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November 30, 2016

"Getting There" - All Tickets Please !

Imagine you’re in a store and you see somebody shoplifting.  You’re embarrassed to say anything or to make a scene, but inside you’re pissed-off.  You pay for your merchandise, so why should that guy get it for free?  And if he’s ripping off the store, doesn’t the merchant actually make you pay more to make up for that loss?

It’s morally wrong and it’s just not fair.

Yet this is what happens every single day on Metro-North when conductors don’t collect all riders’ tickets.

Here’s a typical scene:  your train leaves Grand Central and the conductor makes his way through the train collecting tickets.  Sometimes he leaves a colored seat check, punched to show your destination, but not always. Why?

Your train makes some intermediate stop (New Rochelle, Greenwich or Stamford) to discharge some passengers and take on new ones.  You know who the new riders are, but does the conductor?

So when the conductor comes through again saying “All Stamford tickets, please” and you see that new rider not responding, you know the railroad got ripped off and that cheater just got a free ride.

Now, if the conductor had issued a seat check he’d know who got off, who got on and who owes him a new ticket.  Simple enough, but not for Metro-North which for years has not enforced their use.  Conductors who are too busy or too lazy, don’t use seat checks and we all end up paying more.

Metro-North acknowledges this problem and admits it loses millions of dollars a year to uncollected tickets.  But they’ve crunched the numbers and say that staffing trains with more conductors to be sure all tickets are collected would cost even more.

Hey!  Here’s a concept:  make the existing conductors do their jobs instead of hiding out in their little compartments.  From Grand Central to Stamford you’ve got 45 minutes without stops to collect everyone’s ticket, give ‘em a seat check, say “thank you” and still have time for a cat-nap.  And there’s still time to ask people to keep their feet off the seats and to stop yapping in the designated Quiet Cars.

Back in the good ol’ days before the TVM’s (Ticket Vending Machines) came along, conductors collected cash fares to the tune of $50 million a year.  They had a money room at Grand Central that looked like a casino.  Now most fares are bought from the machines or on your smart-phone.  That means conductors should have a lot more time to make sure all tickets are collected.

Conductors on Metro-North make good money.  And they do a very important job keeping passengers safe, operating the doors, answering questions.  They’re the face of the railroad and most passengers give them high marks.

So what can you do if you see someone getting a free ride due to uncollected tickets?  Try this, which always work for me:

When I see a conductor miss a passenger’s ticket, I’ll wait until the conductor comes back and say something like “Excuse me conductor.  I think you missed collecting that gentleman’s ticket”, and then smile innocently at the conductor and the chagrined would-be thief.

If I see the same conductor always missing ticket collections, day after day, I report it on the Metro-North website complaints page, detailing the incident by name, date, train number, etc.  That allows the railroad to “re-train” the offending staffer.

So if you’re tired of all these fare increases, let’s stop the shoplifters.  Make sure everybody pays for their ride by having conductors collect all tickets. Please!

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.


November 21, 2016

"Getting There": Should we widen I-95 ?

Governor Malloy wants to widen I-95 to alleviate traffic congestion and has commissioned a $1.2 million study to support the idea.   But I found a similar study from 2004 that looked at the idea and rejected it for a number of reasons.

Trust me, it wasn’t easy to get hold of the earlier study.  I knew it existed but somehow it had disappeared from the CDOT website.  And despite numerous requests, nobody at CDOT could ever tell me what they paid for this study!

Why are the Governor and CDOT re-studying the same issue and spending valuable tax dollars to do so?  Because the first study rejected their widening idea completely and they don’t like that answer.

Here’s the background:

When I-95 was built in the 1950’s it was designed to handle up to 90,000 vehicles a day.  Today, CDOT says it handles 150,000 and congestion is almost constant from 6 am – 7 pm, especially in southwest Connecticut.  In most sections the road is three lanes wide with a “breakdown lane” on both sides.

So, rather than widen the entire highway with a decade of massive and messy construction, why not use one of the lanes… probably the right shoulder… as a travel lane?  Wouldn’t that help reduce congestion?

No.  And here’s why…

NARROW LANES:     The right shoulder is only 10 feet wide so it could only be used by cars.  But the other three lanes are now 12 feet wide and would have to be permanently narrowed to 11 feet width, even outside of commuting-congested hours.

I feel nervous enough driving next to big-rigs and tandem trailers.  Do I want them a foot closer to me hurtling along at 70 mph?  Narrower lanes are not safe.

ACCIDENTS:          The 2004 study looked at other states that had tried using shoulders as travel lanes and found a 60% increase in traffic accidents, most of them rear-end collisions.

EMERGENCY RESCUES:    First responders hated this widening idea and said so at numerous public hearings (I was there and heard them).  They didn’t see the right shoulder as a “breakdown lane” but as an “emergency rescue lane” necessary to reach accident sites.  If that lane is filled with bumper-to-bumper commuters, people will die.

MORE TRAFFIC, NOT LESS:     The study said that allowing driving on the shoulder would actually attract 1050 additional vehicles per hour.  If you build it, they will come.

ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS:        More traffic means more noise and more air pollution.

SPEED IMPROVEMENTS:          The biggest argument for driving on the shoulder is that it would speed up traffic, right?  Wrong.  This 2004 study said that with an additional lane the average speed on I-95 would go from 27 mph to 31 mph, just a 15% improvement. Is that tiny speed increase worth all the safety and environmental costs?

So clearly, the idea of widening I-95 doesn’t make sense.  And we’ve already paid the expert consultants to study the idea and tell us so.


So why is the Malloy administration and CDOT paying for yet another study on a topic already examined and rejected?  Because they didn’t remember the other study had been done?  Or they couldn’t find it?  Or is it because this consultant will give them the answer they want to hear?

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

November 10, 2016

"Getting There": The Billion Dollar Bridge

This commentary was originally published in October 2016 in our blog "GettingThereCT"

Could it really cost $1 billion to replace the 562 foot  Walk railroad bridge in South Norwalk?  Or is there a cheaper alternative that CDOT is hiding from us.

We all know the woes of this 120 year old swing bridge that sometimes refuses to close, stranding thousands of Metro-North and Amtrak riders.  But the plan to replace it (using $161 million in Federal Sandy relief money) has ballooned from $600 million to $1 billion thanks to added rail yards and such.

Many in Norwalk are opposed because of the cost, others because they will lose their land by eminent domain.  And everyone’s concerned about the years of construction and mess.  The Norwalk Hour’s ace reporter Robert Koch even discovered that the Maritime Aquarium IMAX Theater may have to be demolished!

The CDOT has considered all sorts of new bridge designs… truss, lift, bascule, counter-weight and even an elevated fly-over.  But I think I’ve found one design conspicuously missing that might be cheaper.

TRANSPARENCY

First, the good news.  The CDOT is doing a great job of making this project open and inclusive.  They have a website, they Tweet updates (@WalkBridgeCT), and host public meetings galore.  They even have translated all their plans into Haitian Creole.

Unlike the horrendous Stamford rail station garage project, mired for three years in secrecy and rumors of political payoffs, the Walk Bridge project is certainly more transparent than the murky waters that flow under its tracks.

But that doesn’t mean people are having any luck slowing this juggernaut down.  Until now.  Because now we find that CDOT has been hiding a simpler solution.

WHY NOT A FIXED BRIDGE ?

Why not just “close the river” and replace the old bridge with a new, fixed bridge?
That option is not even discussed in the voluminous Environmental Assessment Report. Why?  I think I’ve found the answer… or at least an excuse. 

Blame the US Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers.  They want to keep the mighty Norwalk River, all two miles of it, open and navigable.  But do they really have that much power?  Isn’t it possible to force those Federal agencies to, in effect, close the river to boat and barge traffic by edict or a bill put through Congress?

Couldn’t the few companies still on the river… a concrete company, an idle asphalt plant and a small marina… be bought-out with money saved by building a cheaper fixed bridge that doesn’t raise or lower?

And most telling of all… why isn’t this alternative even discussed in the crucial Environmental Impact Study (still open to public comment, now extended until November). Why?

A CHAT WITH THE COMMISSIONER

At the recent Metro-North fare increase hearings I cornered CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker and asked him.  (Spoiler alert:  critics of the bridge plan won’t like his answers.)

The Commissioner says that CDOT did ask the USG and ACE about a fixed bridge that would close the river and were told “no way”… though critics say such concessions have precedents.

More telling, Commissioner Redeker says whether fixed bridge or movable, construction will still disrupt the neighbors just as much and for just as long.  And, says the Commissioner, the cost savings for going to a smaller, simpler fixed bridge would only be 10 – 12%.  Really?  Hard to believe.

But I know Commissioner Redeker and trust his word… though many Norwalkers and environmental activists do not.  There is only one way to resolve this debate, get the bridge fixed and keep the trains rolling and that’s face-to-face talks.

‘Til then, it’s all just rumor, speculation and misinformation feeding on itself. And the old bridge just keeps getting older.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.



"Getting There": CDOT Fare Hearings are just political theater

This commentary was originally posted in September 2016 in our "GettingThereCT" blog:

The CDOT is holding the last in a series of public hearings on proposed 5% fare hikes this week (Wednesday 9/14 in Stamford and Thursday 9/15 in New Haven).  This will be your last chance to be heard if you support or oppose the plan.

Not that these hearings will really matter. It’s pretty much a done deal and the way past hearings have been conducted mean they won’t make much difference.  I think of them as so much “political theater”:  lots of drama with a sad outcome.

If you chose to attend, here’s what to expect:  

The CDOT will make a brief presentation on the need for the fare hikes, then members of the public will be allowed to speak in the order that they signed up.  Each will be given about three minutes.

People will rant and rave about how expensive our trains and buses are, about how service has again been deteriorating.  They’ll threaten to abandon mass transit and start driving again.  They’ll call this the final straw and promise to move out of state.

The CDOT folks will listen and take notes.  But after all is said and done, the fares will go up.  Their only alternative is to save money by cutting service, and nobody wants that.

I’d expect a lot of State Representatives and Senators to also speak in opposition to the proposals. It is an election year, after all.  But that’s kind of ironic, as their budget votes made this hike necessary.  This is their fare hike, not Governor Malloy’s.

The legislature left a $192 million hole in the state’s budget and said to Governor Malloy “you fix it”.  And he did, with budget cuts and layoffs in many departments.  Now it’s the CDOT’s turn to share the pain.  Or commuters’.

Fares on Metro-North are the highest for any commuter railroad in the US because theirs is a captive audience.  People going to jobs in New York City from their leafy suburban homes really have no alternative to taking the train.

Yet, those fares only cover 69% of the costs of each ride.  On Shore Line East the fares cover only 7% and on CT Transit buses 21%.  The balance is made up by state (taxpayers’) subsidy.  By comparison, fares on the Long Island Railroad cover only 51% of operating costs, meaning that NY state is offering a much higher subsidy for LIRR riders than CT does.

Why?  Because NY State, like most others in the nation, wants to keep fares low to encourage people to use mass transit.  While lawmakers in Hartford pay lip-service to the same theory, their actions (and votes) prove otherwise.

And yet, every time there is a fare hike, ridership goes up.  Go figure.  Even in a time of cheap gasoline prices, Metro-North has seen an almost 2% ridership increase in the past year. That means trains are, once again, crowded.  

But wait.  Didn’t we just order new rail cars increasing the size of our fleet?  Yes, but we didn’t increase it enough.  The M8 cars we ordered (at $2.5 million apiece) were insufficient to handle the increase in passengers.  We should have ordered more.

Now is the time for CDOT to order more railcars, either M8’s or to start designing the M10’s.  It takes about five years from such a decision ‘til new cars are delivered, so now is the time to say “go”.  We know ridership will increase, so what is being done to plan for the future?

But in the short term, fare hikes on our railroads and buses are pretty much a done deal.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

"Getting There" Politicians & Promises

This commentary was published in October 2016 in our blog "GettingThereCT"


I don’t trust politicians.  They tend to over-promise and sometimes just plain lie, telling you what you want to hear and then doing the opposite.

I’m not talking about Clinton and Trump.  I mean right here in Connecticut where our State Representatives and State Senators are all up for election next month.  They’re all talking about “fixing transportation”, but I don’t trust them.

Case in point:  the upcoming fare hike which, amazingly, will take effect after the election.  Metro-North fares will jump 6% and CTtransit bus fares by 17%.  Nice timing, eh?  If they needed the money so bad, why not raise the fares before we go to the polls?

As I’ve been explaining for months, that fare hike was not created by the Governor, the CDOT or Metro-North, but necessitated by the majority Democrats’ budget passed last spring in the legislature.  They didn’t fully fund mass transit and left the Governor to raise the fares.

But what really galls me is to hear those same budget-writers come out in their campaigns and say they opposed the fare hike.  They created it, and now oppose it?  I think that’s called hypocrisy.

Or do you remember when Dannel Malloy was running for Governor in 2010 and he promised he would never, ever raid the Special Transportation Fund to balance the budget?  I do, and I admired him for that pledge.  So imagine how I felt when he did what every predecessor, Republican or Democrat, had done… turn the Special Transportation Fund into a petty cash box, raidable at will to fix his budget.  Was that a lie, a broken promise or a necessity?

Governor Malloy redeemed himself in his second term when he embraced transportation as his keynote agenda.  He didn’t just embrace it, he mated with it and produced an amorphous, amoeba-like off-spring:  a 30-year, $100 billion “plan” to rebuild transportation state-wide.

Well, it really wasn’t a “plan” as much as a laundry list, maybe a wish-list, with something for everyone… trains, planes, roads, rails, you name it.  It wasn’t just  ambitious, it was unaffordable.  So he did what any good politician would do who had an unfunded dream:  he appointed a task force to figure out how to pay for it.

He wanted the credit for this amazing, Robert Moses-like plan.  But he didn’t want his fingerprints on the stone tablets detailing how to pay for it.  I understand that.  “Love my vision but don’t blame me for the painful taxes required to build it.”

His task force came up with a lot of great funding ideas, all of them practical, none of them popular.  But what did legislators in both parties do?  They rejected them all, out of hand.
Even the Governor’s BFF Senator Bob Duff, the Senate Majority leader, said the Task Force’s idea of a vehicle miles tax was dead on arrival and would never be considered. And you can imagine the glee of Republicans in attacking the idea, a concept which nobody ever had a chance to explain let alone study before it was snuffed out.

To a man (and woman) every candidate will say they support transportation, but they will reject all of the necessary means of paying for it.   Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.

So be an informed voter.  Ask for specifics, not generalities.  Ask exactly how your candidates will pay for their plans.  And compare those promises against past votes on things like the CDOT budget.

PS:  Lest you should think I have ambitions for higher office, I can reassure you I don’t want any job in Hartford.  The only thing I’m running for is the train.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.