February 23, 2024

RED SEA SHIPPING

What do 15,000 sheep, 7000 US sailors, that order for your new patio furniture and your recent “TEMU haul” have in common?   They’re all affected by the shipping bottleneck in the Red Sea caused by the Houthis.

You may not know or care about the Yemen-based Sunni Islamist Houthis, but their attacks on shipping on its way to and from the Suez Canal are affecting your life and pocketbook.  As they attempt to control the 14-mile wide seaway known as the Bab el-Mandeb (also known, appropriately, as “The Gate of Grief”), the Houthis have recently fired ballistic missiles and drones at 45 ships, including US warships.

Houthi Brigadier General

So dangerous has become this passage, traversed by 15% of global shipping worth $1 trillion a year, that container-ship owners are now diverting their vessels around the tip of Africa, adding 3-4 weeks of sailing time from China to Europe and adding almost $1 million to each vessel’s shipping costs.

It used to cost $2500 to ship one container from China to the US East coast.  Now it costs $6500.  Maritime insurance rates have also soared.  But worst of all, the added delivery delays mean there are about six million shipping containers tied up at sea that should have been emptied and sent back from the next load.

Remember those 15,000 sheep I mentioned?  They were on a ship that sailed from Australia on January 5th, headed for Israel.  But, unable to get through the Suez canal, the vessel turned back after a month at sea with the animals sweltering in a heatwave.

While you can switch from shipping by sea to air freight for some cargos, the price difference can be substantial.  Containers on ships pay a flat rate, regardless of weight.  But air freight costs about $2 per pound.

China’s answer to Amazon, TEMU, ships about 4000 tons of stuff each day, enough to fill 40 777 jet freighters.  TEMU had converted from air freight to shipping by sea last fall, but TEMU is now back in the skies to keep deliveries to about a week instead of a month.

There’s a coalition of 20 nations (10 of them helping anonymously) that is trying to keep the Red Sea open to shipping though most of the work is being done by the US Navy.  The task force is known as “Operation Prosperity Guardian” which explains the mission well.

Until recently the Houthis had only targeted Israeli ships, but more recently they’ve gone after French, Chinese and EU-owned vessels… and the US Navy.

The Houthi’s Iranian-supplied drones have a range of 1100 miles and their ballistic missiles come at their targets at 3000 mph.  This is the first time in history that anti-ship missiles have been fired in conflict. 



So far the Navy has fired about $400 million worth of defensive missiles to stop the attacks, one of which was halted about one minute before it would have hit a US destroyer.

Logistics expert Michael Giambrone from the OEC Group says shipping delays may get worse.  “It’s not a question of if but when” a US Navy ship gets hit by a missile, he told me. 

When American lives are lost on this mission, watch out.  You do remember the Gulf of Tonkin, I hope.

 

 

February 16, 2024

ADDING ONE MORE LANE SHOULD FIX IT

I love doing radio interviews, literally “talking transportation”.  Of course, having worked in radio for 15 years and then spent 40 years teaching people how to survive media encounters, I’m at something of an advantage.  But I do love to turn na├»ve questions into learning opportunities.

Case in point, this recent exchange:

“So Jim… How do we solve the traffic problem on our interstates and parkways?”, asked the radio talk show host.  “Is there room for adding another lane?”

“That’s not the answer,” I said. “Adding lanes to crowded highways just makes them more crowded.  Maybe not immediately, but within a matter of weeks or months.”  The radio host didn’t believe me, but history proves my point:  if you build it, more cars and trucks will come.

Planners and economists call it “induced demand”.  By increasing the supply of something (in this case highway lanes) you in effect lower the price (time spent driving) and up goes the demand (bringing more traffic, more delays).

Consider this analogy:

A local store is giving away free food.  The crowds soon swarm the establishment, muscling out those really in need.  If the store is our highways and accessing them is free (no tolls), it’s no surprise they’re jammed.  The only real cost involved in driving is fuel and time:  the hours you waste in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

I-95 in Miami

Building highways is also really expensive, especially here in Connecticut.  CDOT’s plans to rebuild the I-84 / Route 8 “Mixmaster” in Waterbury came in at between $7 and $8 billion.  Now certainly, maintaining existing roads and bridges in the proverbial “state of good repair” is a must.  But expanding the highways isn’t the solution to handling more traffic. 

There are two answers:  tolls and trains.

Driving on our freeways at rush hour shouldn’t be free.  Charge for the privilege and you’ll moderate the demand.  Some may chose to time-shift their travel, but others may take alternatives, like our trains.

Interstates 95 and 91 are both parallelled by robust train lines priced to encourage ridership.  Intrastate fares are kept deliberately low (Bridgeport to Stamford is just $5 one way and New Haven to Hartford is only $8.25, not factoring in multi-trip commuter discounts.)

The billions of dollars not spent to widen those crowded highways would subsidize a lot of train rides.  But getting to your home station and from your destination station to work / school (the “first mile / last mile” challenge) is an additional expense that should also be underwritten.

That’s how New York City’s impending “congestion pricing” revenue will keep funding the bus and subways.  Those willing to pay the price for driving in midtown should see less traffic and a faster trip.  Nobody is suggesting widening NYC’s highways.

So, sorry all you talk show experts out there, the solution to our crowded highways isn’t wider highways.  The simple mantra “adding one more lane should solve our problems” is just a never ending race to carmageddon.

 

 

 

February 10, 2024

STUDENT TRANSPORTATION

In our small town we call it “The SUV Parade”, the weekday ritual-like procession homing in on a handful of targets, carrying that most precious of cargos:  our kids, heading to school.

But why the private car parade when the town already spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on school buses?  Why aren’t the kids on the yellow buses?

Sure, sometimes they have early activities or don’t want to shlep their tuba on the bus.  But often its because the kids don’t think its cool to “bus” when mom (or increasingly, work-from-home dads) can drive them?  Safety is another big concern, especially where there are inadequate sidewalks or kids would have to walk through a sketchy neighborhood. 


Even riding the school bus can be fraught with danger when motorists ignore the flashing lights and decide to pass a stopped bus. First offense for that is $475 and in a construction, utility, traffic or fire zone that move will cost you $925.  There’s even a call for equipping school buses with cameras to catch offenders.

According to the Federal Highway Administration there has been a sea-change in student transportation in the last 50 years, especially since COVID.  Today private cars carry more than half of all students with school buses carrying about 35%.

Interestingly, the parents with the highest education levels themselves are the ones most likely to drive their kids instead of putting them on the bus.  Of course the former group is more likely to be a stay-at-home parent while the less educated are probably headed to jobs themselves.

In a time of tight budgets, “right sizing” school bus routes may be a more attractive source of cost savings than cutting teachers.

But what’s wrong with walking?  When I was a kid, I used to walk a mile each day to and from school… up hill, both ways!  Today bike and foot transport is just 11%.  And those taking public transit is about 4%.

But in some cities, like Hartford, the CT Transit bus system is so disjointed as to make a two-mile trip a 50 min ordeal.  Proponents call student transport a matter of social justice.  They want students to have free bus passes, just like in NYC where school buses are a rarity.

For college students that option is already there: U-Pass.  For just $20 a semester full-time college and university students can ride for free anywhere in Connecticut, even on Metro-North and The Hartford Line (but not on the Amtrak-run trains).  For cash-strapped students this free transportation option often makes it possible for them to attend a school otherwise out of reach.  Plus, they get to use transit to go shopping or attend social events.


U-Pass was the brainchild of then-CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker back in 2017.  Not only does it fill empty seats on mass transit, U-pass is training the next generation about the value of taking the state’s trains and buses… even if their parents started them out by being chauffeured.

February 02, 2024

THE TRANSPORTATION SUMMIT

It was billed as a “Transportation Summit”.  But the gathering last week in Stamford was more of a PR event than anything else as Governor Lamont, the leaders of CDOT, the FRA, Amtrak, Metro-North and the ever-smiling Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons sounded mostly like cheerleaders for the multi-billion dollar spending to come for our rail system.

Sponsored by the Northeast Corridor Commission, the invitation-only confab attracted about 60 people, most from the business community.  Noticeably absent: anyone representing commuters.  Needless to say, I was not invited, but neither was the Commuter Council.  Fortunately, you can watch the entire hour-long event thanks to CT-N.

When you attract such a prestigious panel, you’d expect more than just a lot of self-congratulations.  But after the event, the panelists just hopped back on their trains and headed home… no luncheon discussion or closed-door huddle on the long still-to-do list.

Saddest of all, there was no real news that came out of the event so even the sought-after media coverage was pretty bland.

Oh, Mayor Simmons did ballyhoo the fact that Stamford ridership is back to pre-COVID levels of 28,000 riders a day… but failed to mention that the station’s new $82 million, 930-space parking garage that was supposed to have opened last summer is delayed yet again.  When it finally opens demolition of the old garage will take about six months, creating a huge traffic mess around the station.

New Stamford Rail Garage


And Governor Lamont did say that Metro-North would be running trains to Penn Station in NYC in “three or four years”, an optimistic promise that caught some transportation experts in attendance by surprise.

Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi said ridership is up to 73% of pre-COVID levels and climbing (especially on Mondays).  But just after the Summit the MTA’s own Customer Satisfaction Survey results showed a 5% reduction in MNRR riders’ happiness with (lack of) reliability and seat availability leading the decline.

If they’re trying to attract riders back on trains, why then the recent cuts in service?  And why do they refuse to reinstate the Quiet Cars?  And where’s the Wi-Fi on trains promised by the state’s $23 million investment?

With all the discussion of faster, more frequent service why was there zero mention of the devastating service cuts on Shore Line East… the New Haven to New London line that saw a $32 million cut in a time of budget surpluses?

And why didn’t the FRA say anything about the “slow orders” on Metro-North that are still in place after ten years, making every trip longer?  Does that means they still think the line isn’t safe?

Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said his ridership is at 110% of pre-COVID but admitted that he doesn’t have enough seats to meet demand.  The new Acela 2.0 trains, dubbed “Avelia”, are years late and plagued with defects. 

Amtrak's Acela "Avelia Liberty"


Gardner note that in Europe they’ve spent one trillion dollars in the last 20 years on their trains, and it shows.  Even with the new flood of Infrastructure Bill funding, Amtrak’s only spending $150 billion, what Gardner said is just “a down payment”. 

Lack of seats and Amtrak’s dynamic pricing means a walk-up Acela ticket from Stamford to Boston (just 156 miles) can cost $190 while a 244 mile trip from Paris to Lyon on the TGV costs $38.  European railroads offer competition with multiple companies vying for riders.  Amtrak is our only choice though some have suggested private competitors.

One thing that everyone on the panel made clear:  it’s going to be many years before we see the Fed’s billions make for a better train ride.  And the necessary construction coming up will disrupt service making for grumpy, delayed riders.

As I’ve said for over 20 years now, “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

 

January 26, 2024

HIGHWAY SIGNS

“Are we there yet Dad?” cried Junior from the back seat.  “Only two more exits to go, Son” said the Father, scanning the roadway ahead of him.  Many miles later, Junior was moaning again.  “You said two more exits, not dozens of miles!”

Well, Junior, that’s about to change.  CDOT, pressured by the Feds, is about to renumber all of the exits on the Merritt & Wilbur Cross Parkways and our interstate highways.  No longer will the exits be numbered sequentially but, instead, will reflect their mileage from the NY state line.

This scheme has long been in place on the Garden State Parkway, giving motorists a better sense of their distance to a desired exit.  Mileage-based exit numbers also help first responders find an incident’s location.  And because this renumbering is being done nationwide, it will add uniformity to all signage.

The Parkways’ sign conversions will take place next year followed by renumbering on I-91 (in 2027), I-84 (2028) and I-95 (2029).  When the new exit number signs are in place there will be a smaller sign attached to each indicating the “old” exit number, at least for a couple of years to help drivers adjust.

CDOT is also working with GPS app providers like Google and Waze to get their maps reprogrammed.  All of this work is being paid for with federal money and the work will only take a couple of weeks to be completed on each highway.

Meanwhile, Uncle Sam seems to have lost his sense of humor about changeable interstate traffic safety signs, like the one I saw recently in New Jersey:

“Texting while driving?  Fuhgetaboutit!”   Or “Get your head out of your apps”    “Hands on the wheel, not your meal”… and for our Boston accent fans:  “Use Your Blinkahs!”


Funny?  Attention getting? Or just confusing?  The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) says too often these signs are just distracting so they’re encouraging states to keep it simple and serious.

But when their rule making was announced there was serious blowback.  In Arizona they’ve actually held contests for the best sign-messaging and received thousands of entries.

Among last year’s winners:  “I’m Just a Sign Asking a Driver to Use Turn Signals”, a rather obscure reference to the 1999 movie “Notting Hill”.  Didn’t ‘get it’?  Neither did I, which is exactly the Feds’ point.  While you’re scratching your head about some weird pop culture reference are you really watching the road?

After the recent public outcry, the FHA quickly clarified their rules: a little humor is OK as long as the sign’s intent is clear and the wording concise.

The CDOT seems sober enough in its signage, aside from an occasional congratulatory sign for a winning UConn championship, as if I could care.  And so far there’s been no repeat of the incident awhile back when a hacker took control of a portable variable message sign and changed it to read “Weicker blows”.

The then-Governor and the CDOT were not amused.

 

 

January 19, 2024

BRIGHTLINE'S DARK SIDE

Much has been written in praise of Brightline, the modern, stylish privately owned railroad serving Miami to West Palm Beach to Orlando with fast, comfortable trains.

But the railroad also has the highest death rate of any railroad in the US, having killed 108 people since it began operations in 2017… not its passengers but people crossing the railroad’s tracks.


Last week alone at one grade crossing in Melbourne FL there were two accidents causing three deaths in as many days.  Those “accidents” are under investigation by the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board.  But all indications are these deaths, like the others, were caused by stupidity:  people driving around the crossing gates that lower before the train roars through.

Brightline has not been faulted for these deaths, nor should it be when people foolishly let their impatience exceed their common sense. 

There is a solution, albeit it expensive, protecting people from their own stupidity:  quad gates.  At every grade crossing there would be two gates lowered on each side, blocking both lanes.  Of course, that doesn’t stop pedestrians or people on bicycles.  Sadly, there are also suicides.  But little can be done to prevent those.

Quad Gates - Idiot proof!

A more expensive solution would be what’s called “grade separation”, in effect running the trains on an elevated track so that road traffic can pass underneath.  But that would be a multi-billion dollar expense.

On Brightline’s newest tracks to Orlando grade crossings are all but eliminated, allowing trains to speed along safely at 125 mph.  But along the older, densely populated east coast tracks the trains are limited to 79 mph.  Still, that’s way too fast to “outrun” if you’re in a car or truck.

Public education campaigns don’t seem to have helped, either.  Signage at crossings now warns people of the dangers in English, Spanish and Creole.

What does this mean for our trains in Connecticut?  Well, the main line of Metro-North from NY to New Haven doesn’t have any level grade crossings, though there are plenty of them on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines.  Also on the Hartford line running north from New Haven to Springfield MA. 

Most grade crossings are equipped with gates and flashing lights, but some lack both, equipped only with “cross buck” signs in the shape of a large X.  They read “stop, look and listen”.

Forgotten in all this discussion is the emotional effect on the railroad engineers involved in these crashes. They see the inevitable coming but can’t stop their trains and must know what’s about to happen.  It takes a long time for engineers to recover from the trauma.

So kudos to Brightline for running such a popular new train service.  But let’s remember that faster trains are also more dangerous.  And when it’s trains vs vehicles, the trains always “win”.

 

 

 

January 12, 2024

SAVING ON AUTO INSURANCE

Are you paying too much for auto insurance?  You’re not alone as rates in Connecticut went up 8% last year and 20% since 2018 thanks to inflation, higher repair costs and riskier driving by too many drivers.

But now there’s a way to lower your rates significantly … if you are willing to let Big Brother monitor your driving habits online via Telematics.  All of the major insurance companies are now employing this technology to better understand their customers’ driving style and reward good drivers. 


When first launched almost 20 years ago this meant you’d have to plug a fob into your car’s OBD (on board diagnostics) connection which would monitor how you drive for a few months.  You’d send the fob back to the insurance company which would analyze the data and “rate” your policy.  How much you drove (distance), how fast you drove and when you drove would determine your premium.

Think of it this way:

If you were shopping for life insurance you’d first have to take a physical exam.  If you were in good health, didn’t smoke and took care of yourself, the life insurance company would charge you less.  But if you’re overweight, have a two-pack-day habit and have high cholesterol, you’re a bigger risk and would be charged more.  So you had an incentive to stay in good health, not only to live longer but pay less for life insurance.

Now drivers can do the same thing… not with the old fob plug-in but just by downloading a smartphone app which monitors your driving.

TrueLane’ is just such an app used by The Hartford, our hometown insurance company and one of the bigger underwriters in the state.  I’ve been experimenting with the app for a few weeks and love it… but still have some concerns.

Each time I drive the TrueLane app knows where I drove, when and how I drove… scoring me on braking, acceleration, cornering, speed and use of my phone while driving.  It gives me a score and dings me for offenses.

The neat thing is it shows on a map where I may have braked too hard or took a corner too fast, teaching me what I did wrong and, hopefully, improving my skills.  My incentive:  a 12 – 25% premium discount if I maintain a score of 90% or better.  So far, driving a Prius where acceleration is already a challenge, I’m scoring about 97%.

But do I want Big Brother knowing this much about my driving?  Do I really want some actuary in Hartford to know where drove and when?  Is my data really private?

Most of my driving is short, local trips.  But what if I drove into midtown Manhattan at rush hour?  Do I get penalized for that?  Or what if I’m driving at 3 am, a very risky time when a lot of drunks are on the road?  Do I get punished for that?

Our phones already know a lot of that information and most of us never think twice about that.  But if you’re a good driver and want to be rewarded for that behavior with lower premiums, one of these programs might be worth checking.

RED SEA SHIPPING

What do 15,000 sheep, 7000 US sailors, that order for your new patio furniture and your recent “TEMU haul” have in common?   They’re all aff...