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December 04, 2021

A CONVERSATION WITH THE COMMISSIONER

Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Guilietti has a holiday gift for rail commuters… and maybe a lump of coal for the stockings for highway speeders.

Once a year I get a sit-down with the Commissioner.  We’ve known each other for many years since his days as President of Metro-North.  He knows I always ask him the tough questions but once told me “You’re always fair, Jim”, a comment that brought a tear to my eye.


So when I asked him when train service was going to get faster, he didn’t blink… or over-promise.

“My boss (the Governor) keeps asking me the same question.  We’re still doing the modeling,” he said.  And while a few months ago he promised a 10 min faster ride “by next year”, Metro-North trains are still slower and running less frequently than just a few years ago.

But while the railroad crews are still “playing whack-a-mole” with trouble spots, any hopes for expanded service and more express trains probably won’t happen “until the spring”, says the Commissioner.

Stats show overall weekday ridership is topping out at 53% of pre-COVID numbers.  But a handful of rush hour trains are up to 75%.  And new technology allows the railroad to know on a minute to minute basis just how crowded each train is.  He said that he has plenty of spare rail cars so that CDOT’s partner, Metro-North, is quick to add cars to increasingly crowded trains.

But while service or speed may not be increased, neither will the fares.  “We are having no discussions about fare increases,” said the Commissioner.  Neither does it seem that peak fares will be returning anytime soon, at least not until service improves.

What is still under consideration are new discount fare plans.  Though he wasn’t specific, such things as a discounted 30-trip ticket have been discussed previously.

Rail and signal enhancements on the diesel-only Waterbury branch line will mean expanded service but not new cars, at least not yet.  The CDOT request to the tiny rail car industry for new cars proposals brought a dismal response but the agency is working on other ways of modernizing the fleet.

And when the MTA’s $11 billion East Side Access project opens Grand Central to LIRR trains in December 2022, Commissioner Guilietti hopes that some New Haven line trains will then access Penn Station “the first day ESA opens”.

On the highway side traffic is worse than before COVID, both in delays and danger.  “It used to be that people drove 20 miles over the speed limit,” he said. “Now they drive 50 mph over the limit”.  Accidents are frequent and often deadly at these “horrific speeds”.

So CDOT is about to launch three pilot programs in work zones with speed enforcement cameras.  Sometime “before the spring” anyone speeding in these work zones will be ticketed automatically at a fine of up to $200.

The nation will soon be awash in money from the recent Infrastructure bill with $30 billion designated for Connecticut and another $100 billion up for grabs in competitive bidding.  But to write the grants and prepare the engineering to qualify for that money, CDOT needs to deal with its brain drain.

Almost 400 senior staffers at CDOT have retired this year with more expected to leave next year before pension rules change.  In addition, the agency needs to hire 200+ staffers just to handle the new infrastructure projects.  Commissioner Guilietti says his recruiters are visiting universities and even high schools to find and develop talent.

“These are good paying jobs,” he says. “ And they’ll be around for 20 to 30 years” as we rebuild our roads and rails.

November 25, 2021

HOLIDAY GIFTS FOR COMMUTERS

Looking for the perfect holiday gift for a friend who misses their daily commute amid the pandemic?  Consider an item from the exclusive Cameron Commuter Collection:

SCENTED CANDLES:      Nothing says the holidays like a fragrant candle to remind you of the old days of commuting.  How about the “M2 Lavatory” scent to revisit the pungent smell of the railroad’s old bathrooms.  Or the “Bar Car Memories” fragrance that smells faintly of stale beer and cigars.


For sports fans, there’s the “Yankee Express-ions”, which smells like sweaty baseball fans tailgating on their way to the game.  Or the “Burning Brakes” scent that has just a hint of fried railcar asbestos brake pads.  And who wouldn’t enjoy the “Dainty Diesel” candles to relive that great scent of exhaust fumes in the morning as you crawl down I-95, bumper-to-bumper, behind a spewing truck?

FAMILIAR FOODS:          If you miss snack shopping at Grand Central there’s the “Day Old Zaro’s Bagel Bag” filled with rock-hard baked goods.  Or the “DD Delight”, a bag of month-old donuts found under my car’s front seat… stale, but surprisingly tasty.

HOME DECORATION:      Or how about a collection of old, graffiti-covered advertising posters from the railcar interiors.  Maybe you’ll score the rare “If You See Something, Say Something” posters from the time when all we had to worry about were terrorists.  And for the serious collector on your list, there’s a limited selection of salvaged 2 x 3 seats from the old, scrapped M2 cars, perfect for your rec room or man cave.

If you appreciate fine art chose the “Oh No SoNo Bridge” portrait showing the 125-year-old railroad bridge stuck in the open position on a hot summer’s day. 

HIGH TECH:           Tired of your car’s GPS ‘voice’?  Load our new “Roadway Romp” package that, no matter the real road conditions, offers a friendly voice keeps saying “no delays ahead”, bringing you peace of mind in any type of traffic.

And for real railroading nostalgia, check out the “Virtual Reality” metasphere bundle complete with 3D goggles playing a two-hour video loop of a crowded train ride with conductors collecting tickets while your commuter-neighbors jabber at high volume on their cell phones.  Ah, such happy memories.

And brand new this year, a CD collection of the Yale Wiffenpoof glee club performing on the 5:45 AM train enroute to a concert in the city.  

You’ll smile ear to ear when the enthusiastic young a capella group does its renditions of such classics as “Silent Night”, right there in the Quiet Car, as shocked commuters try to catch a nap on the way to work.

COVID COLLECTION:      To commemorate our fight against the pandemic, don’t miss the “Metro-North Mask Mayhem” bundle, a hand-curated collection of slightly used face masks only worn once around the neck of the unvaxed.  They’re guaranteed to be as fresh smelling as they day they were incorrectly worn.


There are no supply chain issues with the Cameron Commuter Collection, all domestically sourced, recycled, mold-removed and guaranteed to please the pickiest of your ex-commuter friends.

Happy holidays!

November 19, 2021

METAMORPHOSIS

Don't look now, but we're making history.  The changing forces now at work in our society, including our transportation network, will have a profound effect on our lives for decades to come.

THE BIG QUIT:      According to federal statistics, 4 million people quit their jobs in July of this year, with almost 11 million jobs nationwide now unfilled.  As a result, our ports are jammed, the supply chain broken and holiday purchases seem in peril.  Don’t expect any bargains for Christmas.

Why the huge turnover in jobs?  I think a lot of it has been soul-searching amid the pandemic as people try to seek that illusory work-life balance. But it’s clearly a seller’s market for talent.

THE END OF COMMUTING ?:    Transportation used to equal communications.  Now you don’t need to go to work to do your job.  As I predicted last December, I don’t think passenger levels on Metro-North will return to pre-COVID levels for many years.  Some think it may take a decade.   To date, Metro-North ridership is only back to about 50% and not increasing.

CROWDING & COMPLAINTS:              Even at these reduced ridership levels, many trains are jammed, especially at rush hour. (So much for social distancing.) That’s because full service has not been restored and may not be until next year.  Rush hour trains are not running express, lengthening commuting times and not attracting riders back to the rails. The once popular but seldom-enforced Quiet Cars are on hold.  I doubt they’ll be coming back.

Many of those who are heading back to the office are driving instead of taking the train, exacerbating our traffic.  When driving is faster and, in some cases, cheaper than taking the train, the perception of personal safety trumps slow traffic.  (Mind you, I do think riding Metro-North is safe… as long as you remain fully masked.)

As Metro-North is slow to react to commuter demands for better service, savvy entrepreneurs are jumping in to offer commuting alternatives, skimming the creamy 1% off of the top of railroad’s ridership with a one-seat ride to Wall Street.

FARES:        Off-peak fares remain in effect, all day, for now.  But even  pre-COVID with standing-room-only conditions, the railroad was still losing money.  In 2019 mainline trains subsidized every ticket by $3. Branch line trains’ subsidies were much higher… $17 per ride on the Danbury branch, $49 per ride on Shore Line East.

With ridership now only at 50%, just double those subsidy numbers and you can see how much the railroad is losing. Who will make up the difference?

UNCLE SAM:         Yes, the federal government has kept mass transit rolling, but unless ridership returns those subsidies cannot last forever.  Metro-North’s parent. the MTA, has promised no service cuts, no layoffs and no fare increase… for now.

The historic federal infrastructure bill may pump more money into those subsidies.  But that money was supposed to “build back better”, repairing and renewing.  If your house has a leaky roof, you don’t take out a second mortgage to buy tarps and buckets when you should be repairing the roof.

THE BRAIN DRAIN:         Before Connecticut DOT can start spending the billions  of dollars coming our way in the infrastructure bill it has to deal with its own staffing problem.  CDOT Commissioner Joe Guilietti says his agency has 1100 highly skilled, well-paying jobs to fill, many of them due to a long-anticipated 30 – 40% retirement rate of senior staffers cashing out for their fat state pensions.

So, this Thanksgiving we have much to be grateful for… but so much to still worry about.

 

November 13, 2021

LEAVES VS LOCOMOTIVES

It sounds like a question on a kid’s quiz show: “How do you stop a train?”

A) Hail it like a cab? B) Pull the emergency brake? C) Put wet leaves on the track?

If you chose “C”, you were correct… and you must be a regular commuter on Metro-North.


This is the time of year that tries train engineers’ souls and commuters’ patience. On a single day one recent fall, 60 rush-hour trains were delayed by “slippery rails” when wet leaves caused trains to “slip-slide” on their usually solid tracks.

You may not realize it, but the flanged wheel of a train contacts the rail only on a surface area the size of a dime. That’s why trains can move so smoothly with minimal power… riding a small, but firm area of friction.

But when the leaves fall and get wet, they are ground into one of the slipperiest substances known to man, a compound called pectin. As the train rolls along, its braking computer senses the slip and tries to apply the disc brakes, just like your cars ABS system.


But often the brakes are applied so hard that a locked wheel is ground against the track, creating a flat spot on the usually round surface. In years past these flat wheel

issues have taken 25% of cars out of service for regrinding.


Sophisticated train computers don’t like it when they think the train can’t stop so, on the new M8 cars running, the railroad had to reprogram the safety systems to reassure them the train wasn’t out of control and didn’t need emergency braking.

Worse yet, on some lines the slippery leaves can virtually leave the trains unable to move. Case in point, the Danbury branch line which is an almost continual up-hill climb from Norwalk to “The Hat City”, 397 feet above sea level. On this branch, diesel locomotive-pulled trains often can’t stop on hills at stations like Cannondale, so on some days they skip such stops and make a running start for the steeper climbs.

On an MU (multiple-unit electric) mainline train, all cars are locomotives, spreading out the traction-power the full length of the train. But on a branch line, a single Genesis locomotive weighing 120+ tons has only eight wheels touching the track, seeking enough traction to pull a fully loaded eight car train. That means eight dime-sized points of friction for a multi-ton load.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as sand dropped from special hoppers on the train just in front of the drive-wheels. The resulting friction gets the train going or helps it stop.

Mind you, this is a problem for railroads worldwide, not just here in the northeast.

Of late, Metro-North has brought in heavier armament… a specially designed car dubbed “Water World” equipped with high pressure hoses that blast the tracks free of the gooey mess.


They’re also experimenting with chemical sprays. And one inventor in the UK is even proposing to zap the goo off the rails with
lasers!

So in the fall as we appreciate the gorgeous foliage, remember the words of Paul Simon during your next ride on Metro-North: “Slip sliding away, slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.”

November 06, 2021

A GOOD WEEK FOR TRANSPORTATION

Last week was a good one for our transportation future, on several fronts.

First, of course, was Congress finally passing the massive infrastructure bill.  This once-in-a-generation, trillion-dollar package will bring a massive rebuilding of our crumbling bridges and highways as well as expansion of the nation’s power grid and internet infrastructure.  It will also invest in the ways we must prepare for the impact of global warming.

The bill will also mean thousands of construction jobs over the next decade, what the White House called a “blue collar blueprint” for  decades-delayed repair and enhancement of the nation’s infrastructure.

For rail riders there will be $66 billion invested in expansion and upgrades, the biggest federal investment since the creation of Amtrak in the early 70’s.  Almost half of that amount will be pumped into the Northeast Corridor from DC to Boston, which already sees some 2200 trains each day.

All of this we will benefit from in the years to come.  But in our more immediate future is the project that’s been happening right under our feet at Grand Central since 2006… a new rail station.


Yes, the MTA’s much delayed, terribly-over-budget East Side Access project to bring the LIRR into GCT is all but done and should be opened late next year.  Though this $11 billion subterranean behemoth won’t be home to any trains from Connecticut it will have a profound effect on our train service.

The new station in Grand Central’s lower, lower, lower level is built hundreds of feet below Vanderbilt Avenue just to the west of GCT itself.  It was literally carved out of solid rock and connects to a tunnel built under the Park Avenue line served by Metro-North, another tunnel under the East River and ends up in Queens.


The station will measure 350,000 sq ft serving 24 LIRR trains an hour on eight tracks.  To access the station, you’ll take several escalators from GCT’s lower level, deep down into the bedrock, served by dozens of shops.  The MTA says the new station will save LIRR commuters 40 minutes travel time from Queens if they’re heading to Manhattan’s east side.

What’s in it for Connecticut commuters?  Actually, a faster ride to the West Side.

By moving some LIRR trains out of Penn Station and sending them to GCT, some Metro-North trains will be able to travel from Connecticut directly to Penn Station by way of the Bronx, the Hells Gate Bridge and the East River tunnels, a route now exclusively used by Amtrak.

That new routing will actually be a faster route to midtown Manhattan than the current Grand Central routing.  It will also mean Penn Station connections to Amtrak to the north and west and NJ Transit deep into the Garden State.


As Manhattan’s West Side expands with more offices, many of them built over the LIRR yards, Connecticut commuters will see this new Penn Station service as an attraction.

More spending on rail nationwide and a new train station at GCT and service to the West Side… as I say, it was a good week for transportation.

October 30, 2021

SAVING MONEY ON METRO-NORTH

Are you paying too much to ride Metro-North?  Maybe.

As we slowly return to semi-regular commuting by commuter rail in Connecticut, ridership on Metro-North is about half of pre-COVID levels.

But however often you’re taking the train these days, here are some money saving tips. 

First tip:  always buy your ticket before boarding the train.  Conductors can charge you a hefty on-board surcharge up to $6.50 (but not for seniors) if you don’t have a ticket.  That’s a rookie mistake you’ll only make once.


If you buy your ticket on the
eTix app, be sure to activate your ticket before boarding the train, not when the conductor comes to collect your fare. 

OFF-PEAK only fares remain in effect on all trains, even at rush hour, through the end of this year.  Yet the railroad is still selling peak tickets, both on its eTix app and its ticket machines. Why?

The railroad says it’s had trouble reprogramming their 20-year-old ticket machines and app so they’ve been relying on a PR campaign to alert travelers not to buy peak tickets.  I think they’d hoped to get back to peak fares long ago but now realize that’s not going to happen.

If you know you’re going to be riding regularly, buy a TEN-TRIP OFF-PEAK and you’ll save 15%.  Mind you, these ten-trips are only good for six months but they can be shared, say, with your family.

There are also TEN-TRIP OFF-PEAK tickets for seniors, Medicare recipients and the disabled.  All fares for those passengers are already discounted 50%, a substantial savings.

Chances are good that Metro-North may start selling 20 or 30-trip tickets in the new year, reflecting the new reality that workers may not be commuting full time but still want a discount.

Active duty members of the military can also get a 25% fare break.  And students using the train to commute can also get a discount if they file the paperwork.  Students attending most Connecticut colleges and universities can also take advantage of U-Pass giving them free rides on buses and trains, but only within the state.

If you’re going between intermediate stations, say from Bridgeport to Stamford, there are also discounted fares, especially cheap if you’re only traveling within Connecticut.

If you’re really back to full-time commuting, a MONTHLY TICKET is your best bet… a 48% discount on the regular fares.  Monthly pass sales used to represent almost half of all ticket income (pre-COVID) but they’re only back to about 17% of previous levels.  One nice bonus for monthly ticket holders:  through November 21st you can bring up to four other passengers with you on weekends for only $1 each.

Need a refund for your unused ticket?  That will cost you $10 and must be requested within 60 days of purchase.

You should also check to see if your employer offers TransitChek where you can buy up to $270 worth of train tickets using pre-tax dollars, a substantial discount depending on your tax bracket.

Station parking can be expensive but is free at most stations on nights and weekends.  Check with your town to be sure.

Whatever your train riding pattern, do your homework and you’ll save yourself some money.  And, oh yes… don’t forget to wear a mask!

October 25, 2021

Door to Door Train Service

Imagine this:  using an app to book a car, a train ride and another car to your destination in one step.  Such a service has just been announced by the innovative Brightline rail service in south Florida.

It’s the “last mile” that’s always been a challenge for would-be rail riders.  Assuming you can get to your “home” train station (maybe if you’ve waited 5+ years for a parking permit), when you get off the train in an unknown town, how do you get to your final destination?

Visit the smallest town in Europe and on arrival at the train station there will be a map to help you orient yourself.  In Connecticut, no such thing.

Is there a bus?  Do I have to order an Uber or take a taxi?  And exactly where is my destination in relation to the station?

I used to scratch my head watching business people from NYC arrive on Metro-North at Stamford for business meetings and wait for a taxi to take them a quarter mile to UBS or Purdue Pharma, both within easy walking distance of the station.  Were there a local map in the station to consult they’d have saved the cab ride, a few bucks and get some exercise.

If you’re headed to Grand Central there are plenty of maps, buses, subways, Citibikes and such.  But if you’re heading to downtown Greenwich, Stamford or Bridgeport, good luck.  That’s why people drive.  The train is too much of a hassle.


And that’s why Metro-North and CDOT could learn a lot from Florida’s Brightline, the sassy for-profit private railroad coming back into service after a COVID pause.  Brightline runs from Miami to West Palm Beach and soon on to Orlando and maybe even Tampa.  Their hourly trains are sparkling clean and their fares super cheap.   Imagine that:  a commuter railroad running along I-95 trying to lure passengers off the crowded highway.  Sound familiar?

Here’s how the new Brightline system works:

If you’re anywhere along their line, you fire up their app and book your train ticket.  Then you can add transportation to the train station… a fleet of “Teslas, shuttles and electric golf carts that will pick you up where you are and take you to the train station, then take you to your final destination,” Brightline’s President tells a local Florida newspaper.

This is brilliant… offering seamless transportation, door-to-door.  Brightline is thinking like the customer, not just a railroad.

In Connecticut ride sharing services like Uber told me awhile back that something like 30% of all their business is short trips to and from local train stations.

Some progressive towns like Norwalk and Westport offer on-demand micro-transit options like Wheels2U, but they’re not tied into the train schedule:  helpful but not seamless.

I hope that Brightline’s tech partner IoMob, which pioneered this service in Europe, can get Metro-North’s attention and bring this service to Connecticut.  The railroad has to see itself as part of a transportation network and make train riding as easy as it is safe and convenient.


October 16, 2021

CARS vs PEOPLE

A friend of mine got hit be a car last week, walking on Norton Avenue.  He’s OK, but could have been killed.

 

Speeding on our roads is linked to over 38,000 deaths each year in the US.  That’s almost 730 deaths a week… 100 a day.

 

If a hundred people die in a plane crash, we go nuts.  (Never mind that COVID deaths average about 1400 per day).  But if they die on our roads we see it as the cost of doing business.  As one blogger put it… “it’s high time to stop sacrificing safety on the altar of speed”.

 

Just listen to I-95 or the Merritt Parkway at night.  They sound like a raceway.

 

Too many of those 38,000 deaths are pedestrians or bicyclists.  And tens of thousands of those fatalities are caused by distracted driving, drink or drugs or fatigue. 

 

Federal statistics show if you’re hit by a vehicle going 20 mph you have a 90% chance of surviving.  But if the car or truck is going at 40 miles an hour your survival chances are just 10%.  Speed kills.  So why are we all driving so fast?

 

Because we have so far to travel and want to save time getting there.  In Connecticut, our homes and our work are far apart because we can’t afford (or don’t chose) to live closer to our jobs.  And either because we don’t want to (or chose not to), we don’t take mass transit, preferring the cocoon of our cars.

 

Sure, seat belts in cars save lives… if you wear them.  And air bags and other tech in cars are helping us avoid many accidents. But the death toll keeps climbing, especially where cars occupy the same driving space as bikes and pedestrians.

 

Consider New York City.

 

In 1990 there were 700 traffic deaths in NYC.  But by 2018 that number had dropped to 202, thanks to “Vision Zero”, Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious, billion dollar plan to reduce road deaths to zero by 2024.  But more bike lanes, sidewalks and a 25 mph city-wide speed limit have, of late, made little difference.  This year saw an uptick in deaths, most of them involving bicyclists driving on city streets that lack bike lanes. And on average one pedestrian dies in NYC every three days.

 

Advocates blame increased speeding and lack of enforcement.

 

In Connecticut we have nowhere near the same density of urban traffic fighting for space with folks on two feet or two wheels, but neither do we have sidewalks in many towns.  Or bike lanes.  But we do have speeders, scofflaws and insufficient enforcement.

 

When it’s not crawling bumper-to-bumper, try driving 55 mph on the Merritt, I-95 or I-84 and see what happens.  As a CT State Trooper once told me as we cruised along at about 75 mph with the flow of traffic, “I look for the driver likely to cause an accident” by weaving or not signaling lane changes.  Even those enforcing our laws admit they don’t or can’t keep up with motorists’ need for speed.

 

Even when the cops do look for speeders, legal radar detectors and laser-jammers help violators avoid getting caught.  Attempts to install red-light cameras in Connecticut have always failed due to a combination of Big Brother paranoia and fears of the safety tech being turned into an unending revenue spigot for Towns and cities.

 

Weather conditions of course exacerbate the problem, especially with those driving the tanks we call SUVs who think they are immune to the laws of physics.

 

Bottom line:  can’t we all just chill out a bit and think of the safety of others if not ourselves?

 


October 09, 2021

VERMONT BY TRAIN

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 roundtrip.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive it’s not much faster and will set you back about $250.

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 newly refurbished 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.

And 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 8 pm with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton VT.  There’s even a bus connection to Killington.

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.

It offers the 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 used to get you close… if you didn’t mind a ferry boat ride.  It’s not running again (yet) due to COVID, but there are hopes for its return before the new year.

It offered the same kind of seating, WiFi etc, but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Alas, no poutine on the AmMenu.  And until a few years ago they even ran 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 $69 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.


October 05, 2021

Five Worst Ideas for Fixing Traffic

Have you noticed how terrible our traffic is lately?

Not just in comparison to the empty roads and blue skies during the pandemic lockdown, but even compared to pre-COVID times.

The rush hour on I-95 starts earlier and runs later, pretty much all day long.  The increased volume is due in large part to the return to the office but by car, not mass transit (where ridership is still only 50% of the good old days).

If there were easy answers to this congestion, they’d have been implemented by now.  Look… this is really a matter of supply and demand: too much demand (highway traffic) and not enough supply (space on those roads).   

But here are a few of the crazier ideas for fixing traffic I’ve heard suggested over the years:

1)    DOUBLE-DECK I-95:        Seriously, this was once proposed by the Stamford Chamber of Commerce.  Can you imagine the decades of construction and billions in cost, with “upper level” roads having to soar hundreds of feet over existing overpasses?

2)    ALLOW TRUCKS ON THE MERRIT PARKWAY:       There are two words to explain why this can’t happen:  low bridges.

3)    BAN TRUCKS FROM I-95:          Trucks are high-occupancy vehicles delivering goods to the stores that you, in your single-occupancy vehicle, drive to so you can shop.  No trucks, no goods, no shopping.

4)    DRIVE IN THE EMERGENCY BREAK-DOWN LANE: This was then-Governor Rowland’s idea and he even wasted a million dollars studying it.  But if you think of that far right-hand lane instead as the “emergency rescue lane” you’ll see why this doesn’t make sense.  This plan would also require re-striping existing traffic lanes to a narrower width, making driving more dangerous.

5)    WIDENING I-95:       Again, billions in cost and decades of construction.  And if you build it, they will come.  Traffic will expand to fill available space.  Then what, a fifth lane?

I think there are better ideas for managing traffic congestion, some of them already being implemented:

OPERATIONAL LANES:     Adding a fourth lane from on-ramps to off-ramps gives traffic a better chance of merging on and off the highway without blocking the through-lanes.

WIDENING CHOKE-POINTS:      For example, the exit 14-15 mess in Norwalk.  But this $42 million construction project, discussed since 2002, took almost five years to get built.

ADD A ZIPPER LANE:      Sure, this may require highway widening, but just one lane that’s reversible depending on demand, a system used effectively on the Tappan Zee Bridge before it was rebuilt.    

CHANGE COMMUTING HOURS:       Does everyone really need to work 9 am – 5 pm?  How about starting earlier or later and spreading out the traffic?  Your employer should understand and you’ll be happier and more productive.

As I say, there are no simple solutions to highway congestion.   It’s easy to identify the problems.  But fixing them will always be expensive.

 

September 23, 2021

Pedestrians Rule!

Some big changes are coming for pedestrians and motorists alike starting next week:  a new set of Connecticut laws giving far more power (and, hopefully, safety) to those traveling on foot vs vehicles. 

Long before we had cars (or even horses) and trains, folks took to the roads on foot to get where they were going.  But with motorized transport came the inevitable conflicts.

Why the new laws now?  Because something like 1500 pedestrians and 500+ bike riders get hit by cars each year in this state.  Many towns don’t even have sidewalks and those that do still seem to favor motorists over folks on foot.

Effective October 1st, these are the new rules:

1) At crosswalks, drivers must yield to pedestrians who show intent to cross by extending an arm or moving into the crosswalk.

2) A driver or passenger cannot open a vehicle door in a way that hits or gets in the way of a pedestrian or bicyclist.

Violators could face a $500 fine. They’re not kidding.

The new laws remind us that pedestrians and bicyclists matter.  And while they should exercise caution, too, it’s motorists who will have to start paying more attention as they careen down the roads.

Mind you, these new street crossing laws only affect designated crosswalks, not the mid-block impatience of jaywalkers.  I mean, let’s be reasonable, right?

Of course, it’s all going to take some getting used to here in the “land of steady habits” where motorists have always taken priority.   But it will be like deja vu all over again for me…

I grew up in Toronto where pedestrians were always granted supremacy over cars.  I distinctly remember as a child when the first Pedestrian Crosswalks opened.  They were mid-block and designated by large, illuminated signs and all-too-visible paint on the roadways.

All a walker needed to do was approach the curb at a crosswalk and point in the direction they wanted to cross.  For a kid, that was a lot of power:  a single pointed finger would bring traffic to a halt so you could then safely cross the streets.

Pedestrians had the power, not motorists.

Of course, the drivers all obeyed.  Never once do I remember a car crossing my path as I triumphantly marched to the other side.  I didn’t even need to make eye contact with the drivers or wave franticly “stop, you idiot”.  They just did.  Of course, they were Canadians.

If anything, I might give them a wave or nod.  Pretty cheeky for a 10-year-old kid.

Contrast that willing compliance with Connecticut where drivers regularly cruise through stop signs and run red lights with apparent impunity.  If drivers don’t know and observe these new laws, someone’s going to get seriously hurt, regardless of age or cheek.