November 22, 2007

"How To Fix the RR Station Parking Shortage"

With new rail cars coming in 2009, now’s the time to plan for additional riders by giving them a place to park at nearby stations. As all commuters know, station parking today is a nightmare.

Many stations have a four- or five -year wait for annual permits, which can cost up to $650; and day-parking is expensive, if you can find it.

As I’ve explained before, parking at most rail stations is owned by the Connecticut Dept. of Transportation, but administered by the local towns. That’s why we’ve ended up with a crazy quilt of rules and pricing.

Take Rowayton for example. Every year annual permits are handed out on a first-come, first served basis one hectic Saturday morning in May. Nobody is “grandfathered-in”. Everyone literally waits in line, often all night, every year. This may seem fair, especially to newcomers, but it’s hardly an efficient way to manage a scarce resource.

I have a better idea: a Dutch auction. Spaces would start selling online on a certain date and time with the first permit going to the highest bidder in a 24-hour period. The second permit would go to the next highest bidder, etc. There’d be no preference to those who already have permits nor by town of residency. The scarce supply of spaces would moderate the demand by price. And there wouldn’t necessarily be an increase in parking rates. It’s just that the people who most want and need parking would pay more than those who need it less. Isn’t that equitable?

The truth is, most towns oversell their available spaces. In Westport they issue twice as many permits as there are spaces. Why? Because the permits are too cheap and there’s never a time when everybody who has one tries to park on the same day. People hoard their annual permits, renewing them even if they don’t use them regularly.

True confession: I have an annual parking permit in Darien that costs me $288. Having waited four years to get it, I’m not likely to give it up, even though I use it only one or two days a week.

Is that fair to the daily commuter who needs that space but hasn’t risen to the top of the waiting list because guys like me won’t let go? Probably not. But unless my town raises parking permit prices and squeezes my greed out of the equation, I’ll keep hanging onto my permit. An auction would change that. My space would go to the highest bidder, not the weasel (like me) who thinks he “paid his dues” by waiting on the list for a few years and deserves tenure.

I’m all for keeping parking “affordable”. The problem is, it’s too affordable. We should let the marketplace define the price of affordability, and that’s what an auction would do most efficiently.

Of course, the real solution is to add more parking spaces. When CDOT tried adding a few spaces in Rowayton a few years back, they were pilloried. When they came to Darien and proposed more parking at Noroton Heights, they were booed out of town.

More parking is planned in New Haven, the soon-to-be-built stations in West Orange and Fairfield and another deck will be added atop the existing lot in Bridgeport. But for the most southern part of the line between Norwalk and Greenwich, no new lots are in sight.

Everybody claims to want more parking… just not in their town where it will add to traffic. We all dream we’re living in the country but really want big-city amenities. Clearly, we can’t have it both ways.

CDOT spent five years and millions of dollars studying this issue, but the resulting “Rail Governance Study” recommendations have yet to be acted upon. I wonder why.

November 13, 2007

"No January Fare Surcharge, But..."

There’s good news and bad for Connecticut riders of Metro-North. The good news is there will not be a $1 per ticket fare surcharge effective January 1st 2008. The bad news is… instead there will be a 1% fare hike for each of seven years, starting in 2010.

Why are we even talking about fare increases on Metro-North when service often rivals that of a third world nation? Because 300+ expensive new rail-cars are coming and lawmakers want riders, for the first time, to bear some of their cost in their fares.

Previously, all capital cost improvements to the roads and rails were borne by taxpayers. But in 2005, to appease up-state legislators resentful of all us “Gold Coast fat-cats” getting billions of dollars in long-overdue investment in new rail cars, our local lawmakers gave a bi-partisan thumbs up to a $1 per ticket surcharge for Metro-North riders. To her credit, Governor Rell promised nobody would pay more until new cars were in service.

But the first few new cars won’t be here until 2009, and in any sizable numbers not until 2010. So that made a January ’08 fare surcharge problematic to the pols who want to keep their promises.

In addition, a flat $1 per ticket surcharge is grossly unfair, penalizing those we most want to attract to the rails, the intra-state rider. If it now costs $2.25 to go from Fairfield to Stamford, with the surcharge it would’ve cost $3.25, a 44% fare hike! But a rider from New Haven to Grand Central now paying $18.50 would only have had a 5% fare jump with a buck surcharge.

To lawmakers, the $1 surcharge seemed like such a simple solution. But when they heard from angry commuters, they back-tracked faster than a Danbury-bound locomotive on a slippery-track. The Governor asked Senators McDonald and Nickerson to crunch the numbers and come up with a better plan.

Their solution, the 1% fare hike for each of seven years, but not starting until 2010 seemed a done-deal, or so they told the Commuter Council this summer. Then came the bonding-bill impasse in Hartford with Democrats and Republicans both blaming each other for holding up a variety of necessary spending packages. Finally, last month, an agreement was reached and the plan was approved. But at what cost?

This latest $2.8 billion bond package is now added to our state’s existing $13.9 billion indebtedness. That gives our affluent state the third highest per capita debt load in the nation.

Each year, 11.5% of the state’s budget pays interest on those loans. In the Department of Transportation, 40% of their budget goes to debt service on bonds issued to fix our bridges after the Mianus River Bridge 20 years ago.

Why are we asking our grandchildren to pay for railcars that we’ll ride, but which may be worn out before they’re paid for?

"The Commute From Hell"

If misery loves company, riders on Metro-North often delight in tales of their commuting woes. Here are a couple of recent incidents that are real doozies.

On September 27th, the 4:50 pm Shore Line East “Silver Streak” from Stamford to New Haven made it just past Norwalk before the engine gave out. After 15 minutes, the conductor told passengers they were “working on” the diesel and that if it couldn’t be fixed, a replacement would be sent. An hour after the break-down, word came “a new engine is on its way”. After another hour (the delay now totaling two hours and fifteen minutes), the engine arrived from New Haven and the train lumbered as far as Bridgeport before further inexplicable delays.

In the meantime, passengers were in limbo with no communications. Not seeing any sign of a conductor, passengers roamed the three-car set seeking answers. One rider even commandeered the PA system asking “Does anybody know what’s going on?” Turns out the one lone conductor on the three-car train had taken cover in his booth!

Metro-North later apologized for the lack of communications and the conductor was chewed out for hiding rather than helping.

Then, just last week, a Danbury-bound train was similarly stalled-out, this time brought to a halt by slippery leaves. Branch riders had been warned that day they may have to take busses part of the way home due to the annual ritual of decomposing wet leaves and the steep grade combining to make even a multi-ton locomotive lose the friction war with Mother Nature.

So, on Friday October 26th, the 5:16 out of Stamford rolled out on time but never made it past Branchville. Try as it did to make it up the hill, several times, the train eventually gave up, dumping all of its weary riders in the tiny hamlet where a bus transfer was promised. An hour and 45 minutes later, one bus arrived. It was immediately filled, leaving a hundred passengers on the platform. A second bus didn’t show up for more than a half-hour. Mind you, all this was happening in the rain.

As one commuter recounted, “Not once (during the entire time) did the conductor make one announcement as to what was going on.” Once again, passengers were calling Metro-North’s help line to find out was happening on their train while being ignored by the onboard staff. When passengers finally tracked down the conductor he was, you guessed it… hiding in his booth. He claimed there was a PA problem, though he never walked through the three car train to explain what was going on.

If this is what happens when a train is brought to its knees by wet leaves, imagine what would happen in a real emergency? How would passengers know how to evacuate a train or deal with the injured when the lone conductor in the crew is too afraid to face the paying public?

I’ve written at length about conductors who neglect to collect tickets from all riders, but incidents like these lose the railroad more than money. They cost Metro-North credibility, goodwill and any confidence commuters might still have that things will ever get better on their commute from hell.

We can, perhaps, understand it when something mechanical breaks down. But the breakdown in communications is inexcusable. Maybe the conductors are tired of having to apologize for delays and such. That’s too bad. As the face of the railroad it is always their job to explain what’s happening and keep riders informed.

That incidents like these happen more and more often, tells me that Metro-North has some serious training problems… no pun intended.


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 tr...