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July 17, 2017

"Getting There" - Commuting in the Good Ol' Days

You think that commuting is a modern phenomenon?  Guess again!  “Getting there” (to work) is as old as our state.

As early as 1699 Connecticut had roads that had been laid out on routes we still use today.  But whereas today those roads are lined with trees, by the mid-1700’s most of southern Fairfield county had been cleared of all trees to allow for farming. 

In the 1770’s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as Old Kings Highway) was the responsibility of the locals.  Every able bodied man and beast could be enlisted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape.  But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians. 

By 1785 there was only one privately owned “pleasure” vehicle in all of Stamford, a two-wheeled chaise owned by the affluent Major John Davenport.

At the end of the 18th century it was clear that we needed more roads and the state authorized more than a hundred privately-funded toll roads to be built.  The deal was that after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were revert to state control.  Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal!

One of the first such roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1, the Boston Post Road.  Another was the Norwalk to Danbury ‘pike, now Route 7.

Four toll gates were erected:  GreenwichStamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge and Fairfield.  No tolls were collected for those going to church, militia muster or farmers going to the mills.  Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier.

The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls, which got them the nickname “shun-pikes”.

Regular horse-drawn coaches carried passengers from Boston to NY.  And three days a week a local coach to Stamford connected to a steamboat to New York.

The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York & New Haven Railroad started service.  An 1850 timetable showed three trains a day from Stamford to NYC, each averaging two hours and ten minutes.  Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour.  The one-way fare was 70 cents (that’s about $21 in today’s money) vs today’s fare of $15.25 at rush hour.

In the 1890’s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade and eliminating street crossings.

In the 1890’s the trolleys arrived.  The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road connecting with the Norwalk Tramway; the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.

Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride.  There were so many trolley lines in Connecticut that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents a ride.  The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.


Fast forward to the present where we are again debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in some cities and T.O.D. (“transit oriented development”) is all the rage.  Has “getting there” really changed that much over two hundred years?


Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 10, 2017

"Getting There" P.T. Barnum - Train Advocate

What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and The Commuter Action Group have in common?   Both are “rail activists” fighting for the interests of commuters.

This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his circus and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford.   The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum, Kathy Maher.

She explained that Barnum was more than a showman.  He was also a business man (he once owned the local water company) and railroad advocate.

In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street, enlisting the support of local merchants such as the Brooks Brothers and “the carpet men, W & J Sloan”.

Back in 1865, Barnum went to Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican. (Later he became mayor of Bridgeport.)  As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House who’d protect their monopoly interests in the state.

Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New Haven RR!  Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.

Then he turned his sights on helping commuters.  Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail lines (now the Hudson and Harlem divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters.  Once Vanderbilt had them as passengers for their daily ride into and out of NYC, he jacked up fares by 200 – 400%.  There’s nothing like a monopoly!

Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which Vanderbilt had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad. 

Just as in Barnum’s day, our transportation future seems to be in the hands of powerful forces in New York.  “Our railroad” is run for us by the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), a New York State agency answerable to that state’s Governor, not our own.  Though we are Metro-North’s biggest customer and Connecticut’s rail lines boast almost as many passengers than MTA has in its home state, we have no seat on either the MTA or Metro-North boards.

True, Governor Malloy hasn’t been shy about holding the MTA and Metro-North to task when their neglect caused derailments and service cuts.  But hauling the New Yorkers up to Hartford (they drove) and publicly excoriating them in front of the media didn’t win Malloy any friends.

The one area where Connecticut does maintain control is in setting fares.  New York sets its fares and we set ours.  But in recent years Metro-North fare hikes have become more of a “commuters’ tax” used to plug state budget gaps than spent on improvements in service.

As Barnum once said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 03, 2017

"Getting There" - Trump's Transportation Plan

Though it was lost in all the recent Comey kerfuffle, President Trump has finally released his plans for a trillion dollar infrastructure initiative.  And it’s as disappointing as it is confusing.

There is no doubt the nation needs to spend on repairing its roads and bridges, its airport and railways.  The question is, where to find the money.  And with a Republican dominated Congress which is loathe to spend any new funds, the alternatives to government spending are few.

The answer may come in an acronym… P3, which stands for “Public-Private Partnerships”.  The President proposes leveraging $200 billion in Federal money with $800 from the private sector.

Mind you, this is not outright “privatization” of public resources like toll bridges and highways.  That’s been tried and really backfired.

Consider the City of Chicago’s 2008 selling control of its 36,000 parking meters to an LLC for $1.15 billion in badly needed cash.  The 75 year deal was rushed through in just one day, giving lawmakers little chance to consider its long-term implications.  The city’s own Inspector General later estimated the city under-priced the deal by $1 billion.

Almost immediately the new owners jacked up parking rates, made the parking spaces smaller and reduced the number of handicap spots.  Not only were motorists and citizens outraged, but the reduced availability of parking had a profound effect on business.

Even partnering with private companies on infrastructure deals is fraught with peril as we have seen right here in Connecticut.  Our own DOT got snookered in a P3 to build the Fairfield Metro train station when its developer partner couldn’t get financing.  The CDOT got left holding the bag, paying to finish the station (which still has no waiting room).

Or consider the horrible experience at the Stamford rail station garage where it took the DOT over three years to walk away from a deal they could never close with a developer with financial ties to Governor Malloy’s re-election.

Most government agencies aren’t as smart as private businesses when it comes to analyzing infrastructure for investment.  When government owns the assets they are held for the public’s benefit.  When business comes on board, their only concern is their bottom line.

And even the $200 billion Trump proposes the government will spend will only go to states that can match Federal money with their own.  And we know how little money is left in most state coffers, like our own, to spend on road repairs.

Even Democrats, like Congressman Jim Himes, who were anxious to partner with Trump on infrastructure were disappointed by the President’s plan as it was so short on details.

The one privatization the President did detail was a plan to takeover our nation’s air traffic control system, now costing $10 billion a year.  The concept has worked in Canada and several EU countries and our airways could certainly benefit from a tech upgrade to GPS from old radar-based systems.

But upgrading any of these crucial infrastructures is like changing a fan-belt on a moving car.  At stake are human lives as all of these systems are, as they say, “mission critical”.  There is zero margin of error, especially for our impatient President.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media



"Getting There" Merritt - Queen of the Parkways

Sometimes, not changing is a good thing.  After all, Connecticut is the “land of steady habits”.
Those were my thoughts one day driving through the spring foliage on The Merritt – Queen of the Parkways.  What an amazing road.
A century ago the only way to drive between New York and Boston was on Route 1, the Post Road.  If you think traffic is bad today, imagine that journey!  So in 1936, two thousand men began work on the state’s largest public works project, the $21 million four-lane parkway starting in Greenwich and running to the Housatonic River in Stratford.  (The adjoining Wilbur Cross Parkway didn’t open until years later when the Sikorsky Bridge across the Housatonic was completed.)
The Merritt, named after Stamford resident, Congressman Schuyler Merritt, is best known for its natural beauty, though most of it isn’t native, but planted:  22,000 trees and 40,000 shrubs.  And then there are the amazing bridges, since 1991 protected on the National Register of Historic Places.
Architect George Dunkleberger designed 69 bridges in a variety of architectural styles, from Art Moderne to Deco to Rustic.   No two bridges are exactly alike.  In short order the Merritt was being hailed as “The Queen of Parkways”.
The parkway at first had tolls, a dime (later 35 cents) at each of three barriers, not to pay for the parkway’s upkeep but to finance its extension to Hartford via the Wilbur Cross Parkway, named after Wilbur Lucius Cross who was Governor in the 1930’s.  Tolls were dropped in 1988.
The old toll booths themselves were as unique as the Parkway, constructed of wooden beams and covered in shingles.  One of the original booths is still preserved in Stratford at the Boothe Memorial Park.  There’s also a nearby museum (just off exit 53) highlighting the parkway’s construction and history.
The Merritt’s right of way is a half-mile wide, the vistas more obvious since massive tree clearing after the two storms in 2011 and 2012 when downed trees pretty much closed the highway.
Since its design and opening in 1938 the Merritt Parkway has been off-limits to commercial vehicles and trucks.  But as traffic worsens on I-95, debates rage from time to time about allowing trucks on the Merritt and possibly widening the road.  Either move would probably mean demolition of the Parkway’s historic bridges, so don’t expect such expansion anytime soon.
The best watchdog of the Parkway’s preservation is the Merritt Parkway Conservancy which has fought to keep the road’s unique character.  They have a lot of clout.
In 2007 the group won a court battle against CDOT plans for a massive LA-like cloverleaf interchange where the Merritt meets Route 7.  Their latest battle is against plans for a multi-use trail along the south side of the roadway. Costing an estimated $6.6 million per mile, the Conservancy worries that the trees and foliage that would be clear-cut to allow bike and pedestrian users would despoil the eco-system.

So for now, the best and only way to enjoy The Merritt is from your car.  This is one road where bumper-to-bumper traffic can actually give you time to appreciate the incredible natural and man-made beauty.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media