police blaming each other for lack of enforcement.

Adding insult to injury, all rail service is being halted for a month this summer to rebuild the tracks and ties (and an aging bridge) on the entire branch. That will mean busing… always a treat.

May 18, 2009

Gridlock in Hartford

I’ve written many times before of failed efforts to fix our transportation mess… how the only money being spent is not on solutions but on endless studies and consultant reports whose recommendations go unheeded.

Now we’re about to see another example as the Transportation Strategy Board is expected to do nothing with suggestions for electronic-tolling of our congested roads to mitigate congestion and raise badly need funds.

After commissioning a $1 million, 500-page study of the issue, the TSB is expected to say that the idea of “value pricing” our interstates needs, you guessed it, yet more study!

I could tell the fix was in when, even before the consultants delivered their million dollar baby, Governor Rell said she was against tolling.

And don’t expect any leadership on this issue from lawmakers, unable to write a budget let alone show the courage to face a controversial issue like tolls.

As one transportation expert says, the eight year old Transportation Strategy Board has turned into a “debating club”, endlessly talking but doing nothing. Their meetings get little attention and most members attend only sporadically. How would you like try making an 8 am weekday meeting in Hartford, so scheduled that even CT-N can’t cover it.

With a decimated corps of Capitol newspaper reporters, who’s to cover such important discussions? And local media coverage to date has been either shallow or factually inaccurate.

The idea of bringing back tolls has been discussed for almost a decade. Yet every newspaper report about their elimination in 1983 always mentions the firey truck crash at the Stratford toll barrier that killed seven, as if toll barriers are just waiting to get hit.

Current tolling technology eliminates toll booths and their delays, but the mis-reporting continues. So much for what passes for journalism these days. Stories about “killer chimps” make the front page for days on end, while the real news goes unreported.

When the TSB received its $1 million consultant report, outlining nine different tolling options, the board scheduled public hearings across the state… except in Fairfield County. Little was done to explain what the consultants suggested, despite pleas for informational meetings.

So when 50 concerned citizens turned out last week in Norwalk for a last-minute public hearing, their opinions were mostly based on inaccurate media coverage. Few had read or even knew about the 500-page report, summarized at the hearing in a one-page handout.

It’s almost as if the TSB wanted the plan to die.

I’m all for a good debate, but if you don’t educate the public, should their opinions be taken seriously?

One after another, people called tolls a hidden “tax”. They were so cynical that they didn’t believe tolls would do anything to improve traffic (they would). Some called for higher tolls on out-of-staters (illegal). Two who spoke noted the connection between traffic and affordable housing. And one suggested investing in more cars for Metro-North, paid for by employers, their exteriors wrapped in ads for the companies.

Resulting media coverage ignored those, like me, who spoke in favor of tolling. The headlines screamed “Commuters Speak Out Against Tolls” when they should have read “TSB Gets Uninformed Opinions on Unexplained Million Dollar Study”, but I guess that wouldn’t sell newspapers like stories of killer chimps.

Our state is in gridlock, not just on our roads but in our government. Nobody has the vision or the courage to do anything to change our situation, preferring to hide behind endless studies and consultant reports which then get ignored.

Debating the problem for a decade has done nothing. And there’s no sign that the TSB, the Governor or legislature will ever do anything about transportation except what they’re done so far… talk.

May 03, 2009

Views From The Train: "The Empire Builder"

This week, less “talking” and more observing as I share some “views from the train” on my recent ride from Seattle to Milwaukee on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder”.

Sure, it’s two days and nights, but I’m booked in a deluxe bedroom and am anxious to see the upper-tier of states that, to me, have always just been “fly over country”.

Puget Sound: Minutes after leaving Seattle, we run right alongside the beach. I see families walking their dogs, fishing boats brimming with their catch.

Into the Cascade Mountains and Stevens Pass, 4000 feet up, through the longest (7.9 miles) rail tunnel in the US. Still plenty of snow up here, but nothing like what’s to come.

Leavenworth Washington: 15% of the nation’s apples are grown in this one valley and in late April it is awash in blossoms. As far as the eye can see, neat rows of apple trees are festooned with delicate white flowers in the fading sunlight. Oh to be a honey bee!

Two Tylenol PM’s help me sleep. My bedroom is comfy but not for the claustrophobic. The only time I awake is when we’re not moving, stopped in Spokane where the other half of our train, originating from Portland OR, joins us.

The next morning we awake to four feet of snow in Whitefish Montana. After breakfast in the diner, it’s time to explore our eight car train. The sleepless from Seattle are still sprawled across coach seats. As we travel thru spectacular snow-capped peaks, one passenger sits watching a movie on his laptop, oblivious to the scenery.

A retired railroad guy regales me with stories of his days running steam locomotives, while a couple from Fargo ND tries to persuade me that they don’t really have accents like in that movie. Oh yah, eh?

No signal on my Blackberry, but a local paper is brought on board: “The Daily Inter Lake – Serving The Flathead Since 1869”. On the front page, news of yesterday’s amazing spring snowfall is still all too present out the window. On page two, a reminder that Friday is the deadline to apply for hunting permits to take moose and mountain goats.

I venture downstairs for a hot shower as we careen along welded track at 65 miles an hour. Try that on JetBlue!

My radio scanner crackles with automated “hot box” detectors reading off the number of axles scanned followed by a reassuring “no defects” and “temperature 25 degrees”.

Cutbank Montana: population 3171, 25 miles from Canada and a million miles from anywhere. This is why they call it “Big Sky Country”. We’ve gone from the Rockies to the prairies, the snow covered fields merging with the white clouds on the distant horizon. There’s no “here” here.

This is Indian territory, and what’s left of the reservations look like Appalachia without the pretty mountains. Trailers, abandoned trucks, trash strewn about and miles of nothingness. Hardly majestic. Mostly depressing.

In coach there are many Indians, moving across their country. This train isn’t just a land cruise for retirees but a vital transportation link for dozens of small towns long abandoned by even Greyhound.

Montana merges into North Dakota and we look forward to a servicing stop in the “big city” of Minot, population 37,745. While walking the length of the train I discover we’ve been hauling a private rail car, complete with observation platform. Crowds of curious passengers and towns-folk (not to mention a few “foamers”) snap pictures, but the sole inhabitant of the Soo Line business car doesn’t invite us in.

In the diner, a retired Schlitz worker heading to a reunion in Milwaukee (made famous by his suds!) complains he can’t get a beer with dinner. An ex-Canadian Navy guy regales me with stories of his last long-distance train ride… in 1955, on the way to basic training. Chris, our sleeping car attendant, chats with his 20-something buddies by cell phone planning his summer music festival itinerary. One perk of his job… free Amtrak travel.

A restless night and a long detour around still-flooded Fargo ND, we awake in St Paul MN. From here we follow the Mississippi, La Crosse and Wisconsin rivers to Milwaukee where I get off to catch a flight home.

This isn’t Amtrak’s most scenic trans-continental run, but it’s one of the most vital… connecting people to their work, their relatives and the rest of their country. I have a better understanding of the nation’s heartland thanks to this run.

But I’m also glad to get home.

NOTE: For a multimedia view of why folks loving riding the rails, see this link from The New York Times.