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April 18, 2011

Commuting By The Numbers

Spring cleaning of my office last week turned up an interesting 2011 report card issued by the Connecticut DOT: a two-page summary of statistics that says a lot about the state of railroading in the “land of steady habits.”
RIDERSHIP:           Passengers are slowly coming back to Metro-North: 36.67 million a year on the New Haven line in 2010, down slightly from 37.13 million in 2009.  A similar trend was seen on Shore Line East (the state-owned, Amtrak-operated line from New Haven to New London), which saw 557,000 riders in 2010, a sizable dip from the 593,000 riders in 2009.  The explanation for the declines after so many years of growth… the economy.  But with jobs returning and gas prices soaring, 2011 promises to be another record for both lines.
BENEFITS:             Each rail passenger is estimated to remove 0.83 vehicles from our roads, so more folks on the train means less pollution in the air.  By CDOT’s estimates, almost 50 million gallons of fuel were saved by rail passengers in 2008 (the latest stats available).  And those trips saved a billion miles of auto travel, almost a half million tons of greenhouse gases thanks to reduced emissions and added up to a dollar savings of $500 million for rail commuters.
WHO / WHERE?:        Folks can’t take advantage of the train if they don’t live nearby.  But using the national standard for accessibility of 2.5 miles from a boarding station, 31% of the state’s population lives “near” a station.  That’s a potential ridership pool of 1.1 million people.  As for their destinations, 30% of residents have jobs located within 2.5 miles of rail stations.
Developers’ new push for T.O.D. (transit oriented development) will improve these numbers, building condos and offices closer to mass transit.  Stamford is a great example.
FIX FIRST:             Most commuters pay no attention to the millions of dollars spent annually to keep our railroads in a state of good repair.  Sure, they appreciate the handful of new M8 cars in service, but what about the tracks, bridges and overhead wires that make it possible for them to run?
CDOT is replacing 178 miles of catenary, replacing or rehabilitating 21 bridges, thousands of concrete ties and miles of welded rail.  In addition, millions in Federal stimulus funds have been spent to fix up our stations.
COMMUTING  COST:       Though we have some of the highest commuter rail fares in the US, Metro-North tickets still cover only 69.5% of the cost of each ride.  (The difference is made up in subsidies, including money raised through the gasoline tax.)  But that’s nothing compared to Shore Line East where fares cover only 8.9% of the cost of each ride.  Metro-North subsidies (except on the branch lines to New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury) are borne two-thirds by Connecticut and one-third by New York.  On Shore Line East the 81% fare subsidy is paid 100% by the state of Connecticut.
To close that gap we need to increase ridership (almost a certainty), lower costs (not likely) or raise fares (already planned).  Metro-North fares will increase 1.5% on January 1st 2012 and an additional 1% each New Year’s day for the following six years.

So there you have them:  the facts (and a few opinions) about where we stand on the future of commuter rail in Connecticut.

April 04, 2011

Who's In Charge of Our Transportation Future?


Is anyone guiding our state’s transportation future?  One wonders.
Three months into the Malloy administration, we still don’t have a Commissioner at the Department of Transportation.  Yet, the Governor is pushing legislation to eliminate the Transportation Strategy Board just a decade after its creation.
It’s clear that we are far from solving our transportation mess, so it’s disconcerting that no individual or advisory board seems to be in charge.
We’ve had five Commissioners at the DOT since Jodi Rell became Governor, the most recent leaving last July under the cloud of an alleged scandal.  So why the lack of a firm hand on the tiller of this 3,400-employee, $725 million capital budget agency?
Well, first, who would want the job?  The CDOT has careened from scandal to cost-overrun, from investigation to calls for reorganization.  It’s the agency we love to hate.  So it’s no surprise that Governor Malloy’s national search for a new Commissioner has turned up empty so far.
The last Commissioner, Joseph Marie, came to Connecticut after a national search and made tremendous progress at rebuilding morale in the agency.  His candor was refreshing.  His experience on the rail side (having just designed and built Phoenix’s light rail system) was hailed as a turning point in the agency previously dominated by highways veterans.  His deputy Commissioner, Jeff Parker, was similarly well versed and widely respected.

But when Marie was forced to resign amid unproven allegations of sexual improprieties… without so much as formal charges or investigations… Parker took over only to leave last month, impatient at the new Governor’s inability to give him the full title or replace him. 
Why then, with the CDOT in limbo, does Governor Malloy want to eliminate the Transportation Strategy Board?  At least that body had the mandate of taking a longer-term view of a 20-year plan for rail and road, airports and ports.
Created in 2001, the TSB was complemented by regional advisory TIA’s, or Transportation Investment Areas, including “The Coastal Corridor TIA” (on which I have served since its creation).  With input from the TIAs, the TSB issued its first recommendations in 2003 in a comprehensive report prioritizing long overdue investment in transportation, including ordering new rail cars for Metro-North.
There were updates in 2007 and 2011 as the body explored the links between transportation and economic development.
The first TSB Chairman, Oz Griebel, went on to run for Governor.  His successor, businessman Kevin Kelleher, missed many meetings and didn’t seem engaged in the TSB’s ongoing work.  A third Chairman, Bruce Alexander from Yale turned the TSB into a debating club, achieving little.
On one important policy issue, tolls on our highways, the TSB did a terrible job.  Unable to come to any consensus on this crucial traffic mitigation and funding source, they did what everyone previously has done with transportation:  they called for another study.  But the resulting report was so jumbled, offering nine different alternatives, that choosing among them was impossible and political suicide.
It didn’t help that then-governor Rell had rejected any tolling idea even as the million dollar report was being written.  Neither did a series of public hearings held by the TSB around the state when the report was issued.  The agency sought public comment without any explanation of the study or its proposals.
At the hearing in Norwalk only a handful of TSB members were present (with Chairman Kelleher again absent) to listen as 50 uninformed residents spouted the same old objections to tolling.  What a waste.
The tolling issue has not gone away.  Nor have questions about how we will fund mass transit with an ever-dwindling gasoline tax.  We still don’t know if Bradley Airport should be sold or continue to be run by the state… or when we’ll replace the crumbling Stamford rail station garage.  How about delays on the M8 cars due to the Japanese quake?  New highway spending, repair on hundreds of decrepit  bridges, so-called ‘high speed rail’ from New Haven to Springfield, development of our ports, overdue expansion of rail station parking… none of these issues seem closer to being addressed without leadership.
So as the TSB is legislated into oblivion and the Commissioner’s office at the CDOT continues to be occupied by Acting and Interim-titled placeholders, just who is watching over our state’s transportation future?