February 18, 2018
Though maybe not the most glamorous means of mass transit, Connecticut’s 12,000+ local and commuter buses form a vital link in our transportation network.
“We’re not just a service for the needy few,” says Greater Bridgeport Transit’s CEO Doug Holcomb, the feisty young leader of one of the state’s largest and most successful bus systems.
In other words, single-occupancy car drivers’ perceptions notwithstanding, it’s not just poor folks and the car-less who must rely on the bus. According to Holcomb, 90% of GBT’s ridership is either going to school or work. Like rail commuters, some bus passengers own cars but prefer to take the bus for any number of reasons.
GBT’s 40-foot buses average 30 passengers per bus per hour, an impressive average when you consider it includes rush hour and lower-ridership off-hours. And it’s no wonder people take the bus when 78% of Bridgeport’s population is within a half-mile of a bus stop.
It’s the frequency of service that also makes buses attractive. Miss one bus and there’s another along in a few minutes. The GBT’s bilingual website makes it easy to ride the bus with maps and tutorials for first time passengers. And the bus company even offers a real-time online map that uses GPS to show you where your bus is on its route. Not even Metro-North can do that.
If you go to www.cttransit.com you can input your departure and end points for anywhere in the state and your bus alternatives and travel times will pop up.
Fares are cheap: $1.75 for adults and just 85 cents for seniors. Yet, fares cover just 35% of the cost of the ride (the rest is subsidy). But by keeping fares affordable the bus is attracting more riders and covering more of its costs.
Sure Uber and lower gasoline prices are eating into ridership. GBTA carries 18,000 daily riders compared to 20,000 just a few years ago. But the bus can take you places Metro-North can’t, like the “Coastal Link” route which runs from Milford to Norwalk along the Boston Post Road. At Milford you can connect to New Haven and at Norwalk, to Stamford.
Even the buses themselves are getting better as transit agencies upgrade their decade-old vehicles. New buses are hybrid electric, not the old smoke-spewing diesels of years ago. And Connecticut is now engaged in a $1.4 million study of all-electric buses, seeing if they can handle the cold and operate on our hills. One model of electric bus can even re-charge in 5-12 minutes when it reaches the end of its route while off-loading passengers.
One of the biggest bus successes in the state is CTfastrak, the almost three year old BRT (bus rapid transit) system running from downtown Hartford west to New Britain and more recently, as far east as UConn in Storrs. The buses operate on a 9 mile dedicated highway and carry 400,000 riders each month on clean, sleek Wi-Fi equipped buses that depart every seven minutes.
CTfastrak has proven popular with college students, so it’s now considered “cool” to take the bus. Who knows? With millennials being big fans of mass transit they could give our state’s bus network a new uptick.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media
February 09, 2018
Why does gasoline cost 52 cents a gallon more in Greenwich than Bridgeport? Is it because folks in Greenwich are richer and can afford it? Or is it because it costs gasoline station owners more to operate in that tony zip code?
While both factors are probably true, the reason gasoline costs more in some towns than in others is because of something called “zone pricing”, an industry practice that does all but set the price for the commodity that is charged by distributors and passed along to their customers.
Lawmakers have debated zone pricing many times in recent years, but it has never been killed. I wonder why, given its apparent unfairness. But who’s to explain the mysteries of what our lawmakers do?
Let’s follow the gasoline distribution process to better understand price-setting.
An oil tanker arrives in New Haven and offloads its cargo (there are no pipelines to our state). There are thirty gasoline distributors in Connecticut and as they truck their gasoline to gas stations, they obviously incur costs.
Big chains of gas stations can negotiate better deals than the independently owned stations. So to compete “Mom and Pop” gas stations often sell snack foods and such. In effect, your beef jerky is subsidizing your cheaper gasoline.
But it’s the secret zone pricing rules, set by the distributors, that breaks the state into about 50 different zones and determines how much station owners must pay for gasoline. Pricing is determined by traffic volume, nearby income levels, the competitive landscape and other factors. And the gas station owner is making only seven cents a gallon profit. But if the station owners must pay more for gasoline, so will you.
When he was Connecticut’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal called zone pricing “invisible and insidious”. Yet, the courts say its legal and the Federal Trade Commission says whatever costs are added in one zone are probably offset by discounts in another. So it all averages out, right?
Gasoline distributors also say they need flexibility to offer lower prices to gas stations competing with super-discounters like Costco. And they also remind us that other industries have their own answer to zone pricing: like supermarkets that may charge less for the same product in Bridgeport than they do in Fairfield, right next door.
So while we may not be willing to drive five miles for a cheaper gallon of milk, we seem happy to go a few miles out of way to save ten cents per gallon of gasoline. Fire up your “Gas Buddy” app and happy hunting. But remember, it your car only gets 20 mpg, driving ten miles for cheap gas will cost you a gallon on the roundtrip. Some bargain!
The state also meddles with other kinds of pricing, like for liquor. In fact, state law requires merchants to mark up prices to a minimum price per bottle, all in an effort to preserve Mom and Pop liquor stores. Why? Because those merchants have better lobbyists.
We didn’t feel obliged to protect small town hardware stores when Home Depot and Lowes came to town. But we do keep all sorts of prices in our state artificially higher than necessary to protect smaller merchants selling gas and liquor.
So is “zone pricing” for gasoline really unfair, or just a state sanctioned economic reality?
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media
“Commuting on Metro-North is like getting hit with a two-by-four. Service is getting worse and now you’re hitting us with a 10% fare hike.”
Those comments came from Jeffrey Maron, Vice-Chairman of the official Connecticut Commuter Rail Council (CCCR), a usually mild mannered, two-compliments-before-any-complaint kind of guy. (Maron and I both served on the predecessor Metro-North Commuter Council).
But Maron’s tone had changed, as he quizzed CDOT Commission Jim Redeker at the recent CCRC meeting in Stamford where the transportation czar outlined the reasons for pending service cuts and fare hikes, i.e. the Special Transportation Fund is running dry and he has no choice but to cut expenses and raise revenue.
Maron reminded the Commissioner that Council members had offered many fund-raising suggestions, but never got the courtesy of a reply. “This is what pi—es off the rider,” said Maron, raising his voice (which I have never, ever heard him do). “We make suggestions and hear crickets.”
Maron was right. Commuters’ suggestions should be heard, considered and accepted or rejected which explanation. But Jeff’s ideas would amount to chump change compared to the funding really needed… like handing you a pool float as a tsunami hits.
Why not wrap all Metro-North cars in advertising, like our buses? “That might bring in a million dollars,” said Redeker. “So you don’t care about a million dollars?” asked Maron. Probably not, when the STF will be $338 million in the red by 2022.
Why not collect all tickets? Reasonable idea, but the needed staffing would cost more than the additional revenue collected, said the Commissioner.
Rubbing salt in the wound, Maron reminded the Commissioner of how much time and money he had wasted trying to repair, then demolish and privatize, the Stamford rail parking garage, a TOD project very dear to Redeker’s heart (and reputation).
And so it went as Commuter Council members (only half of whom even bothered to show up) bickered with Redeker and representatives of Metro-North. Maron was right. The Council gets no respect.
Which is why I resigned in 2013, after serving on that body for 19 years, the last four as Chairman. The monthly meetings were a waste of time because neither side was listening to the other.
Over the years I’ve found that even simple questions require complex answers. And there is usually a logical explanation for why the railroad has screwed up something. Despite what curmudgeon commuters may think, the folks at CDOT and Metro-North are not stupid. They’re just dealing with a complicated operation with insufficient resources and little margin of error.
So, why was the Commuter Council blaming Redeker for fare hikes and service cuts that he never wanted to make? Instead, why weren’t they asking legislators what they will do to fund the STF? The Council members weren’t listening.
So who’s really looking out for rail commuters’ interests? It sure ain’t hypocritical lawmakers who claim to be fighting the fare hike necessitated by their own legislative inaction.
And sadly, I don’t think it’s the Commuter Council. They’ve lost any credibility by their inability to deal with these issues with anything but bickering.
Nor do I pretend to that responsibility, though I’m usually the media’s go-to-guy for a soundbite. I’m not even a full-time commuter anymore.
At this point I think it’s every man and woman for themselves.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.
January 29, 2018
It should have been done by now.
2018 was the expected completion date of the new railroad tunnels under the Hudson River first proposed in 2009. At the time the $9 billion project was the biggest infrastructure project in the country. Now it’s just a footnote to history.
Why do rail tunnels from New York’s Penn Station to New Jersey matter to us here in Connecticut? Because they are the weakest but most crucial link in the northeast corridor, the $50 billion heart of the US economy. Imagine trying to get to Philadelphia or Washington without Amtrak running through our state, into those tunnels and to points south.
There are 23 bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan from the north and east. But between that island and New Jersey there are only six… two of them those rail tunnels built in 1910. And when super-storm Sandy flooded those tunnels in October 2012 with 3.5 million gallons of salt water, their lifespan was shortened by decades due to corrosion.
If one of those two rail tunnels were to fail, the entire nation would be in an economic crisis.
New York’s Penn Station was never built to handle the 430,000 daily passengers it now handles each day (vs the 750,000 who enter the much-larger Grand Central Terminal). Amtrak, NJ Transit and the LIRR carry twice as many riders at Penn as New York’s three airports combined.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents alone make up 16% of Manhattan’s workforce. Their rail commuting options are so tight that many rely on the 7700 daily commuter buses that bring them into the transit cesspool known as The Port Authority bus terminal.
All that could have changed if the 2009 plan to build additional rail tunnels had gone through. But then, along came Chris Christie, the newly elected Governor of the Garden State who balked at the cost and pulled the plug.
Cynics say that he did so to instead spend money on highways and keep the state’s gasoline tax low for another few years, even after repaying Uncle Sam for $95 million already spent on the project.
Now the project has been redesigned… and re-priced at a staggering $20 billion, which also includes adding seven more tracks at the overcrowded Penn Station. The new target for completion is 2030. Of the total, both NY and NJ would each contribute $3.6 billion with another $1.9 billion coming from the Port Authority.
But that’s only if President Trump’s promise for $1 trillion of spending on infrastructure makes it through Congress. And that seems iffy. The Trump campaign promise hinges on public-private-partnerships (P3’s). The White House even convened a panel of high powered business leaders to study the idea, but they all quit after the President’s comments following the Charlottesville riots.
Imagine that: Tweets that killed a tunnel.
Even basking in the glow of tax reform, I don’t think Congress has the appetite to tackle the infrastructure plan if it adds further to the deficit. Worse yet, those in the red states so loathe the liberal New York area that they’d just love to see us crumble… like an aging railroad tunnel.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.
January 22, 2018
Fare hikes, rail service cuts and a freeze on transportation projects. As he promised in December, Governor Malloy announced them all last week. Rail commuters and highway drivers are justifiably outraged, but they should direct their anger not at the Governor or CDOT but at the legislature.
WHY NOW? This funding crisis has been years in the making, exacerbated 20 years ago when lawmakers’ political pandering saw them lower the gasoline tax. Coupled with better gas mileage and increased use of electric cars, the Special Transportation Fund (STF) which pays for our roads and rails has been running out of money. By next year it will be in deficit.
RAIDS ON THE STF: His critics are quick to blame Malloy, correctly noting that he raided the STF for money to balance the state’s budget. But so did Governors Rell and Rowland. Blaming their past mistakes doesn’t answer the question of what we do now.
FARE HIKES: Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US. The proposed 10% hike in July, while unpopular, will be absorbed by commuters who have no real choice in how to get to their jobs in NYC… assuming they don’t move.
PUBLIC HEARINGS: Required by law 90 days before they go into effect, the public hearings on fare hikes will be cathartic but meaningless. Think of them as political theater. The CDOT will present the numbers, explain why the STF is running out of money and sit patiently as commuters yell and scream. Then they will do what they must: raise fares.
RAIL SERVICE CUTS: Why is Malloy cutting off-peak weekday and all weekend service on the New Canaan, Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East lines? Because, unlike the mainline, these lines are subsidized 100% by Connecticut, have lower ridership and are much more expensive to operate.
ECONOMIC IMPACT: While higher fares are never popular, cuts in train service can be economically devastating. Without daily trains, houses in communities like Wilton and Redding will be less desirable. Property values will decrease, affecting local taxes. Transit oriented development dreams for communities in the Naugatuck Valley will be dashed.
FUTURE PROJECTS: Not only is the Governor threatening fare hikes and service cuts, he’s freezing $4.3 billion worth of transportation projects across the state. Forget about the new Stamford rail garage, Route 8 – I-84 “mixmaster” in Waterbury, the Barnum rail station in east Bridgeport, and hundreds of other projects. There may even be a 15% staff cut at CDOT. That means months or years of delays on these projects if and when money is ever found, making our state even less desirable for new business investment.
ROAD MAINTENANCE: These cuts may even affect CDOT’s ability to plow our roads in the next blizzard, let alone fix the potholes and our aging bridges.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?: It will be up the legislature to finally address STF funding. None of the alternatives will be popular, especially in an election year. But I’d expect tolls, taxes, and yes, fare hikes… all predicated on passage of a true STF “lock box” in November’s referendum.
If you’re as angry as I am, do something. Call your state representative and senator and demand that they vote on new funding sources for the STF to stop these service cuts and project delays. They created this problem. Now they’ll have to solve it.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media
January 15, 2018
Recently I reviewed my transportation predictions for 2017 and gave myself a final grade of B+. Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even own a crystal ball.
This week, I’m doubling down on some predictions and offering a few new ones. So tuck this column away and give me a prognostication grade this time next year.
Commuters… you’re not going to like this one. With the Special Transportation Fund (STF) imperiled (see below) I predict that there won’t be money to pay for the additional M8 railcars on order for delivery in 2019. Crowding will continue to the point that ridership will peak and start to drop. Adding insult to toe-stepping injury, there will be calls for another fare increase of at least 10%. Ouch.
As he threatened, Governor Malloy will cut transportation spending when the legislature does not act on new funding sources for the Special Transportation Fund. Even before the STF runs dry, expect reduced or eliminated train service, fewer road repairs, less snow plowing, etc. It’s going to be bad, really bad.
Before we see discussion of new tolls or taxes, we will need a lock-box on the STF. We will have a chance to vote on that in a November referendum. But I predict the vote will be “NO”… not because we don’t need a lock-box, but because the one proposed won’t be secure enough to persuade cynical voters it would be pilfer-proof. A “no vote” on the lock-box will put any new tolls or taxes for transportation in question.
OUR NEXT GOVERNOR:
This is a hard one to call because none of the dozens of early-announced would-be candidates for Governor have said anything about transportation. They all know this is going to be a crucial issue. But they also know that voters don’t want any new taxes or tolls. So, who among this gaggle of wannabe Governors will have the guts to be honest on this issue? That’s the man (or woman) who’ll get my vote, if s/he exists.
POSITIVE TRAIN CONTROL:
In the wake of the recent Amtrak crash near Tacoma WA, this technology to control our trains is years late, millions over budget and in some peril. Despite a three year extension by Congress, I fear that Metro-North will not have Positive Train Control up and running by the 12/31/18 deadline.
Fresh from his first (and only) legislative victory in 2017, President Trump will bask in the glory of his mighty tax cut but he will not be able to get Congress to make good on his promise to spend $1 trillion to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. Why? Because deficit-nervous Republicans won’t stomach the cost and so despise the Democrat-dominant Northeast that they’ll say “No way” to our multi-billion dollar projects.
Autonomous cars and trucks will start showing up on our roads. The occasional accident will raise calls for better safety. But the age of the auto-bots will continue, and we here in Connecticut will either get onboard or be declared irrelevant.
Elon Musk’s controversial system of high-speed tunnels will continue occupying the headlines despite predictions of its eventual failure. A prototype has been completed and tested even as his Boring Company continues drilling. But money problems at Tesla will drain his bank account and Hyperloop will be put on hold.
Those are my predictions for 2018. Check back next year and see if I’m right.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media
January 08, 2018
Fare increases, reduced train service, less highway snowing plowing, postponed construction. All of these and more are on the horizon, say Governor Malloy and the Connecticut DOT because our Special Transportation Fund (STF) is running dry.
I hate to say I told you so, but…
We’ve been talking about this issue for years and our lawmakers have done nothing. In fact, they’ve hastened this transportation Armageddon by their own short-sighted political pandering.
Remember in 1997 when the legislature lowered the gasoline tax by 14 cents a gallon? Seemed like a popular move in a state with such high gasoline taxes. But those taxes are how we fund our transportation! And with lower oil prices, greater fuel efficiency and electric cars, people are buying less gas and the STF is running on empty. And our debt service on transportation is growing faster than CDOT’s spending on operations.
Last week the Governor warned us that Wall Street won’t buy even our General Obligation bonds, let alone transportation bonds, if the STF goes into the red. So unless we find new revenue sources soon, any bonding will be more expensive if not impossible.
So pick your poison: tolls, sales taxes, Vehicle Miles Tax, gas tax, higher fares… none of them are popular, but some combination will be necessary.
The alternative is to cut spending, cancelling things like new railcar orders for the standing-room-only Metro-North… eliminating off-peak and weekend trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches… cutting Shore Line East rail service by 50%... and three fare increases from 2019 to 2022.
Forget about rebuilding the crumbling Stamford rail station garage, a new station garage in New Haven, widening I-95 or rebuilding the disintegrating Route 7 – I84 “Mixmaster” in Waterbury. And as CDOT faces further staffing layoffs, don’t be surprised if our highways don’t get plowed. Agency insiders tell me they’re already down 50% in snow plow staffers in some parts of the state.
Oh, but here come the uniformed suggestions for a quick fix. You’ve heard them and maybe thought of them yourself.
Why not cancel the new New Haven to Springfield rail line? Sure… but because it’s being built with federal money, the state would owe Washington a $191 million refund it doesn’t have.
Why not stop the raids on the STF to balance the budget with a lock-box? Great idea and you’ll get a chance to vote on that in a November 2018 referendum assuming you think it’s a real lock on that box.
Why not wrap all Metro-North trains in advertising… collect all tickets… sell naming rights for stations? Sure, but that would bring in chump change compared to the $1B we need just to keep the STF solvent and the state afloat.
Tolls and taxes are the only realistic alternatives. But our legislators, facing an election year, have no stomach for either. They’re still recovering from wrenched shoulders from patting themselves on the back for achieving an unbalanced budget while they’re in serious denial about the real mess we are in.
Come January the CDOT will start a series of public hearings on the necessary fare hikes and spending cuts. It will be a great time to see who among our lawmakers will be honest with us about the financial crisis they created.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media
January 05, 2018
We’ve seen a number of reports lately about “disruptive passengers” forcing a plane to divert after exhibiting some sort of frightening behavior. Imagine being along for the ride when something like this happens:
· An Air Canada flight to Tel Aviv lands in London after a female passenger starts randomly choking people on board. She is restrained in-flight and arrested upon landing.
· A Southwest Airlines flight from LA to Houston detours to Corpus Christi after a woman tries to open the emergency exit door in mid-flight. Seen before departure screaming at people in the terminal, passengers wondered why she was even allowed on board. On landing she is arrested. The captain buys his passengers pizza to apologize for the delay. Classy.
· A Hawaiian airlines flight to the mainland returns to the islands after a passenger becomes verbally abusive to his family and strikes a flight attendant. On landing he’s arrested.
What happens to these “disruptive passengers”? It’s hard to say, but in the last case the passenger pleaded guilty, was sentenced to three months probation and was fined $97,000 for the cost of the Hawaii diversion. Not included in the fine was the $46,000 the airline had to pony-up for meal vouchers for the delayed passengers. (Obviously NOT pizza).
But that guy got off light. Passengers who disrupt the duties of a flight crew member can face fines up to $25,000 and sometimes imprisonment. In addition, the airline can choose to ban the problem passenger from any future flights… for life!
In some cases this behavior is a sign of mental instability. But too often the boorish behavior is tied to alcohol, a situation worsened by the airlines selling booze in-flight to already inebriated flyers (the Hawaiian passenger had also brought his own bottle onboard).
Handling a misbehaving passenger at 35,000 feet is one thing, but on the train the rules are a bit different.
Metro-North conductors have the power to “de-train” a passenger at the next station and call the authorities. And assaulting a Metro-North conductor can get you arrested as two fare beaters found after getting in a tussle while being ejected from their train. Assaulting an MTA employee is a Class D felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.
But by far my favorite story of a troublesome traveler involved Amtrak and a passenger who would not shut up.
I’m not referring to the time that NJ Governor Chris Christie was asked to move his seat when he mistakenly sat in the Acela’s Quiet Car and started yapping on his cell phone.
No, this case involved a woman who carried on a 16-hour cell-phone conversation on Amtrak’s “Coast Starlight” enroute from LA to Seattle. Despite being seated in the train’s Quiet Car she ignored the withering gaze of fellow passengers as she continued her chat. Finally, a passenger confronted her, told her she was in the Quiet Car and was met with an “aggressive response”.
That prompted conductors to stop the train and have her escorted off, far from her destination. She was charged with disorderly conduct and told reporters she felt “disrespected” by her fellow travelers and Amtrak police.
Imagine that happening on a Metro-North train where the Quiet Car rules are seldom enforced. Well, I guess we can all dream.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media
January 01, 2018
This is the time of year when some commentators kick back and do end-of-the-year wrap up stories, as if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 12 months. Bah, humbug. I don’t review the past… I predict the future!
So let’s review my prognostications as published one year ago and see how good my crystal ball really was.
I said the new M8 cars would perform well, which they did. But the tracks, switches and catenary wires would need repairs, often causing delays… check. Ridership would rise, leading to further crowding. Oh, yeah. On this one I’ll give myself a Grade of an A.
As predicted, gasoline prices went up as OPEC tightened its controls. And they’ll probably rise further next year. Grade: A
STAMFORD RAIL GARAGE:
A year ago CDOT had finally pulled the plug on its ill-fated deal with a private developer to replace the Stamford rail garage with a high rise, moving parking a quarter mile from the station. That was a prediction I’d made 2 years ago, but when it came true in 2016 I predicted that CDOT would learn its lesson on any new development, engaging the public early on in the process… which they did. No progress to report, yet. But this time I’m confident it will be an open decision-making process. Grade: A
STATE TAKE-OVER OF PARKING
Another oldie but goodie, my annual prediction that CDOT would finally take over control and operation of all rail station parking, standardizing rates and waiting lists. This one I got wrong. Grade: F
I was 100% accurate in predicting the retirement of the 747 from US skies… and a slowdown in orders for the mega-jumbo A-380… all because of fuel inefficiencies. But ironically, there is renewed interest in supersonic transports, with a US company looking for orders in 2018. Grade: A
This was a no-brainer. More traffic, increased congestion and no activity on Governor Malloy’s plans to widen the highway. We are still waiting for results of the $2 million consultant’s study of that plan (previously studied and rejected in 2004). But whatever they suggest this time, it’s moot because we have no money. This one was too easy to call, so I’ll only give myself a B+.
LET’S GO CT
I accurately predicted that Gov Malloy’s 30 year, $100 billion transportation wish-list (not a plan) would remain stuck, “just like his political career”. Though it wasn’t until April 2017 that Malloy declared himself a lame duck, it seemed clear to many he wouldn’t run again, given his unpopularity and the state’s failing economy. What we didn’t see was the legislature would ignore warnings about the draining of the Special Transportation Fund, all but dooming Malloy’s transportation vision, not to mention snow plowing, road repairs, additional M8 rail cars, etc. Grade: A-
Sure enough, this issue was what I’d feared: “a wild card, just like Trump himself”. All of us who take the roads and rails were hopeful that “Donald the Builder” would find the $1 trillion he promised to spend on infrastructure. But given the recent battle on tax reform, generating about that same amount in a looming deficit, infrastructure spending dreams seem on life support. Again, that wasn’t the gutsiest of calls, so I’ll just give myself a B
Final average grade: B+
Next week I’ll share my predictions for transportation in 2018.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media