Commentary on transportation in Connecticut and the Northeast by JIM CAMERON, for 19 years a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council.
Jim is also the founder of a new advocacy effort: www.CommuterActionGroup.org
Disclaimer: his comments are only his own. All contents of this blog are (c) Cameron Communications Inc
once said: “Judge me by my actions, not
my words.” So let’s do just that
comparing recent rhetoric to reality when it comes to Metro-North.
EXPANDED SERVICE: During
the election campaign much was made of a promised expansion of off-peak train service,
growing from one train an hour to two.
But when the new timetable came out November 9th riders found
that the 14 newly added weekday trains don’t stop at five stations: Southport, Greens Farms, East Norwalk,
Rowayton and Noroton Heights.
pleas from the CT Commuter Rail
Council, CDOT chose to skip those stations to save ten minutes’ running
time between New Haven and GCT. There
was never an expectation that the new trains would be semi-express, just a
promise of expanded service. What
ADEQUATE SEATING: Though
we now have more rail cars than ever before, thanks to delivery of the new M8s,
many trains still don’t have seats for every passenger. The
Rush hour standees
railroad’s own “Passenger Pledge” promises
every effort to provide adequate seating, and Metro-North’s statistics claim
that 99.6% of all trains have enough cars.
So why the standees?
ON TIME PERFORMANCE: Yes,
should always come first. But
October saw only 86.7% of trains arrive “on time” (defined as up to 6 minutes
late). In the morning rush hour OTP was
only 82%. And this is despite three
timetable changes since the spring, lengthening scheduled running times to
reflect new Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) speed restrictions. They keep moving the ‘target’ and still can’t
get a bulls-eye.
RELIABLE SERVICE: The
new M8 cars are performing well. But
diesel push-pull service on the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines has been
unreliable. September saw several locomotive
fires and break-downs, stranding passengers or forcing “bustitutions” (bus
COURTEOUS EMPLOYEES: Most
Metro-North staff does a great job under often-times difficult
circumstances. But there are clearly
some employees who either hate their jobs, their customers or both. Hardly a week goes by without The Commuter Action Group
hearing complaints about surly conductors snapping at passengers. Yet it’s hard to complain because these
staffers violate railroad rules to always wear their name badges.
been a year since a sleepy engineer drove a train off the tracks in the Bronx,
killing four and injuring 70. As
Metro-North President Joe Giulietti himself acknowledged, the railroad has lost
the trust of its customers. Rebuilding
goodwill, like the infrastructure, will take years.
recent elections have shown Hartford an important fact: the 120,000 daily riders of Metro-North have
Commuter Action Group,
of which I am founder, endorsed only five candidates for election and they were
all winners. (Trust me, there were many
others seeking our endorsement, but they didn’t have the track-records (pun
intended) to warrant our support.)
we backed have long supported mass transit. They have fought for more funding
and understand their commuting constituents’ frustrations. All we
did was remind voting commuters who were their real friends in Hartford versus
those who were just paying lip-service to the issue during a campaign.
I have disagreed with him in the past (and will probably do so again), Governor
Malloy was an easy choice. His opponent
was just the latest dilettante billionaire to be chosen by the GOP (remember
Linda McMahon’s two runs for office costing $97 million?), by-passing
experience political veterans. Tom Foley
was just clueless, saying such things as “we spend too much on mass transit” and surrounding himself with “yes-men” advisors.
Even his fellow Republicans on the ballot couldn’t talk sense into him.
would give Foley or McMahon, neither of whom have ever been elected to
anything, the idea that their track records as CEO’s would qualify them for the
job of Governor? A CEO can snap his
fingers and say “do this or you’re fired”, but a Governor has to deal with a
legislature, and in Foley’s case, it would have been of the opposing
party. Good luck with that.
me… I am not a fan of one-party rule. With
their huge majority and deep pockets I think the Democrats in this state have
become abusive bullies.
why does the GOP keep choosing these kinds of candidates, aside from the fact
that they can bankroll their own campaigns?
What a shame that veteran State Senator John McKinney didn’t get a chance to run against
Malloy. McKinney was
very strong on transportation issues. That would have been an interesting
race. Maybe in 2018?
we are non-partisan, the Commuter Action Group also endorsed three Republicans…
State Senator Toni Boucher and State Rep’s Gail Lavielle and Tony Hwang, as
well as Democrat Jonathan Steinberg.
They were all winners, not because of our endorsement but because we helped
remind commuters they have been strong allies in Hartford.
did we ask for our endorsement? Only a
single pledge: that, if elected, they
would promise to do something never done before… to caucus, Republicans and
Democrats together, with fellow lawmakers from electoral districts representing
was amazing for me to learn that doesn’t happen… that R’s and D’s from
Fairfield County never get together to present a united front against up-state
lawmakers’ attempts to cut funding for our trains. Well, it will happen now!
in the dark days of February when the Commuter Action Group was formed, I
reminded Hartford lawmakers that if they didn’t come to the rescue of our
trains, that commuters would “remember in November” who their friends
were. And clearly they did.
fall campaign has brought a welcome discussion of the state’s transportation
woes, especially getting mass transit back into a state of good repair.But gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley says he
thinks the real issue isn’t the trains and buses but highway congestion.Yet, he offers no solutions, saying only
“we’ll figure it out.”Really?
if there were easy answers, they’d have been implemented by now.Look… this is really a matter of supply and
demand: too much demand (highway traffic) and not enough supply (spaces on
those roads).I think the solution is
in managing the demand.But Foley says it’s
a “supply side” issue.
here are a few of the crazier ideas for fixing traffic I hope he does not
this was once proposed.Can you imagine the decades of construction and billions in cost, with
“upper level” roads having to soar hundreds of feet over existing bridges.
2)ALLOW TRUCKS ON THE MERRIT PARKWAY:There
are two words to explain why this can’t happen:low bridges.
3)BAN TRUCKS FROM I-95:Trucks
are high-occupancy vehicles delivering goods to the stores that you, in your
single-occupancy vehicle, drive to so you can shop.No trucks, no goods, no shopping.
4)DRIVE IN THE EMERGENCY BREAK-DOWN
LANE:This was Governor Rowland’s idea and he even wasted a million dollars
studying it.But if you think of that
far right-hand lane instead as the “emergency rescue lane” you’ll see why this
doesn’t make sense.This plan would also
require re-striping traffic lanes to a narrower width, making driving more
think there are better ideas for managing congestion, some of them already
OPERATIONAL LANES:Adding a fourth lane from on-ramps to
off-ramps gives traffic a better chance of merging on and off the highway
without blocking the through-lanes.
example, the exit 14-15 mess in Norwalk.But this $42 million construction project, discussed since 2002, has been
under construction for more than two years and it’s still not done!
MANAGE DEMAND WITH
TOLLS:Tolls are coming, as I’ve predicted before.And with time-of-day pricing they’ll not only raise badly needed funds but
also mitigate demand.Those who absolutely must drive at peak hours will pay for the privilege
and get a faster ride as those who can wait will defer their trip.We have peak and off-peak fares on
Metro-North, so why not on highways.
readers of this column know that I’ve never been shy about criticizing Governor
Malloy for his transportation policies.But after hearing him and his Republican opponent, Tom Foley, discuss
transportation in a recent forum, I am enthusiastically endorsing Malloy for
my view, Tom Foley is clueless.He
doesn’t understand the issues, has no new ideas and often refuses to address
specifics.If he is our next governor,
mass transit in Connecticut is in serious trouble.
Huh?Does Foley think that state troopers are
blocking commuter access to I-95 and forcing them onto Metro-North?This is crazy-talk.
Foley and Malloy agree that traffic congestion is bad. But Foley offers no
solutions, aside from saying we need more highways.
acknowledges the traffic mess but says that spending more on mass transit will
give drivers alternatives, encouraging (not forcing) them off the highways.
for Metro-North, one wonders if Foley has ever stepped out of his BMW sedan and
ridden the train.Foley says that the
train from New Haven to Grand Central takes 20 minutes longer to make that run today than it did a
century ago.True, but that’s not
because the trains aren’t capable of higher speeds.They’re under speed limits by the FRA after
the May 2013 Bridgeport derailment.
issue where the candidates did show surprising agreement was highway tolls.Both Foley and Malloy acknowledged toll revenue may be needed for
projects like widening I-84 and I-95 (east of Madison).
campaigning, Mr. Foley’s constant mantra is that he’s a former CEO and knows
how to get things done.But running
state government is not like running a business.The Governor only proposes but the
legislature disposes.Foley’s only
government experience was in two political patronage diplomatic appointments to
Iraq and Ireland.Like fellow Greenwich
multi-millionaire and perennial GOP candidate Linda McMahon, Foley has never been
elected to anything.In June 2009 he
said he would run for Senate against Chris Dodd, then chose a race for
he has been running for office for five years, he’s never bothered to learn
about the issues, speaking in vague generalities and often refusing to answer questions. When he is pinned down, Foley’s
answer is often “I don’t know.”
may or may not like Dan Malloy, but at least you know where he stands.He has an encyclopedic command of facts and
figures and is clearly a hands-on leader.Yes, he comes off as arrogant and a bit of a bully sometimes, but it’s
clear that, unlike Mr Foley, he cares about these issues and has a vision.
the long run, the citizens of Connecticut will get the kind of governor they
deserve.If they study the issues and really
listen to the candidates, especially on this crucial issue of transportation, I
hope that Dan Malloy will get re-elected.
is designing our state’s transportation future?
Urban planners? Academic visionaries? Highly trained engineering and
planning professionals at CDOT? No,
unfortunately the state is leaving those decisions to you and me via a website,
idea is to give everyone in Connecticut a chance to voice their opinions about
what roads and rails should be built, then debate and “vote” on others’
proposals. The top vote-getters will help determine what gets built. Some call it “crowd-sourcing” though I prefer
to think of it as a popularity contest for amateurs.
(True confession:45 years ago I wanted to be a civil engineer
and help design “the train of the future”.I attended Lehigh University but quickly discovered that I wasn’t cut
out to be a Civil Engineer.Instead, I
got into broadcasting and journalism.
while I have opinions about transport in the future, I’m smart enough to know I
am not an engineer. I can dream about
things that just won’t happen. As my
daughter used to say, “We all want
things, Daddy”. But wants, needs and
practicalities are all very different.)
2000 our legislature created a Transportation Strategy Board with subcommittees statewide (on one
of which I was elected to serve). The
TSB’s mandate… to develop a 20-year vision for CT’s transportation future. And that they did, calling for many improvements
including the long-overdue order of new rail cars for Metro-North.
the Transportation Strategy Board is now gone, wiped out of existence by
Governor Malloy. Why? Because its priorities did not match his.
of a statewide citizen / expert panel, now our Governor wants you to vote (and
pay for) your transportation dreams.
far TransformCT has attracted 13,500 visits and 2000 different ideas. Check the
website and you’ll
find such revolutionary concepts as… “spend the gasoline tax on
transportation”, “make our streets walkable”, provide “a quicker commute on
Metro-North” and “bike lanes everywhere”.
buried further down the list are some real gems: “build a subway from Bridgeport to
Waterbury”, “add an upper level over (double-deck) our highways”, “high speed
rail Hartford to NYC in one hour” (vs 3.5 hr today) and “hovercraft along the coast”.
what also showed up in many “suggestions” was one key word describing what I
think is the raison d’etre of this entire silly endeavor: “tolls”.
isn’t a politician in this state with the guts to support for the single best
solution to our transportation money needs… tolling motorists.
But mark my words: that is what
TransformCT is all about… building a citizen-wish-list of transportation
projects and then telling us, “you asked for it… but now you have to pay for it…
with tolls.” The CDOT is already priming
the pump for the inevitable, bringing in out-of-state experts to sell us on the value of tolls.
an e-mail to me the CDOT said “It is the job of the DOT to execute the will of
our stakeholders.” Really? (Tell that to the 750 daily parkers at
Stamford station who will lose their spaces to a secret deal with a developer
putting up a high rise… with zero public input.)
would much rather leave the planning for our transportation future to the professional
planners, engineers and experts who know what they are doing. But if our pols would rather let you dream
big, realize it comes with a price tag.
long awaited MTA “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts has issued its report on
Metro-North and its sister railroads, and it isn’t pretty.
50 page report confirms much of what we already
knew: that the railroad placed too much
emphasis on “on time performance” instead of safety… that there were serious
repair issues unattended to for months… and that there has been an enormous
“brain drain” of experienced railroad employees who have opted for retirement
after 30 years.
of those problems could have been prevented if then-MTA Chairman Joe Lhota had been doing his job, which he
the Blue Ribbon Panel was especially critical of the MTA for running its three railroads (MNRR, LIRR, NY Subways) as silos, not communicating with each
other on best practices. If the NYC
subways had a cool parts-inventory system, MNRR never knew about it. The “safety culture” at the LIRR may have
been great, but it was never shared with MNRR.
the Panel says the problems were far deeper than just that:
Panel said there is a “tension” between the railroad workers who maintain the
tracks and signals and their colleagues who run the trains over them. The track workers aren’t given enough time to
do their job. To paraphrase
Lincoln: “A house (or railroad) divided
to the LIRR and NYC subway, Metro-North is in the dark ages of technology. Track inspection reports are still done on
paper. We don’t have state-of-the-art
track inspection cars or autonomous bridge monitoring systems. Much of the maintenance work is done manually
instead of using machines.
panel even suggests the railroad clean up all the scrap and debris along the
tracks to prevent tripping hazards.
they have to suggest this: “Periodically have management walk with track
inspectors to reinforce (the crucial nature of this work)”?
Panel suggests MTA re-open union contracts to do track and signal maintenance
work over-night when there’s lots of time and fewer trains. (Japan’s Shinkansen high speed rail has gone
50 years without a track fatality thanks to inspections of every mile of tracks every
years of denying there were any safety problems, the recent derailments and
deaths have forced MNRR to face its neglect of safety. The Panel also suggests increased “customer
engagement” on this topic with town halls, media opp’s and direct customer
kudos to the Panel of industry experts and thank you for a year of hard
work. Now it’s up to the MTA and
Metro-North to take the list of 29 recommendations to heart and make our trains
on-time and safe.
hate to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are we will see another fare
hike on Metro-North in the coming months.
that any elected official would endorse such a plan (at least not before the
November elections), but once again Connecticut is not totally in control of
its financial destiny when it comes to our trains.
fare increases in Connecticut must be initiated by the state regardless of what
NY does to its riders, but the financial numbers speak for themselves.
are tied to NY’s operations by an antiquated contract going back 30 years. The cost of running “our” trains is born by
both CT and NY, and those costs are soaring from $70 million a year to $110
million thanks to remedial track work and expected contract settlements (with four
years of retroactive pay hikes).
will Connecticut make up this $40 million deficit? There are only three choices: raise fares, cut service or find that money
elsewhere. The latter two choices are
either undesirable or impossible, leaving the prospect (necessity?) of fare
a year of slower, unreliable and often-disrupted service, it’s hard to explain
to commuters they should be paying more… especially in an election year. So when the rumored necessity of a fare hike
was floated last week, Governor Malloy expressed outrage and
our governor and his Dept of Transportation knew darn well this was
coming. They’re the ones who pushed
Metro-North for badly needed track work after derailments and deaths.
Who did they think would pay for that?
And one wonders… does CDOT ever audit Metro-North’s ever-increasing
budgets and bills to our state?
in Connecticut are already the highest in the US because our subsidy of those
fares is the lowest. Upstate lawmakers
who dominate our legislature loathe the idea of subsidizing fat-cat investment
bankers’ trips to their high-paying jobs in New York City. But they have no trouble taxing their
incomes, do they?
County residents represent 26% of our state’s population but pay 40% of its
taxes. Legislators made us subsidize Adriaen’s Landing ($770 million) in Hartford and the UConn football stadium ($90+ million), neither of which we
are ever likely to use. So why can’t they keep residing in Fairfield County
affordable by keeping Metro-North safe, on-time and affordable.
2012 we’ve already had 12% fare hikes, thanks in part to Governor Malloy using
rail fares to balance his budget (a move I called that more of a tax on commuters than anything else.)
good news is that a fare increase in Connecticut requires 90 days notice and public hearings.
And with the November elections just weeks away, no right minded
politician will pull that trigger.
you, it was now-GOP nominee Tom Foley who recently told reporters he thought we
in Connecticut spend too much subsidizing mass
transit, so who
knows? It should be an interesting
campaign season and my hope is that Metro-North will be a much debated topic.
many, I love Vermont. But I’m not crazy
about getting there.
my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.
By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas each way. Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport
drive it’s not much better and about $150 each way. But there’s another
are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:
VERMONTER: Your best choice, this train runs daily
from Washington DC to St Albans VT, coming through Stamford at about noontime
each day. It also stops in Bridgeport
and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops
in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction
(Burlington), to name but a few.
not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly
beautiful and relaxing. A frustrating
reverse move at Palmer MA will be eliminated this fall with new tracks, shaving
an hour off the run.
Amfleet seats in coach are comfy. There’s also business class seating (for a
premium). The AmFood is tasty. The crew is great… and there’s even free wifi. Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph
in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.
Remember: Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re
thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the
train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.
ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS: If you’re heading to Rutland VT,
this is your train. Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train
bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just
before 9 pm with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton VT.
Best strategy here is to catch this train at
Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking
available. The hope is that the Ethan
Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.
kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free wifi.
ADIRONDACK: This daily train from NY’s Penn Station
to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it gets you close… if you don’t
mind a ferry boat ride. Leaving NYC at
8:15 am, you detrain at Port Kent NY on the western shore of Lake Champlain
about 2:30 pm, walk about 100 yards down to the dock and catch
the ferry to downtown Burlington.
The Ferry takes 1 hr to cross.
kind of seating, wifi etc, but on this train you’re traveling with a much more
international crowd of Quebecois.
In the Fall, The Adirondack often adds a dome car.
to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are
very affordable: on The Vermonter, Stamford
to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $55 one-way ($47 for seniors and
kids are half-price).
if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that
getting there can be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak… the “green” way to travel.
it come to anyone’s surprise that Connecticut roads were recently named “worst” in the US in a White House study conducted by the American Society of
Civil Engineers? They told us what we
already know: 41% of Connecticut’s
21,000 miles of highways are in “poor” condition and 30% of our 4200 bridges
are “structurally deficient”.
kudos to our US Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) for having the political guts to
call for a gas tax increase to make up for dwindling revenue as Americans drive
more fuel efficient cars. It’s nice to
find a politician who will do the right thing, even if it’s politically risky.
the other hand we have our Governor, Dannel Malloy, whose aspirations for
re-election have him favoring political pandering instead of public policy.
the recent visit to Hartford by US Transportation Secretary Anthony
Fox in early July
when Foxx was seeking support for the President’s transportation plan. At a
press conference, the Governor joined the assembled Congressional delegation
(all Democrats) and was quick to beat up on the Republicans for stalling
progress. But when a reporter asked
about having Connecticut help pay its own way with highway tolls, the Governor
reacted as if he’d found a turd in the punchbowl.
are a non-toll state,” he insisted. “They (tolls) are not actively in
consideration.” Oh, really?
another study on highway congestion problem that’ve been plaguing us for
decades? Because it’s always easier to
“study” a problem than actually do something about the problem.
no mistake: our CDOT is starting a PR blitz to sell motorists on tolls while
politicians won’t touch the issue. Nobody
running for state office this year has the guts to tell voters that tolls are
necessary and will be implemented as gas tax revenues fail to pay for needed
aren’t we already paying tolls? Not with
EZ-Pass, but in car repairs.
why I loved the June cartoon by Connecticut’s own Matt Davies entitled “The Road More Traveled”.
It shows a jalopy bouncing along a pot-hole covered highway as the
driver spies a sign reading “Connecticut Tolls in Effect: Blown tire $200, Bent Rim $399, Damaged
Suspension $200 to $2000.”
be honest with ourselves. There is no “free lunch” and there is no free
ride. Maintaining our highways is
expensive and those costs should be borne by those who drive on them.
we find a politician honest enough to tell us that truth this election year?