Total Page Views for "Talking Transportation"

June 14, 2021

"Getting There" - Summer Road Trips

The summer travel season is starting with a vengeance.  After a year of quarantining, we’re all anxious to get back on the road again.  But where to go?  And what can you expect when you get there?  A recent mid-week mini-vacation to the Berkshires taught our family some important lessons.

WHERE TO GO?    Like many vacationers we opted for a road trip instead of flying.  There are great destinations within two or three-hours drive.  But in deciding where to go, remember you’re not just going to see the sights or visit friends.  You’re relying on local services and the folks who live there and run them.

MASKS OR NO MASKS?:          With vaccination levels well over 50% here in Connecticut and mask rules relaxed, especially for those vaccinated, you’ll want to see how your destination compares.  Do you really want to go someplace where vaccination rates or low or mask compliance is arbitrary?

WHAT’S OPEN?               In many parts of the country restaurants and hotels are still shuttered, so put your spontaneous wanderlust on hold and do your research.  Don’t just rely on apps or websites.  Call ahead and be sure they’re open.

CAR RENTALS:     If you are flying or enjoying Amtrak to travel and need a car at your destination you don’t want to be disappointed.  Many car rental companies downsized dramatically during the pandemic, selling off their fleets.  Now, because of the chip shortage hitting auto makers, they can’t get the new cars they now need.  Reservations will be a must and car rental availability may even  end up determining where to go.

If you can reserve a car, prepare for sticker shock as rates have soared, on average double the old rates. 

GASOLINE:            Unless you’re driving an all-electric car, the availability and price of gasoline may also factor into your plans.  In the Northeast availability was unaffected by the recent Colonial Pipeline shutdown, so the supply is there.  But rising demand will see the highest prices in seven years.  AAA suggests filling your tank before arriving at busy resort destinations where prices will be the highest.

STAFFING SHORTAGES:          The biggest surprise on our recent trip was the number of establishments offering reducing hours because they can’t find staff.  Restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, museums and art galleries were all operating on reduced hours while their windows were plastered with help wanted signs.

Several owners lamented to me that they desperately needed servers, kitchen help and sales staff but nobody was applying.   “I need four people right now,” said one restauranteur, “But nobody wants to work.  They’re all making $600 a week on unemployment!”

This is becoming a serious issue, not just in hospitality but in transportation.

DRIVER SHORTAGE:       Supply chain issues have left some store shelves empty because the trucking industry says they have a driver shortage.  In some areas of the country that’s also affecting gasoline deliveries.

In New York City the MTA needs 400 bus drivers, meaning reduced frequency and longer waits at bus stations just as they’re urging riders to come back to mass transit.  Some school districts are also having trouble filling bus driver jobs as are tourist destinations that run jitneys.

But don’t let all of this frighten you.  We all deserve and can enjoy our summer travels if we just do a little planning ahead.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

May 29, 2021

Getting There - The CDOT Fare Hearings

 Our state government certainly moves in mysterious ways.

The Connecticut legislature seems unable to even discuss the crucial replenishing of the Special Transportation Fund to keep mass transit rolling… but they found hours to debate the merits of declaring pizza the “official state food”.  Really?

Kudos to the nine lawmakers who voted “no”, not because they don’t like pizza but because they saw this issue as a waste of time.

Also in the “waste of time” category were the recent series of virtual public hearings (May 18, 19, 20 & 25) by the Connecticut Department of Transportation.  The topic… service reductions on Metro-North and CT Transit that have already been implemented.

Twelve mind-numbing hours of Zoom hearings were planned, accompanied by hundreds of pages of legally mandated reports and analysis.  I can’t even imagine the hours of work that went into their preparation, and for what?

There are no fare increases planned and no further cuts in service beyond what was ordered months ago.  So why are they having public hearings on a moot issue?  In fact, if Metro-North gets its dreams fulfilled and ridership returns, schedules will have to be adjusted again, potentially triggering more hearings.

If the decisions have been made, why ask the public their opinion after the fact?  Does anybody really think that anything that gets said at these hearings will evoke a change of plans by CDOT or Metro-North? 

There has been one silver lining to the pandemic:  it’s got state government using virtual platforms like Zoom to better engage with the public. It used to be that you’d waste a day driving to the Capitol in Hartford, sitting through hours of others’ testimony and finally get your three minutes to speak.  Now you can attend the political theater of meaningless hearings without leaving the comfort of your own home.

To their credit some legislative committees held 24 hour-long hearings on such important issues as mandatory student vaccinations and forced re-zoning, allowing hundreds of voices to be heard.  But again, let’s not be na├»ve enough to assume that anyone’s testimony changed votes.

Sure, attending, watching or (if you were lucky enough) testifying on these matters may have been cathartic, but they didn’t change a darn thing.  Lawmakers were only going through the motions, just like CDOT will do in this case.

But here’s an idea: attend these virtual hearings and register to speak.  Not about these already-decided matters about fares and schedules, but about anything you’d like to say related to commuting.

Use your three minutes to ask why Metro-North is still running its trains slower than it did a decade ago.  Query the Commissioner of DOT about what happened to Governor Lamont’s illusory plan known as “30-30-30”.  Ask why Metro-North conductors aren’t enforcing Federal rules on mask wearing to keep passengers safe.  Or how long the railroad can keep operating with 20% ridership and who’s going to pay the bills.

There are so many questions that could be asked.  Don’t expect answers.  These are public hearings, not a dialogue with decision makers.  Officials will be in listen-only mode, probably chanting some secret mantra to fend off the verbal barbs and anger of those testifying.

These hearings won’t change anything, but they may make for fun viewing and a chance to vent your frustration.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

May 15, 2021

Getting There - Do You Feel Safe Riding Metro-North?

Is it safe to get back on the train to New York?  Casey (not her real name) thought so when, a couple of weekends back, she wanted to see some millennial friends in Manhattan for brunch.  But boarding the Saturday morning train she immediately started to worry and texted me.

The train was jammed, she said.  Very few empty seats.  No way to “socially distance” and many people were not wearing face masks.

Looking around, she saw large groups of NY Yankees and NY Rangers fans.  Sure enough, both teams had home games that afternoon. The fans were tailgating their way to the fun, already drinking (heavily and openly) by 11 am. 

Metro-North claims it’s doing everything it can to attract riders back, but this was just the opposite.  The railroad knew there were two major sport events that day, so why not schedule extra trains, giving people room to spread out? 

The conductors didn’t call out the non-mask wearers, didn’t ask them to cover their faces and didn’t offer them free masks.  They allowed them to break the law without so much as a warning.

Forget the latest guidance from the CDC:  masks are still required on all trains and planes by order of the TSA.

Sure, vaccination levels in Connecticut are rising.  To date 50% of the state has received full dosing.  But something told Casey these tipsy fans weren’t wearing masks because they’d had their shots, but because they just didn’t care.

Casey filed an online complaint with the MTA Police, hoping they would meet the incoming train at 125th Street and enforce the law.  No response.  A complaint on the Metro-North website generated a boilerplate response but no follow-thru.  And a Tweet, detailing her discomfort brought a tepid reply apologizing for “any unpleasantness” during her journey.

Unpleasant, for sure, but also potentially lethal.  The mask rules are there for public safety.  That’s a Federal rule with fines  of $250 to $1500. Those not wearing masks should have been kicked off the train.

Since the pandemic began, weekday ridership on Metro-North has been crawling back to about 25% of pre-COVID numbers, but on weekends almost half of the old ridership is back onboard.  The trains are getting crowded and more service is needed now.

While weekday commuters tell me mask compliance is almost 100%, it’s the weekend warriors, partying and carousing, that are not following the rules.  And the railroad seems to not care.  They run PSAs but don’t enforce the law. Are they that desperate for customers?

Last fall the railroad unveiled a new virus-zapping UV light air filter system to much acclaim, but it’s only operational on a handful of train cars. Why?

Their TrainTime app added functionality to advise passengers waiting for trains which cars were the least crowded.  It’s working on the LIRR and NY sections of Metro-North, but not in Connecticut. Why?

Every night the railroad sprays disinfectant in the interior of all railcars even though research shows that there’s only a one in 10,000 chance of getting the virus by contacting an infected surface.  It’s airborne transmission that presents the real danger.  And that’s why masks will be with us for a while longer in enclosed public spaces.

NYC Mayor de Blasio wants to re-open NYC on July 1st.  But riders are not coming back to Metro-North… some because they don’t have to (as they prefer to work from home), but many others because the railroad is still making them feel unsafe.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

May 01, 2021

"Getting There" - It's Time to Invest in Rail Freight

 How would you like a plan to remove thousands of trucks from Connecticut highways, clean up the air and create new jobs?

Who wouldn’t?  It’s a win-win-win plan that you’d expect Governor Lamont to embrace, especially in this time of TCI (the Transportation Climate Initiative).

The solution?  Invest in our state’s freight railroads.

Yes, there are still freight trains in Connecticut, just not very many. But there could be more.

In its earlier days as a profitable, private railroad the New Haven ran hundreds of freight trains each day.  But today the railroad is too crowded with (relatively faster) passenger trains and the bridges and catenary lines are too low for modern double-stack container trains.

But in other parts of Connecticut, freight still travels by rail on more than 500 miles of track, most of it owned by the state Department of Transportation and leased to eight different private operators.

In western Connecticut we have the Housatonic, Pam Am Southern, Connecticut Southern, the Naugatuck and Providence and Worcester Railroads, to name but a few.

These short line railroads already carry 3.8 million tons of freight annually in our state, keeping 350,000 truck loads off our roads and reducing greenhouse emissions by 75%.  Diesel trains can carry up to 500 ton-miles per gallon.  Trucks manage about 130.

These freight railroads carry everything from chlorine-based disinfectants for water treatment, food for our tables, huge electrical transformers and bulk commodities.  Their customers include such Connecticut businesses as Becton Dickinson, Kimberly Clark, Home Depot.

There are even plans to turn an abandoned factory site in Naugatuck into an inland port, receiving freight trains of goods to be offloaded onto trucks for local delivery.

Consider the mighty 19-mile-long Naugatuck RR.  Founded in 1845, the line once ran from Winsted to Bridgeport, offering both passenger trains and freight service.  These days the line is much shorter, but they still hand-off long loads of boxcars filled with construction debris bound for landfills in Ohio.

While marginally profitable, these freight railroads need help to continue, let alone expand, their service to the state’s businesses if they are to meet federal expectations of a 30% increase in rail freight traffic by 2040.

As their ‘landlord’, the State needs to invest in their infrastructure by rebuilding bridges to carry heavier loads, lay new track, replace worn ties and improve grade crossings.

Eight years ago the state bonded $10 million to fund such repairs and the railroads chipped in their own money, too.  They had to, with $80 million of needed work, most of which has gone unfinished.

Early in 2020 the legislature approved an additional $10 million in investments, but the Bond Commission has yet to approve the funding and issue the bonds.

When the Bond Commission met mid-April they found $467 million in total funding for dozens of projects but the $10 million for freight rail wasn’t even on the agenda.

The inestimable Ken Dixon asked the Governor if his old “debt diet” was over and the Governor said no, that the new bonding was an “investment” in everything from housing to economic development, thanks to interest rates being so low (1.8%).

Ten million dollars in state bonding is chump change. At their next meeting the Bond Commission and the Governor should get on with the job of investing in Connecticut’s rail freight.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

April 17, 2021

"Getting There" - Biden's Infrastructure Plan

 Hurrah!  It’s finally “infrastructure week” in Washington. 

In his first 100 days as President, Joe Biden has delivered a plan that his predecessor just kept teasing us with for four years:  a complete rehabilitation and expansion of the nation’s infrastructure.

Of course, Biden’s “American Jobs Act” goes way beyond just rebuilding roads, bridges and rails.  It also covers our water supply, electrical grid, internet, sea and airports, our housing stock and our very jobs.

It’s too much and way too expensive ($2+ trillion) for conservatives but hardly enough for progressives.  That sounds great to me. With plenty for everyone to hate there’s lots of negotiating room on all sides in the months ahead.

Biden is right to think big.  After decades of underinvestment in the ‘bones’ of our economy, it’s time to do more than catch up but to leapfrog ahead.  Remember it was Republican presidents who built the interstate highway system (Eisenhower) and the Panama Canal (Teddy Roosevelt) using public money.  Why did they have a long-range vision but today’s Republicans are so myopic?

Because this time it’s the corporations who’ll be asked to pay up by raising corporate taxes from 21% to 28%.  That’s still less than the 35% tax rate in effect before Trump’s 2017 tax cuts.  Remember them?… the corporate welfare program that was supposed to create jobs but ended up just making business fat-cats plumper thanks to corporate stock buybacks.

Why not ask business to pay its fair share?  How could 55 of the nation’s top businesses pay zero taxes last year despite billions in profits?

Who benefits from a better infrastructure more than business?  Better roads, safer bridges, dependable electricity, smooth running airports, clean water and a well trained workforce are the things that will make business thrive.

Right now, when it comes to infrastructure, we’re living in a third world country. 

If China can build the largest high speed rail system in the world in just 15 years, why do we make Amtrak to barely limp along on table scraps just to fund its operating costs?

If Germany can build a green energy network providing almost half of the nation’s electric needs, why does Texas go dark in a winter cold spell… or Connecticut when high winds take out our utilities’ fragile networks?

Anyone who drives on potholed I-95 or endures a teeth-chattering ride on Metro-North knows we can do better.  Do we need a bullet train to Ronkonkoma?  Maybe not.  But fixing our existing transportation network would be an easy start.

And that’s what the Biden team is counting on:  public pressure for a “Big Fix” to persuade Republican lawmakers to fund the “shovel ready” if not also the “shovel worthy”.

Shepherding this mammoth package of legislation through Congress won’t be easy.  Speaker Pelosi herself thinks it won’t emerge from the House until July and then the Senate negotiations begin.

Oh, there will be plenty of horse-trading and the final package will little resemble what’s been initially proposed, burdened down by special interest as lobbyists earn their keep in DC.

What do you think are the most important projects to prioritize?  Join the discussion on CTInsiders Facebook page or follow the #GettingThereCT hashtag on Twitter to add your thoughts and I’ll share them in my next column.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

April 03, 2021

"Getting There" - A Conversation with the Commissioner

 Joe Giulietti loves to talk, especially about trains.  As Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation when he calls me and say “Jim… let’s have a chat”, I’m all ears.  In a recent exclusive one-on-one, here’s what he said:

WILL RAIL COMMUTER COME BACK?

The Commissioner says yes, but maybe not until the fall.  “Am I optimistic?  I have to be. The disappointing fact right now is we (still) only have 10% of (pre-COVID) ridership.  The trains we have now can meet (that) demand.  If ridership increases we can add more. ”

ARE THE TRAINS SAFE?

“We have one of the safest (rail) systems out there.  The air is exchanged in the cars almost every five minutes. There’s a constant flow of fresh air.”  While Metro-North did experiment with virus-killing UV light treatments in the cars’ HVAC it turns out that an ionization process is more effective at scrubbing virus from the air.

MASK COMPLIANCE

Initially voluntary, then with a small fine for offenders, mask-wearing is now required by Federal rules.  “Compliance is between 95 and 97%.  Enforcement is done by the MTA Police, strategically placed to respond (to non-wearers).”

INCREASING TRAINS SPEED

Trains are still running slow under FRA rules following the Fairfield and Spuyten Duyvil derailments in 2013.  But now that Positive Train control is installed, CDOT is working with the FRA to get their speed restrictions lifted.

“People are asking for higher speeds.  We also have a Governor constantly reminding us he wants faster speeds,” says the Commissioner.  But, he added “you know I never bought into 30-30-30.  It’s just a vision and a goal.”

MODIFYING TIMETABLES

Commuters complain that trains make too many stops, further slowing up the ride.  So CDOT is studying ‘zoned service’.  A train might run from Grand Central to Stamford then skip-stop to Bridgeport.  The train behind it could make the intermediate stops.

“With ridership down we can step back and look at our schedules.  Modeling (by computer) has got a lot better. Of course every town wants express service from their station,” he said with a chuckle.  Best bet is the fastest service will be to and from the busiest stations, perhaps as early as the fall.

Commuting hours have also changed, so also look for added service earlier in the AM.

WHAT ABOUT FARES?

“I don’t know that we’ll have a monthly ticket anymore… based on the utilization. Maybe we’ll come up with a 30-trip ticket.”

There’s no plan to resume peak fares at rush hour but the railroad and CDOT have to find revenue to cover their huge operating deficits beyond Uncle Sam’s one-time bailout. “A lot of people don’t buy into the subsidization.  We’re trying to find a balance to keep trains running and meet the social justice (obligation of service).”

MORE M8 CARS

As the final new M8 cars get delivered, the railroad has more than enough cars for needed service.  CDOT may even have enough M8s to share a pair with MBTA in Boston for their testing, allowing for group orders of future cars. Testing of the M8s on Shore Line East is progressing (after six years) .

TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT

The legislature is debating looser, state-wide zoning regulations, especially near train stations.  But what happens to those developments ideas if ridership doesn’t come back?

“I do believe (ridership) is coming back. If it doesn’t we won’t just be talking about T.O.D. but the future of business itself.”

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 21, 2021

"Getting There" - How To Save Metro-North

 How are we going to get riders back on the trains and save Metro-North from ballooning deficits, potential service cuts or fare hikes?  That’s the question I crowd-sourced on social media last week and found dozens of great answers!

Most respondents said they won’t be commuting as much as before because they will continue working from home. It’s not that they are shunning the rails out of fear,  just that commuting won’t be necessary. “Most of us have figured out how to work without riding a train every day”, one rider opined.

A few cynics said mass transit is dead.  “Rip out the rails. Pave it over. Deploy autonomous minivans,” said one. 

But for the believers they still want reassurance that, even post-vaccinations, safety will continue:  “Better ventilation. More cleaning. Cars look like they’re being ‘wiped down’ using rags from a dumpster.  Clean the bathrooms!”

A few sang the praises of the new M8 railcars: “So much better.  Never a hot or cold car. No doors out of service. Cars ride smooth.”  But a former Shore Line East rider said the seats on their old hand-me-down railcars were causing him back aches so he’s now driving.

But the biggest areas for needed improvement for Metro-North seemed to be speed, frequency and lower cost.

The vast majority of respondents said the trains are “too slow”, that “it shouldn’t take 90 minutes to go 40 miles”  As one veteran rider put it, “My 50 min ride when I started commuting in 2004 is now an hour and 10 plus.”  Many noted it’s now faster and cheaper to drive than take the train.

The railroad is still operating under FRA speed restrictions since the 2013 Fairfield derailment.  But the other reason the run to NYC is so slow is the schedule.  “There’s way too many stops on the New Haven Line”… “go back to zoned service”… and “speed, speed, speed”, they observed.

This is actually an idea CDOT is pursuing… having more express trains skipping stations, so let’s see if they can make it happen.

Commuters said that schedules need to offer “better connections” to buses and the ferry.  Some suggested “through-running service to NJ and Long Island” offering a one-seat ride to JFK and Newark airports.  Several wanted bike rentals at all stations.

More frequent service was a big issue.  “Rapid transit trains every 15 minutes.” And “more off-peak service”.  Surprisingly, nobody complained about rush-hour trains.

One person suggested “reserved seating”, others dreamt of “no standees”.  And there were many complaints about the fares and availability of station parking.

“Between station parking and monthly pass it’s $400 a month, almost the same as driving.”  “Lower fares” and “more flexibility on tickets.  A monthly is too much and a ten-trip too little.  Maybe a 30 trip?”

Others suggested group fares and lower fares off-peak to spread out the riders.  One even wished for “buy one get one weekend fares”.

Other desired amenities included “Wi-Fi” and, yes, “bar cars!”.

To save money on labor, several proposed pre-paid tickets with inspectors and fines.  “No other developed countries’ railroads have conductors manually check tickets.”  Others suggested cross-honoring tickets on still-empty Amtrak trains.

Thanks to everybody for chiming in with your ideas, all of which I’ll be sharing verbatim with MNRR and CDOT. Let’s hope they include past-riders’ ideas in their future plans.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 05, 2021

"Getting There" - Governor Lamont's Transportation Budget Doesn't Add Up

 The Governor’s proposed biennial budget for transportation just doesn’t add up.

Thanks to reduced rail ridership he’s projecting cost savings in the CDOT budget of $82 million over the next two years but promises no further cuts in service beyond those already taken during the pandemic.  But how does that jibe with Metro-North parent MTA’s projected $8 billion operating deficit through 2024?

Even pre-pandemic when ridership was at record highs, Metro-North still lost money.  And taxpayers made up the difference.  Grumbling commuters packed in SRO rush-hour trains paying the highest commuter rail fares in the US still couldn’t cover operating costs, let alone capital expansion.

Now, with ridership down 80% those deficits are exploding.  And even if relief money comes from Uncle Sam, how long can near-empty trains be kept running?

As I’ve written before, I don’t think commuters will be coming back post-pandemic in anywhere near the old numbers.  So if ridership remains low and the MTA sticks to its promise of no layoffs or fare hikes, something’s got to give.

Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi says I’m wrong.  She says post-COVID daily ridership will only drop 10 – 20 percent.  But it’s those monthly pass holders who gave the railroad almost half of its revenue pre-COVID and their loss can never be made up by off-peak and weekend day-trippers to New York City’s attractions as she hopes.

Stay tuned for mandatory public hearings on all this, what I’ve called “political theater”.   But whatever commuters may say, however they might complain, their testimony won’t make a darn bit of difference.  The CDOT budget won’t change.  The fiscal die has been cast and come up “snake eyes”.

None of this should surprise you when you consider how the Governor writes his budget.  In fact, the document is not of his creation but OPM’s… the Office of Policy and Management. 

OPM doesn’t ask the CDOT “how much do you need for roads and rails?”.  They tell the agency, “Here’s how much you’ll get.  And here’s where to make the cuts.”

But while the Lamont budget sees “savings” through reduced rail and bus operations, it has found money for any number of highway projects while at the same time saying we need to reduce air pollution.  More highways, more cars, more pollution.  So much for their vaunted Transportation Climate Initiative.

Folks, it just doesn’t add up.

There are no tolls in this proposed budget. But there is a “mileage tax” on heavy trucks passing through our state.  That’s fine with me as I’ve always supported user fees.  But the $90 million that tax is expected to generate will do little to save the Special Transportation Fund from a deficit this year and insolvency by 2024.

In fact, that $90 million will just be used to fund issuance of more bonds to be paid off by our grandchildren.  Never mind the $92 billion (yes, billion) in long term debt coming due in the next 20 years for underfunded teacher pensions and such.

Today, 40% of the CDOT budget goes to paying debt service on bonds issued decades back.  We can’t even pay for the decrepit transportation we have today, so our short-sighted lawmakers just kick the proverbial can down the road. 

The problem is… we’ve run out of road.

 Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 19, 2021

"Getting There" - Stop the Maybrook Madness

 Anyone who follows this column knows I’m a “train guy”.  I’ve always been a supporter of mass transit and continue to be.  But sometimes I wonder just where the state’s priorities are when they chose to waste a million dollars on yet another crazy study.

This time it’s a study of the Maybrook line, a 14-mile, single-track of rusting rail running west from Danbury to Brewster NY and beyond.

Metro-North used to run their equipment (not passenger trains) over to their Croton shops via the line, but little else.  Now there’s going to be a study (yes, for one million dollars) of converting the line for passenger trains.

The idea was pushed heavily by former Danbury mayor Mark Boughton who promised it could “shave an hour” off commuting time to Grand Central. Oh, really?

Rather than crawling down the existing Danbury branch to Norwalk and then on the mainline to New York, Maybrook trains would go west from Danbury and connect with the Harlem branch of Metro-North, then head south through White Plains and into the city.

But Boughton’s dream has about as much of a grip on reality as Governor Lamont’s wishful 30-30-30 plan (30 minutes from Stamford to GCT, etc).  It just isn’t physically possible.  And I won’t need a million bucks to tell you why.

The average train from Danbury to NYC on the existing branch takes about two hours and 17 minutes (including a change of trains at South Norwalk).  The trains from Brewster NY to Grand Central take about an hour and 39 minutes.  But add in the running time from Danbury to Brewster (and another train connection there)  and you’re probably talking an additional 30 minutes, meaning a total time savings of less than ten minutes of commuting time via Maybrook.

Just how does that “shave an hour” off that commute?

But there are other problems to consider too.

In Connecticut the Maybrook line is owned by the Housatonic Railroad, a tiny freight railroad, not by Metro-North.  And parts of this single-track railroad now have a pedestrian and bicycle “rail trail” running alongside making it unsuitable for double-tracking.  There are dozens of grade crossings and no signal system. And it’s not electrified.

Further, parking in downtown Danbury near the Metro-North station is limited and to get there you have to fight local traffic.  So why go to that trouble if you can just hop on I-84 and make the drive in 11 minutes instead of 30 minutes by train?

Plus, we’re already spending $715 million to widen I-84 west of Danbury to make the drive even quicker.

Putnam County NY officials are enthusiastic about this Maybrook idea (and are paying $200,000 of the study’s cost)  because so many Connecticut residents already make that drive, catching the train in Brewster or Southeast, but clogging up “their” parking lots with Connecticut-plated cars.

That’s why there’s already a frequent bus shuttle run by HART that connects Danbury and Brewster in 28 minutes. It’s hardly luxurious.  But what do you expect for $1.75 one way?

With so much of our existing railroad system in need of repair and replacement, why are we wasting a million dollars on yet another study of a politician’s pipedream that will prove unnecessary, impractical and too expensive?

Forget about this Maybrook Madness and let’s fix what we already have.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 06, 2021

"Getting There" - Transportation Construction is Too Expensive

 Why is transportation construction so expensive in our area?  What kind of honor was it when New York City recently surpassed Zurich (one of the most expensive cities in the world) as #1 on the most-expensive-place-to-do-underground-construction dishonor roll?

The highly respected Regional Plan Association (RPA.org) has studied that question and offers some explanations and frightening examples.  Focusing on three recent MTA mega-projects in New York City… the Second Avenue Subway, the #7 subway extension to Manhattan’s west side and the LIRR’s East Side Access project (ESA), their findings make for depressing reading.

Let’s focus on the ESA plan… an ambitious project to construct new rail tunnels under Park Avenue and a new rail station ten storeys beneath Grand Central to serve LIRR trains. This is an important project for Connecticut as it will eventually allow some Metro-North trains to run across the Hells Gate Bridge to Penn Station.

Once estimated to cost $4.3 B and to be finished by 2009, ESA may not be finished until 2022 at a total cost of $12.2 B.  So, what happened?

The RPA report says the project was initially pushed by politicians who grossly underestimated the initial budget just to get it approved. Because Metro-North and the LIRR (both part of the MTA) operate as silos, they had trouble coordinating their efforts.  Worst of all, the procurement process and contract writing was a mess, adding four years of delays.

Though the ESA project was huge in cost, it was small in distance:  only 3.5 miles of new tunnels and track.  But it involved boring huge tunnels through bedrock and ended up building the most expensive mile of railroad track in the world… over $3B.

One big culprit was labor.

In 2010 auditors found that 900 workers were each being paid about $1000 a day though only 700 workers were needed for the job.  Nobody could explain what the other 200 workers were doing every day, aside from getting rich.

An investigation by the New York Times blamed the cozy relationship between labor unions and politicians, consultants who hired MTA bosses to gain more work and contractors and vendors regularly inflating their bids by 15 – 25% for what’s known as “the MTA factor”, i.e. the hassles of working with that agency.

Jobs like running the tunnel boring machines were staffed with 25 workers on the ESA project, about triple the number employed on the same equipment overseas.  Elevators at the construction site each had an human operator even though they ran automatically.  Crane operators also had an “oiler”, an unneeded throwback to older times.  All told, staffing for underground construction in New York City was quadruple that of similar jobs abroad.

The labor unions push back saying the work is dirty and dangerous and their members live in one of the most expensive cities in the world so they deserve more.

The RPA report also cites other problems including lengthy environmental reviews (up to seven years vs. two years in Europe), insurance and liability roadblocks, flawed project designs causing frequent (and expensive) change orders and a lack of post-project reviews to learn from mistakes.

If we are ever going to see New York City grow and prosper again, expanding (and repairing) its transportation system will be essential… if we don’t price ourselves out of business.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

 

January 23, 2021

"Getting There" - Northeast Maglev is Coming

 Imagine going from New York City to Washington DC in one hour… not by plane, but by maglev. 

By comparison, today the same trip from the LaGuardia to DC’s Reagan airport takes about 90 minutes by air (not counting getting to and from the airports) and costs $276 one way.  On Amtrak’s Acela the fastest run, downtown to downtown, is three hours and costs $157.  Or you could take the bus for $30, assuming you have 4 ½ hours to waste.

A maglev is a train, of sorts, that floats on a cushion of air, suspended and propelled along a special track quite different from conventional railroads.  The technology has been around for over a hundred years but there are few maglevs in operation so far.

One of the best known is in Shanghai. I’ve ridden it and was not impressed.  The ride was short, about 8 minutes over 17 miles, and only about 220 mph… no faster than China’s high speed conventional trains.

But the country that’s closest to opening a long distance commercial maglev is Japan where the private (and pre-COVID, very profitable) JR Central Railroad is building a maglev line for 177 miles from Tokyo to Nagoya, the Chuo Shinkansen.  That maglev will fly along the track up to 314 mph.

And it’s that Japanese technology that will be used by Northeast Maglev, the private American company developing the US system.  Like the Japanese system it will include a superconducting suspension and propulsion system, SCMaglev.  At those speeds it is certainly possible for the ‘trains’ to make the 230 mile journey in an hour, even with intermediate stops.

Planning by Northeast Maglev is already underway for the first part of the project, connecting Washington DC to Baltimore with 70% of the route underground, avoiding disruption above ground in the dense corridor.  The Washington DC terminal would be near the downtown Convention Center and the Baltimore station either near Camden Yards (downtown) or in the outskirts where interstates 95 and 695 connect.

Trains would offer service every 15 minutes including an underground stop at BWI Airport, just south of the city.  The fares, they say, would be competitive to Amtrak. That’s got to hurt Acela ridership.

Assuming the operation is successful, the line could continue north to Philadelphia, New York and maybe even Boston by way of Connecticut, though the routing through our state is anyone’s guess at this point.

With up to 50% of the $10 billion initial cost being covered by the government of Japan, Northeast Maglev’s biggest hurdle now is getting necessary approval of the 30 different state and Federal agencies with jurisdiction.  The environmental impact studies alone are into their fifth year.

Not to be outdone, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is seeking permission to construct its first tunnel, a 10 mile section, eventually connecting DC to Baltimore.  But unlike the Japanese maglev, Hyperloop’s “maglev in a vacuum tube” is far from a proven technology.

The implications of a maglev (or Hyperloop) running at these kinds of speeds are astounding.  Shortening the travel time is like bringing the cities that are served closer together. 

You could live in New York and commute daily to a job in Washington DC faster than you can get from Fairfield to Grand Central Terminal.

If post-pandemic demand for travel returns, Northeast Maglev could be a game changer when it comes to inter-city travel.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 


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