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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.