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July 20, 2014

We're Already Paying Tolls

Did 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”.
This comes as Congress could only come up with a short-term patch for the gaping pothole known as the Highway Trust Fund after Republicans rejected the President’s plan for a four-year $302 billion transportation plan financed by a gasoline tax and elimination of corporate tax breaks.
But 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.
On the other hand we have our Governor, Dannel Malloy, whose aspirations for re-election have him favoring political pandering instead of public policy.
Consider 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.
“We are a non-toll state,” he insisted. “They (tolls) are not actively in consideration.”  Oh, really?
Does the Governor not know that his own Dept of Transportation just held two major seminars as part of a study on managing traffic congestion by using tolls?  The panels in Bridgeport and Hartford brought in traffic experts from Miami, San Diego and Seattle to sing the praises of “value pricing” our highways.
Why 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.
Make 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 road repairs.
But aren’t we already paying tolls?  Not with EZ-Pass, but in car repairs. 
That’s 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.”
Let’s 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.

Can’t we find a politician honest enough to tell us that truth this election year?

July 07, 2014

Is It Safe To Ride Metro-North?

It has been seven months since a drowsy engineer drove a speeding Metro-North train off the tracks at Spuyten Duyvil, killing four and injuring 59.  Months earlier a derailment and collision near Bridgeport sent 70 to the hospital.
Ever since, the railroad has promised that improving safety is its top priority.  So does that mean the railroad is now “safe”?
Aside from taking the word of management, how are we to know?  Just because we haven’t had another accident doesn’t mean the railroad is safe.  Nobody suspected it was unsafe until those two accidents last year showed us just how dangerous our daily commute had become.
In April this year The Commuter Action Group surveyed 642 commuters and asked them “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” and 56% said yes, 15% said no and 29% said they “weren’t sure”.
Neither am I, but I ride those trains regularly, hoping for the best.  And so far, so good.  I take the railroad at its word when it says safety is its top priority, but I have no way of telling it that’s true.  As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Waiting on a station platform, how can the average commuter look at the tracks, the overhead wires or signals and know that Metro-North is safe?  We can’t even see the engineers because they hide in their control booth behind jerry-rigged cardboard curtains ‘lest riders should watch them at work.
Here’s what we do know.  The trains are running slower (on-time performance was only 79% in May).  And last week we also learned that an entire class of conductor trainees had been dismissed because they were caught cheating on a safety exam.  Good for the MTA for catching and disciplining them.  But the worry is this kind of cheating has been going on for years.  Reassuring?
The only way to be sure that Metro-North is safe is better federal oversight by the FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration.  That agency still hasn’t issued its final report on the May 2013 derailment… and only fined the railroad $5000 following a Metro-North trainee’s mistake, which killed one of their own track foremen.  As US Senator Richard Blumenthal put it, “The watchdogs were asleep.  The FRA has been lax and sluggish.”
That’s why commuters should be reassured that Senator Blumenthal will soon introduce a bill to give the FRA some real teeth:  increasing civil penalties for railroad mistakes, strengthening railroad oversight, mandating new safety gear, introduction of a fatigue management plan for personnel, requiring anonymous reporting systems for whistle-blowers, installation of cameras, alerters and redundant safety systems for track workers.   (Click here to see video of Blumenthal's announcement).
Further, the bill would also require stronger safety standards for crude oil rail-tankers, the “pipelines on wheels” carrying crude oil and petroleum products on US railroads.

The only thing missing?  Mandatory transparency.  I’d hope that the FRA would be required to explain its oversight and reassure all railroad riders of their safety in a simple, understandable manner.  That would make me feel safe.