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November 20, 2017

"Getting There" - Updates on past columns

This week, a few updates on some recent “Getting There” columns:

HYPERLOOP:         In July I wrote about tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s idea to build a 700+ mph tube system to whisk passengers from Washington DC to NYC in 29 minutes.  Using a combination of a near-vacuum and linear induction motors, I noted that Musk has yet to build a working full-scale prototype, and called him “the PT Barnum of technology” offering “more hype than hope”.

At the time, Musk had just gone public after a meeting at the White House saying he’d been given “approval” to start boring giant tunnels for his project.  I scoffed at the notion, but have been proven wrong.

Sure enough, a faithful reader of this column told me that several weeks ago Maryland’s Governor has given Musk permission to start digging 10 miles of tunnels under the Baltimore – Washington Parkway to eventually link the two cities.  Boring will cost up to $1 billion a mile.  So, though I remain skeptical of Hyperloop’s future, I stand corrected.

MYTH OF THE THIRD RAIL:                 In October I wrote about our state’s complex electric system to power Metro-North… how in Connecticut those trains rely on overhead catenary to get power, but in Westchester County and into Grand Central, the trains convert to third rail for their power.

Given the perennial problems with the overhead wires, both old and new, I explained why converting to a third rail system in Connecticut didn’t make sense:  the trains would accelerate slower, we would still need catenary for Amtrak, etc.

What I did not know was that third rail power had been outlawed by the Connecticut State Supreme Court back in 1906 after a center-track third rail power system installed near Hartford by the New Haven RR resulted in several electrocutions.

Clearly, the current third-rail power system in use today is much safer than the one experimented with a century ago, but in this “land of steady habits” overturning that ban might be a challenge.

HIGH SPEED RAIL:          This summer the FRA and Amtrak released plans for a new high-speed rail (HSR) corridor through our state.  The very fuzzy drawings we had at the time showed new tracks running somewhere near I-95, not the current Metro-North tracks.

Now we have more detailed maps and, as feared, the mostly-elevated HSR system will fly over the interstate, smoothing out the curves to allow 200+ mph speeds.  But don’t get too enthused (or exasperated, depending on where you live): nobody likes the plan… our Congressional delegation, the CDOT and even local officials, all of whom must approve and fund the idea. And, oh yeah, we don’t have the money.

THE BILLION DOLLAR BRIDGE:          Preliminary work to replace the 121 year-old Walk Bridge in South Norwalk continues apace, even as local elections have turned the project into a political hot-potato.  Some oppose the cost and disruption of replacing the swing bridge with a two-section lift bridge while others, more nostalgic, want the new bridge to resemble the old.  Those proposing a fixed bridge, effectively closing the Norwalk river to commercial boat traffic, are keeping their hopes alive even though CDOT has rejected that idea.


Rumors that construction of the new bridge might require demolition of the Norwalk Aquarium’s Imax theater seem to have been confirmed.  But the real heavy construction won’t begin until 2019, so there’s plenty of time to catch a movie.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 13, 2017

"Getting There" - Repaving Our Roads Is Costly

Tired of driving on potholed roads?  Who isn’t?  We may not (yet) have tolls, but the terrible condition of our highways takes its toll on our vehicles with bent rims, alignments and other repairs.

There are more than 10,000 lane-miles of state highways in Connecticut, of which only 300 are repaved each year.  But that work involves more than just slapping a new layer of asphalt on those roads.

Repaving costs anywhere from $305,000 per mile and is funded with 20 year bonds.

PLANNING:            Years of planning go into repaving projects, making sure that all necessary utility work, drainage projects and water mains are finished before the CDOT comes in. Catch basins must be realigned, curbs replaced and sometimes even the guard rails raised before any work can be done.   Nothing pains the state more than to see a newly repaved road get dug up, creating cracks that can lead to potholes.

CDOT issues contracts for all repaving projects rather than using their own crews and those contractors must be sensitive to abutting neighbors, including businesses, which don’t want to be interfered with during construction.

As a result, most work is done at night with contractual obligations to return the road to use by the morning rush hour.  CDOT inspectors monitor every step of the project.

MILLING:     The repaving work begins by “milling” the old asphalt off the roadway, removing anywhere from the top inch to as much as six inches.  Some highways have up to 15 inches of old asphalt! 

The old asphalt is recycled and about 10% of it is re-used after necessary refining. 

Ideally, milling is quickly followed by the repaving, often in a day or so.  But as with the recent Route 1 repaving in project in Darien and Stamford, the contractor’s other obligations can leave the highway milled but unpaved for days or weeks.

REPAVING:            Laying down the new layer of asphalt can progress quickly if the road isn’t heavily traveled at night.  The fresh layer of new (and recycle asphalt) is usually two to three inches thick.

STRIPING:              CDOT always works with the local communities on how to designate the new traffic lanes with striping, coordinating with each town or city’s Local Traffic Authority.

Some towns want narrower lanes and wider shoulders, either for bicyclists or pedestrians.  But because these are state highways, CDOT always has the final say. 

A subsidiary of CDOT, the Office of the State Traffic Administration sets the speeds limits, sometimes higher than the local authorities might like.  CDOT says it’s looking for consistency in state roads going through towns, so a two-lane highway with a speed of 40 mph doesn’t go to a one-lane highway at 25 mph and back to two lanes as it crosses the town line.

The latest technology used in striping is a recessed epoxy compound, where the new pavement is carved out to about the depth of a penny before painting. This increases the striping’s lifespan after tough winters of plowing and sanding.
After the work is done, inspected and approved, the new paving can last anywhere from eight to 15 years, depending on traffic.  So, happy motoring!


SIDEBAR:  Annual repaving miles & cost

2017: 259 miles; $69 million
2016: 302 miles; $72.9 million
2015: 330 miles, $74.6 million
2014: 305 miles, $68.9 million
2013: 242 miles, $57 million
2012: 223 miles, $57 million
2011: 271 miles, $50 million
2010: 241 miles, $50 million
2009: 216 miles, $49 million
2008: 265 miles, $54 million
2007: 165 miles, $48 million
2006: 191 miles, $42 million
2005: 253 miles, $49 million

Source:  CONNECTICUT DOT


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 06, 2017

"Getting There" - CT's Budget Crisis & Transportation

“Why don’t they build a monorail down the middle of I-95?”

So began the latest in a series of well-intentioned emails I regularly receive from readers, anxious to offer what seem like smart solutions to our transportation crisis in Connecticut.
Why no monorail?  Because we don’t have the money.

So let me ask — and answer — a few questions:

Why do we issue 20-year bonds to pay for highway repaving that, at best, will last 15 years?
Why does 40 percent of the state’s Department of Transportation’s annual budget pay for debt service on old bonds instead of buying new trains?  Because we don’t have the money.

In China, they spend 10 percent of their GDP on infrastructure. In the U.S., it’s more like 2 percent. Why the under-investment?  Because we are paying so much to play catchup on the lack of savings in previous decades for things like pensions for state worker and teachers.

In other words, we don’t have money for new trains — let alone a monorail — because we’re stuck paying the bills passed down to us that our parents didn’t pay. But nobody in Hartford has the guts to tell you that truth.

But objective experts who follow the budget process for a living have some ominous warnings:
  • The state has authorized $3 billion in transportation bonds we can’t even issue because we don’t have the money to pay for them.
  • We are in so much debt that some towns have been forced to issue bonds (IOUs) to pay for snow removal.
  • The state has issued bonds to make payments on other bonds — like taking out a second mortgage to pay your first.
  • Connecticut’s debt now adds up to $14,800 for every man, woman and child in the state. That compares to a national average of $4,300 in other states.
  • We have a $6 billion “balloon payment” upcoming on the underfunded teachers’ pension, and we don’t have the money. Yet, pandering politicians now give teacher retirees a 25 percent state income tax exemption on their pensions — soon to rise to 50 percent. Why? The average teacher pension in Connecticut is $59,700.
  • Pensions and medical care for teachers and state employees plus debt service will soon be 60 percent of the state’s budget.
  • Experts say it will soon be legally and mathematically impossible NOT to raise taxes in Connecticut. The latest deal with state workers promises no layoffs for four years and declaring bankruptcy is not legally possible.

So you wonder why our roads are potholed, our rails so rickety and our airports so poorly ranked? It’s because we don’t have the money.

The economic piggy bank known as Fairfield County still provides 40 percent of all the income taxes in this state, but it’s no longer growing by double-digits like previous years. A handful of billionaires in Greenwich and New Canaan could throw us into chaos if they all decided to pull up stakes and move elsewhere. And if train service on Metro-North gets much worse, they’ll have even more incentive to leave.

Yet, our elected officials in Hartford continue to lie to us about what’s coming, more concerned with their re-election by not being seen as raising taxes than telling us that Armageddon is just around the corner.

So expect our transportation infrastructure to get much worse before it gets any better. And no, we will not be building a monorail.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - To Vermont By Rail

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there.
From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas each way.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive it’s not much better and about $160. But there’s another alternative: Amtrak.
There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:
THE VERMONTER:          Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT (right next to Burlington), coming through Stamford at about noontime each day.  It also stops in Bridgeport and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction (Burlington), to name but a few.
It’s not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly beautiful and relaxing.  A frustrating reverse move at Palmer MA has been eliminated with new tracks, shaving an hour off the run.
The Amfleet seats in coach are comfy. There’s also business class seating (for a premium).  The AmFood is tasty.  The crew is great… and there’s even free WiFi.  Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.  And the views of fall foliage can’t be beat.
Remember:  Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.
THE ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS:            If you’re heading to Rutland VT on the western side of the state, this is your train. Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just before 9 pm with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton VT.  For Connecticut residents, the best strategy is to catch this train at Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking available.  The hope is that the Ethan Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.  And maybe from there to Montreal.
Same kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free WiFi.
THE ADIRONDACK:         This daily train from NY’s Penn Station to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it gets you close… if you don’t mind a ferry boat ride.  Leaving NYC at 8:15 am, you detrain at Port Kent NY on the western shore of Lake Champlain about 2:40 pm, walk about 100 yards down to the dock and catch the ferry to downtown Burlington.
Same kind of seating, WiFi etc, but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Poutine anyone?  And in the fall they even run a special dome car several days a week for the gorgeous scenery north of Albany.

Thanks to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are very affordable:  on The Vermonter, Stamford to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $50 one-way and kids are half-price.  

So if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that getting there can be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak… the “green” way to travel.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media