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July 29, 2017

"Getting There" - The World's Best (and Smallest) Airline

I hate to fly.  It is crowded, uncomfortable, stressful and inhuman.  But having just returned from a wonderful vacation in France, I am rethinking my views thanks to my roundtrip flight on La Compagnie, an all business-class “boutique” airline.

Founded as “Dreamjet” in 2013, this French-owned airline has only two planes and flies twice a day from Newark to Paris.  But their 757’s are unlike any you’ve ever flown, carrying only 74 passengers on planes usually crammed with 200+ coach seats.

As an all business-class operation, each seat on La Compagnie is 26 inches wide with five feet (60”) of legroom.  That compares to a typical coach seat’s 17 inch width and 31 inches of “pitch”.  Even seats in BusinessFirst on United are only 21 inches wide with 55 inches of legroom.


Because the planes are so uncrowded, check-in is a breeze and you can enjoy food and drink in a real lounge before going through priority TSA security lines and onto the plane.  Checked bags are free and there is plenty of overhead space for your carry-ons.

In-flight service is amazing and the food is great: multi-course meals catered by a French chef with plenty of wine to wash it down.  In-flight entertainment (movies, books, music) is provided on flat-tablets, one per seat.  There’s no in-flight Wi-Fi, but power plugs can keep your personal device well charged.

Flying time is the same as other airlines, but on arrival, again no stress as you don’t have to
wait with 200+ fellow travelers for customs or baggage.


This is what flying should be.  And most amazing of all, it’s affordable.

Looking at a typical one-way to Paris in August booking a month in advance, business class on Air France, Delta or United is over $7000.  One the same date, La Compagnie is $1657.  On slower dates, booked in advance, La Compagnie offers roundtrips as low as $1300.

Now, certainly even those fares are higher than flying coach.  Newcomer Norwegian Airlines offers a one way to Paris in coach for $265 while US carriers will get you there starting at $2600.  But you don’t get what you don’t pay for. 

I find over-night flights in coach are unbearable.  You can’t sleep and given the time change you’re a zombie for the first day in Europe.  But on my “Dreamjet” I actually got some shut-eye on my almost-flat sleeper seat.


La Compagnie has succeeded where other all-business competitors like MaxJet, Eos and Silverjet have failed. They’re cautious in not over-expanding.  In fact, they cancelled their London flight after the Brexit vote last year.  But their management may be looking at other European destinations as they modernize their fleet with new Airbus 321neo  jets coming in 2019.

The airline tells me that 55% of their passengers are from the US, 45% from France.  They’ve even added a frequent flyer program after testing an unlimited-flights-for-a-year pass for $35,000, a deal that got fewer than 10 takers.


I don’t go to Europe that often.  But next time I will only fly La Compagnie.  I hope that some of our domestic airlines follow their lead and make flying comfortable again. People will pay for comfort if the product is offered.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 24, 2017

"Getting There": The MTA Management Meltdown

It’s not just the summer heat that’s causing an operational meltdown at the MTA, parent agency of Metro-North and the NYC subways.  It’s the years of neglect, under-funding and misplaced priorities that are taking a toll on our vital transit infrastructure.

And it’s only going to get worse, as the President of Metro-North has chosen to retire, long before his work is done.

Hardly a day goes by without delays on Metro-North caused by “wires down”, signal problems, stuck bridges, poor track conditions or even the occasional  “minor derailment”.  The work crews just can’t keep up with the aging equipment and commuters are justifiably angry about paying high fares for worsening service.

The New York city subway system is in such crisis that NY Governor Cuomo just declared a state of emergency, finding $1 billion in investment and even offering a $1 million “genius prize” to anyone who can come up with a solution to improve service.
Dozens of lawsuits drag on from Metro-North derailments and train crashes going back to 2013, costing the agency (and taxpayers / riders) tens of millions of dollars. 

We still don’t have PTC, positive train control, to prevent such tragedies, despite a deadline extension and infusion of millions of dollars.  How many more lives will be lost before PTC is a reality?

Meanwhile, back here in Connecticut, the CDOT is planning to cut transit funding over the next few years because of reduced spending by Washington.  Instead, they’ll invest in highway mega-projects like the Waterbury mixmaster.

Through all of this our dysfunctional legislature can’t even write a budget, let alone figure out how to fund the Special Transportation Fund which pays for our roads and rails and is expected to run out of money by 2019.  Rational funding plans like tolls and vehicle mile tax have no political traction.

And the icing on the cake?  Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti has announced he is retiring after three years on the job, but long before his mission is complete.   Why is he leaving?   He says it’s because he’s put in his 40 years in the railroad biz and wants to enjoy his life.

Mr. Giulietti may deserve a break after three years of his 24 x 7 labors.  He has done much to improve the railroad and deserve our thanks.  But I can’t imagine a man as smart and well intentioned as him isn’t feeling some guilt at deserting his troops in their hour of need.

Was it the immensity of the job that exhausted Giulietti, or the appointment of his new boss, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota, whose primary focus is on fixing the subways?

The folks at Metro-North aren’t stupid, despite what you might think when stuck on some sweltering, delayed train.  They are smart, well intentioned professionals trying to do the best with a bad situation… keeping their aging, under-funded railroad running.

While the MTA spends billions on years-overdue projects like East Side Access (bringing the LIRR into Grand Central), the legacy transit system can barely keep running.

Some of MNRR’s best and brightest came out of retirement to work for Giulietti and must be feeling abandoned.  Finding his replacement won’t be easy and will take many months.

Hang on, fellow commuters.  We are in for a bumpy ride.

Post with permission of Hearst CT Media.


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