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December 28, 2010

A Report Card for CDOT

You probably missed it in the run-up to Christmas, but a new legislative report has again given poor grades to the CDOT.  This report from the General Assembly’s chief investigative panel was released, strangely, on December 23rd, a date that all but guaranteed it would get no news coverage.  Do you think this was by chance?  Hardly.

But credit should go to the excellent online newspaper CT Mirror, which broke the story, and to a few print dailies across the state which picked it up.

In summary, the report said the CDOT is late in finishing its work, especially its most expensive undertakings.  On average, the agency took 5.3 years to finish big projects, with only 37% of work finished on time (think I-95).  That compares with others states’ 57% on-time completions.

Not only were the projects late, 74% of them were over budget with an average added cost of 23%.  Over the decade of work studied, that added up to an additional half-billion of your tax dollars.

Part of the problem is that CDOT has no automated project management system to track these multi-million dollar projects.  In other words, nobody is keeping score.  Nor, in my view, does there seem to be any accountability for mistakes.  In the private sector a batting record this dismal would cause heads to roll.

Of course, there are fewer “heads” at CDOT to roll: the agency today has 20% less staff than in 1990.  Past budget cuts have seen the most experienced engineers accept buy-outs, taking their expertise with them as they exited the agency.  And it’s only going to get worse:  29% of CDOT engineers are over age 50 and are edging toward the door.

Out-sourcing work to consultants doesn’t seem the answer, as their work was slower and more expensive than jobs done in-house by the civil servants.

On the plus side, progress has been made in highway safety.  Connecticut’s annual highway fatality rate of 0.83 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled ranks well below the US average of 1.25 deaths.

Among possible explanations for this good news are that 8.8% of all Connecticut roads are “over capacity” and only 41% of our highways are ranked as giving a “good” ride.  Those factors could slow you down and keep roads safer.

Even federal stimulus money hasn’t been spent all that well.  The long over-due work repairing our rail stations has been uncoordinated and, in my view, inept.  In April the overhead canopies at several rail stations were removed, leaving passengers still standing unprotected from rain and snow seven months later. 

CDOT says the canopies can’t be replaced until overhead caternary wires are replaced on an opposite track.  But they don’t hesitate to plaster these and other ARRA job sites with hundreds of thousands of dollars in signs proclaiming their good works.  At least the sign makers got jobs if not the roof-installers.

While the legislative report does give CDOT points for increased “transparency” in its dealings with the public, the recently announced delay (again) in the delivery and testing of the new M8 rail cars stands in contradiction to that claim.

More candor and communication by the agency on this crucial infrastructure investment could have gone a long way to lessening the cynicism and distrust most have of this agency.

And we still have no idea who our next Governor will chose as Commissioner of the DOT.  Who could possibly want the job?

December 13, 2010

To Florida, By Train

Any regular reader of this column knows my long-held disdain of flying.  The recently added insult of irradiation or proctological examination by the TSA made it a no-brainer when I had to travel this week to Miami on business:  Amtrak all the way.

The Silver Star departs NYC’s Penn Station each day at 11 am.  Its sister train, The Silver Meteor, leaves at 3:15 pm.  Both trains end up in Miami within minutes of each other, but take different routes south of Richmond.  I’m on The Star, which actually goes to Tampa, then on to Miami.

Secure in my roomy bedroom compartment (complete with sink, shower and bathroom), I fire up my radio scanner to hear the conductor call an on-time departure from New York.

Even though our ten-car train (engine, baggage car, two sleepers, dining car, lounge and four coaches) has a mixture of old “heritage fleet” and newer Amfleet equipment, my Blackberry GPS says we’re doing more than 105 mph as we careen thru central New Jersey.

On this Wednesday departure the train is only half-full, though the attendant assures me “she’ll fill up along the way.”  Fares are not cheap. Coach fare NY-Miami is $125, but adding a ”sleeper” on top of that adds $509 for a single-person roomette or $769 for my commodious bedroom.  However, sleeper pricing includes all meals.  And believe me, though the china in the dining car is plastic, the food is freshly cooked and delicious.

Mind you, my own roundtrip is free -- thanks to points accumulated in Amtrak’s excellent Guest Rewards program.  All those Acela and Northeast Corridor trips in recent months really paid off.
On this journey, unlike my “land cruises” out West, the scenery is far from spectacular.  But as the terrain moves from the urban squalor of the Northeast Corridor to the scrub pine of the Carolinas to the palmetto plains of Florida, I can tell I’m transitioning southward.

Our train is on time the entire way, thanks to heavy padding of the schedule at stops where the crew changes and many passengers disembark for a fast smoke.  It’s amazing how fast I can consume a cigar when I know I have limited time (and hours till the next opportunity.)

A couple of Tylenol PM’s and I sleep well through the night, missing stops in Columbia, SC and Savannah, GA.  The CSX track is well maintained, welded rail with none of the “clickety-clack” of olden times.  I awaken just after sunrise and well past Jacksonville, as our zigzag tour of the Sunshine State begins in earnest.

This is the Florida you don’t see from the Interstates:  miles of orange groves filled with fruit… the cattle farms… wild birds taking flight from countless swamps at the sound of the loco’s blasts… and trailer homes tucked into the brush everywhere.  The occasional Christmas trees in small towns just don’t seem to fit.

Instead of heading due south to Miami, we turn inland to Orlando, then west to Tampa.  High speed rail is planned here, but we’re cranking along at 75 mph before we turn on the wye and ignominiously back into Tampa Union Station in Ybor City.  Alas, no time for a tour of the local cigar factories as we board maybe a hundred intra-state riders heading to the east coast.  Our inter-city train from the northeast is now a Florida local serving such hot spots as Lakeland, Winter Haven and Okeechobee before arriving on the Gold Coast (West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami).


At West Palm Beach we start sharing the track with Tri-Rail, Florida’s answer to Metro-North, also paralleling I-95.  Except these trains are newer double-deckers and painted for full effect.  Their gaudy colors are designed to be visible as they zoom past the congested highways, almost taunting the motorists.

It’s raining lightly but about 40 degrees warmer than when we left NYC 30 hours ago.  Hardly tropical.  But the billboards are in Spanish and the city lights of Miami glow in the distance as we arrive five minutes ahead of schedule.

I think it was the folks at Cunard who said “getting there is half the fun.”  Certainly true for cruising, and equally so on Amtrak. 

“Saving Your Transit Benefits… and Your Trains”

Don’t look now, but Congress is about to give motoring commuters a big tax break and take one away from riders of mass transit.
Under current federal law, commuters can deduct up to $230 a month from their pre-tax paychecks to pay for the trips to and from work.  That deduction can cover bus / rail tickets via programs like TransitChek or pay their parking expenses.  But unless Congress acts by the end of the year, the mass transit commuter’s benefit will be cut to $120 per month while the motoring commuter keeps the full benefit. Huh?
Cutting this pre-tax benefit would hurt low income workers the most because they often have no car and must rely on bus and train.  At a time when we’re trying to reduce highway congestion and improve air quality, penalizing mass transit riders and rewarding users of autos makes no sense.
But these tax benefits are for more than commuters.  Employers can save 10% on payroll taxes if they sign up employees for the program.  According to MetroPool, over 100 businesses in Fairfield County hiring over 34,000 workers participate in the commuter pre-tax program.
Here’s an example of the savings:  Let’s say you ride from Fairfield to NYC, and then take the subway.  With a monthly rail pass at $308 and monthly MetroCard at $45, you’d spend $4,200 a year just to get to and from work.  The current commuter benefit defrays 68% of this cost, saving you $1,355 a year in taxes.
But again, this tax break will be cut in half if Congress doesn’t act quickly.
Connecticut’s Senators Dodd and Lieberman are con-sponsors of The Commuter Benefits Equity Act (S 322 / HR 891) which would keep benefits equal for drivers and mass transit users at $230 per month.  Strangely, in the House, none of the co-sponsors are from our state.
If this bill doesn’t come out of Committee and get approved by December 31st 2010, reduced tax benefits for rail and bus riders may incentivize some commuters to get back in their cars.  According to TransitCenter Inc., a drop in the transit benefit will reduce ridership by as much as 9% among commuter benefit users. And you know what that means for traffic.
What can you do?  You need to contact your Congressman and ask him or her to support the bill.  Also, ask your employer’s Human Resources office why they don’t offer these pre-tax benefits, reminding them it’s in their interest as well as yours.
Finally, get in touch with the TSTC (Tri-State Transportation Campaign) at www.tstc.org and support their strong advocacy on this and so many other transportation issues.  They are among commuters’ greatest allies.
And while you’re in a mood to contact your elected officials, don’t forget to call or e-mail your State Rep and Senator.  We need their help to defeat Governor Rell’s recent senseless call to shut down trains on the New Canaan, Waterbury and Danbury branch lines.
Just weeks ago I was hailing Governor Rell for her leadership and support of mass transit.  Then she turns around and tries to save $5 million a year by stranding 4,300 daily riders of those lines.  And this, after spending $60 million in federal funds to put signals on the Danbury branch, only to suggest it be shut down? 
Days after her call to close down the trains, she literally “back-tracked”.  Her office called me to say she didn’t mean it, that she was trying to get attention of lawmakers and blaming her budget folks at OPM for putting rail cuts on the list of possible cost savings.
Shame on her for frightening commuters and using them as a political lever.  By admitting she was “crying wolf”, who will take her seriously on the next crisis?

Thank You Governor Rell

Anyone who follows this column knows I’m bipartisan in my criticism.  Whoever is in power, Democrat or Republican, I’ve got “suggestions” on how they could improve our transportation mess.
Since she came to office in the midst of a scandal, no other politician has been the target of my commentary more often than Governor M. Jodi Rell.  Today, however, I want to give her the credit she’s due for all she’s done on the transportation front.
Watching the Governor ride the first of the new M8 rail cars this week, I was struck by how she had come full circle in only six years.  The irony is it took her entire tenure in office to order, design, build, test and finally deliver these new cars.
In Governor Rell’s first budget address to lawmakers in February 2005 she started to undo years of her predecessors’ neglect of our trains.  She told lawmakers we must order 300 new rail cars, and they did.  Mind you, she told us then the cars would be in service by 2008.  I predicted, accurately it turned out, that 2010 was a better guess.
The Governor said riders should pay a small part of their cost with a modest fare hike, and that too was passed by lawmakers.
But Governor Rell also said that commuters shouldn’t pay more until they were actually riding in the new cars… a promise she kept.  As manufacturing delays by Kawasaki slowed delivery of the M8’s, that planned 1.25% fare hike was deferred.   A politician who keeps a promise.  Imagine that.
More recently, Governor Rell also told the New York MTA, parent of Metro-North, there was no way she was going to raise fares in Connecticut to pay for the budget problems of New York’s own making.  That was a first in the troubled history of Connecticut / New York relations, but again the Governor deserves credit for doing the right thing.
But not every dream came true during the Rell administration. 
Grumblings about a lack of a voting seat on the MTA or Metro-North boards never amounted to more than that… grumbling.
And yes, Governor Rell did change Commissioners in the Dept. of Transportation at a pace that left many people wondering who was in charge:  five Commissioners in six years.  One was a former State Trooper, another had run Bradley airport.  The two most recent of them actually had experience in rail transportation.
Wracked by scandals, Governor Rell was embarrassed on several occasions by her DOT, eventually asking local businessman Michael Critelli to study the agency and issue recommendations for reform.  Of course, few of the group’s suggestions were ever embraced.
Long promised repairs to our dilapidated train stations took four years to happen, thanks mainly to Federal stimulus money.  If this work wasn’t “shovel ready”, nothing was.
We’re still not certain if the much-needed New Haven Rail facility will ever be fully built, as its price yo-yoed from $300 million in 2005 to $1.2 billion in 2008.  The Governor’s solution… pay consultants $630,000 for an audit.  Their report found only $11 million in potential cuts.
Still, Governor Rell was a big rail fan, realizing the importance not only of fixing Metro-North, but planning for the future.  Together with fellow lame-duck Senator Chris Dodd, she secured a serious down-payment on high-speed rail between New Haven and Springfield.  Well, maybe not true “high-speed”, but certainly higher speed than Amtrak currently offers.
I’m not sure how Governor-elect Malloy will do on transportation, though he clearly understands the problems from his years as mayor of Stamford.  His dreams for better mass transit will be most tempered by our economic crisis.

But to outgoing Governor Rell all commuters should give a loud “thank you” for all that she accomplished.  She’ll be a hard act to follow.

October 31, 2010

Trolleys: Riding Back in Time

What was commuting like back in the “good old days”? Well, cheaper, slower and with fewer options. Still, we have nostalgia for our grandparents’ travel methods long before families owned cars. Back then, it was all about trolleys!


It’s been 200 years since trolleys first plied city streets. Initially pulled by horses they were eventually electrified, adding speed and dependability. While we think of streetcars mostly for in-city service, trolleys criss-crossed our state, supplementing the railroads for longer distance travel.


It is true that you could travel all the way from New York to Boston by connecting trolley lines, a nickel a ride. (Click here for a fabulous 1916 timetable showing four routes from NY to Boston complete with descriptions of the towns).


The trolley companies were often owned by power utilities, giving themselves a steady client for their electricity. To generate even more weekend business, trolley lines would often run to amusement parks which they also owned, like Roton Point in Norwalk.


The expansion of the trolley lines had a profound effect on housing, allowing city dwellers to live further than walking distance from their factories. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in Boston as detailed in “Streetcar Suburbs”, a classic sociology text. This was truly the first “Transit Oriented Development”.


But the story of New England’s trolleys is not limited to the history books. Fortunately, we are blessed with two excellent trolley museums just a short drive away.


The Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than one hundred trolley cars in its collection. It still runs excursion trolleys for a short run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford. You can walk thru the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restoring the old cars. There’s also a small museum exhibit and gift shop.


The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor began in 1940, making it the oldest trolley museum in the US. It too was started on an existing right-of-way, the Rockville branch of the Hartford & Springfield Street Railway Company. You can ride a couple of different trolleys a few miles into the woods and back, perhaps disembarking to tour the collection of streetcars, elevated and inter-urbans in the museum’s sheds and barns.


Both museums also offer you the chance to “drive” a streetcar… under supervision and after a little training. Passengers are not allowed, but your friends can join you if they are brave. If you’re looking for a day-trip, especially for kids, I can highly recommend either museum. But check ahead for hours, especially off-season.


Being born and raised in Toronto, streetcars were always a part of my life. Long before Toronto had a subway or commuter rail service, citizens would go shopping, go to church or an evening at the movies by streetcar. Even today that city of 2.5 million is served by new, Canadian-built streetcars. You can still ride trolleys, both old and new, in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston and Newark NJ. There’s even talk of returning streetcars to Stamford.


When it comes to getting around by means other than the auto, everything old is new again.

CT Trolley Museum

New Orleans trolley on St Charles Ave

PCC Car - CT Trolley Museum

October 03, 2010

A Victory for Commuters

Who says you can’t fight City Hall… or Metro-North?

Back in August I wrote in this column about Metro-North’s latest proposals to gouge commuters. Today I can report they have been soundly defeated.

To close its $800 million budget deficit, the MTA (Metro-North’s parent), has in past months come forward with a series of fare hikes and service cuts, all of them soundly rejected by Governor Rell. Because, although that NY State agency has never heeded our Governor’s requests for a voting seat on its board, Connecticut does have veto power over fare hikes in our state.

I’ve got to hand it to Governor Rell. She’s kept her word since February of 2005 when, in her first budget address, she told the legislature we were long overdue in ordering new rail cars and promised no fare hikes until the cars arrived and went into service. She’s also funneled millions in stimulus funds into fixing up our rail stations.

But this time the MTA was proposing something different… what I called a “stealth” fare hike.

The rail agency proposed cutting the discount on monthly “Mail & Ride” tickets as well as rail tickets bought on the web. They also wanted to reduce the validity of ten-trip tickets from one year to 90 days. And single trip tickets, now valid for six months, would expire in a week.

What were they thinking? Short of having conductors spit at passengers, these changes were almost like yelling “screw you” to their customers?

Once again, the CT Rail Commuter Council had its work to do. First, in publicizing the proposal through the media. Then, in demanding public hearings (though none were originally planned in Connecticut). And finally, in rallying commuters to attend and speak out against these proposals.

For the record, I should note that the Council has, in the past, supported small fare hikes… when they were tied to the cost of living and matched against improvements in service. But these proposals were neither.

The MTA’s budget deficit is of its own creation, not Connecticut’s. So New York taxpayers and commuters should pay for it, not us. Connecticut has never been asked for input on the multi-billion dollar mega-projects undertaken by the MTA, like the $6 billion to build tunnels bringing the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central, so why stick us with the bill?

Isn’t reducing a discount equivalent to a fare increase? You betcha!

And what possible reason could Metro-North offer for shortening the validity of ten-trip tickets? Incredibly, they said it was to deal with the “problem of uncollected tickets.”

Amazing. For about a decade the Commuter Council has been beating on Metro-North about conductors not doing their jobs, leaving tickets uncollected on crowded trains. By its own calculations, Metro-North loses $2 million a year on uncollected tickets. And their solution is to screw customers by selling them ten-trips but letting them only use two or three rides, then declare their ticket invalid?

And the icing on the cake, the final proposal from the MTA? A $15 fee to cash in an unexpired ticket!

The Commuter Council was curious just how much money would be raised if these plans were approved, so we filed a formal written request for that data. The answer: about a half-million dollars a year in Connecticut. That’s nothing… a rounding error… bupkis! An $800 million budget deficit, and all these proposed changes will bring in $500,000?

Governor Rell heard our argument and agreed. She quickly ordered the CDOT to reject the MTA / Metro-North proposal, a directive read aloud at the public hearings in Stamford and New Haven.

Commuters have won… for now.

September 20, 2010

Keeping the Old Car Running


My constant harangue against traffic and in favor of trains aside, I do own a car: a used ’97 Honda Accord with 130,000 miles on it. It’s a great car (the interior infused with cigar smoke notwithstanding), and I hope to run it into the ground.

Used cars are hot these days. Prices have climbed 10% in a year as more drivers decide to hold onto their cars longer. And why not?

We don’t have to be suckers to Detroit’s game of staking our egos on each year’s new model, which immediately loses 20% of its value the day we drive it home. Used cars can prove perfectly reliable, if you keep them in good shape.

So when I saw a TV infomercial for CarMD, a device that promised a simple way to keep my jalopy going, I was jazzed. I love car tech and this sounded great!

Rather than popping the $99 for the gizmo myself, I suggested to the Darien Library that they purchase one. Yes, I am truly blessed to live in a town with a tech-savvy library that offers patrons any number of gizmos on loan… GPS devices, digital cameras and Kill-A-Watt readers. But now I’m feeling a bit guilty.

Here’s how Car MD is supposed to work.

You take the remote unit, about the size of a fat TV remote, and plug it into your car’s computer output. There’s the first challenge: finding that plug. But the www.carmd.com website has a simple guide by make and model. My plug was behind the ashtray of my ’97 Honda Accord. In my wife’s ’96 Volvo, it was under the coin holder.

Once you’ve turned on and plugged in the CarMD gizmo, you turn on the ignition but you do NOT start the car. The handheld device talks to your car’s computer, downloads the information, beeps four times and you’re done. Well, sort of.

If the handheld device shows a green light (as on my trusty Honda), you’re OK. Your car’s computer has found no problems. But if it’s a yellow light, as I saw on the Volvo, the fun begins.

Next you have to copy down your car’s VIN (vehicle identification number). Good luck reading that, if you can find it.

You then load the CarMD software onto your computer, register online with name and address (no, I did not read their Privacy Policy!) and open the software. Type in the VIN and the system should identify your car by year, make and model. You can register three cars per device and they don’t all have to belong to you.

But here’s where I was disappointed. When I clicked the “check health status” button, the software displayed umpteen TSB’s (Technical Service Bulletins) for the Volvo going back to 1992 (even though the car is a ’96) but to read the full details it’s $1.99 per report or $19.95 a year to read them all.

Worse yet, the software told me nothing about why the yellow light was showing on the handheld device. A call to CarMD’s Customer Service (friendly and knowledgeable) got to the root of the problem: the Volvo’s “check engine” light wasn’t on.

In other words, unless your car’s computer has already found a problem and turned on that ominous dashboard display, CarMD isn’t going to tell you much of anything. But it will ask you for money.

CarMD is nothing but a big thumb drive, no smarter than your car’s computer.

Now, had my check engine light been on, Car MD would, in theory, have told me what’s wrong with the car and given me an estimate of how much it would cost to fix it: valuable info to arm myself with before heading to the service station.

But until the “check engine” light shows up on your dashboard, save your money. CarMD isn’t going to do more than frustrate you. Save your dough… maybe to buy a new used car.

September 06, 2010

"Why Hartford Hates The Gold Coast"

I was watching CT-N the other night (my favorite reality TV channel) as the members of the CPTC (Citizens Public Transportation Commission) were meeting for an incredibly boring discussion the state’s transit woes. But toward the end of the meeting, my ears perked up as one of the 80+ year old members started on a rant.

“Our next Governor is going to be ‘gold plated,’” he said. “He’ll come from Fairfield County, the Gold Coast, so heaven help us!”

Not even the lone member of the Commission from Fairfield County dared challenge this crazy assumption that a Governor from the ultra-affluent downstate region would do anything but spend to help Fairfield County while ignoring the rest of the state.

Which got me thinking: Why does everyone upstate mistrust us, we who live on the Gold Coast?

Years ago, when I used to journey to Hartford for my annual appeal to the legislature’s Transportation Committee to invest in new rail cars for Metro-North, I could feel and hear the resentment. Then-Committee Chairman, Senator Billy Ciotto ( D – Wethersfield) would excoriate my testimony, once saying “You people on the Gold Coast can buy your own damn trains!”

Even the CT Rail Commuter Council’s long-time member from Guilford (Shore Line East territory), an otherwise learned and reasonable man, says that Fairfield County isn’t the “real Connecticut.” Oh, really?

Consider the facts:

WE PAY THE TAXES: Forty-plus percent of all the taxes collected in this state come from Fairfield County. Something like 15% of the state’s total collections come from Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien alone. Without Fairfield County taxes, upstate residents’ tax rates would soar.

BUT WE DON’T GET THE BENEFITS: Though we pay most of the taxes, we get almost nothing back in return. Towns like Darien get back 1 cent for every dollar sent to Hartford. One cent! Who’s gold plating the roads in Wethersfield? We are.

WE’RE NOT ALL MILLIONAIRES: Sure, there are some affluent families living along the Gold Coast? But our state’s most populous and poorest city, Bridgeport, is here too. I’d guess there are far more people living in poverty in Norwalk, Stamford and Greenwich than in West Hartford or Farmington.

WE’RE THE VICTIMS OF TRANSIT NEGLECT: Who suffers more from traffic congestion than those who drive I-95 through Fairfield County? And who pays the highest commuter rail fares in the US, but Metro-North riders? Our rail cars are older than most passengers and our highways show the scars of decades of neglect.

So for those people who live north of the Merritt Parkway (the Mason – Dixon line of state politics), get over yourselves and stop portraying us as free-spending fat cats living not in Connecticut but some annex of New York City.

Connecticut’s next Governor will come from Fairfield County. And that’s a good thing. Who knows more about what happens when you don’t invest in your highways and trains?

Maybe the shiny new commuter rail from New Haven to Springfield (which we’ll all be heavily subsidizing) can learn from Metro-North’s mistakes. Maybe a new Governor can extend Shore Line East from Old Saybrook beyond New London to Mystic, Stonington and even Rhode Island, turning local rail critics into passengers.

To her credit, Brookfield’s Jodi Rell has served our entire state’s interests as Governor, especially in funding improved mass transit state-wide, not just in her own home town. And I have every confidence that Dan Malloy or Tom Foley will be Governor of all of Connecticut, upstate and down, from the Quiet Corner to, yes, even the Gold Coast.

August 22, 2010

Five Years After Katrina - What Have We Learned?

We were all awe-struck five years ago watching the coverage of the rescue efforts in the Gulf following hurricane Katrina. But did we learn anything from that tragedy?
Remember: our annual hurricane season is well underway and storm activity peaks around this time each year. And we ready for “the big one”?

Consider the following:

1) Transportation Means Survival: The difference between those who lived and died in New Orleans was based on access to transportation. When told to evacuate, those with cars did. Those without couldn’t and were stranded. The lack of public transportation along the Gulf Coast left the “disadvantaged” as just that… dis-advantaged, and maybe dead.

How would those living along the Connecticut coast be evacuated if a category four hurricane were threatening us? Join the crawl on I-95? Take Metro-North? Or hunker down at a local mall. How many of our towns have adequate shelter or emergency supplies?

Is Amtrak ready, along with Metro-North, to deploy its fleet to evacuate the hundreds of thousands threatened by a hurricane? Doubtful.

2) Our Classless Society Isn’t: The victims of Katrina weren’t characterized as much by race as by economic class. Being able to afford to live away from the flood plain and have access to private transportation both cost money. This isn’t about race: you don’t have to be Black to be poor.

But after Katrina, then-President Bush’s mother, Barbara, was touring the Katrina refugee camps in Houston. She commented that, given the squalor of their former New Orleans homes, these victims of Katrina were actually better off than before. Then she added “it’s kind of scary that they might all want to stay in Texas.”

Where would Connecticut’s refugees flee after an evacuation? And how long would they be gone pending recovery and rebuilding? Gold Coasters perhaps could drive their SUV’s up to familiar ski country in New England. But where would the Hispanic, Haitian and Black populations of Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport go… and would they also be made to feel like so many dust bowl Oakies when they arrived at refugee camps?

3) Our Government Is Incompetent: Katrina and 9/11 showed us that our government can’t do a damn thing to protect its citizens. One might excuse a surprise terrorist attack, but a long anticipated, well-scenarioed hurricane? Not a chance.

At the time of Katrina, 75 percent of FEMA’s budget was being spent on anti-terrorism efforts, even though acts of nature present the real danger to most Americans. Gobbled up into the Homeland Security Agency, FEMA had lost all clout, competence and most of its budget. “Brownie” may have been doing a “helluva job”, but would his successor do any better five years on?

Ask any old-timer about the Hurricane of 1938 which devastated New England that September. It still ranks as the worst natural disaster to ever hit our state. True, the human toll was compounded because we had no notice of the coming storm. But even with sufficient time to evacuate, a storm of that size would devastate this state, especially our most expensive homes built along the coast.

Santayana said: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Have we really learned the lessons of Katrina?

August 16, 2010

We're Mad As Hell...

Sometimes we commuters feel like Howard Beale from the 1976 movie “Network”. We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!

The MTA, parent of Metro-North, is at it again. Under the guise of balancing their budget, they’re proposing rules changes that will penalize riders, hike fares and discourage ridership. For the moment, these proposals will not affect riders in Connecticut, where fares are set by our DOT. But the pressures for increased revenue may yet hit riders in the Nutmeg State.

The most expensive commuter railroad in the US is about to get a lot more expensive. Here’s what the MTA is proposing:

PARKING INCREASES: The MTA controls parking at two dozen NY stations and is calling for a 14.5% price hike, which will translate into an additional $840,000 in revenue to the railroad.

FARE HIKES: Coming on the heels of fare hikes earlier this year, the MTA wants to jump fares another 7.5% – 9.4%

TICKET RULES: Ten-trip tickets, which used to be valid for a year, will only be good for 90 days. And single fare tickets, previously good for 90 days, will expire after a month.

PEAK & OFF-PEAK:
There’s even discussion about eliminating, or at least reducing, the 15% – 20% discount for off-peak fares. This would really hurt Metro-North riders, nearly three-quarters of whom ride on off-peak fares.

WEB TICKETS: The cheapest way to buy any ticket on Metro-North is via the web. But the 2% discount for online sales may also be eliminated.

TICKET REFUNDS: Did you find an unused, valid ticket in your desk and want to “cash it in”? The railroad will hit you with a service charge.

METRO-CARD: Want a new Metro-Card instead of refilling an old one? That will cost you a buck. The popular unlimited-rides monthly card, now $89, would be limited to 90 rides for $99. Or you can pay $105 for the unlimited version.

EZ PASS: Tolls on MTA-controlled bridges (like the Whitestone, Throgs Neck and Henry Hudson) would increase 10%.

JOBS / SALARIES: Two hundred ticket clerk jobs in the subway have already been eliminated. The MTA is proposing a freeze on transit workers’ salaries after two 4% pay hikes in as many years.

One person not losing his job and apparently unwilling to cut his pay is MTA Chairman Jay Walder who earns $350,000 and just purchased a three bedroom condo on Manhattan’s upper West Side for $1.6 million.

All of these price hikes are aimed at closing the MTA’s $800 million budget deficit, which was created by cuts in NY state subsidies plus debt service on billions in bonding for massive capital projects like bringing the LIRR into Grand Central and building the Second Avenue subway.

But hey! Let’s not just get mad as hell… let’s think of some alternatives!

DISTANCE BASED FARES: Why is the fare on the NYC subway the same whether you take the shuttle to Times Square or ride the A train from northern Manhattan 31 miles to Far Rockaway? Most modern subway lines charge based on distance, just as commuter rail does. This would mean updating the turnstiles, but just out of fairness, shouldn’t subway riders pay more for a longer ride?

WRAPPING THE CARS: Ride any mass-transit system in Europe and you’ll see cars wrapped in advertising. Experiments with exterior ad-wraps on the Times Sq – Grand Central shuttle haven’t hurt ridership but did bring in badly needed revenue. I’d imagine any number of “Mad Men” would pay dearly to wrap their ads around our new M8 cars. And Amtrak has already shown it works with Acela.

Shame on the MTA for sticking it to the commuters! These rules changes will just discourage ridership, not increase income. And decreased ridership just leads to more money problems.

Yes, we’re as mad as hell. And we don’t have to take it anymore! This is an election year. Let’s create a commuter voting block and make sure the candidates pay more than lip-service to really supporting mass transit.

July 25, 2010

The AC - DC Railroad

A few weekends ago, service on Metro-North and Amtrak was thrown into chaos when two trains ripped down portions of the overhead caternary (power line). Trains were cancelled, weekend riders stranded.

Metro-North’s service in Connecticut is made all the more challenging by a technological quirk of fate. Ours is the only commuter railroad in the U.S. that operates on three modes of power… AC, DC and diesel.

On a typical run from, say, New Haven to Grand Central, the first part of the journey is done “under the wire”, the trains being powered by 13,000 volt AC overhead wires, or catenaries. Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the pantographs are lowered and the conversion is made to 660 volt DC third-rail power for the rest of the trip into New York. Even diesel engines must convert to third-rail, as their smoky exhaust is banned in the Park Avenue tunnels.

And there’s the rub: Connecticut trains need both AC and DC, overhead and third-rail, power pick-ups and processors. That means a lot more electronics, and added cost, for each car. While the DC-only new M7 cars running in Westchester cost about $2 million each, the dual-mode M8 car designed for Connecticut will cost considerably more.

So, some folks are asking… “Why not just use one power source? Just replace the overhead wires with third-rail and we can buy cheaper cars.” Simple, yes. Smart, no. And here’s why.

 There’s not enough space to lay a third-rail along each of the four sets of tracks in the existing right of way. All four existing tracks would have to be ripped out and the space between them widened. Every bridge and tunnel would have to be widened, platforms moved and land acquired. Cost? Probably hundreds of millions of dollars, years of construction and service disruptions.

 Even with third-rail, the CDOT would still be required to provide overhead power lines for Amtrak. That would mean maintaining two power systems at double the cost. We’re currently spending billions just to upgrade the 80-year old catenary, so why then replace it with third-rail?

 Third-rail AC power requires power substations every few miles, meaning further construction and real estate. The environmental lawsuits alone would kill this idea.

 DC-powered third rail is less efficient. Trains accelerate much faster using overhead AC voltage, the power source used by the fastest trains in the world… the TGV, Shinkansen, etc. On third-rail speeds are limited to 75 miles an hour vs. 90 mph under the wire. That means, mile for mile, commute time is longer using third rail.

 Third-rail ices up in bad weather and can get buried in snow, causing short circuits. Overhead wires have problems sometimes, but they are never buried in a blizzard.

 Third-rail is dangerous to pedestrians and track workers.
The idea of conversion to third-rail was studied in the 1980’s by consultants to CDOT. They concluded that, while cumbersome and costly, the current dual-power system is, in the long run, cheaper and more efficient than installing third-rail. This time, the engineers at CDOT got it right.

Not satisfied, some of the third-rail fans tried pushing bills through the Legislature in 2005 to study the replacement scheme yet again. More studies would have meant years of delay in ordering already overdue car replacements. Fortunately, the Legislature dispensed with these nuisance proposals quickly.

Doubtless, we’ll have further “wires down” problems in the years to come. Ironically, Metro-North’s 97% on-time record has made us come to expect stellar service, despite our ancient infrastructure. But in the long run, service will be faster and even more reliable by sticking with our dual-mode system.

July 12, 2010

Paying for Transportation: Let's Not Be Fuelish

My father taught me that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. I’m trying to teach my daughter that there’s no such thing as a free ride.

With a newly minted driver’s license, she’s found new freedom behind the wheel… until I ask her to fill the gas tank. Now, as we drive past local gas stations, she’s taken new interest in comparison pricing.

A large part of the cost of gas is taxes that subsidize our transportation system. That’s why gas is so much cheaper in New Jersey (no taxes)… but also why they have expensive tolls on their highways. Remember… “no free ride”.

But as I have written about for five years now, gasoline prices in this country are still too low because they don’t ask us to pay for the true costs associated with driving.

How much would gasoline cost if the pump price included the billions we spend each day fighting to keep access to Middle East oil? Or, what if drivers were asked to repay the 40% of all police costs associated with patrolling the roads? Or how about asking motorists to pay at the pump for the land lost to taxation by turning it into highways?

But it gets worse.

In Connecticut we are facing a major funding crisis in transportation because of our over-reliance on the gas tax.

Not even the relatively expensive fares on Metro-North reflect the true cost of running that service, hence the operating subsidy by the state from the Special Transportation Fund (STF). Created in 1984, the STF was to be a “lock box” of money to invest in our state’s transportation infrastructure and help cover the cost of transit operations.

But 40% of the STF comes from gasoline taxes. So in 1997 when Governor John Rowland got the legislature to cut the gas tax from 39 cents to 25 cents a gallon, he doomed the fare-paying bus and rail passengers in our state.

Every penny of gas tax raises $15 million in annual revenue. So Rowland’s tax-cutting stunt cost the STF $210 million a year, or almost $3 billion to date. That’s money that wasn’t available to be used to repair our roads, buy new rail cars or buses or keep fares affordable.

And going forward, with automobiles becoming more fuel efficient (i.e. using less gas) and eventually becoming all-electric (using no gas), the STF will have even less funding to maintain the highways and keep mass transit affordable.

And that’s not even considering the legislature’s recent diversion of $10 million from the STF into the general fund to balance the budget. So much for “lock boxes.”

What’s the alternative?

Well, tolls would be a good start. But the state’s Transportation Strategy Board spent a million dollars to study tolling, only to reject eleven options cited by the consultants. And there are precious few lawmakers in Hartford or Washington willing to suggest tolling our “free-ways”, especially in an election year.

Or how about using a VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) tax? Motorists would pay for the number of miles they drive: a highway use fee. Of course, the use of GPS to track their travel patterns and charge by time-of-day and congestion probably leaves the libertarians shaking… as if Big Brother doesn’t know your every move already by tracking your cell phone.

Or how about what they’ve done in Portland Oregon, a payroll tax of .07% with proceeds going directly to the transit system, by-passing sticky-fingered legislators.

Someone, somehow is going to pay for our roads and rails. If not in a gas tax, then in some other revenue raising-mechanism. Because, as we must all understand, there is no free ride.

June 27, 2010

The Bar Car Debate - Your Turn


Much has been written about Metro-North’s fabled bar cars, the only such rolling pubs on a commuter railroad in North America. Reports of their demise are wrong, as CDOT is considering adding bar cars to the next M8 car order.

The CT Rail Commuter Council has been given a preliminary design which CDOT is using to seek bids from Kawasaki, so we thought it wise to seek rider input. We’re running an online survey for another few weeks.

As of this writing almost 450 people have chimed in, many of them adding interesting comments, which I share with you this week.

On the “pro” side…

“They (bar cars) give people a real chance to connect after a long day. We all hope they continue.” “…they’re a nice place to unwind and chit chat with other commuters. It makes the commute a bit easier to swallow”. “I have met some of my best friends on these bar cars, as it is a great social environment as well as an opportunity to network with others.”

But on the “con” side…

“I don't see a need for a bar car. The trains are noisy as it is and adding a bar car only makes the commute more stressful for those many commuters that do not use a bar car.” “We need seats on the NH not bar cars. People get out of these bar cars and into their personal vehicles and become hazards to others on the road.” “I prefer to have more seating. Last night's commute home felt like I was in India. We need more seats not bars.” “The bar car is an incredibly stupid idea. They are inefficient and wasteful. A taxpayer-supported railroad should not be running around with bar cars onboard.”

Many respondents commented on the proposed shorter bar, moving the bathroom to the center of the car and new seating patterns.

“This was obviously designed by someone with limited exposure to the practical / functional aspects of the current setup. I would suggest having the designer ride the bar car a few dozen times at peak hour to better define and frame the task at hand.” “We are saying no to bikes for space reasons and we shouldn't give a benefit for drinkers just because it's fun.”

Others suggested power outlets and space for laptops… fold-down or removable seats… and several felt a drawing isn’t enough: “put a mockup at Grand Central so we can better evaluate and give ideas.”

Another idea… “If possible, raise windows so that a standing person can look out the window at a 90 degree angle. As currently configured, an average sized person who is standing only has a view of the ground.”

A branch-line rider asked… “Have there been any considerations to adding a bar car to the Danbury Line?” Sorry, only when (and if) the line is re-electrified. Until then bar cars will only be used on the main line.

Finally, one wishful respondent summed up the thoughts of many with “free beer please.”

To see the proposed bar car design and add your comments to the online survey, visit the CT Rail Commuter Council’s website at www.trainweb.org/ct

June 13, 2010

Saving Money Going to NYC

Whether you’re a daily commuter, an occasional day-tripper or have friends visiting this summer, everyone can save money when you go into NYC by following this time-tested advice:

TRANSITCHEK: See if your employer subscribes to this fabulous service, which allows workers to buy up to $230 per month in transit using pre-tax dollars. If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings on commutation. A recent survey shows that 45% of all New York City companies offer TransitChek which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries. But Congress needs to act soon to continue this benefit, so if you’re one of the employees, write your lawmaker!

GO OFF-PEAK: If you can arrive at Grand Central weekdays after 10 am and avoid the 4 pm – 8 pm peak return hours, you can save 15 – 20%. Off-peak’s also in effect on weekends and holidays. Your train will be less crowded, too.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE: Buy your ticket on the train and you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 - $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once! There are ticket machines at most stations, but the cheapest tickets are those bought online. And go for the ten-trip tickets to save an additional 15%. They can be shared among passengers and are good for a year.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES: Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50% over adult fares. Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours). Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50% off the one way peak fare. But you must have proper ID and you can’t go in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING: Even stations that require parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends. Check with your local town.

CHEAPER STATION PARKING: Don’t waste money parking at comparatively “expensive” station garages like South Norwalk ($ 6.50 per day M-F, $4.75 on weekends) or Stamford ($8 for 8 hours, M-F). Instead, park at the day-lots in Darien or Noroton Heights for just $3. But be sure to buy a scratch-off ticket in advance.

Once you’re in the city, you can save even more money.

AVOID CABS: I have nothing against taxis, but they’re getting mighty expensive: $2.50 when you enter the cab, $0.40 for each minute or one-fifth of a mile. Add on a $1 surcharge from 4 – 8 pm weekdays, $0.50 after 8 pm and a state mandated $0.50 per ride anytime, not to mention a tip… and it all adds up. Instead, take the bus or subway. Or try walking.

USE METROCARDS: Forget about the old subway tokens. These nifty cards can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some incredible deals: put $8 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 15% bonus. Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus. You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a single day ($8.25), a week ($27), 14 days ($51.50) or a month ($89). There’s now even an ExpressPay MetroCard the refills itself like an EZ-Pass.

CHEAPER TO DRIVE?: Despite being a mass transit advocate, there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than take the train, especially with three or more passengers. You probably know how to avoid bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure. But do check out www.bestparking.com to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination. Or drive to Shea Stadium and take the subway from there.

The bottom line is that it ain’t cheap going into “the city”. But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money. Enjoy!

June 04, 2010

Are Ferries In Our Future?

If you believe in ferries, then clap your hands. Sage advice from Peter Pan. But as your applause subsides, let me debunk the popular myth that the solutions to our transportation woes can be found on Long Island Sound. Ferry boats face several challenges:

SPEED: In open water, fast ferries on the Sound could make 30 knots (35 mph). But if they must sail up inlets to the downtown areas of Bridgeport, Norwalk or Stamford, that speed is cut to 5 knots, losing precious travel time.

DOCKING: To keep to competitive speeds, docks would have to be located close to the Sound. That’s expensive real estate. And what about parking at those docks… and travel time on local roads to reach them? Again, more lost travel time.

FREQUENCY: Metro-North offers trains to midtown New York every 20 minutes in rush hour. No ferry service anywhere in the country can compete with that frequency of service. Will travelers really be willing to wait an hour or two for the next boat?

COMFORT: In nice weather, a boat ride to work sounds idyllic. But what about in a blizzard? The bumpiest ride on the train pales by comparison.
FARES: The most optimistic of would-be ferry operators estimate their fares will be at least double those charged on the train. And people say Metro-North is too expensive?

OPERATING COSTS: One of the reasons fares would be so high is that fast ferries are gas guzzlers, the aquatic equivalent to the Concorde. When the Pequot Indians built high speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino in Connecticut to lose money, the service cost so much that the Pequot’s dry-docked the ship in New London.

COMPETITION: When a private operator tried to run ferry service from Glen Cove Long Island to midtown, paralleling a route well served by the LIRR, they shut down after just a few months because they couldn’t compete with the trains. Coastal Connecticut is already well-served by fast, efficient rail service, so why duplicate what already works?

A proposed ferry from Atlantic Highlands NJ stopping in Norwalk enroute to Martha’s Vineyard might be a viable alternative to crush-hour on I-95. But they’re talking about one-way fares of $200 per person. My biggest chuckle about the plan came when a Norwalk city official suggested islanders might use it to visit Norwalk for a vacation. Oh, really?

The final reason I don’t think ferries make economic sense is that nobody else does. Ferry operators (like the near-bankrupt NY Waterways) aren’t stupid. They’ve looked at possible service from coastal Connecticut, crunched the numbers and backed off. In a free market economy, if a buck could be made running ferries, they’d be operating by now. They aren’t, and there are lots of reasons why, many of which I’ve listed.

The only place ferries are running successfully is where they’re heavily subsidized (everywhere), have a monopoly (for example, getting to downtown Seattle from an island suburb), don’t duplicate existing transportation routes (like from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson), or offer advantages of speed because they operate on extremely short runs (from Hoboken to midtown). Our situation here in Connecticut matches none of those tests.

You already know I’m a train nut. (The bumper sticker on my car reads “I’d Rather Be On The Train.”). And I do love an occasional recreational sail on the Sound. But I just think it’s unrealistic to think that commutation by ferries is realistically in our future.

Sorry Tinkerbelle. I’m not clapping.

May 16, 2010

More Secrets of Grand Central

There is possibly no more beautiful railroad station in the world than New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. (Note: It’s a ‘terminal’ not a station, because there are no ‘through-trains’).

As the destination of over 55,000 daily commuters from Connecticut, it’s a place where we 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 40+ years of commuting experience, here are some of the nooks and crannies within the station that I find most fascinating… and useful.

The Million Dollar Clock: The famous clock atop the information booth in the main concourse looks good for a reason. Its four faces are made from opal, valued in excess of $10 million.

Look Up: Most people know about the zodiac ceiling painting in the main hall. But did you know the night sky is actually reversed? Or that, in its cleaning of soot and cigarette smoke years ago, one small rectangle was left in its darkened form? Just look in the northwest corner of the ceiling.

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 afforded at Madison and 47th St., Park Ave. and 48th Street, and the Helmsley Building at Park and 45th Street walk-ways are dandy. But did you know you can also access from 43rd or 45th Street, west of Vanderbilt, or via the subway’s shuttle station, on the south side of 42nd Street, just west of Park? There’s also a tunnel under Lexington Avenue directly from the Chrysler Building.

Fastest Way from the Lower Level: Many trains from Connecticut dump you on the lower level. But forget about the ramps or stairs for the long climb to street level. Instead, walk to the forward end of the train and look for the elevator near Track 112. It will take you to the upper level or, better yet, punch “E” and you’ll emerge within steps of Vanderbilt Avenue (see below).

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 escalator up one level, 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, and staffed by a full-time attendant.

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 Street. Taxis flow through here, leaving off passengers every few seconds. If you are heading west you’ll also avoid the heavy traffic on 42nd Street.

Recycling but Not Re-Reading: When newspaper recycling came to Grand Central in the 90’s, it apparently worked too well. Papers tossed into the open bins were too easily retrieved and re-read by others. To curb the loss in sales, the New York Times paid to have the bins capped and recycling increased by a ton of paper a day.

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.

May 04, 2010

Bar Cars, The NY Times & The Truth

In an earlier life I was a journalist. A pretty good one too, winning awards in my time at NBC News and local stations. We used to have a joke in the newsroom about sloppy reporting, commenting that a reporter “should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

That rubric came to mind when I first read the NY Times’ April 20th feature on pending demise of Metro-North’s bar cars. I had spoken with the reporter, Michael Grynbaum, about the story. I even sent him to talk to others involved in the efforts to save the last commuter rail bar cars in the US.

But despite our conversations, he got the story wrong. Very wrong.

As I have written here before, the eight bar cars serving Metro-North riders in Connecticut are vastly popular but often under threat. When ridership peaked before the recession, there was some talk of adding seats to the bar cars, doing away with their 1950’s style banquette seats. Some of the old bar cars were literally being held together with duct tape while other cars of the same era went thru rehab, getting new electronics and cleaned interiors. Clearly, the priority was seats, not in-transit bar service.

But as of today, our sacred bar cars have been rejuvenated, having gone through the railroad’s CSR (Critical Systems Replacement) program. The cars are good for another 15 – 20 years and there are no, repeat NO, plans to remove them from service.

What is at question is whether we will see bar car designs for the new M8 car coming on line later this year. Here is where the NY Times got the facts wrong.
The paper implied that CDOT and Metro-North had no designs for an M8 bar car. Not so. The CT Rail Commuter Council has seen those designs and we’ve been told in recent days they are in the hands of Kawasaki, the M8’s builder, for bids.
Why would the state be seeking bids on an M8 bar car if they were being eliminated?

But remember that old newsroom mantra: “Never let the facts… etc.”

The Times also implied that when the new M8 cars come into service, all of our older cars (including the eight bar cars) would be scrapped. Not so. CDOT and Metro-North have long planned to retain about 150 of the rehab’ed cars, including the bar cars.

So even if there is no M8 bar car (and I have every confidence there will be), we’ll still have the older models. Ipso facto, the NY Times was wrong. But here’s where the fun begins.

Every media outlet in the NY area ran with the Times’ story, none of them even checking with me (as they usually do) to get the facts. If it was in the NY Times, it had to be true! Wow… what a lesson we’ve learned.

The day after the Times’ story came out, I reconfirmed my facts with the CDOT and Metro-North officials at our long-scheduled Commuter Council meeting. The next week was spent playing one-man truth squad, setting the record straight with commuters, lawmakers and media.

I even e-mailed the NY Times asking for an official correction. Surely, I thought, some editor would see the factual errors their reporter had committed and set the record straight. But of the list of factual flaws I cited in the original article, only one was acknowledged in a tiny correction printed April 28th…

“An article last Wednesday about the uncertain future of the bar cars on the Metro-North Railroad referred erroneously to their interiors. They are decorated with wallpaper designed to look like wood paneling; they do not have actual wood paneling.”

That’s the best I could elicit from the NY Times’ editors, perhaps the smallest of the mistakes I showed them. That the other mistakes were not corrected, or even acknowledged, speaks to the sloppy journalism and arrogance of this once great newspaper.

How sad.

April 04, 2010

"Peak Oil and our Future"

You think things are bad now? Just wait.

We could be inches or minutes away from a global economic crisis that will make the current recession look like fun… the day we realize we’re running out of oil.

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 and others’ 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 in Connecticut 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 unemployed or working from home or on flex-time, traffic congestion is a thing of the past.

AT HOME: 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. Winter’s gloom is augmented by a constant grey haze of wood smoke. Office buildings, by law, can heat to no more than 60 degrees in colder months. Sweaters are the new fashion statement (think Jimmy Carter and cardigans in the 70’s).

MASS TRANSIT: Delivery delays in the long awaited M10 railcars and fears that their manufacturer, General Motors, may declare bankruptcy (again) 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 street traffic drops as people consolidate their few truly necessary shopping trips. Because food is so dependent on pricey oil (used for fertilizers, packaging and transport), food prices soar. Food imported out of season becomes a rare 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. Towns 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, begun recently off the East and West coasts, doesn’t help as supplies of crude will not reach refineries for three more 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”.)

March 21, 2010

Ye Olde Commute

When the big storm hit last week, like many in my town, I was left in the cold and dark for several days. The Darien Library became my second home, affording me a chance finally to read historian Kenneth Reiss’s “The Story of Darien Connecticut”, an excellent new book.

What I found was that the story of this “bedroom” community’s growth was intimately linked to transportation.

As early as 1699 roads had been laid out on routes still used today. But where today those roads are lined with trees (whose felling by the storm left us without power or passage!), by the mid-1700’s most of southern Fairfield county had been cleared of all trees to allow for farming. Those mighty oaks taken out by the storm were not as old as we’d thought.

In the 1770’s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as Old Kings Highway) was the responsibility of the locals. Every able bodied man and beast could be enlisted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape. But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians.

By 1785 there was only one privately owned “pleasure” vehicle in all of Stamford, a two-wheeled chaise owned by the affluent John Davenport.

At the end of the 18th century it was clear that we needed more roads and the state authorized more than a hundred privately-funded toll roads to be built. The deal was that, after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were revert to state control. Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal.

One of the first such roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1, the Boston Post Road. Another was the Norwalk to Danbury ‘pike, now Route 7.

Four toll gates were erected: Greenwich, Stamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge and Fairfield. No tolls were collected for those going to church, militia muster or farmers going to the mills. Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier.
The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls which were nicknamed “shun-pikes”.

Regular horse-drawn coaches carried passengers from Boston to NY. And three days a week there was a coach from Darien to Stamford, connecting to a steamboat to New York.

The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York & New Haven Railroad started service. An 1850 timetable showed three trains a day from Darien to NYC, each averaging two hours and ten minutes. Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour.

The one way fare was 70 cents vs today’s $12.25 at rush hour.

By the 1870’s Darien was seeing what we today call “transit oriented development”, as full page ads lured city dwellers to newly built homes near the Noroton station which opened in the 1870’s.

In the 1890’s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade and eliminating street crossings.

In the 1890’s the trolleys arrived. The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road connecting in downtown Darien with the Norwalk Tramway (rattling along Railroad Ave., now known as Tokeneke Rd.); the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.

Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride. There were so many trolley lines in the state that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents a ride.
The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.

Fast forward to the present where we are again debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in Stamford and T.O.D. (“transit oriented development”) is all the rage. Have things really changed that much over two hundred years?

March 08, 2010

Mass Transit Faces Service Cuts, Fare Hikes

From coast to coast, mass transit is under attack. Decreased ridership due to the economy and reduced state subsidies are leading to cuts in service and fare increases.

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For us in Connecticut, New York’s MTA and its $800 million budget shortfall could affect our daily commute. The NY transit agency is holding public hearings on plans to cut bus and subway service, eliminate student discount fares and, yes, even target Metro-North service.

Starting this June, the MTA wants to shorten Metro-North trains (achieving a $2.8 million annual savings) and eliminate others (a $1.6 million savings). Targeted for cuts in Connecticut are two mid-day trains between Grand Central and New Haven, and a late night local from GCT to Stamford.

But neither of these cuts will happen, thanks to our Governor.

First, many New Haven line trains are already standing room only so it would be impossible to reduce their length. Some 6 – 7% of our trains don’t have enough cars to handle the passenger load, let alone see the number of cars get reduced.

Second, under our operating contract with Metro-North, none of these service reductions can be unilaterally dictated by MTA without agreement by the state of Connecticut. And Governor Rell has said “no way” to any service cuts in Connecticut.

Having for years sought a voting seat on the MTA or Metro-North board and been ignored, Governor Rell is quite correct in reminding those NY agencies that their current economic problems are of their creation, not Connecticut’s. Decades of over-zealous bonding for massive projects like East Side Access (a $7 billion project to bring LIRR trains into Grand Central) have left a pit of pain which New Yorkers dug, but have the chutzpah to now ask our state’s riders to fill. No way, MTA!

As I reminded the MTA Board when I testified at a recent public hearing… “Metro-North is a vendor to the state of Connecticut. We hire you to operate our trains. But we are not equal partners in the operation of this railroad.”

Governor Rell has told CDOT Commissioner Joseph Marie to block those proposed service cuts, and the dutiful transportation czar is following orders, much to the chagrin of Metro-North which, doubtless, will get their revenge at a later date.
If cuts in Metro-North service are needed, let them be in NY State, not Connecticut. New York already has more trains and lower fares than we do, so they can bear a loss of service with less pain.

While there are two trains operating each hour between Stamford and Grand Central, we have only one train an hour between New Haven and GCT. So, let them cut the Westchester trains, not Connecticut’s.

The final piece of good news is that we will not be looking at any fare increase here in Connecticut for the foreseeable future. A rumored 10% fare hike last fall to balance the state’s budget was postponed and a planned 1.25% fare hike January 1st 2010 (to help pay for the new M8 rail cars) was delayed, keeping the Governor’s promise of no fare hike until the (now delayed) rail cars go into service.

Our neighboring states have entered a death spiral of less mass transit at higher costs, discouraging ridership even further and eventually forcing more service cuts or fare hikes. But here in Connecticut, for a change, we remain a leader in maintaining fast, on-time Metro-North rail service with no price increase. And the credit all goes to our Governor, Jodi Rell, for holding firm against the MTA.