June 13, 2024

BIG BROTHER ON YOUR TRIP

Ready for a summer vacation?  Car packed, airline tickets at hand?  You may not realize it, but Big Brother’s coming along with you.  However you chose to travel, don’t expect to have much privacy.

BY CAR:      I’ve written for years about how E-ZPass tracks your journey, not just your tolls.  And those new gantries built in Manhattan for now-on-hold congestion pricing?  I’d just assume they’re still activated, if not collecting fees.


How about those new super-LPRs (License Plate Readers) that the NY-NJ Port Authority has installed on all bridges into and out of Staten Island?  They track every single vehicle with that data stored for who knows how long.  The NYPD says they’ve already seen a 30% reduction in stolen cars from that outer-most borough, so expect that tech to come to other NYC bridges and tunnels.

Several Connecticut towns are also installing permanent LPRs at their borders to track stolen vehicles.  That data on your comings and goings is also preserved.

On Connecticut’s interstates and parkways there are cameras everywhere.  You can even watch them online.  Red light and speed cameras are now coming to Connecticut.  And in some cities they’re experimenting with stop sign cameras.

Your car is also monitoring how you drive and sharing that data with insurance companies.  The computers inside your engine (and the apps on your phone) collect a lot of information about your acceleration and braking and they “monetize” (sell) the data to insurance companies without your knowledge.

BY TRAIN & SUBWAY:     Metro-North may not have Wi-Fi, but they sure have cameras recording in every car, while many towns also have cameras on every train platform.  And soon every NYC subway train and station will be similarly equipped.  Were they to use facial recognition software, the authorities could track the identity and whereabouts of anyone on the system just as they do in China.

Swipe a MetroCard or use OMNY to ride the subway?  There’s a record of that, too.  And with the MTA losing $800 million to fare evasion, will it be long before AI starts identifying the scofflaws?

ON FOOT / BIKE:   In New York City, there are 18,000 CCTV cameras almost everywhere.  Have you ever noticed how quickly cops can post video of street crime, almost anytime and anywhere?  You are being watched.

BY AIR:        Your airline and the TSA require you to provide a legal ID every time you fly.  And now some airlines are using facial recognition software instead of boarding passes to climb onboard.  ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) also use that software when you enter the country.  And your passport… did you know it has an RFID chip embedded in the cover?  What information is stored on there?


In most European countries residents are required to carry a government issued ID card at all times and to produce it on request of authorities.  Skeptics have always said such oversight would never come to the US, but is the tech I described above any different?  In fact, it’s better, confirming not only your identity but your exact location minute by minute.

Have a great trip.

June 08, 2024

CONGESTION PRICING ON HOLD


What was she thinking? 

Just 25 days before implementation, why did NY Governor Kathy Hochul pull the plug on New York City’s congestion pricing scheme in a move one pundit called “the perfect clash of governmental incompetence meets political malpractice”.

Five years in the planning and studied over and over again, congestion pricing would have charged drivers of the 700,000 vehicles that enter Manhattan each day below 60th Street for the privilege:  $15 for a car, $24 - $36 for a truck. In addition to easing gridlock, the plan would also raise $1 billion a year for the cash-strapped MTA to repair and improve mass transit.  That’s a win-win.

Just weeks ago Hochul was in Europe touting congestion pricing as the “better way” to save New York City.  She called her leadership on this issue “being bold” and said sometimes leaders have to make tough decisions and stick with them.

And then she dropped this bombshell without warning… not to members of the MTA Board, other political and business leaders and not to environmentalists.  They are all livid.

IMPACT ON NEW YORKERS

Even before the Hochul surprise, money is so tight at MTA that some capital plans have already been put on hold.  As for the extension of the Second Avenue subway to 125th St?  It is effectively dead.  So too are plans to increase access to the subways for those with disabilities.  And she claims about caring about the poor?

Of those in poverty living in the city’s outer boroughs, only 2% of them drive into Manhattan while 61% use mass transit.  Most of the poor don’t even own cars.

 

IMPACT ON CONNECTICUT COMMUTERS

For Connecticut commuters to NYC, the impact of Gov Hochul’s decision will be minimal.  Planned expenditures on new railcars for Metro-North will be paid for with state (and federal) funds, not money from the MTA. 

But even if congestion pricing had gone into effect, Connecticut commuters wouldn’t really have been impacted.  According to the MTA, 27,000 of our residents take the train to NYC each day.  Only 3100 people drive.  And under congestion pricing, those who, for whatever reason still chose to drive, could do so, probably enjoying less traffic on their journey in return for their “toll”.

Of course, even if you take Metro-North to Grand Central, your journey might then include a subway ride, and that’s where Gov Hochul’s decision will be most felt with more crowding and deteriorating service.

THE BOTTOM LINE

How will Hochul make up the lost revenue that would have come from congestion pricing?  By a new tax on businesses.  How will that improve the city’s business climate let alone repair the environment, the other big promise of congestion pricing?

Worst of all, this decision by New York’s governor will cripple her administration’s credibility and just feed everyone’s cynicism about politicians saying one thing and doing another.  How can she make any deal, make any promise or attempt to govern the Empire State after this flip-flop fiasco?

 

 

May 31, 2024

CTFASTRAK: #1 IN THE US

Did you know that Connecticut is home to the “best BRT” system in the US?  Do you even know what BRT is?

Well, BRT stands for Bus Rapid Transit, and Connecticut’s almost ten year-old CTfastrak has just been named the best such system in the US by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

CTfastrak is the express bus system between New Britain and downtown Hartford, operating on a dedicated “guideway” of 9.4 miles which runs along an abandoned railroad right-of-way adjacent to the New Haven to Springfield Hartford rail Line.  It’s a special buses-only highway with ten stations.


Fifteen years in the planning, CTfastrak was designed to provide an alternative to driving on the usually-congested I-84.  The first ever BRT system in the state, CTfastrak cost $567 million with 80% of the funding coming from the federal government.

Eight bus routes run along the guideway with headways of as little as seven minutes between buses.  When west-bound buses reach the end of CTfastrak in New Britain they either turn around or continue on along city streets to destinations as distant as Bristol, Central CT State University and Waterbury.

Fares range from $1.75 for a two-hour pass to heavily discounted fares for kids, seniors and monthly pass holders.  To expedite boarding, you must buy your ticket before hopping on the bus (perhaps using their Token Transit app) in case random ticket inspectors ride along.  Get caught without a ticket and the fine is $75.

Special 60-foot, articulated buses were ordered for CTfastrak, each capable of seating 60 customers.  Many of the buses are diesel-electric hybrids, using regenerative charging while braking.  Speed limits on the guideway vary but top out at 45 mph.  And yes, the buses include free WiFi (Metro-North take note!).


According to CDOT, ridership on CTfastrak last year topped out at 2.8 million passengers.

Because the buses operate on their own highway, there are plans underway to test autonomous driving.  But CT state law still requires a human behind the wheel acting as a Safety Operator.

Of the riders on CTfastrak, 50% earn less than $75,000 a year.  Fewer than half of them own a car so these buses are the best (or maybe even the only) way for them to get to and from work, doctors’ appointments and to see family and friends.  Signage and announcements on the bus are bilingual.

Around the bus stations on CTfastrak there has been “substantial development” according to Benjamin Limmer, CDOT’s Chief of Public Transportation.  Transit oriented development (T.O.D.) was always part of the plan, encouraging housing and offices within walking distance of the stations.

There has been discussion about expanding the BRT network to the east, possibly as far as the UConn campus in Storrs, but buses would have to take the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes on I-84 and I-384 and then switch to the local roads.

BRT will also be coming to New Haven in 2029, improving service for 40% of existing riders and, hopefully, attracting more.   CDOT is currently designing the new line, to be called MOVE New Haven, under a $25 million federal grant.

 

May 23, 2024

DROWSY DRIVING

In my college days I did some strange stuff… like driving all night from Chicago to NYC, hitting 75 mph on Interstate 80, just me and the trucks.  I was so tired and did everything I knew to stay awake… open the windows, crank up the radio and keep on rolling.  Pretty dangerous, but what did I know?

Now, being older and wiser, I realize that as many as 100,000 auto accidents each year are tied to drowsy driving,  Those crashes are tied to 1500+ deaths and 71,000 injuries.  Nodding off behind the wheel is a serious issue.

Our circadian rhythms mean we have times when we’re ready for the demands of driving and others times when we’re not.  Nighttime, logically, is when our bodies most want us to sleep.

Is it by chance that many of the recent wrong-way crashes on our parkways and interstates have occurred in the wee hours of the morning?

But if you’re a “morning person” you should also know that we have an afternoon lull between one and five PM when our body wants to nap, our temperature dips and we’re again at risk of causing an accident.

Coffee will help, right?  Well, caffeine can keep you alert but it takes about a half-hour to kick in and the effect only lasts two or three hours.  Even quaffing a Red Bull (80 mg of caffeine in a can) can’t prevent you nodding off for “micro sleeps” of a few seconds.  At 65 mph, that’s long enough to travel 100 yards.

The AAA’s research shows that almost half of those drivers involved in crashes said they didn’t feel drowsy, even though they were.

So, be honest:  have you ever fallen asleep behind the wheel, even for a few seconds?  The AAA’s research shows that 41% of respondents admitted to nodding off sometime in their driving career and a quarter of them said it happened to them in the last month.

Alcohol, prescription (and illicit) drugs only make things worse.  So too do changing shift work and disorders like sleep apnea (both tied to the deadly  Metro-North derailment at Spuyten Duyvil in 2013).

Driving, especially at high speed, requires our full attention, so here are some tips for your next road trip:


·       Don’t drive if you’re feeling sleepy.

·       Travel with a passenger.  They can alert you if you’re showing signs of nodding off (drifting, tailgating, missing your exit) and can take turns behind the wheel.

·       Schedule a rest break every 100 miles.  Driving a max of 500 miles a day is asking a lot from your body and brain.

·       Try taking a 20 minute “power nap” in a safe location.

Take care of yourself, and here’s hoping your next road trip is a safe one.

 

 

May 17, 2024

NEW CARS FOR AMTRAK

Don’t you just love that “new car smell”?  Well, that’s coming… slowly… to Amtrak, as the nation’s passenger railroad replaces its old fleet of cars.

GOODBYE AMFLEET:      Amtrak’s remaining fleet of almost 600 Amfleet cars date back to the 1970s and was modeled after the Budd Company’s successful Metroliner cars, which ran from 1969 to 2006.  Some of those Amtfleet cars have traveled over four million miles by now so, despite maintenance and the $17 million “refresh” of their interiors in 2017, they are ripe for replacement.

Amfleet


The round-sided stainless steel cars, mimicking an airplane, have smaller windows than what’s planned to replace them.  Connecticut’s own Cesar Vergara, who designed the interior of Metro-North’s M8 cars, criticized the Amfleet design for trying to look like a jetliner. 

The vision for the future of the railroad should be based on defining its own dreams, not appropriating them solely from someone else's experience,” he wrote in 1992.

HELLO AIRO:                  The new cars Amtrak has ordered will be built by Siemens, which has an order for 83 trainsets which should be in service by 2026 if all goes well.  The first prototype debuted in October 2023.  The total contract is worth more than $3 billion.

New Airo Cars

The new cars will have the same two-by-two seating with AC and USB plugs for each row.  Their tray tables will be bigger and stronger than Amfleet’s clunky models and will feature a cup holder so your java doesn’t hit your lap if the train should lurch during the ride.  And yes, they’ll also have 5G Wi-Fi (Metro-North take note!). 

Pulling the trains will be electric locomotives, also built by Siemens.  Outside of the electrified Northeast Corridor these Charger locos will be diesel.  There’s also a hybrid engine in design that will run electric “under the wire” and use batteries on non-electrified lines.

When delivered, the first Airo trains will run in the Pacific Northwest then come to Washington to Boston trains in the Northeast.  There will be traditional coaches, first class and cafĂ© cars.

The new cars are based on Siemens’ Venture cars already running on Florida’s Brightline and Canada’s VIA Rail.  Those cars are similar to the company’s Viaggio Comfort electric trainsets running in Austria.

TESTING:     The new cars have over 4000 electrical connections, so extensive testing will be required before they go into service.  As Metro-North learned when it took delivery of its new M8 cars from Kawasaki in 2010, it takes a while to work the bugs out.

BUFF TESTING:     One of the most interesting tests that all new trains in the US must pass is called “buff testing”, to see how they’d survive a crash.  The cars’ under-frames must sustain 40 tons of stress without deforming, a much higher standard than European or Japanese requirements.

That means US trains are heavier and less fuel efficient but, as we’ve seen in European high speed train crashes, will be much more survivable in the event of a collision.

It will be a while before the new Airo fleet passes muster and joins the Acela-replacement Avelia Liberty trains that, after extensive delays, will go into service on the Northeast Corridor later this year.

 

May 10, 2024

HERO TRUCKER, WRONG WAY CRASH, TRAINS & FERRY

Kudos to the CDOT for their amazing work last week cleaning up from the fiery truck crash in Norwalk which closed I-95 causing countless hours of delays and detours.  It’s amazing what CDOT crews can do operating on a deadline and with $20 million in federal money.

HERO TRUCKER:    Kudos also to Hazeth Aracena, the truck driver turned hero who was involved in that crash.  When the Camaro that seems to have caused the crash (as was reportedly confirmed by the tanker truck’s dash-cam) swerved toward Aracena’s tractor trailer, he tried to move out of the way, only to strike the tanker truck.  But Aracena jumped from his cab and rescued the Camaro driver, pulling him from his car.

ANOTHER WRONG-WAY CRASH:        This week there was another wrong-way crash, this time on the Merritt Parkway, claiming four lives.  Police have yet to identify the driver going the wrong way, pending an autopsy.  Was that out-of-state driver “impaired” or just confused… or both?


We’re only in May but there have already been four wrong-way crashes in the state this year claiming 11 lives.  That compares to seven who died last year in similar accidents.

So if CDOT can return I-95 from a disaster-scene to regular service in 80 hours, why haven’t they been able to post all the new warning signs at parkway entrances they promised months ago, preventing further carnage?

SHORE LINE EAST:         The Connecticut legislature has adjourned, but not before finally restoring a bit more funding for train service on Shore Line East, the commuter railroad between New Haven and New London.  The railroad is still only operating at 40% of pre-COVID levels and advocates were seeking $10 million to bring back more trains.  The Governor said no, but lawmakers gave them $5 million, enough for four additional trains.

That still only gives Shore Line East riders 20 trains a day, far from enough to encourage people to leave their cars at home.  Still, it’s a small victory for the pro-train forces in Southeastern Connecticut, what one local resident calls “the forgotten corner”.

BRIDGEPORT FERRY:     A great start to the summer season for the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson ferry.  They started their three-ferry service early this year adding what VP / GM Fred Hall says is the secret for success: “frequency and capacity”.  In the first few days of this month ridership is already up 15%, perhaps helped by drivers trying to avoid the I-95 shutdown that weekend.

A fourth ferry, the “Long Island” has just been launched in Florida and they hope to have it in service by the late fall.

Nearing completion nearby in Bridgeport is that city’s new high-speed ferry dock, built with $10.5 million in federal funds and $700,000 from city taxpayers.  Of course, there’s nobody planning to offer fast ferry service there, nor do I predict there ever will be.

Just another Bridgeport boondoggle.

 

 

May 04, 2024

TRUCK INSPECTIONS

Another week, another fiery truck crash on a Connecticut highway, this time in Norwalk on I-95.

You’ll remember it was just last June when a similar inferno closed I-95 in Philadelphia as a tanker truck blaze practically melted the steel, collapsing the highway.  And last April there was another tanker fire on the Gold Star bridge in New London.

If your memory is really good you might recall a similar truck crash on I-95 in Bridgeport on the elevated section of highway back in 2004.  The resulting fire melted holes in the highway.

What the heck is going on?

As I’ve written before, trucks are most often not to blame for highway accidents.  Their seasoned, professional drivers are just trying to deliver their cargos to local stores and gas stations and get home safely.  But don’t get me started on why big-rig trucks are driving illegally on the Merritt Parkway, which they are!

It will take some time for the Connecticut State Police to finish their investigation of who and what caused the most recent crash in Norwalk, but we should still be asking “is the state doing enough to keep unsafe trucks off our highways?” 


Connecticut has weigh / inspection stations in Greenwich, Danbury, Middletown, Union and Waterford as well as roaming, portable scale teams.  When the trucks and buses roll in they are weighed, their drivers’ log books and loads are inspected and, most importantly, their brakes are checked.  This is done by skilled State Police and DMV staffers who take their job (and your safety) seriously.

Surprisingly, though I-95 sees the most traffic, the Greenwich weigh station was open the least but issued the most fines last year.

Connecticut receives federal funding to pay for this work and violators are hit with stiff fines… the most common tickets issued are for being overweight, having defective equipment, fuel tax or registration violations and, my favorite, “failure to stop”.  Of course, no trucks have to stop if the inspection stations are closed, which they usually are.

Remember:  overweight trucks are not only unsafe, they cause damage to our highways that we end up repairing and paying for with the gas tax.


For trucks just passing through the state, the word goes out on the CB radios and social media as truckers alert each other which stations are open.  If Greenwich is open, they avoid I-95 and take I-84 because Danbury probably won’t be open, etc.

For trucks traveling up and down I-95 and I-84 from other states, Connecticut participates in the PrePass Program, a kind of E-ZPass for truckers.  If a vehicle was inspected in, say, Maryland, it can skip a stop at Connecticut weigh stations.

Trucking advocates (yes, there are some) say the weight / inspection stations are a waste of personnel: that troopers should be patrolling the highways looking for dangerous drivers not standing around inspecting trucks, the majority of which are not violating any rules.

But I still think all of Connecticut’s weigh / inspection stations should be open all the time.

It looks like the Feds will pick up the $20 million tab for last week’s Norwalk incident.  But nobody can reimburse us all for the time we lost waiting in detours and delays, nor the lost business to local merchants.

 

 

 

BIG BROTHER ON YOUR TRIP

Ready for a summer vacation?  Car packed, airline tickets at hand?  You may not realize it, but Big Brother’s coming along with you.  Howeve...