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May 16, 2019

"Getting There" - Where's Joe ?

A good boss cares about his customers.  He wants to keep them happy and actively seeks out their feedback.  Such is not the case at the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

The CDOT’s new Commissioner, Joseph Giulietti, has missed several important opportunities to interface with riders in his first 100 days in office.  Not that he hasn’t been working.  He just hasn’t been meeting with customers.

Remember that Giulietti came to his new job after a stint as President of Metro-North and in that role he held a number of “meet-the-commuter” events, handling himself quite well in answering questions and defusing angry riders.

A year ago, after leaving the railroad, he became a consultant to T Y Lin’s study of how to improve running times on the railroad to achieve the “30-30-30” dream espoused by the Fairfield Business Council’s Joe McGee.  That $400,000 study, using Giulietti’s input, said it could be done.

But if it was going to be so easy to cut running time from Stamford to Grand Central (now 51 minutes at best) to just a half-hour, you’d think he’d have done so as President of the railroad. But he didn’t.

Instead, as of the new timetable, running times were increased by as much as 16 minutes, angering and confusing commuters.  But the Commissioner has been silent.

He did accept an invitation to attend the April 17th meeting of the official Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, only to cancel on short notice.  Council Chairman Jim Gildea says a staffer promised to reschedule but has never called back.

Days later the new timetable came out, including a nasty surprise for Waterbury branch riders.  Their usual 4:42 train from GCT arriving in Bridgeport at 5:58 used to connect to their Waterbury train.  But under the new timetable the Waterbury shuttle leaves four minutes before the NY train arrives.  The next train wouldn’t be for three more hours.
Alternatively, would-be Waterbury riders could make the 6:03 pm Bridgeport connection if they left GCT at 4:11 pm.  Try explaining that to your boss.

How could such a mistake in scheduling be made?  Where was Giulietti?

When the Commuter Council asked for answers, they got excuses.  Not until US Senator Chris Murphy wrote a letter to MNRR was the mistake corrected.

Then, on Thursday April 26th Commissioner Giulietti and Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi took a train ride.  Last December Hearst reporter Jacqueline Smith had challenged them to ride the Danbury line to see the current conditions.

Accepting the “invitation”, the Giulietti and Rinaldi boarded the post rush-hour 9:05 am train from Danbury, but only after a meet-and-great with that city’s mayor Mark Boughton who must have known they were coming.  At Bethel, First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker came aboard to lobby for transit-oriented-development.

Smith interviewed the pair all the way to South Norwalk and wrote of the trip. But when I asked Smith what had happened when the railroaders talked with commuters, she said they didn’t.  They were too busy being interviewed and lobbied, I guess.

That’s sad.

When they finally had a chance to ride the rails and talk to their customers, Giulietti and Rinaldi turn fact-finding into a PR photo op.

Giulietti’s predecessor as Commissioner, Jim Redeker, was a constant presence in public (and to his employees).  He attended numerous Commuter Council, business group and community meetings.

But where’s Joe?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

May 12, 2019

"Getting There" For Profit Mass Transit

Public transportation is a money-losing proposition.  But Connecticut is home to one of the few profitable transit companies in the US.  It’s not CT Transit or Metro-North, both of which are heavily subsidized.  No, the operation that’s squarely in the black is the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, a.k.a. “the ferry”.

“If you tried to start this ferry company today, you couldn’t do it,” says the ferry company’s Chief Operating Officer, Fred Hall.  Today’s ferry is a legacy of the 1883 cross-Sound service run by PT Barnum.

Hall has been on the boats since 1976 when he worked weekends as a bartender as a “side-hustle” to his advertising job in New York City.  In those days they used to run a Friday and Saturday night “Rock the Sound” cruise leaving Port Jefferson at 10 pm.  Complete with a live rock band and a lot of drinking (the legal age then was 18), the three hour cruise drew 600 passengers a night.

From there Hall was promoted to General Manager of the Bridgeport terminal, Assistant General Manager and finally to Vice President in charge of the entire operation.  And he thoroughly enjoys his work, commuting from his home on Long Island to inspect the three-vessel fleet several times a week.

He’s not alone:  the ferry carries almost 100 daily walk-on commuters, crossing in both directions, who are an important indicator of the economy’s strength to Hall.  “When the numbers of monthly commuter (at $240 per month) are high, that’s a sign of a weakening jobs market because people have to commute long distances to find work,” he observes.

But for cars carried on the ferry the opposite is true.  “In 2005 we carried 460,000 cars.  In 2018, only 450,000.”  Why?  Because Hall says so many of his repeat customers are using the ferry to get to second homes… beach homes on Long Island or winter ski cabins in New England.

“You can probably fly out West in the winter and get more reliable snow conditions and still save money compared to driving to Vermont,” Hall says of his northbound Long Island customers.

Big changes are coming for the Bridgeport ferry, starting with an annual May fare increase. Tickets which used to be sold onboard “using carnival tickets on a broom handle” are now e-tickets sold and scanned before boarding.  If you’re bringing a car, reservations are a must, especially on weekends.  If you show up without a ticket expect to pay a surcharge, just like on Metro-North.

The ferry company is still working on moving to a new, larger terminal farther east in the harbor, a 19-acre site that will also support a deep-water shipping pier… if the US Army Corps of Engineers dredges the harbor.  But that work is a Catch 22, he says.  “They dredge where there’s shipping traffic.  But that traffic depends on dredging.”

The new, $35 million ferry terminal will save up to eight minutes unloading and loading the ship and allow foot passengers to board using Jetways.  Depending on permits, this new terminal might open in 2020 – 2021.  The ferry company also hopes to add a fourth ferry to its fleet, built in the US and probably costing $30 – 40 million.

But long rumored plans to run additional ferry service from New Haven to Port Jefferson LI probably won’t happen, says Hall.  “We just couldn’t find the land (for a terminal)” in New Haven.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 27, 2019

"Getting There" - New Timetable, Slower Trains

Rail commuters on Metro-North got a Spring Surprise recently:  a new timetable with slower running times.  Rush hour trains now leave earlier and arrive later than before, adding anywhere from one to ten minutes to published running times, depending on the length of the trip.

But hey!  What happened to that 30-30-30 plan for faster trains?  Why are the trains running slower, not faster?  In a word:  repairs.

There is so much track work to be done this summer there’s no way that Metro-North can maintain its old schedule. In fact, the on-time performance stats from last summer’s construction hit a record low, sometimes hitting just 82%.  Put another way… the new Spring timetable more accurately reflects the speed of service the railroad can actually deliver, not the service it would like to deliver.

So instead of trains running late, they’ll be on time and the schedule will be more reliable, if slower.

All of this timetable adjusting has been in the works since last fall, though the railroad clearly could have done a better job explaining the whys and hows of the changes.  Big projects like the Atlantic Street bridge replacement in Stamford and the Walk Bridge project in Norwalk are taking one, and in some cases, two tracks out of service.

Necessary “undercutting”, removing years of accumulated rock ballast under rail ties, can take out a track for weeks at a time.  And all four running tracks will eventually need that undercutting work.

That leaves the railroad trying to run a four-track service with a 25 – 50% reduction in resources.  And that, as their computer simulations have shown, means slower service. And all of this assumes nothing else goes wrong.

If there’s an unexpected broken rail, a signal problem or power issue, the railroad will jump on repairs immediately -  causing other delays on top of the planned work.  In other words, it’s going to be a long summer, folks.

And this is just the beginning.  One industry insider tells me these mega-repair projects will continue for about five years, meaning these slower running times will be the new normal.

And the farther east you live on the New Haven line, the greater the impact of the slower trains.  Take Bridgeport, for example.

The current best running time from Bridgeport to Grand Central is one hour and 22 minutes.  Under the new timetable it will be one hour and 29 minutes.  But in 1963 the old New Haven RR could make the run in one hour and 14 minutes.

Why?  Because the original New Haven RR was well maintained.  Today the railroad is 56 years older and not aging well.  The signal system is well past its life expectancy (and can handle speeds no faster than 70 mph).  The overhead power lines (catenary) still dates from the times of Woodrow Wilson in some areas.  And the tracks, as we know are prone to cracking and expansion in the summer heat.

Safety should always be the top priority.  Remember the Bridgeport derailment and Spuyten Duyvil crash?  So if your trains take a few more minutes to get you to work, be grateful:  at least you got there safely.  I’d always prefer to arrive alive, wouldn’t you?

Things will get better.  Maybe not 30-30-30, but better… eventually.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 21, 2019

"Getting There" - Your Turn to Share The Heat

 As I hope you can tell, I love writing this column.  As New York Times columnist Thom Friedman once said, a commentator should be both in the heating business and the lighting business… getting people fired up while providing factual support for his arguments.

Well, the “heat” runs both ways, as the comments I receive each week constantly remind me. For reasons best known to my bosses at Hearst, anonymous comments are allowed to be posted on the website version of my column.    Here are a few recent love notes from your fellow readers:

When I wrote recently about the power failures on Metro-North, cantchangestupid  wrote  “I sure hope a thorough investigation gets done on why those transformers failed. I see sabotage as the democratic conclusion.”  Gee.  And I thought I was cynical.

Or how about this gem from StaggerLee:  “Am I the only one who thinks Jim Cameron is a Useful Id-yot put out there to enable the spendthrift DemocRATs doing their best to drive the state's economy into the ground?”  You’re not alone StaggerLee.  Your colorfully named (yet anonymous) friends say that a lot, though it is not true.

On the recently approved “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund, NotMyProblem opined:  “The current Gov already figured out how to get around the lockbox by simply diverting funds before they made it into the lockbox.”  That’s true, as I pointed out in a recent column.

On Twitter rpm4Liberty noted that Metro-North fares, though the highest of any commuter railroad in the US, don’t cover the operating costs but require a state subsidy.  He noted: “my truck starts every morning when I want it to, and I don’t need roads.”  Wow… a flying truck?

And Grizzly Beer Bear adds: “So is it wrong (to ask) the people who use this 18th century form of transportation to pay for it?  For that money you could BUY A CAR and not steal money from people who will NEVER use the rail service.”  Obviously Mr Bear enjoys driving in bumper to bumper traffic and wants to add to it by pricing rail riders off trains and back into their cars. 

For April Fools’ Day I tweeted a picture of a railroad dome car, soon to be added to Metro-North service, noting that the ride may not be fast but it sure would be scenic.  A few followers thought the news was true, but one guy who got the joke commented “When the train derails from lack of PTC you're already halfway outside!”

Much of the email I get is commuters just asking for help:  where to complain about late trains, how to report uncollected tickets on a crowded train or asking about the lack of station parking.  I’m always glad to direct people where to get answers.

Having been at this commuter advocacy mission for awhile, I occasionally even get a note of thanks.  Christian N recently emailed me that his commute never seems to improve, adding “I am losing all hope. But thanks for your advocacy.  You deserve to go to heaven.”
That final train ride, I answered, would probably be on a local train, running late, but oh so scenic.

Keep your letters and Tweets coming my way: and @CTRailcommuters.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 14, 2019

"Getting There" - Tolls Are In Trouble

Governor Lamont’s tolling plan is in trouble.  I knew it lwhen I got a call from Dan Malloy.

The former Governor and I know each other going back to his days as Mayor of Stamford, but he’s only called me once before (many years ago when he sought my endorsement in his run for a second term as Governor).

This time he was calling about my recent column about the Transportation Strategy Board, the panel that 18 years ago was tasked with prioritizing our state’s transportation needs and how to pay for them.

It wasn’t my fawning over then-TSB Chairman Oz Griebel that prompted Malloy’s recent call, but instead my characterization of the “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund as having, to quote one wag, “more back doors than a hot-sheets motel on the Berlin Turnpike”.  The Wag’s words, not mine.

“That comment was not helpful, Jim” said Malloy.  “We’re just trying to get this tolls idea across the finish line and your comments aren’t helping.”

That’s when I knew that the tolls plan is in real trouble. (Why is he calling me, of all people?)  Not that there weren’t earlier warning signs that trouble was brewing.

The first was Governor Lamont’s somersaults on tolling from being in favor, then promising trucks-only tolling and finally settling (again) on tolling all vehicles.  Voters felt betrayed.

Then Lamont pulled millions in car sales taxes from the STF, potentially bankrupting the transportation fund by 2022.

Those moves gave grassroots No-Tolls groups new-found fertile soil, picketing and tapping into the media’s love of controversy by offering up great photo ops.

Sure, the Republicans helped fan the flames with their so-called “information sessions” in local communities, providing a forum to attack Lamont and tolls while resurrecting their “Prioritize Progress” bonding plan, asking our grandkids to pay for the roads and rails we use today.

Then there were the “no tolls votes” in local communities, non-binding of course, but a clear indication of local sentiment.  Even Stamford’s Board of Reps voted against tolls.  Polling by Sacred Heart University, though perhaps poorly worded, showed 59% of respondents were against tolling.

But wait.  Where are the pro-toll voices?

Well a coalition of Hartford lobbyists did try to organize an expensive campaign to support Lamont’s tolling vision, seeking money from construction companies and consultants who’d make a lot of money if tolls were approved.  But a reporter somehow got hold of their pitch book, detailing the campaign, and it now seems dead in the water.  Talk about “not helpful”.

Now, Governor Lamont is on a Magical Misery Tour, holding press events at every crumbling bridge, viaduct and train platform in the state.  Against those backdrops he pitches the need for billions in funding achievable only, he says, through tolling.

In the last couple of months Metro-North has had two major power meltdowns as circuit breakers, transformers and sub-stations have failed, slowing trains and disrupting service.  Commuters take such crises in stride knowing full well they’re riding in shiny new railcars on a century-old railroad crumbling beneath them.

But people upstate could care less.  It’s not their problem, so why should they pay tolls or support mass transit?

Cynicism abounds that toll revenues would really be spent on transportation and not get diverted.  Nobody trusts Hartford.

Tolls, my friends, are in trouble.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 08, 2019

"Getting There" - Boxcar: A new app for commuter parking

How can you get people to commute by train if they can’t get to the train station?

Oh, those two-wheeled, buff millennials would have us believe we should all bike our way from home to the train.  But not all of us are that athletic or inclined to take our lives in our hands wheeling through traffic and bad weather. 

No, the real solution (at least for now) is car-parking.  But with a parking permit wait list of up to seven years in many communities, shouldn’t towns be thinking of building new expensive, decked parking lots?  Maybe.  But not until they’ve made sure they’re maximizing use of all existing parking opportunities.

That’s where Boxcar comes in.  Yes, when it comes to rail station parking, there’s an app for that.

Boxcar bills itself as an “Air B&B for parking”.  It matches would-be parkers with private landowners who have available parking spaces near train stations.

Launched in Cranford NJ in 2017, Boxcar is the brainchild of 34-year-old Joe Colangelo who grew up in that town.  Cranford’s a typical commuter town about an hour by train from NYC.  And like most such towns, it’s always had about a three-year waiting list for station parking permits.  After graduating from UC Berkeley and serving in the Navy in Afghanistan, Colangelo returned to Cranford and found, decades later, it still had a three-year waiting list.

But he also noticed a lot of empty parking spots at nearby churches and funeral homes.  Why couldn’t they be used by commuters, earning the landowners some money and the commuters new access to mass transit.  Thus, his app was born.

Boxcar’s app allows a user to see where available parking is, reserve it up to 14 days in advance and pay for it all online.  Spaces average about $6 a day with 75% of that  going to the landowner and 25% to Boxcar.  The closer the parking space is to the station, the higher the rate.

Boxcar’s first parking space was Joe’s own driveway.  Today the app is in use in 25 New Jersey towns and is making inroads in Connecticut.  They’ve been operating in New Canaan since 2018 and have just launched a pilot program in Darien.  After just two years in operation, Joe’s four-employee company is already profitable.

Colangelo says “there’s a high cost to free parking”, especially when towns (or the CDOT) are considering major capital investments in new parking structures.  Colangelo says in 10 or 20 years, parking lots will be empty and we’ll all be shuttling around in autonomous vehicles.  “Boxcar is a bridge to the future,” he says.

Boxcar is also finding applications in a different kind of “time sharing”… office space.  With so many people working from home or on the road, there’s no reason to go into NYC “to the office”.  But sometimes you do need a desk and a place to meet clients.  So Boxcar can find you both.

“The average commuter only makes 3.5 trips into the city each week,” says Colangelo.  But working with nearby co-working spaces and law offices, that virtual worker can easily snare a desk or meeting room for a few hours. 

With big cities like Stamford enjoying a 28% office vacancy rate, imagine the possibilities.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

March 30, 2019

"Getting There" - The TSB Deja Vu

When are we finally going to do something about our transportation crisis?

That question has been asked for decades… but never answered, or more importantly, acted upon.

I remember back in 2001 when then-Speaker of the CT House Moira Lyons held a news conference about our state’s transportation mess.  The six-term Stamford Democrat, who was long on power by short in stature, stood next to a stack of consultant studies and reports almost as tall as she was.  Enough with the studies, she said.  Let’s fix it!

One of the best things to come out of that call to action was creation of the Transportation Strategy Board.  It had representatives from business, labor, commuters, academics and planners.  They had a one year deadline to come up with a 20 year plan for Connecticut’s transportation future and how to pay for it.  And they did.

Chairman of the TSB was Oz Griebel.  Yes, the same Oz Griebel who ran unsuccessfully for Governor last fall.

One of the TSB’s top recommendations was ordering new railcars for Metro-North, which finally happened under Governor Rell.  But they also recommended highly unpopular funding mechanisms:  a gasoline tax increase, sales tax surcharge and, yes, tolls.

What have we done since?  More studies making consultants rich but never persuading lawmakers to do something.  When our elected officials have no political will, they just suggest another study, board or commission.

Former Governor Dannel Malloy had ideas. His $100 billion, 30 year “Let’s Go CT” plan had something for everyone in every corner of the state.  It was ambitious, but it wasn’t really a plan, just a laundry list of projects without priorities or funding.

Politicians love to take credit for the ideas but never want their finger prints on the nasty business of paying for them.  That’s why Malloy created… you guessed it… a blue ribbon panel:  The Transportation Finance.  Among its members… Oz Griebel.

“It was like that movie ‘Groundhog Day’,” Griebel recently told me.  “It was the same people we saw at the TSB debating the same issues” ten years later.

And what did Malloy’s Transportation Finance Panel recommend to pay for his $100 billion “plan”?  A gasoline tax increase, a sales tax surcharge, fare hikes and, you guessed it, highway tolls.

Of course, none of those came to pass.  It was an election year and who wants to run for a job in Hartford explaining to constituents that they have to pay more, especially when the Republicans mischaracterized such funding as “taxes” instead of user fees.

Along the way then-Governor Malloy abolished the TSB, ‘lest it should suggest one project had priority over another.  He wanted it all, but got none, because he couldn’t sell the plan to pay for it.

But now we have the Special Transportation Fund Lockbox, right?  Any money that goes in can only be spent on transportation.  Or so we were told.  But as one sage observer of the transportation scene for decades recently told me, “The lockbox has more backdoors than a hot-sheets motel on the Berlin Turnpike”.  We’ll see.

Will the new legislature have the guts to finally raise the funding we need to fix our roads and rails?  Or will I be re-writing this column again in another decade, like “déjà vu all over again”?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 24, 2019

"Getting There" - Travel by Tube

Is Elon Musk a brilliant innovator, or is he just smoking dope?

Well, we know the answer to the second question as a viral video has shown him puffing (legal) weed on a talk show. The man is under a lot of stress, right?

There’s no doubt that Musk’s privately funded ventures in space travel and electric cars are prescient, maybe even profitable someday.  But his transportation vision for Hyperloop has yet to be proven viable.

Hyperloop is Musk’s 2013 vision of high-speed underground tube-travel in a near-vacuum using liner induction motors akin to maglev.  The concept has already gained “traction” with private companies like Virgin Hyperloop One and HyperloopTT, which are looking to commercialize Musk’s idea.

They’ve signed deals in South Korea, India, the United Arab Emirates, China, Indonesia and Ukraine.  In the US, Virgin is working with the states of Missouri and Colorado on projects, envisioning things like a 250 mile run from St Louis to Kansas City in 28 minutes (vs three and a half hours by car).  They say that development costs would be 40% less than those for high speed rail.

Even some in Connecticut are thinking about tube travel in the Northeast.  State Representative Tom O’Dea (R – New Canaan) has been in touch with Musk’s Boring Company (that’s its name, not an adjective) which says they are “literally on board with the idea of Hyperloop” between New York and Boston.

So far Musk’s only demonstration project has been a bumpy ride in a Tesla on a short 1.14 mile stretch of tunnel under Hawthorne CA it cost him $10 million to drill.  Reporters who tried the system in December seemed underwhelmed as speeds hit only 49 mph in a self-driving Tesla with special guide-wheels.  Musk told skeptics he could get speeds up to 150 mph over time.  But to me the whole thing looks sketchy.

First, you have to use a Tesla.  And that has to go underground on an elevator. Imagine the lines you’ll wait in for that.  Once underway, what happens if there’s a derailment or crash, or worse yet, a fire?  There are no escape hatches.   And this demonstration project hasn’t even touched on the issues of running in a sealed pod, in a vacuum using maglev technology.

At his Las Vegas test track, a scaled down model of a Hyperloop “pod” hit 230 mph, a far cry from rumored speeds of 700 mph.  Clearly, this technology is not the ride for you if you are claustrophobic.

In fact, Musk’s tube-travel idea isn’t all that new.

Back in 1904 Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry, wrote a paper as a freshman at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describing a system almost identical to Musk’s.  He predicted a high speed “Vactrain”, suspended by magnetic levitation, hurtling through underground tunnels in a near vacuum.  Passengers would be strapped in for a speedy but exhilarating ride at about 1200 mph, hurtling you from New York to Boston in ten minutes.

As I’ve written before, pneumatic tube subways were running, at least on a trial basis, in New York City as early as 1870.  The city also used smaller vacuum tubes to deliver mail over a 27 mile network.

So put that bit of history in your pipe and smoke it, Elon!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 16, 2019

"Getting There" - How I Lost My Lead-Foot

I like to go fast.  Really fast.  Nothing makes me happier than hurtling along to Boston on Acela at 145 mph, brief as those sprints may be, or catching the jet-stream on a flight and hitting 600 mph.  And nothing frustrates me more, like you, than being in slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95, that highway’s normative state.

But I’m also thrifty, some might even say “cheap”, especially when it comes to buying gasoline.  Which is why I recently traded in my powerful six-cylinder sedan for a very cool electric hybrid. 

While I used to get about 20 mpg in the sedan, the hybrid now gets me 40 – 45 mpg. That means I’m using half as much gasoline (and contributing half of what I used to pay in gas taxes to fund road repairs).  Those who drive all-electric cars, like Teslas, pay nothing toward Connecticut roads.

The hybrid achieves these impressive miles-per-gallon stats because it runs much of the time on electricity.  Its battery gets charged every time I hit the brakes, turning the engine into an electric generator.

But to get the best mileage I’ve also had to change the way I drive:  accelerating more slowly and relying on the visual feedback from the car’s dashboard display.  It’s a game the car has taught me to play:  keep the monitor display in the green, not the red. I’m hooked.

Oh, this car can accelerate quickly when I need to, by slipping out of “Eco” mode into “PWR”.  But I’m constantly challenging myself to maximize MPG by driving and braking efficiently.  I’m finally losing my “lead foot”, compromising my love of speed for saving money.

Whatever kind of car you drive, four, six or eight cylinders, you can save gasoline by avoid these mistakes:

·         Don’t accelerate too quickly, especially from a dead stop.  Pretend there’s a raw egg between your foot and the gas pedal and ease into it

·       While driving down the road, if you see the light ahead turn red, take your foot off the gas and coast to a stop.  It will also save wear and tear on your brakes.

·       Keep your vehicle as light as possible.  No need to waste fuel hauling extra weight.

·       Keep your tires properly, but not over-, inflated.  Softer tires increase road friction. Over inflation causes more wear on your tires.

·       Keep your gas tank cap tightly closed. If you get air in your gas tank your engine has to burn more fuel.

·       Don’t idle unnecessarily.  Sitting still can burn one to two ounces of fuel a minute or about a gallon an hour that’s giving you zero MPG

·       When you gas-up, do it in the morning when the station’s underground tanks are coldest and the fuel is the densest.

·       Replace your engine’s air filter as often as recommended by the manufacturer.  A clogged air filter has to work harder to combust the fuel, cutting down on efficiency.

·       Use your car’s air conditioner sparingly.  But for 60 mph highway driving, keeping your windows closed actually improves mileage by cutting down on drag.

·       Use your car’s cruise control to avoid unnecessary braking and acceleration, the two enemies of good MPG.

·       Just slow down.  Driving at 60 mph instead of 70 can save you two to four miles per gallon!

  • Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Anti-Toll Forces Get Organized

Was anyone really surprised when Ned did a flip-flop on tolls?  Not me. 

If you’ll remember when he first announced his candidacy for Governor, he said he’d sign a toll bill his first day in office.   Then he saw the polling data and backtracked, saying he’d only toll trucks.

Trucks seem like such a convenient scapegoat.  Sure, let’s blame them for our traffic and bad roads.   We’re not responsible, it’s “them”.  Everybody hates trucks, unless they’re delivering my Amazon package.  But just tolling trucks won’t get the money needed, so the Governor gave lawmakers a second option.

Yes, lawmakers.   It’s the legislature that must pass a tolling bill before the Governor can sign it, so that’s where the debate has quickly shifted, bringing out… the Zombies!

Usually when you lose an election you slink off in a corner to sulk and regroup.  But not the Republicans.   Their standard bearers have risen again from the dead to lead a new fight, this time against tolls.

Bob Stefanowski, the guy who didn’t vote for 16 years and then couldn’t decide if he was a Republican or Democrat, is now leading his “party of NO” in a crusade to stop the “tolls tax”.

Scott Frantz who lost his Greenwich Senate seat to, gasp, a Democrat...( and a woman !)... is said to be behind his town’s pushback on tolling.  And fellow GOP loser, Toni Boucher of Wilton is still on social media fanning the flames of discontent.  It’s a trifecta of Zombie losers who refuse to admit they were rejected by the voters.

Elsewhere, the GOP is organizing local “informational meetings” with constituents to attack the Lamont budget.   But if you look at who’s providing the “information” you’ll see it’s just the GOP.   There are no voices in support of tolling, just the trolls who oppose it.

The Zombies and Trolls are hoping to find new political life on an issue they campaigned and lost on, big time.

When 88% of the voters said “yes” to a Lockbox on the Special Transportation Fund last November, we witnessed a sea-change in voters’ attitudes toward raising revenue for our roads and rails.   People understand that tolls are not a “tax” as the Zombies would have us believe, but a user fee.

If you don’t want to pay tolls, don’t.   Take mass transit.  And when the anti-toll trolls now complain about how unfair it is to charge tolls to working men and women just trying to get to their jobs, where is their sympathy for the hours they now waste in traffic each day?  

Even Stefanowksi mentor Arthur Laffler understands the issue of supply and demand:  we have a limited supply of highway and insatiable demand.  Tolling will moderate our greed.

Mind you, with the Zombies and Trolls now running lose across the state I’m seriously underwhelmed at our new Governor’s inability to sell his vision on tolling.   His budget speech was fine, but there’s been no follow through.  Let’s get cranking Ned!

It’s time for Governor Lamont to sell the reality and necessity of tolling and finally put a silver stake through the heart of the Zombies and Trolls.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 02, 2019

"Getting There" - Mr. Haskell Goes to Hartford

Will Haskell is 22 years old.  And he’s about two months into his first full-time paying job:  Connecticut State Senator, representing the 26th District covering much of the interior of Fairfield County.  His election victory in November over Senator Toni Boucher, who’d been in office since he was born, was astonishing.

And he has certainly hit the ground running as he is sponsor or co-sponsor of 68 different bills that are “in the hopper” in the State Senate.  Of course, submitting a bill is the easy part.  A Senator can submit a bill ordering anything, but it may never see the light of day… making it out of Committee for a vote.

Senator Haskell’s “progressive” proposals cover everything from voting rights to ghost guns, from a plastic bag ban to fracking.  But the proposed bill that first caught my eye concerned Metro-North whose Danbury and New Canaan branches run through his district.  I’m thrilled that the Senator appreciates the value of the railroad to his constituents, but his bill (SB 163) says nothing about the speed or safety of the trains.  It doesn’t talk about fares, lack of seats, insufficient station parking or electrification of the diesel line to Danbury.

No, the Senator’s two sentence bill would address only one issue:  requiring Metro-North to provide free Wi-Fi on all its trains.  Wow.  That is a hugely misplaced priority.

There are so many more pressing needs for rail commuters in Connecticut:  the aging catenary, the signal system, grade-crossing safety, unreliable locomotives, etc.  But Senator Haskell wants us to have free Wi-Fi.

Why?  Because the cell service along much of the line is so poor.  But does the Senator understand that “free Wi-Fi” on trains relies on local cell service?  If there’s no local cell signal, the Wi-Fi won’t work.  And anybody who’s ridden Amtrak lately can testify about the slow speeds and unreliability of their technology.  So imagine a packed Metro-North train with 50% more passengers than an Amtrak coach and you’ll be lucky to get any bandwidth at all.  Don’t commuters have enough to complain about already?

There are legitimate reasons that Metro-North doesn’t offer Wi-Fi (as I’ve written about before).  The railroad considered Wi-Fi and even issued an RFP for vendors, including Cablevision.  But they balked at once again adopting a technology that would be leapfrogged.

Does anybody remember the 1990’s when Metro-North use to offer pay-phones on trains?  They were made obsolete in months when cellphone prices dropped and everyone could afford one.  Once burned, twice shy.

Today’s “state of the art” 4G cellphones will be toast in another year or two when 5G technology starts getting built-out.  That 5G will give you connection speeds making today’s fast connection look like the early days of dial-up modems.  And, of course, we will all need new phones.

So, isn’t Metro-North busy enough with getting Positive Train Control’s sophisticated radio tech working right that we don’t need to burden them with a millennial’s dream of free Wi-Fi?   If you really want to have hi-speed internet on your daily commute, get yourself a wireless card from your cell provider and an unlimited data plan.

But please, Senator Haskell, let’s get our priorities right when it comes to telling Metro-North how to run a railroad.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

"Getting There" - The Taxi Driver

“You know how much money I make driving this cab?” the thickly accented New York cabbie asked me as we careened down Lexington Avenue. 

I was just trying to make conversation, as I usually do (often in my Canadian French), and after a trite observation about the weather, I asked him about the new taxi / car service surcharge recently applied to Manhattan rides:  $2.50 for taxis and $2.75 for Uber and Lyft.  He exploded.

It was proposed as a fund raising effort to fix the subways.  But the taxi drivers, call it the “suicide surcharge”… making taxi rides so expensive the industry will collapse.  Or maybe they’re referring to the fact that eight taxi and Uber drivers in NYC have killed themselves in the past year, no longer able to bear the financial burden of driving.

The surcharge was held up by the courts for awhile, but now it’s in effect.  Step in a NYC taxi south of 96th Street in Manhattan and the meter will start at $5.80.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is, you won’t have trouble finding a cab.  Savvy New Yorkers are either walking, or taking the bus or subway.  Taxis are now expensive. Ubers, too.

So, glancing at the meter which was quickly ticking off the dollars, I asked my driver if the surcharge was hurting tips.  When you see an extra $2.50 added to your fare, I’d guess many passengers are reluctant to also tip the driver.

“WHATDAYOUTHINK?”, said my driver.  “I drive this cab 12 hours a day, and you know how much I make,” he asked?  I didn’t even want to guess.  “I lease this car from the (taxi) medallion owner and I gotta pay for the gas.  I even have to pay tax on my tips (when passengers use the credit card instead of paying cash). And for all that I make $100 a day.”

A C-note a day for driving in Manhattan traffic?  That’s about $8 an hour. Guys slinging burgers make $15, the new minimum wage, and have much better working conditions… like access to bathrooms and people seldom pulling a gun on them from the back seat. So why does he drive?

My driver said he’d been behind the wheel for 12 years, a veteran for an industry that is often a first job for immigrants.  He told me he was ready to retire.  Doubtless when he hangs up his keys, someone new will take his place.

Taxis and Ubers are a service. They take you door to door, in your own little steel cocoon, usually heated and cooled appropriately.  You can get there fast without the noise and accompaniment of the “interesting” people who ride the subway.  Taxis are usually clean and the drivers competent.

And those drivers are doing this job to make a living, just like the gal who is a waitress or the guy at Grand Central who shines my shoes.  It’s less a professional ambition and career track than a way to get by for another week, paying the bills and putting food on the table for the family.

So I don’t resent the new surcharge.  I’m okay with paying to fix mass transit.  But for my taxi driver on this ride, I gave him my empathy and a 25% tip.  He seemed grateful and I felt less guilty.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media