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April 27, 2015

Collecting Fares on the Honor System

Connecticut’s newest mass transit system, CTfastrak, is off to a great start.  The bus rapid transit system running from New Britain to Hartford is carrying up to 10,000 passengers daily.  Mind you, that’s coming off of its debut week when all rides were free.

In fact, it’s the fare collection process on CTfastrak that makes it innovative:  it’s on the honor system.
Unlike most buses, CTfastrak passengers pay before getting onboard, purchasing tickets ($1.50 for 2 hours’ use) at the stations or online.  This reduces the “dwell time” at each stop as passengers can board through any door. A similar system is running in NYC on certain “Select Bus” routes and seems popular.
But without paying a fare to the bus driver as you board, how do they know you have a ticket?  Ah, there’s the rub.  The “honor system” relies on “Fare Inspectors” making random checks.  Getting caught without a valid ticket means a $75 fine, though in these early days they’re mostly giving warnings.
Only a handful of US transit systems have adopted the honor system for fare collection, including the San Diego Trolley and the MUNI subway in San Francisco. In Minneapolis getting caught on a bus without a ticket is a $180 lesson in “doing the right thing”.
In Los Angeles the Metro had so many problems with free-loaders they converted to turnstiles. Even a $250 ticket for fare evaders didn’t encourage payment, resulting in a $9 million loss in ticket sales. And the fare there is only $1.50.
On Metro-North fare evasion doesn’t seem to be a problem.  If you don’t have a ticket they’ll just throw you off the train (at the next station, of course).  Or get an MTA cop to issue a fine.
Until a few years ago you could buy a ticket on the train for the same fare as on the platform.  That meant wasted time for conductors and a “money room” at Grand Central processing a million in cash each week.  Now if you don’t have a ticket and buy one on the train, there’s a $5.75 - $6.50 penalty… even on a $2 ticket.  Senior citizens get a break as do those boarding at stations that don’t have ticket machines.
The bigger problem on Metro-North is uncollected fares. The railroad admits it loses money by not collecting all tickets… but less money than it would cost to properly staff trains with enough conductors to collect them all.
Most infuriating is when trains from Grand Central leave Stamford.  Everyone can see that dozens of commuters got off there and scores more got on.  But the new arrivals’ tickets are seldom collected unless conductors have issued seat checks to the original NY passengers.
Watching someone traveling from Stamford to, say, Bridgeport get a “free ride” is like watching someone shoplift in a store.  You just know you’ll be paying more to subsidize their larceny, with neglectful conductors as their willing accomplices.


April 11, 2015

Paying for Malloy's $100 Billion Wish List

There is no question that Governor Malloy’s proposed $100 Billion transportation plan for our state is, as he puts it, “bold”.  The question is, is it achievable?  When asked which projects are important and should be prioritized, he insists it’s “all of them”.
Really?  Is turning little Oxford Airport into an international terminal, just 58 miles from Bradley, as important as fixing Metro-North?  Can we really spend $780 million on bike and
The 118 yr old Walk Bridge
pedestrian thoroughfares when we don’t have money to repair crucial bridges on the New Haven line?  And is spending $1.6 billion to widen I-95 from Stamford to the NY state line even necessary?
The problem is, the Governor’s plan isn’t a plan.  It’s a wish list, with something for everyone in the state.  His “plan” is of unknown origin.  Nobody has vetted these projects to say what makes sense and what doesn’t.  Nor has the Governor offered any ideas on how to pay for them. Instead he’s created a panel of experts tasked with coming up with those answers by the end of this summer, an unenviable job indeed.
As my Daddy taught me, “there is no free lunch”.  And there is no way to pay for any of these projects without significant pain.  A $100 billion plan would cost each man, woman and child in this state $27,800 to pay for it.  Even spread over 50 years, that’s $556 per person per year.  Are you in?
Even the Governor admits that highway tolls wouldn’t be enough, covering only one-third of the total cost.  And we know how popular tolling is.  So where else do we get the money?
Among the alternatives… a sales tax increase, higher gas taxes and real estate transfer fees.  Anything on that list to your liking so far?
How about “privatization”, in effect selling off state-owned roads and bridges to private companies, allowing them to charge whatever they’d like to use them?
Is it just by chance that this alternative is being floated by former Malloy campaign manager
Occhiogrosso & The Governor
and top aide Roy Occhiogrosso 
who just happens to now be working for a firm, HNTB Corp,  that specializes in such deals?  What does Mr. Occhiogrosso know about the Governor’s plans that we don’t, but should?
Privatization has been tried before.  In 2006 cash-strapped Indiana sold its 50-year-old East West Toll Road (“The Main Street of the Midwest”) to an Australian–Spanish conglomerate, netting the state $3.8 billion in return for the right to operate the crucial highway for 75 years. (PS:  Goldman Sachs earned a reported $200 million just for brokering the deal.)   In the first year of operations, tolls almost doubled. Surprised?

Let’s face it:  Governor Malloy is very shrewd.  He gets to look like Santa Claus, dolling out transportation goodies across the state while being able to blame his financing strategy team for assigning the costs.  This entire debate warrants very close scrutiny because, whatever its outcome, we will all be paying for it for many years.