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January 09, 2021

"Getting There" - Commuters Are Not Coming Back After COVID

 I have one prediction for the new year and you’re not going to like it.

After we all get vaccinated and things ‘return to normal’, regular weekday commuters on Metro-North will not be coming back as hoped.

Why should they?  Who wants to spend $400+ a month and waste 2+ hours each day, five days a week riding a train into New York City if you don’t have to?  This pandemic has shown us going to an office isn’t necessary to doing our jobs.

Sure, there are some people who have to show up in person to do their work (healthcare staffers, auto mechanics etc), but that’s never been the bulk of Metro-North’s ridership.  Most of those commuters work with their brains and can do so just as easily from home (or a satellite office in the ‘burbs) as in an office cubicle in midtown.

And their employers, having discovered this, are also finding they don’t need to waste millions on fancy real estate.  They are downsizing too.  So there may not be an office to go back to, even if you want to.

Oh, you may still need to show up “at work” one or two days a week for meetings in downsized, shared offices.  And while you may be longing to get back on the train and return to your job, that’s probably as much your cabin fever from being quarantined for months as any real desire to get back to the old grind.

Even pre-pandemic the railroad found that monthly pass holders weren’t commuting five days a week, maybe more like four days.  They had already found they could work without being at work.

One group that never stopped working was Metro-North employees. In the darkest days last spring, parent MTA saw more COVID-19 deaths among bus and train drivers than the city had among its cops and firefighters.  They all deserve our thanks.

Yes, train ridership has slowly climbed back from a low of 5% to 20% on weekdays (closer to 50% on weekends), but even with federal aid, current service levels are not sustainable.

Pre-COVID when the trains were standing-room-only and with Metro-North riders paying the highest ticket prices in the US, the railroad was still losing money:  about 20% of every ride was subsidized by taxpayers.

So if my predictions are correct and ridership doesn’t come soaring back, how is the railroad (or the state) going to handle deficits that quadruple or quintuple?  Something’s gotta give.

Sadly, I think we will see further service reductions, especially in off-peak hours.  That will mean layoffs of hundreds of dedicated (and yes, well paid) railroad conductors, engineers and maintenance staffers.  And yes, we may also see fare increases.  It will all add up to less (service) for more (cost).

It used to be that Connecticut’s tax base was tied to the availability of dependable train service:  people lived here because they could commute.  But if they don’t need to commute, how important is the train?  And what will happen to TOD (transit oriented development) when ‘getting there’ isn’t necessary to ‘getting it done’?

I don’t think the train is going away completely, nor is New York City.  We will still want to “go into town” for entertainment and to see the few friends we still have who’ll be living there.

But when COVID is gone, things will never just get back to the way they were.  Those days are gone.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


December 22, 2020

"Getting There" - There Is No 'Free Pony'

 Early in our parenting my wife and I taught our daughter about the difference between wanting something and needing something.  She might want a pony but did she need one?  And most importantly, what was she willing to do to get that pony.  “Ponies aren’t free,” we would remind her.

The same things are true for transportation, our climate and our health.

A recent poll was released, commissioned by the Transportation Climate Initiative.  The name explains their mission: saving our climate by encouraging increased use of mass transit, electric vehicles and less use of fossil fuels.

We all know that air pollution affects our health, right?  According to TCI, auto emissions now surpass pollution from power plants.  That exhaust is especially dangerous to minority populations in dense urban areas, the same folks being hit the hardest by COVID.  So air pollution’s health effects and longer-term damage to our climate now have a social justice component.

The TCI poll of 3800 voters in eight northeast states and the District of Columbia asked the usual questions and obtained the usual results.  It was as if they’d asked “wouldn’t you like a pony?”

Yes, said respondents, we want cleaner air, more money spent on fixing our transportation system and we want more trains and buses running faster and at greater frequencies.  We all want a pony.  Lots of ponies!

But who’s going to feed them and clean their stalls?

The TCI proposal is to make driving more expensive by raising the gasoline tax 5 to 17 cents a gallon at the pump as well as taxing the oil companies for the pollution their products create.  It’s simply known in the climate biz as “cap and trade”.

For almost a year TCI has floated their detailed plan to various New England governors, including Connecticut’s Ned Lamont, a year ago.  But Lamont initially rejected it, as did several others.  But now the governor seems to have changed his mind, signing on to the plan with other states.  But again, who will pay for all this?

After shirking their legislative duties for the past ten months, lawmakers will skulk back into the Capitol in January, hopefully well masked.  Among the initiatives they will have to address is finding new revenue for the Special Transportation Fund, which is teetering on the brink of a deficit by mid-2021. 

Given that tolls are off the table and nobody wants to raise sales taxes, it looks like a modest bump in the gasoline tax is the least unattractive alternative.  After all, the gasoline tax hasn’t changed a penny since 1997 and with fuel prices so low, who’d notice?

Patrick Sasser has noticed.  As leader of the successful No Tolls CT movement he’s already pushing back.  Sasser says no to any kind of tax increase, claiming the state is fiscally irresponsible in the way it spends our tax money.  He actually suggests lowering the gasoline tax.

But the TCI poll showed that 67% of Connecticut responders supported the idea of cap and trade… at least as it was explained to them in the phone survey.  But I doubt those polled truly understood the question, nor were they told what it might really cost them.

We all want those mythical ponies of better transportation, cleaner air and improved health.  But are we ready to pay for them?

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 13, 2020

"Getting There" - When Just In Time Isn't

 Notice anything missing on your store shelves?  Maybe paper products or your favorite canned soup?  Given that the pandemic has been raging for over nine months, why aren’t the shelves full again?  Why isn’t the stuff we want “getting there”?

Well one of the reasons is because a Japanese engineer visited an American supermarket in the 1950’s and noticed something he thought was wrong… and we’re still paying for his astute observations.

It was Taiichi Ohno, industrial engineer at Toyota, who noticed the American stores had weeks of inventory in a back room, waiting for customers purchases to allow quick restocking.  That was great for supply as long as demand remained steady… but very costly to the store.

Unsold inventory is expensive, so Ohno suggested that needed parts (or in our case, store products) could better be delivered JIT, Just In Time.  That way the production could flow smoothly with the added cost of inventory being carried by the manufacturer, not the store or, in Toyota’s case, production plant.

Sounds great as long as production, demand and the transportation network continue running smoothly. Change one of those and things go bad, quickly.

Of course, that’s what happened in March when there was a sudden run on stores as worried shoppers loaded up on canned foods and, yes, toilet paper.  The producers of those goods couldn’t gear up production fast enough to fill the supply chain and many of the trucking companies that delivered them had their drivers go AWOL.

Pre-pandemic, Wal-Mart would tell suppliers they had a two-day window for their trucks to deliver to their distribution warehouses or they’d face financial penalties. But when the panic buying began, the trucks would off-load their goods and opt for return-jobs on the “spot market” instead of going back to the factories empty, on “dead heads”, to get the next load.  That meant the supply chain was broken.

When the trucks did deliver, traffic could switch from a trickle to tsunami.  At one typical Costco mega-warehouse in Utah where they’d usually handle 350 trucks, the volume doubled. They didn’t have enough loading docks or personnel to handle them all.

Now all the big-box stores and companies that supply them with goods are rethinking their lean-and-mean JIT philosophy.  Warehouses may be expanded to accommodate more inventory as automated robots load and off-load trucks faster (and cheaper) than humans.

But even adding a 5% buffer of “safety stock” to warehouses will mean building 750 million square feet of industrial space.  Guess who’ll be paying for that.

And that doesn’t even include Amazon which is so hungry to expand they’re buying up old shopping malls to turn them into warehouses… repurposing the old retail space they already killed off with their home-delivery model.

Manufacturing of essentials (think pharmaceutical base-chemicals, PPE, etc) may be “re-shored” to US soil if companies like China can’t be depended upon to deliver in time.  Or the production plants just move to Vietnam where labor is 20 – 30% cheaper than in the People’s Republic.

So if you’re looking for a career with a future, consider logistics: the science of managing supply to demand and delivering on time at a profitable price.  It’s estimated there will be 600,000 new jobs in logistics created by 2026.

According to Stamford-based job placement company Indeed.com, there are hundreds of logistics-related jobs available in Connecticut right now, some paying up to $80,000.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 28, 2020

"Getting There" - Conductor Writes Tell-All Memoirs

 Are you nostalgic for the “good old days” on Metro-North… the crowded trains, the inevitable delays, your often-times crazy fellow passengers?   If so, you’ll want to check out former conductor Michael Shaw’s great new book, “My Rail Life”.

Shaw has just retired from a 36 year career as a conductor on the New Haven line.  His father also worked for the railroad as do 5 of his siblings.  And he clearly loved his job.

He once told passengers on a standing-room only train: “OK, folks.  We are half way to Grand Central.  It’s time for everyone who’s been seated to get up and give their seats to folks who’ve been standing.”

Asked by a passenger boarding at Grand Central, “what times does this train arrive in Stamford?” he answered, “Usually about 20 minutes after the schedule says”.

On another train he announced: “Folks, I have good news and bad news.  The good news is that Metro-North fixed the air conditioning you complained about not having all summer long.  The bad news it’s now winter.”

Honest to a fault, he turned in everything left by passengers on his train to the Metro-North Lost and Found… even an envelope containing $400 in cash. (The lost money wasn’t claimed so he got it back.)  On many occasions he’d find a lost briefcase or cell-phone and personally return it to the owner’s home the same day.

He also loved razzing his fellow railroad workers, once announcing, “If you have any railroad questions or would like to take your picture with a real railroad engineer, come to the front of the train and say “Hi”.  My name is Jerry and I love people.”  Shaw’s name is not Jerry and the real Jerry hates people.

Approaching Bridgeport Shaw announced the connection for the Waterbury train, adding “Be sure to ask your Waterbury conductor for one of the free 100 Years Commemorative pins.”  There were no pins.

On late Friday night trains Shaw would hold a contest with his fellow conductors watching drunk passengers boarding at Grand Central, guessing who would be first to throw up.  Shaw immediately chose a 95 pound blonde he saw staggering to the nearest car with her equally inebriated boyfriend.  Even before leaving the station his co-worker came and gave him his winnings.

Shaw always went out of his way to keep passengers informed about delays.  In the horrendous winter of 2014 when the railroad almost ground to a halt, he printed a one-page apology for the previous day’s delays and did his own seat-drop of 500 copies before the train left New Haven.  Passengers were so grateful for his candor they gave him a standing ovation as he entered each car to collect tickets.  The railroad bosses were not amused.

Approaching an obviously senior citizen to collect his fare, the old timer asked if Shaw needed his ID to prove his age.  Saying that wouldn’t be necessary, the old timer asked “Are you saying I look too old?”  “No,” said Shaw. “You look honest.”

On another occasion he approached an elderly, grey-haired woman who wanted to buy a senior-discount ticket.  “Are you over 65?,” he asked, knowing the answer. “Actually, I’m 82” she said.  “Well, you look marvelous!,” said Shaw, asking  “What’s your secret?”.  Without a smile or batting an eyelash she said “Rough sex.”

If you need a good chuckle, you’ll love this book.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

November 14, 2020

"Getting There" - Gasoline is Too Cheap

  Gasoline is too cheap.

Wait!  Don’t turn the page!  This is not another tree-hugger train-guy rant. Hear me out.

President-elect Biden has made the argument for weaning us off fossil-fuels, mostly for environmental reasons.  Anybody who remotely believes in science or has witnessed the cataclysmic changes in our weather, knows we must do something to stop global warming.

But I still drive a car (albeit a hybrid) and am not ready to give it up for a bicycle or skateboard like some crazed Gen-Z’er.  We need cars to get around in Connecticut despite our meager attempts at mass transit… especially in the time of COVID.

My argument is that price of the fuel we use (gasoline) doesn’t cover the real cost to our environment (or each other) when we drive.  Gasoline is too cheap.

Why does a gallon of gasoline, which moves us 20 – 50 miles (depending on your car’s efficiency), cost less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks?  Enjoying your java doesn’t destroy the ozone layer.

Why does a gallon of gas in the US cost roughly half of what it does in Canada?  Or a third of the price in Europe? 

The answer is taxes.  Other nations put huge taxes on fuel and reinvest the proceeds into mass transit, subsidizing the fares.

OK, so you don’t want to take the train or a bus.  That’s fine. Drive your car and enjoy the crowded highways… and our polluted air.  Those are the cost of cheap fuel too.

Did you know that Connecticut’s air quality is, by many criteria, dirtier than Los Angeles’?  Sure, a lot of that airborne crud is floating our way from New York City, but we’re not helping ourselves by adding to it.  Nor are we aiding our residents who have conditions like asthma.

Caring parents obsess about protecting the health of their kids by buying organic food, but drive to the supermarket to acquire it in SUVs. There seems no incentive for buying a car, truck or SUV that uses less fuel with gas prices so low.

When I visit Europe again (soon, I hope) I won’t see SUVs, but smaller, cleaner, much more fuel efficient cars.  With the higher price of gasoline reflecting the actual cost of driving, European motorists don’t waste fuel the way we do.

The oil companies get it.  That’s why BP (British Petroleum)  is investing in solar and wind, expecting to produce 40% less fossil fuels in the next decade.

Wall Street also understands it, witness the more than quadrupling in the share price of Tesla (maker of electric cars) in the last year.

So why don’t we get it?  Why is gasoline so cheap?

Depending on whom you talk to, we have about 47 years worth of oil left before we run out.  That assumes current consumption levels.  If we use less, it will last longer.  That’s why the price of gasoline should go up so we are incentivized to drive less in smaller cars and make our oil last longer while we transition to renewables, right?

Of course, what do we care?  We won’t be around when the oil runs out.  That, along with the rising sea level and coastal flooding, will be the next generation’s problem.  I’m sure they’ll figure it out. Good luck, kids.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

October 31, 2020

"Getting There" - The Transportation Treasure Hunt

 The headline a few days ago was encouraging:  “CT gets $400K grant to study improvements to Metro-North lines”.   But what’s $400,000 going to tell us that we don’t already know? 

 

Any rider of Metro-North knows the infrastructure is crumbling, the station parking and seating on trains (until COVID) are inadequate and, on the branch lines, the service is terrible.  So why another study?

 

Turns out, this Federal grant is different, as Francis Pickering, the Executive Director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WCOG) explains:  “We know what needs to be fixed.  We just don’t know how to pay for it.”   That’s what this study is going to focus on.  This Federal grant is for a treasure hunt.

 

Remember in 2015 when Governor Malloy rolled out his 30-year, $100 billion “Let’s Go CT” transportation wish list?  Typical of a politician, he wanted credit for the vision but not the blame for paying for it.  So he created yet another “blue ribbon panel” to brainstorm on funding, and their report was filled with unpopular ideas:  raise the sales tax, raise the gasoline tax, raise DMV fees and yes, add highway tolls.

 

I don’t notice anyone campaigning for the legislature this year on those unpopular ideas, so are there alternatives?

 

Focusing specifically on the Danbury and New Canaan branch lines of Metro-North, this new study is looking to other areas’ transit improvements and how they were paid for…  like the expansion of the DC Metro’s Silver Line out to Dulles Airport.  Sure, half of its cost is being paid by tolls on the adjacent highway, but much of the rest is coming from what’s called “Value Capture”.

 

The thinking is, if you expand transit services then the area around stations will grow (remember TOD, transit oriented development?) as new offices and apartments are built.  That means increased property values and more taxes for the town or city.  The “value capture” idea is to get a share of that increased future tax revenue stream and use it to pay for the transit improvements.

 

That seems fair, right?  Only the people who benefit from the improvements (residents, land owners, developers and the towns) help to pay for them.  Layer on top of that the ideas of regional sales taxes or payroll taxes and you’re talking real money.  Of course, none of these funding options are legal in Connecticut… yet.

 

And to make those kinds of changes in Hartford you’ll need to get everybody on board, including the dozens of cities and towns served by those trains.  To sweeten the pot the WCOG folks are looking to expand the Danbury line, adding new stations at Wall Street in downtown Norwalk, Georgetown and points north from Danbury to New Milford.  But that assumes Metro-North is literally on board with the idea.

 

It will take 18 to 24 months to do this new study so there will be lots of opportunity for public input… the hope being if a funding solution works here it might be applied elsewhere in the state.

 

Nothing happens fast in the world of transportation in this state. 

 

I remember watching the diminutive Speaker of the CT House Mora Lyons in 2001, standing next to a stack of studies and reports as tall as she was, saying “enough with the studies… let’s DO something.”

 

Has much really changed in 20 years? 

 

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 16, 2020

"Getting There" - A WPA Project for Transportation?

  Here’s a possible solution to Connecticut’s transportation and infrastructure problems and the state’s current unemployment woes:  a WPA style building project.

You do remember the Works Progress Administration, right?  It was FDR’s plan that put millions of unemployed Americans to work building public projects like roads, water mains, firehouses and dams.  Look around you and you’ll still see us benefiting from that investment.

But fast-forward 80 years…

Any reader of this column is all too familiar with the need for transportation investment in our state: our 7000 miles of roads and bridges in “poor condition”, the $4.6 billion needed for wastewater treatment not to mention our rusting railroads.

And everyone in Connecticut is aware of the unemployment crisis brought on by COVID: 8.2% of the state’s labor force is out of work, translating to 153,000 people without jobs, most of them now drawing benefits from our rapidly depleting Unemployment Trust Fund.  Soon the state may be borrowing from Washington to keep those unemployment checks coming.

Mind you, not every unemployed person in Connecticut is ready for manual labor.  It’s not like laid-off bankers can just pick up a shovel and start digging.  But those who are young, able and hungry enough could be candidates… or trained to be.

A few years back General Dynamics’ Electric Boat in Groton needed 4000 welders to build submarines so they turned to the local community colleges to help teach them for jobs starting at $16 an hour.

Could a new New Deal be a win-win solution for Connecticut?

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport) and municipal bankruptcy expert Mike Imber from Weston believe a Connecticut WPA would put thousands of people to work savings millions in unemployment checks while tackling our state’s crumbling infrastructure.

They’ve pitched the idea to the Governor’s office but so far haven’t got much of a response. 

The labor unions should be big fans of their idea, as new projects would mean work for their members… maybe even at union wages.  Best of all, Steinberg and Imber don’t think the idea would need legislative approval or state money.  Instead they suggest a P3… a Public Private Partnership.

“There are hundreds of ‘social impact’ investor funds looking to support ideas like this,” says Imber.  “There is no lack of capital.”   Investors put up the money for the projects while receiving a reasonable return over 20 or 30 years and the project remains under state ownership and control.

But there’s the rub.  Who pays the investors and with what money?

Why not the people who benefit from the projects that get built?  Water systems could charge customers for more reliable water supplies.  And the people who drive over new bridges and repaired roadways could also be charged a bit more.  Which brings us to tolls.  Yes, tolls.

“No realistic P3 model doesn’t involve tolls,” says Steinberg, long a supporter of user fees on roads and rails.  “The legislature has been gun shy about discussing tolls,” he says.  “The real question is whether Lamont will be seeking another term as Governor and is willing to invest the next two years fighting this battle (for tolls).”

Will Lamont risk his COVID-inspired high approval ratings to “do the right thing”, tackling unemployment and fix our infrastructure if it means a battle?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 05, 2020

"Getting There" - The Eye of the Hurricane

  

When it comes to COVID’s impact on transportation in our state, we are in the eye of the hurricane.

That’s been the theme of my recent virtual talk to various Connecticut’s libraries and civic groups, comparing the calm eye of an intense storm to how we’ve become complacent about our transportation future.  We kid ourselves if we think the winds have passed.  The worst is yet to come.

Commuters who’ve returned to the rails tell me ridership is slowly coming back but many still fear for their safety on mass transit, and with good reason.

Metro-North has finally put $50 fines into effect for those refusing to wear face masks on its trains.  But they’re leaving enforcement to the MTA Police who almost never are seen on Connecticut trains.  Anecdotally I’ve heard from many riders who’ve seen non-mask wearing riders and conductors who do nothing to get them to mask up.

We’re talking about public health here.  I think anyone who refuses to wear a mask should be kicked off the train.

The back side of the COVID hurricane may see a second wave of infections, but we will certainly feel the effects of six months of financial losses born by the railroad.  The MTA’s Chairman Patrick Foye says the agency is facing an “existential challenge”… a $16 billion deficit by 2024.

Without federal help he’s predicting layoffs and service cuts to as little as one train every two hours.  Imagine how crowded those trains will be, commuters sitting three abreast among the unmasked.

But on the state level an even greater financial storm is approaching:  The Special Transportation Fund (STF) is going bankrupt faster than previously feared.

It is the STF that funds highway and bridge repairs, subsidizes mass transit and keeps transportation moving.  But it relies on gasoline and sales tax revenues that have been slammed by the virus, so by mid 2022 it will run out of money… maybe sooner.

And if the STF is in the red, nobody on Wall Street will underwrite any of Connecticut’s new bonds… not for schools or sanitation or housing.  Then what do we do?

What really galls me is that nobody is talking about this.

It is an election year (as if you haven’t noticed), but our State lawmakers have disappeared, leaving the governing of the state (by executive order) to Governor Lamont who, by recent polls, is seen as doing a good job.

Some lawmakers have complained that the legislature has been cut out of decision making, but they couldn’t cite which of Lamont’s emergency orders they took issue with.

Aside from their brief summer session when they passed an omnibus police reform package, now receiving criticism after we understand its details, our State Reps and Senators are AWOL.

Oh, they’re campaigning, but not talking about what’s coming in the next session.

Of course they don’t want to tell you now what’s going to be necessary to re-fund the STF:  a combination of tolls, new taxes and higher fares.  They’ll leave that bad news until after they are re-elected.

That’s why all of us must force their hand.  Go to their campaign rallies (fully masked) and upcoming League of Women Voters debates and ask them, on the record, where they stand on tolls and taxes.  And if not those remedies, what are their alternatives?

Then we can all cast an informed vote and decide who’s best to help us weather the storm yet to come.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 28, 2020

"Getting There" - Carless in Connecticut

 When you think of the AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, you probably conjure up thoughts of senior discounts, health insurance and retirement.  So it might surprise you to learn that they’re also actively engaged in driver safety and promoting access to mass transit.  The statistics on these issues they shared with me are quite interesting.

By 2025 a quarter of all drivers in the US will be over age 65. And while they are involved in more accidents per capita than younger adults, they are far safer than teens.  But over age 70, traffic fatalities increase with age; by age 85, drivers have probably outlived their ability to drive safely.

Every year some 600,000 adults stop driving.  But because seniors make 90% of their trips in private cars, either driving or as passengers, what happens next?

When seniors stop driving it impacts more than their mobility:  it can also affect their health.

Seniors who stop driving make 15% fewer trips to the doctor.  They can’t get out to shop as much.  They isolate socially, which can lead to depression and a downward spiral in health.

Even before their kids take away their car keys, seniors self-regulate their time behind the wheel.  Maybe they avoid highway driving or traveling at rush hour.  And who likes driving at night?

Living in the suburbs, 80% of seniors have their homes in car-dependent neighborhoods.  Some 53% of those areas don’t have sidewalks and 60% are not within a ten minute walk of a transit stop, assuming they can still walk that distance.

That’s why AARP is making senior mobility a national issue.  And the firm’s Associate State Director for Connecticut, Anna Doroghazi, is becoming a frequent speaker and lobbyist in Hartford.

“We are all going to have to be more involved in transportation issues,” she told me.  And her group’s support for pedestrian safety legislation is just the start.

“We want everyone to think about building ‘livable communities’ where people don’t need a car but can walk or catch a free ride to their nearby services.  And if that’s good for (your mobility) at age 80, it’ll also be good for you at age 8.”

Remember… it’s not just seniors who can be car-less.  Think of those with special needs who can’t drive or low income residents who can’t afford to… not to mention Millennials who are said to have no interest in car ownership.  How do they get around?

The “Carless in Connecticut” are probably familiar with catching Metro-North to go into New York City.  But do they have access to or know anything about local bus service?  Or ParaTransit? Or MicroTransit, on-demand services?

Local social service agencies are doing a better job of giving their clients mobility options.  And the amazing folks at The Kennedy Center have a great “Travel Training” program to help the disabled, both physically and emotionally, build confidence about riding the bus.

It’s not the cost of bus fare that dissuades seniors from riding.  It’s not knowing where the bus stops are, when they run, the lack of a shelter and, yes, probably a fear for their safety. Plus, not all buses kneel making front door access a challenge.

But kudos to the AARP for embracing this issue.  Their advocacy for seniors should bring benefits to us all.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 12, 2020

"Getting There" - Why Does Red Mean Stop and Green Means Go?

 

Do you ever wonder why our stoplights designate red as stop and green as go?  Me too!  In fact, it was my daughter’s question on this very matter that inspired me to do some historic research.

In the 1840s the British railroads adopted a flag, lamp and semaphore signal system where red meant danger, white meant safety and green indicated proceed with caution.  They took their inspiration from early industrialization where factory machines used red to indicate the equipment was off and green when turned on.

But when the red glass lens on one signal lamp dropped out of its socket, showing a white light which caused a rail collision, they opted for yellow instead.

Traditionally red has evoked danger and green, a more calming influence.  But it was optical science that reinforced the choice.

Red has the longest wavelength in the visible spectrum and is less likely to be interfered with by other light sources in what’s known as “light scattering”.  Think of fog or dust in the air. The red light penetrates best.

By the 1860s traffic conditions in London prompted officials to seek a way of controlling horse-drawn carriages with a signal system and opted for the railroad scheme of color-coded semaphores and lights controlled by a policeman, often perched on a raised kiosk in the middle of the intersection.

You can credit American policeman William Potts for the invention of the first traffic lights in Detroit in 1920.  But they were still sequenced by an officer making traffic control expensive.  A timer system was introduced to sequence the flow but there was also a system activated by sound.

A microphone was installed on the light pole and when a car approached it would honk its horn and the light would turn green… but just for ten seconds to allow that one car to get through.  You can see the problem that was going to create.

In 1935 the Federal Highway Administration standardized all national driving rules including a requirement that stop lights include red, yellow and green signals.

Today we use not only timers but some sophisticated measuring devices to sequence traffic lights including inductive loops.  You’ve probably seen signs of  them, buried in the pavement, as you pull up to an intersection,.  They measure the metal in cars as they drive over them, allowing the system to know that a car is there waiting for a green signal.

Even the traffic lights themselves have improved.  They now measure either eight or twelve inches in diameter and must be visible in every lighting condition.  The older incandescent bulbs that illuminated them use to burn at 175 watts and needed constant replacement.  Now they’re being replaced with high endurance LED lamps which give as much light but only require 10 – 25 watts of electricity.

At many Connecticut intersections there are also sensors on the light poles detecting the strobe lights or special radio signals emitted by emergency vehicles, giving them the right of way.

To help the 13 million Americans who are color blind, stoplights are always arranged with red on top and green on the bottom.

Given the sophisticated technology and engineering time spent on designing a stoplight system for an intersection, they’re not cheap.  A fully equipped setup can cost between $250,000 and a half-million with an annual maintenance cost of $8000.

 Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 05, 2020

"Getting There" - Pandemic & Parking

 

There’s another part of our transportation network being seriously affected by COVID-19 beyond our roads and rails:  parking lots.

Parking is something we take for granted, giving us access to rail stations, shopping and offices.  It’s hardly glamorous, but the parking industry represents an $11 billion business nationwide, one third of it privately owned.

In Connecticut most rail station parking is owned by the Connecticut DOT but administered by the local towns, each of which sets its own rates and terms.  The money collected from commuters is supposed to be spent on station upkeep and amenities while the state takes its share.

Pre-COVID, the demand for rail station parking was so high that some Fairfield County towns had five-year waiting lists for annual permits.  Now those lots are as empty as the trains that serve them.

That’s a further strain on already tight Town budgets but a relatively small loss for CDOT compared to their hemorrhaging of money in other areas.

Office parks are similarly impacted, their bucolic but near-empty offices now surrounded by a sea of empty asphalt.  All of which is leading planners to rethink the short and long-term future of parking overall.

To encourage residents to visit downtown restaurants and merchants cities like Stamford offered three hours of free parking at city owned lots in July. But while that helped struggling local merchants, it’s not an offer that can be expected to last forever.

At some Walmarts in New Jersey the megastore chain is offering free drive-in movies in their lots this month.  Some Connecticut towns are doing the same thing locally.

In New York City great swaths of street parking on the city’s 6000 miles of streets have been converted to outdoor dining for nearby restaurants:  great in the summer, but in the fall will we really want to wear parkas and hats to munch on our pizza al fresco?

And according to some estimates, the loss of parking, parking tickets and such will cost NYC government something like $590 million this year.  That’s real money and would pay for a lot of teachers.

At the airports, private lot operators like Parking Spot used their empty spaces to store cargo, construction equipment and unneeded rental cars.

Assuming a vaccine and eventual suppression of the pandemic, most planners think that changing work patterns will mean fewer trips to “the office” and more time spent working at home.  How will that impact parking demand… and pricing?

Given its limited availability (and increasing demand as commuters revert to cars from trains), parking in cities will still be in demand.  Even though only 10% of midtown Manhattan’s workforce is back in their offices, parking in that area still costs about $500 a month.  Some workers are lucky enough to have those costs subsidized by their bosses… but again, for how long?

But all of this pales in comparison to the story of the savvy couple in Park Slope Brooklyn, who in 2005 purchased two “car condo” parking spaces in a nearby garage for $45,000 each.

They used one of the spaces for their family car and rented out the other for $600 a month, pocketing a $310 profit each month.  In 2016 they sold that extra parking space for $285,000. 

It’s all about supply and demand.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

August 29, 2020

"Getting There" - Infrastructure Deja Vu

  

Welcome to Connecticut, the home of third world infrastructure.

Tropical storm Isaias has shown, once again, that we don’t want to invest in our state’s physical plant and we don’t learn from our mistakes.  But we are all so ready to blame somebody else when stuff goes wrong.

Every time a Metro-North train pulls down old catenary (overhead power lines), commuters scream “Where are the replacement buses?”, as if a fleet of buses is kept on permanent standby waiting for such strandings.

If we did better maintenance on the trains and wires, such accidents might not happen.  But that takes money we don’t have.

Tropical storm Isaias causes power outages for 2+ million Americans from Maryland to Maine, toppling thousands of trees, and angry residents cry “Where are the linemen?”

Did Eversource have a hard time organizing repair efforts?  Absolutely.  But were those delays caused because they had laid off hundreds of linemen over the years?  Probably not.  Had those jobs been kept the utility would still have required thousands of other utility workers to come to their aid, and maybe the National Guard, too.

Could Eversource done a better job of pruning trees near power lines?  Maybe.  But the devastation from Isaias went far beyond anything that pruning would have helped.

And where was Eversource CEO Jim Judge (a.k.a. The $19 Million Man) during all of this?  That’s a good question.  He was obviously in hiding, sending his subordinates out to face the media when he should have been there himself.  Bad optics, Jim.

But does yelling at him, trying to get his salary cut or getting him to resign really change anything?  Sure, it’s cathartic and makes for a good photo op for pols before an election, but maybe it’s not that productive.  Because we’ve been through this horror show before.

Remember the fall of 2011 when the state got hit with two massive, blackout-creating storms, Hurricane Irene and the October Nor’easter?  That wasn’t the first or last time we suffered blackouts as big as last week’s.  People were angry, demanding an investigation, and one was done.  Read the report of The Two Storms Panel commissioned by Governor Malloy and see if you don’t have a sense of déjà vu.

That panel held ten days of hearings and listened to 100 witnesses and their recommendations were so prescient yet so ignored:

·       Develop performance standards for recovery efforts from true worst-case scenarios (like a category 3 hurricane, not just a tropical storm).

·       Update and harden our infrastructure

·       Improve communications with towns and customers

·       Give PURA, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, some “teeth” for better enforcement

How many of those recommendations do you think were acted upon?  A handful, but not many. Why?

If you live amongst the trees, you must expect that they may fall down in 70 mile an hour winds, despite your pruning. 

Should we bury the power lines?  Sure, if we are willing to spend $1 million per mile to protect them.  Do the math on the cost of the spoiled food you had to throw out or your willingness to invest $2000 in a home generator and you tell me how we should invest for the next storm and the one after that.

It’s so frustrating to me, and hopefully to you, that as our infrastructure keeps crumbling, we keep asking why and yet, we’re unwilling to do something about it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 21, 2020

"Getting There" - What's a Fair Fare?

   

Ridership on Metro-North is still down 85% from pre-pandemic levels, but in-state bus ridership is coming back… up to 70% of normal from a March low of 40%. 

Why the difference?  Because bus riders and rail riders are very different.

Surveys by CDOT and Metro-North showed the average income of a Metro-North rider was about $150,000, given that many were living in affluent Fairfield County towns and commuting to good paying jobs in New York City.

Bus riders are predominantly working class, urban dwellers who make less money and, in many cases don’t own cars.  They’re not riding the bus (more often than others take the train) because they feel safer, but because they have no choice.  No bus, no ride, no job.

And while fares on Metro-North are still the highest of any commuter railroad in the US, bus fares in Connecticut are low compared to “peer transit systems”, just $1.75.  While a buck and three-quarters is nothing to a Metro-North commuter, to bus riders those fares represent real money, given their lower incomes.

So the question is, who determines what’s a fair fare.

You have to go back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 where Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.  Gone are the days when developers like Robert Moses can bulldoze poor neighborhoods to build highways for the rich.

Even when it comes to transit fares and service, protections are in place to protect minorities.  In our case it’s the CDOT that keeps things “fair and equitable” through constant surveys and public input.

That’s why they must hold public hearings anytime there’s a change suggested in fares or service, what I’ve called “political theater”.  Throngs of angry commuters show up to protest fare hikes, CDOT listens and, because those hikes are really required by legislative budget crises, the agency can do little to change the inevitable.  Officials I spoke with at CDOT couldn’t remember a single instance when hearings changed planned fare increases.

By the way… no transit fare increases are planned right now, but given the railroad’s economic plight, I’m guessing there may be service reductions.  There are even predictions that peak fares for rush hour trains could soon return.

But these are different times.  The combination of massive unemployment, changing working locations and conditions and people moving their homes has a new, added layer:  the social justice movement.

The “Desegregate CT” forces propose massive changes in zoning, replacing single family homes with affordable, multi-family dwellings.  They would also have the state control housing within a half-mile of transit stations.

Though their proposed legislation has yet to come before lawmakers in Hartford, there is little doubt that Connecticut, a small state of 169 even smaller communities, could see profound change, all of which will affect transportation.

Our fares in Connecticut seem to be based on the balance between riders’ ability to pay while still keeping mass transit affordable.  Commuters to NYC really have little choice but to take the train.  They’re a captive audience.  They don’t like fare hikes, but they pay them. 

Bus riders also have few options, but their fares are kept low because, as CDOT told me, “we want to assist people who are struggling”.

Right now CDOT is seeking public comment on all this.  You can email your comments to  CTDOT.EquityPolicy@CT.gov .  What do you think is a fair fare?

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 15, 2020

"Getting There" - Thank You Oz Griebel

 Every commuter on Metro-North owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to one man:  Oz Griebel.  He is the reason we can ride the new M8 rail cars.

Much has been written since Oz’s passing (at age 71) this week from an auto accident while jogging, especially about his two unsuccessful runs for Governor.  I remember distinctly in the debates with Stefanowski and Lamont how Griebel would take off his suit jacket, roll up his sleeves and jump into the fray.  His energy and passion were electrifying.

But what seems to have been just a small footnote in those tributes was his work at the first Chairman of the Transportation Strategy Board, or TSB.  This was a body created in 2001 and tasked with developing a 20-year vision for our state’s transportation future.

I served alongside Griebel in a regional body and was impressed with his work, doing deep dives into the problems with our highways, commuter trains and airports.

Once I joined him and other TSB members on a road trip to Port Elizabeth, NJ to see the region’s largest container port where thousands of shipping containers were off-loaded from megaships and onto trucks which then drove up I-95 to New England.  This was not just a perfunctory windshield tour but an intense grilling of our Port Authority hosts with Griebel leading the discussion. 

One solution to those trucks clogging our highways was the “feeder barge” concept, moving the containers off the ships and onto barges which would then be towed to Bridgeport, New Haven and points north.  Sadly, the idea never came to pass.

But when it came to prioritizing spending on Connecticut’s transportation, the TSB’s first report singled out one item:  ordering new rail cars for Metro-North.  That was the idea I pushed hard for many months and Oz got it done.

Still, it was not until 2006 that the first M8 cars were ordered and they didn’t go into service until 2011. 

Not only did the TSB come up with prioritized projects, they came up with a plan to pay for them:  a combination of a state gasoline tax increase (which has been unchanged since 1997), a sales tax surcharge and, you guessed it, tolls.

Griebel was a businessman.  He knew it wasn’t enough to come up with a “wish list” like Governor Malloy’s pie-in-the-sky $100 billion, 30-year “Let’s Go CT” scheme or Governor Lamont’s sci-fi like dream of “30-30-30” commuter rail service screaming down the tracks from city to city.  Griebel took the TSB’s mandate and delivered a workable plan… which, of course, fell on deaf ears in the legislature.

Governor Malloy’s thank you gift to Griebel was replacing him as Chairman and eventually eliminating the TSB completely.

I spoke with Griebel for a column last year, revisiting his work as the tolls debate revved up.  He told me “It was like that movie ‘Groundhog Day’,  It was the same people we saw at the TSB debating the same issues ten years later.”

But while “Groundhog Day” had a sweet ending, our state’s debate over transportation drags on with little progress.

Had the TSB’s recommendations been adopted, their 20-year vision for the future would be close to completion.

Griebel is gone.  But at least one of his ideas for rejuvenating Metro-North did come to pass.  I shall think of Oz and say a small prayer of thanks to him each time I see an M8 car rolling down the track.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

August 09, 2020

"Getting There" - The City Island Monorail

 

Looking for a fun day-trip for the family?  Don’t miss City Island, a boat-centric New England style “village” just off the east coast of The Bronx.   In addition to some of the city’s best seafood restaurants, City Island was also home to a monorail over a century ago.

The three-mile line from the Bartow train station on what was then the Harlem River branch of the NY, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (near what today is Co-Op City in the Bronx) through Pelham Park, over a rickety bridge and ending at the Island.  It would replace the slow, forty minute ride to the resort in a horse-pulled trolley with a three to five minute adventure zooming along at a mile a minute.

City dwellers heading to the beach wanted to get there fast and a monorail was not only speedy, but modern and exciting.

It was bankrolled by August Belmont Jr. (after whom Belmont Park racetrack is named) who had financed much of the construction of the City’s IRT subway, often touring that subterranean investment in a private rail car.

Belmont was intrigued with the monorail when he saw it demonstrated at an exposition and especially liked its ability to bank into curves at higher speeds… a design feature that would doom it on its first trip.

This monorail was unlike those we know today as it actually ran on three tracks:  two guiding it from the top, hung from support piers and a single track on the ground over which it was propelled by electric motors.

Belmont used the old horse-drawn tram’s right-of-way he owned along the route to lay out his monorail, known as “The Flying Lady”.  But it took so long for Belmont to find money that his franchise from the City was about to expire so work was rushed to completion.

The line had just a single car…yellow, cigar shaped and about 75 feet in length.  Inside it was equipped with movable rattan-covered chairs.  It was hardly luxurious, but if it hit its goal of running 60 mph it would only be a three-minute ride, so who cared.

On opening day, July 16 1910, the crowds grew anxious to be among the first to ride this marvel of transportation’s future.  The car, designed to carry 40 passengers, was soon jammed with about 100.  When the car groaned into motion it made the first two curves just fine.  But while tilting into the third curve, the “Flying Lady” just flopped on her side.

Fearing that electric lines might be dangling from the overhead towers, the conductor locked the doors as pancaked passengers struggled to get out.  Some of the inaugural riders were injured but there were no deaths.

Among those injured was Howard Tunis, inventor of the monorail, who suffered a broken rib but told waiting reporters he could rebuild the train, chalking up the incident to “a minor mishap which occurs daily in every scientist's laboratory."

“The Flying Lady” was uprighted and her roadbed strengthened and service resumed, albeit at slower speeds.  But the damage had been done and the combination of costly lawsuits and dwindling ridership led to the point that the line went bankrupt and the last train ran in April 1914.

Today City Island is still a summer destination, but one best accessed by car or bicycle.

 

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media