December 27, 2009

Saving Money on Metro-North Train Tickets

UPDATE:  For an update on this column with new pricing and rule info click here.

With the new year we were supposed to see a 1.25% fare hike to help pay for the new M8 cars (the first of which arrived just before Christmas). But, true to her word, Governor Rell has stalled that fare hike until mid-year, closer to the time we may actually be riding in those new railcars which must first undergo months of testing.

But 2010 is bringing more closings of ticket windows at stations as Metro-North tries to save money and encourage greater use of ticket machines. Human ticket vendors are anachronistic. If your station still has one, it probably won’t by next year.

All of which got me thinking: do Metro-North riders know the cheapest way to buy tickets? If not, read on! For demonstration purposes, let’s say you want to go from Darien to Grand Central. You can find the fare charts for your travel by clicking here (or at

The most expensive way to ride Metro-North is buying a ticket on the train. Not only do you pay the fare, but a penalty of $5.75 to $6.50 per ticket (in the Darien example, totaling $18 one way). That’s not a mistake you’ll make more than once.

Tickets bought from machines or ticket agents are at the regular fare, peak ($12.25) or off-peak ($9.25). No discounts.

Roundtrip tickets offer convenience, but no discount. Seniors and the disabled get a 50% discount off the peak fare ($6.00) but cannot ride in morning rush-hour. Seniors also do not have to pay the on-board ticket purchase penalty.

Traveling with kids is cheap. Up to four kids (5 – 11 years old) can travel for $1 apiece with an adult, but again, not in the morning rush-hour.

Ten-trip tickets (peak) are convenient, good for one year, but offer no discount (at $122.50). Ten-trip tickets (off-peak) are also good for one year, but offer a 15% discount ($78.75). Either kind of ten-trip ticket can be used by more than the purchaser, even if multiple people are traveling together.

Weekly tickets are a true bargain ($84), offering unlimited rides Saturday through Friday, peak or off-peak. But they can only be used by one person. Assuming five rush-hour roundtrips in a week, the weekly ticket offers a 30% discount over one-way peak tickets.

Monthly tickets are an even better deal ($264). Again, assuming a typical Monday thru Friday commuter taking rush-hour trains, the monthly ticket “commutes” their fare by an almost 50% discount. (This, by the way, is how the term “commuter” came into being. Look it up!)

If you can get your employer to participate, such programs as TransitCheck can save you even more money by allowing you to spend up to $230 per month in pre-tax money for use of mass transit. This can save you $1000 a year in taxes depending on your tax bracket.

But what’s the cheapest way to buy Metro-North tickets… one-ways, roundtrips, ten-trips, weekly and monthlies? Online! MTA’s “WebTicket” gives you an additional 5% discount, so a one-way ticket from Darien to NYC is only $11.64 (vs $12.50), and a ten-trip off-peak is $74.81 (vs $78.75).

Postage is free and the tickets arrive within a couple of days after placing your online order in a very non-descript, white envelope, so watch carefully. Now, just why it’s cheaper to buy a ticket online than in-person, I do not know. But with almost everyone having access to the internet (and assuming they have a credit card), this is the best bargain in the increasingly costly game of saving money on train tickets.

(PS: Amtrak fares vary widely by day and time of travel. There’s no discount for buying tickets online but they do offer ten-trip tickets and monthly tickets at a discount, but with a lot of restrictions).

For the full story on Metro-North ticket types and potential discounts, click here. Happy traveling!

December 14, 2009

Some Progress on Rail Station Parking

Finally some good news: we’re making a little progress on getting more parking at our rail stations. The CDOT Rail Station Parking Taskforce, created with great fanfare by Governor Rell in February, is starting to reach consensus on some solutions to our parking problems. An interim report is due this month, but it looks like the group will continue its mission of increasing access to our trains into the new year.

Given this year’s five percent decline in rail ridership caused by the recession, it hasn’t been too bad when it came to finding parking or seats on the train. But with the new M8 cars due to come online in 2010 (admittedly, a year behind schedule), now’s the time to plan for an expected increase in rail ridership. Heck, that’s something we should have done a decade back.

The recession also seems to be squeezing out some parking permit “hoarders”… the folks who waited years for their permits, don’t use them often but don’t want to give them up. This year, a lot of those hoarders took a pass on renewals. And that means new permits can be issued and some names can come off the waiting lists.
Towns have also done a better job of “scrubbing” those lists, removing the names of the dead, those who’ve moved away or got permits elsewhere.

One experiment that didn’t work was Darien’s plan to offer discounted parking permits for more distant lots. Priced at $200 vs the usual $315, almost nobody was interested. But that’s Darien.

Other ideas to increase parking that came from the Taskforce include…

1) Building decked parking structures at some stations. Of course, there’s no money and dubious interest from the towns.

2) Offering a centralized website showing real waiting list times in each community.

3) Developing a legal secondary market for parking permit “rentals” or sell-backs to issuing towns.

4) More bike and moped racks at all stations.

5) Offering incentives for car-poolers: better spaces, lower rates.

6) Improving pedestrian access to stations, such as sidewalks.

7) Offering a “guaranteed ride home” from stations for those dropped off.

8) Providing ZipCars (hourly car rentals) at key stations.

9) Improving security in station parking lots.

10) Providing van-pools from stations to key employers.

Meantime in Stamford, the gridlock continues. Plans to replace the existing station garage have not moved forward, despite a waiting list of hundreds of would-be parkers.

CDOT’s initial attempts to find a private developer who would turn the garage into an office building / condo palace turned up little interest. So now the agency is pumping money into temporary repairs to the crumbling structure.

The city of Stamford would have some say over use of the parking garage site for anything other than just parking, so they commissioned their own study of the station and surrounding roads. Of course, their recommendations don’t have to be followed by CDOT, which owns the garage and the station and didn’t even participate in the consultant’s work.

Private developers seem ready to build parking within walking distance of the Stamford station, but at what cost to users? It already costs $70 per month to park at the state-owned lot adjacent to the station, so what might the market rate for parking be at a private lot? And will commuters really want to walk several blocks to the station having been spoiled for decades with a state-owned lot with a sheltered walkway right into the waiting room?

November 27, 2009

Aviation's Tailspin

Anybody who reads this column knows how I feel about flying. I loathe it! I would sooner endure an overnight sleeper-car on Amtrak than three hours of turbulence on a Regional Jet. Talking to friends and business associates, I find I am not alone in my dislike of air travel.

The airline business is in a tailspin. Airlines keep cutting air fares to hold market share while also cutting staff pay and, many fear, safety.

Their fleets are smaller and so too are the jets. On routes that used to see 737s you’re lucky to be on a Canadair RJ. And forget about 767’s on transcons. They’re now run with 737’s or A320’s. Empty seats? Not anymore!

Since 9/11 we’ve seen 70,000 jobs lost in the airline business.

On a recent trip to Cincinnati, the guy driving my cab told me he used to be an avionics repairman for Comair before they closed their hub there. He recounted a really sick joke: “What’s the difference between an airline pilot and a pizza? Well, a pizza can feed a family of four.”

Underpaid pilots work up to 14 hours while flight attendants, who make $17,000 a year to start (minimum wage), must endure endless abuse from justifiably outraged customers. But these customer-facing employees shouldn’t be blamed for managements’ decisions. Pilots, mechanics and stews keep seeing pay cuts while the management desk-jockeys give themselves bonuses.

And what happens to the passengers? We’re merely cattle.

Imagine my delight at the recent news that the US Dept of Transportation has fined three airlines $175,000 for last summer’s stranding of a jet filled with passengers, overflowing toilets and screaming babies for six hours on the tarmac after a weather-related diversion.

Continental and operator ExpressJet will ante up $100,000 and, for refusing to allow passengers to offload in Rochester MN, Mesaba Airlines will pay $75,000.
Though these kinds of horror stories of airline indifference seem to occur monthly, this is the first time airlines have been fined. And the Feds say it won’t be the last. But why these paltry fines and not a law?

The proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights is still languishing in Congress despite the lobbying efforts of organizer Kate Hanni. As she points out, the Geneva Convention grants better treatment to POW’s than the FAA affords human air travelers.

Here’s what the laws are asking for:
1) Essential services onboard: adequate food, water, HVAC and medical kits.

2) The right to deplane if your flight hasn’t taken off three hours after leaving the gate.

3) Creation of an air passenger complaint hotline at the DOT.

We’re not even talking about airlines a la carte pricing for checked bags, blankets and seat selection. Or whacking us with a $30 per ticket holiday surcharge, just because they can. This is basic stuff. Survival.

While waiting on lawmakers to do something for consumers, FlyersRights reminds travelers there are things they can do to protect themselves:

1) If you get bumped because of overbooking and are not offered compensation, protest. Federal law says if you’re delayed by one to four hours you are entitled to $400. For a two to four hour delay, double your ticket price up to $800. Traveling to Europe, up to $900.

2) Pack light so you can carry-on. But always bring three days worth of medicines.

3) If you must check your bags, weigh them at home and don’t trust the airline scales. A recent consumer agency sweep in NYC found 8% of scales tested were inaccurate.

4) Never pack valuables, fragile or electronic items. They may be broken or stolen. And don’t wrap holiday gifts or the TSA will make you unwrap them.

We may never return to the glamorous days of air travel when one dressed up for the flight. But I’d be happy with just a little leg room, a free can of soda and a little consideration when things get delayed. Is that so much to ask?

November 15, 2009

The MTA's Really Big Dig

We all know what happened when Boston decided to bury its downtown elevated interstate highway, known as the central artery. What was intended to be a seven-year, $2.5 billion project became a ten-year, $14.6 billion engineering nightmare.

Well, heads up fellow commuters and taxpayers! New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, (parent of Metro-North) has similar designs on our beloved Grand Central. Nicknamed the “East Side Access” project, the goal is to bring the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central.

The plan would use the lower level of the already built 63rd Street subway tunnel, allowing some LIRR trains from Queens to enter Manhattan and then follow a new, very deep tunnel under existing Metro-North tracks beneath Park Avenue. Trains would terminate 14 stories under Grand Central on eight tracks with up to 24 trains arriving per hour. Exiting passengers… an estimated 162,000 per day (compared with the 115,000 who arrive and depart from Connecticut)… would be whisked upward on high speed escalators, to the west side of GCT, into an underground concourse complex stretching from 43rd to 48th streets.

Estimated cost for the project… $8 billion… about the same as rebuilding the entire World Trade Center complex. Actual cost, factoring in inevitable delays (they’re already a year behind schedule), cost over-runs and typical under-estimation by politically sensitive designers… who knows, maybe double that? And for what gain?

The only reason for the East Side Access project is to give LIRR riders better access to midtown. Is the subway ride connection from Penn Station to GCT really all that bad? Imagine what we could do with $8 billion to improve commuter rail service in the tri-state region.

What would an almost doubling of passengers in GCT (by adding LIRR to existing Metro-North riders) mean for Connecticut commuters? Well, if you think the station’s crowded now, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. And just imagine the already jam-packed Lexington Avenue subway station with even more riders!

The currently under-utilized GCT would quickly be maxed out for trains and platforms, making much-needed expansion of service to Connecticut a real problem.
True, diverting some LIRR trains into GCT might free-up “slots” in Penn Station for Metro-North trains (which would travel there by way of the Hell Gate bridge), but don’t count on it, what with New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and LIRR also vying for more trains in Penn Station.

If all of this concerns you, don’t get your knickers in a knot. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. The money’s already been appropriated and the project should be finished in 2015.

What role did Connecticut play in this boondoggle? Zero… nada… zilch. New York’s MTA didn’t ask our opinion or seek our approval. Though Connecticut Dept. of Transportation is Metro-North’s biggest customer, our state still has no seat, no vote and no say on the MTA or Metro-North Boards. Governor Rell said she’d change that, but never did.

Connecticut commuters pay the bills and New York’s MTA calls the tune, building a really “big dig” that benefits Long Island but penalizes us. What’s wrong with this picture?

Editor’s Note: For more info on the East Side Access project, see

October 31, 2009

New M8 Rail Cars A Year Late In Delivery

It’s the question I am asked almost every day: “When are the new rail cars coming?” The answer: “Later than we’d thought”.

Yes, the new M8 rail cars, which lawmakers authorized in 2005 and we hoped would be in service late this year, won’t be in service until late 2010… a year later than planned.

We on the CT Rail Commuter Council (a state-appointed watchdog group) have been tracking the progress of the M8’s from engineering design to focus groups on the interiors to initial “crush tests” (which they failed). Every month we ask if there are any delays, and CDOT says “no, we’re right on track”.

Initially the plan was to have a set of prototype “pilot” cars delivered by “late 2008”. (Look it up. It’s still on the CDOT website!) Those cars would then undergo testing for four to six months while production continued on the “revenue” cars, which would be held out of service until the tests were complete. That probably meant we’d be able to ride in the new M8’s by April or May of 2010, about 16 or 17 months later than planned.

But the timeline is now slipping further.

At our September Commuter Council meeting, CDOT Commissioner said that the M8’s manufacturer, Kawasaki, had been having problems with suppliers delivering steel later than planned. And their sub-contractors (who account for 60% of the cars) were also delayed.

Commissioner Marie also said that the planned delivery schedule of ten cars per month was extremely ambitious as railcar makers have a “deplorable record” of keeping their production promises. Marie should know, having worked for Bombardier in years past.

But wait… it gets even worse. By the time the Commuter Council met in October, this time with Metro-North President Howard Permut, the delays had been stretched. Permut said it would be months before even the test cars arrive, meaning the four to six months of testing would delay putting the cars in service until “late 2010”.

And that assumes that everything goes well and no serious problems are found during the testing!

Those tests are crucial as we’re spending $713 million on the first 300 cars. These cars should last 30 years, if they live up to their warranty. That’s why the first prototypes have to be run into the ground until something breaks.
And if some component does fail, Kawasaki will have to go back to retrofit a “fix” onto all the cars in production, both in Kobe Japan and Lincoln Nebraska.

Mind you, there is some good news in all of this mess…

First, Kawasaki is paying millions of dollars in penalties for the delays. And second, the plans for a fare hike to pay for the new cars is also delayed.

We commuters are a patient bunch. We’ve waited a decade beyond when our old fleet should have been retired, and I guess we can wait a few more months.

But what we cannot wait for any longer is candor and honesty from CDOT, an agency whose credibility is in tatters.

The long needed New Haven Railyard facility morphed from a $300 million project in 2005 to $1.2 billion in 2008. Governor Rell was incredulous and ordered a $630,000 study of the ballooning costs.

A rework of the plan brought the cost down to $850 million. But just opened bids for Phase One of the project, expected to cost $261 million, came in at $125 million!

It’s a long way from $300 million to $1.3 billion and from $261 million to $125 million. And along the way people start wondering if anyone has a clue about estimating costs.

All we need are honest answers, not excuses. Get the new M8 prototypes, start testing them and please, be honest about any further delays.

October 17, 2009

Leaves vs Loco's: "Slip Sliding Away"

It sounds like a question on a kid’s quiz show: “How do you stop a train?”
A) Hail it like a cab? B) Pull the emergency brake? C) Put wet leaves on the track?

If you chose “C”, you were correct… and you must be a regular commuter on Metro-North.

This is the time of year that tries train engineers’ souls and commuters’ patience. On a single day last fall, 60 rush-hour trains were delayed by “slippery rails” when wet leaves caused trains to “slip-slide” on their usually solid tracks.

You may not realize it, but the flanged wheel of a train contacts the rail only on a surface area the size of a dime. That’s why trains can move so smoothly with minimal power… riding a small, but firm area of friction.

But when the leaves fall and get wet, they are ground into one of the slipperiest substances known to man, a compound called pectin. As the train rolls along, its braking computer senses the slip and tries to apply the disc brakes, which eventually scrape off the gelatinous slime.

But often the brakes are applied so hard that a locked wheel is ground against the track, creating a flat spot on the usually round surface. In years past these flat wheel issues have taken 25% of cars out of service for regrinding. That means not enough cars, which means standees.

Sophisticated train computers don’t like it when they think the train can’t stop so, on the new M7 cars running in Westchester county, the railroad had to reprogram the safety systems to reassure them the train wasn’t out of control and didn’t need emergency braking.

Worse yet, on some lines the slippery leaves can virtually leave the trains unable to move. Case in point, the Danbury branch line which is an almost continual up-hill climb from Norwalk to “The Hat City”, 397 feet above sea level. On this branch, diesel locomotive-pulled trains often can’t stop on hills at stations like Cannondale, so on some days they skip such stops and make a running start for the steeper climbs.

On an MU (multiple-unit) mainline train, all cars are locomotives, spreading out the traction-power the full length of the train. But on a branch line, a single Genesis locomotive weighing 120+ tons has only eight wheels touching the track, seeking enough traction to pull a fully loaded eight car train. That means eight dime-sized points of friction for a multi-ton load.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as sand dropped from special hoppers on the train just in front of the drive-wheels. The resulting friction gets the train going or helps it stop.

Mind you, this is a problem for railroads worldwide, not just here in the northeast.

Of late, Metro-North has brought in heavier armament… a specially designed car dubbed “Water World” equipped with high pressure hoses that blast the tracks free of the gooey mess.

They’re also experimenting with chemical sprays. And one inventor in the UK is even proposing to zap the goo off the rails with lasers!

So in the fall as we appreciate the gorgeous foliage, remember the words of Paul Simon during your next ride on Metro-North: “Slip sliding away, slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.”

October 05, 2009

Are Some Rail Fares Unfairly Too Low?

If you’re a regular commuter on Metro-North, you won’t like this week’s column, but please read on.

A recent editorial in the rabid, rightwing, appropriately-named “Waterbury Republican American” suggested that rail fares in Connecticut are too low, and that this is unfair to taxpayers who don’t ride but are asked to subsidize those who do.

They argued that in-state fares cost less than driving, which is true, especially on the branch lines (New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury) where fares are kept low on purpose.

For example, from Waterbury to Grand Central is 88 miles but costs less than New Haven to GCT which is 72 miles. And on the upscale New Canaan line, traveling from that town to NYC costs no more than going from Stamford to the city… making the eight mile ride from Stamford to New Canaan “free”.

On the main line our fares are based on a distance formula: 18.17 cents per mile, plus an additional $5.45 to go to 125th Street or Grand Central. Why the extra fare to go into Manhattan?

Within Connecticut the lowest one-way fare is $2.25, even to go just two miles. That hardly seems fair.

Or consider monthly fares. They are “commuted” from the regular fares by about a 50% discount of the regular peak fare. But why?

Monthly commuters travel at peak hours and place the greatest strain on the railroad. So why do they get the biggest discount? What other industry gives a price break at its busiest time, even to frequent customers?

You want to see a movie on a Saturday night, you pay top dollar. Travel by air to see your in-laws at Thanksgiving, no discounts there. Even if you are a regular ticket-buyer, higher cost is one way of managing the demand, given a limited supply of seats. So why do Metro-North and CDOT, which jointly set our fares, give such a huge price break to monthly commuters?

Sure, those commuters are the railroad’s bread and butter. And keeping transportation affordable is crucial to making Connecticut a livable jumping-off point for their journeys to work.

But increasingly it’s the “discretionary” rider who’s keeping monthly fares low… the people who go into the city on weekends, even at reduced off-peak fares. By keeping the seats full on trains, the cost of crews and electricity is amortized across the entire week, not just AM and PM rush hours.

On off-peak trains, senior citizens get a 50% discount. Why? If it’s because they’re living on a fixed income, why not discount fares for the unemployed, those on welfare or disability?

(By the way, I was not in favor of Senator Don Williams’ nutty 2007 plan to offer free mass transit to senior citizens at a time when our trains were standing-room only. That would have led to some nasty confrontations between commuters and free-riding blue hairs.)

Now don’t get me wrong: I am all for keeping fares low. What I am suggesting is that we seek equity between in-state and inter-state riders and across all day-parts. And, of course, we want to make sure conductors collect everyone’s tickets, which is still an on-going problem.

Should taxpayers who don’t ride Metro-North subsidize fares for those who do? Absolutely!

Fairfield County represents 20% of the state’s population but pays 42% of the taxes. And I don’t remember any of us complaining when we were asked to subsidize a new convention center in Hartford or football stadium for UConn.

What we need is equity, each of us contributing a fair share for the greater good.
So as the CDOT prepares for public hearings around upcoming fare increases, I hope they keep this in mind. Rather than a flat “X percent” hike across the board, let’s revisit our entire fare structure, branch lines, weekends, seniors and daily commuters. Let’s keep our fares fair.

September 22, 2009

NuRide: The 'Secret' Way To A Cheaper Commute

I have the solution to highway congestion… a simple plan to cut traffic by 50%. All we have to do is get every SOV (single-occupancy-vehicle) driver to carry one additional passenger who’d otherwise be driving alone. But don’t call this “carpooling” or it’ll never succeed.

Carpooling evokes images of sharing long rides with co-workers who have bad breath, tell dirty jokes or, like me, smoke cigars. You know… the kind of people you avoid at work and surely wouldn’t want to commute with twice a day. Plus, if you’re in a carpool you’re tied down to someone else’s schedule. Sure, you save on gas money, but at what cost?

Well, what if you could carpool “on demand”… pick your passenger or driver… and get “frequent flyer points” as rewards? Now you can, and it’s called NuRide.

Launched in the Washington DC area, and available in Connecticut since 2005, NuRide uses the power of the Internet to match drivers with passengers using a variety of criteria.

Don’t want to share a ride with a smoker? No problem. Hate loud music? Again, you can chose. Only want to share a ride with a woman. Hey, it’s your call (and hers, guys). You just log onto to set up a free account, enter your preferences and start searching for a ride. And you don’t have to be a regular commuter to use NuRide. You can use its website just to find an occasional ride to the airport or a lift to the train station (a real plus if you’re on a five year waiting list for a parking permit).

There’s even a special promotion now that will get you a $25 TransitChek if you make two NuRide trips to your Metro-North station.

Members log in their trips, both with other NuRiders and by themselves on mass transit, by bike or walking. How cool is that… getting awards points just for your regular commute on Metro-North?

Each member of NuRide also gives ratings to their partners… did the driver pick you up on time, was the rider a slob, etc.? Bad ratings mean a lower chance of getting a ride from other members.

Best of all, the more you use NuRide, the more points you accumulate redeemable for merchandise, restaurant coupons and tickets to shows. As one member put it, “it’s almost like getting paid for commuting.”

So, what’s the catch? There is none. Merchants get new customers to sample them. Motorists share commuting costs. Congestion is cut on crowded highways.
Mind you, NuRide is subsidized by the CDOT and agencies like MetroPool and RideWorks which use tax dollars to promote car-pooling. But hey, it seems to be working.

NuRide has already attracted over 9,400 members and 1,200 companies in Connecticut. Stamford’s Pitney Bowes alone says their NuRide participation has cut over 4,000 car trips by employees in a year.

Overall, NuRide says their Connecticut members have logged more than a half-million trips saving 678,000 gallons of fuel and earning members more than $41,000 in rewards.

When gasoline prices soared last year NuRide saw a surge of interest just as mass transit saw new riders sampling that service. I’d hope that with gas prices now being down a bit, those who’ve tried NuRide haven’t slid back to their “SOV”s (single occupancy vehicles).

My only wish is that such a great program weren’t so hidden. Our state-funded ride-share agencies, Metropool and Rideworks, haven’t done a very good job of explaining NuRide and promoting the program to commuters, which is a shame.
For more information on joining NuRide just visit and tell ‘em Jim sent you.

September 07, 2009

The State Budget and Rail Fares

Writing a state budget this year has been like making sausage: you don’t want to watch the process, but you hope the outcome is tasty. Alas, this year’s budget is hard to digest.

As I wrote last June, lawmakers’ summer-long deliberations on a new budget would solely determine our fares as commuters on Metro-North. Back then, Governor M. Jodi Rell proposed a 10 percent fare hike for the trains (and 40 percent for bus riders!).

But she quickly canceled mandated public hearings and said she’ll await the outcome of lawmakers’ work. She laid the gun on the table. Lawmakers may just pull the trigger. Each will blame the other if we take a bullet.

On Aug. 31, at literally the 11th hour as the final touches were being placed on a new budget, legislators pulled a fast one: a pork-filled amendment providing money to a number of projects by reducing the state’s Special Transportation Fund which pays the deficit in operating costs for mass transit.

Democrats claimed the maneuvers were just accounting adjustments and all would work out favorably in the final “reconciliations” of the budget on Sept. 23. There will not be, they hoped, any fare hike.

But one document I received from those deliberations--“the smoking gun”--made specific reference to the funds transfer as being equivalent to “a 10 percent fare increase on Metro-North effective Oct. 1, 2009.” Reading that, I got to worrying.

First, it would be impossible (if not illegal) to raise fares so quickly. The law requires notification of at least 60 days, consent of the MTA Board and public hearings.

Second, any fare increase on Metro-North should really be seen for what it is: a tax on helpless commuters with little choice in their choice of how to get to work.

As for the public hearings, well, they’re really moot if the fare hike is already in the budget. Asking for riders’ input on what’s, by then, a done deal is a tepid PR effort. Nothing that gets said at such hearings can change the inevitable.

Worse yet, hearings scheduled when Rell first proposed this fare hike were set for places and times that guaranteed poor attendance by riders: Stamford’s hearings were to be at noon and 6 p.m., times when Metro-North riders were at work or on the train.

Rell is correct in pointing out that our Special Transportation Fund is running out of money to subsidize mass transit. This is the bitter fruit of lawmakers’ short-sighted decision in 1997 to cut the state’s gas tax by 14 cents per gallon. But it is wrong to now ask commuters, who already pay the highest rail fares in the United States, to pony up even more money.

We may dodge a bullet (if lawmakers kill this 10 percent fare hike), but the gun is still pointed at our head. We’ve got to replenish the Special Transportation Fund without discouraging use of mass transit by constantly raising fares.

Meantime, Metro-North has adopted a “don’t ask / don’t tell” policy in its customer relations. The railroad decided to cancel this year’s annual customer satisfaction survey as its parent agency, the MTA, aligns that questionnaire with similar surveys done on the Long Island Rail Road, buses and subways.

It couldn’t possibly be that Metro-North didn’t want a bad report card, could it? After steep fare hikes in New York State in June, overcrowded trains with little air conditioning this summer, and then the news that Connecticut’s new M8 rail cars would be months late, Metro-North must have known that this year’s survey would give them low marks.

Like a failing student facing final exams, I guess it’s sometimes easier to drop a course than face a bad report card.

August 24, 2009

New Rail Cars Delayed, Fare Hike Promise Broken

I have bad news and worse news. The bad news is our new M8 rail cars are late in delivery. The worse news is that we’ll still be hit with a fare increase to pay for them despite promises to the contrary.

Back in February of 2005, Governor Rell told the legislature she wanted to invest in 300 new rail cars for Metro-North. To help pay for the cars she proposed a $1 per ticket fare surcharge -- to take effect after the cars were in service. Her promise was that (commuters) “should not be asked to pay for improvements until they actually see them, sit in them or park in them.” Those are her actual words. Remember that.

While the surcharge seemed fair, it wasn’t. A $1 surcharge on a $2 ticket would cost much more than on an $18.50 ticket. So the surcharge proposed was replaced with a series of fare hikes to take effect starting January 1st 2010… 1.25% that date and an additional 1% each January first until 2015.

The fare hike schedule assumed that the new cars would be in service by January 2010. But they won’t be.

While CDOT turned over the design and engineering of the new M8 cars to Metro-North, builder Kawasaki continued on its time-line. The first six “pilot cars” were supposed to be delivered August 2009. And a few M8’s were to be in service carrying passengers by December.

Now we hear that those prototype cars won’t arrive until November. Testing for the new cars will take four to six months, with the cars being put through their paces (mostly at night so anxious commuters won’t see them and wonder why they’re not on board).

Assuming the testing goes well (and that’s a big assumption with a new design such as this) it will not be until March, April or May of 2010 that the cars will be officially accepted by CDOT and Metro-North.

Then and only then will production cars be put into service. That’s three to five months after the fare hike has gone into effect. And while the new cars will arrive at the rate of 10 per month, it won’t be until August 2012 that the last of them arrive… again, assuming no production or engineering problems.

But what about the Governor’s promise that fares would not go up until commuters could “see or sit” in the new cars? There’s the rub.

Does seeing the test train running on our tracks fulfill the promise? Not to commuters who are riding in old unreliable cars often older than they are.

It may have seemed reasonable for the Governor to make such a promise in 2005 when the new cars were thought to be achievable by 2008. But that was an impossible dream given that Metro-North’s M7 cars for Westchester service took five and a half years to place in service. (In February 2005 I predicted this is exactly what would happen.)

Governor Rell didn’t break her promise. The legislature did. When they replaced her $1 per ticket surcharge with a fare increase, it became a matter of law, written into the 2007 budget. But now they seem unwilling to bear any responsibility for the Governor or CDOT’s over-optimism.

I asked one lawmaker who worked on the fare compromise if he could rescind the fare hike and keep the Governor’s promise. He laughed and said “no way”, blaming an over-zealous CDOT for being unable to deliver the project on time. “We have a $9 billion deficit to deal with,” he said. “This is the least of our problems!”

There will be public hearings this fall on the January fare hike, moot as they may be given the hikes are already written into law. And I’d expect that more than a few commuters will turn out to vent about politicians long on transportation promises but short on keeping them.

It should be good political drama and fodder for a few editorials, but nothing will change. The fares will go up and if we’re very lucky we might be riding in the new M8 cars by next summer. Maybe.

August 14, 2009

Woodstock on The Tappan Zee

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the grand-daddy of all rock festivals… Woodstock. I was in my teens the summer of 1969, but couldn’t get off from my job to join the swarms of rock fans. But I did see most of them.

My job that summer was as a “temp seasonal” toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge, joining Westchester and Rockland counties across the mighty Hudson River.

There were two things I learned in that job: how to roll quarters and how to listen to the radio. The tiny booths lacked air conditioning, but I could bring a fan or a radio. My portable FM entertained me eight hours a day as I listened to both the music and the FM DJ’s… a job I eventually earned at WLIR after college graduation.

The FM stations were buzzing about Woodstock for weeks, and that Friday and much of Saturday, every kid in the tri-state area was heading for Yasgur’s Farm. Most weekends were pretty crazy in that job, because in those days tolls were collected in both directions… fifty cents north-bound and fifty cents coming home. (Today the toll is $5 roundtrip).

Busy as it was on summer weekends on that bridge, nobody expected a half-million kids would show up heading to Woodstock, especially not the folks at the Thruway. But after the rock fest was well underway, the Thruway brass realized the mobs would eventually be heading home, clogging the bridge. Because the music was expected to end late on Sunday, many of us temp-collectors worked overtime into the wee hours of Monday morning.

Late into the night we had five lanes open southbound, most of us enjoying some handsome overtime. But traffic was so light, they sent us home by about 1 am. I was due back in the booth five hours later.

Of course, the music didn’t end until early Monday, meaning that the usual morning rush hour carried as many burned-out hippies as it did business commuters. I remember one station wagon that pulled in to my lane, caked in mud up to the windows and stuffed with a dozen zonked-out kids. “Hey man,” said the driver with eyes that struggled to focus. “We don’t have any money” (to pay the 50 cent toll). “How about these instead?” That day, the Tappan Zee toll was an orange and a warm Coke.

Most days life as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee was a delight, as I was usually assigned the outside lane, also known as “the country club” because of its green vistas and views of the mighty Hudson River.

That far outside lane was also the site of experiments pre-dating the EZPass system, and I was a witness to many failed attempts at automating toll collection.

One such experiment involved fastening special permit plates to the underside of trucks, then running them through my toll lane at 30+ mph while an automatic camera mounted in the road snapped pictures of their permits. The system didn’t work.

After being transferred to the New Rochelle toll barrier on the New England Thruway, I learned about the “exact change” lanes. As folks threw their change into the basket, the coins went into a machine with rotating discs and holes the size of nickels, dimes and quarters. As the coins fell though the holes, their value was totaled and the driver could pull away.

What I didn’t know was the people threw more than coins into those baskets.

One day, while inside the booth removing change buckets, I heard a car stop in the lane outside followed by an ominous thump. Not the clinking of change, but a thump.

Imagine my horror as I watched an entire orange work its way down the change chute, hitting the rotating discs like a food processor, spewing orange juice and peel everywhere over the machinery, the buckets of coins and me.

Oh, for those days in “the country club lane” back on the Tappan Zee!

August 08, 2009

ParaTransit for more than just the disabled

Quick. What’s the most expensive ride in public transit? No, not rush-hour peak service on Metro-North. It’s ParaTransit… the door-to-door service for the disabled.

Transit districts are legally obliged to offer ParaTransit even though it’s extremely expensive and often draws complaints about poor service. Here’s the story.

In the 1980’s when planners from the American Public Transportation Assoc. would gather for meetings, there would be a swarm of demonstrators. Wheelchair activists would block their way, demanding access to mass transit. And why not?

In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act law gave them what they wanted… sort of. Buses would have to be equipped with wheelchair lifts. Key Metro-North stations were made “ADA compliant”. Even some subway stations in New York City saw elevators installed.

But some transit systems didn’t want to retrofit to carry the disabled. And even if they did, what about the blind or those who can’t easily get to the bus stop? That’s where ParaTransit came in. The ADA law mandates that door-to-door service must be available anywhere within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed route transit line.

The cost to the transit providers? Upwards of $25 - $30 per ride, with fares covering less than 10% of those expenses. But riders must book a day in advance and often share their ride on the “short bus” with others, hence the complaints. The disabled may be blind or unable to walk, but they’re far from silent.

While many felt they’d become second class citizens in the transit arena, Mayor Ed Koch complained that it would be cheaper to pay for cab fare for the disabled than pay for ParaTransit. And, in fact, that’s what one Connecticut town is doing.

Affluent Darien is already served by “Gallivant”, a door-to-door mini-van for both the disabled and the elderly. Passengers pay a suggested $5 per ride and must book a day in advance.

But in the town of almost 20,000 with 3,200 residents aged 60 or more, the Gallivant service is vastly under-utilized, carrying just 407 one-way riders in the last quarter. That’s only about seven rides a day because of limited hours and just one van.

Administered by the town’s Social Services Department, “Gallivant” is popular with many for rides to the doctors, for shopping or the Senior Center. But for others in town the pre-booking and stigma of riding the “short bus” keeps them house-bound.

So, using a new $15,000 state grant, the town is experimenting with offering half-price taxi vouchers for anyone aged 60 or older. Following a similar program in neighboring Stamford, the Darien plan is simple: just show up at Darien Town Hall, prove you’re a resident over age 60 and buy your half-price taxi vouchers. A book of five $5 vouchers (worth $25) costs $12.50.

When you’re ready to go, call Eveready Taxi (hopes are that other cab companies will join the program) and they’ll pick you up and take you where you want to go. Pay with vouchers and tip with cash.

The initial response to the program has been slow, but those who’ve tried it swear by it, not at it. The cab company gets more business, residents who can’t or shouldn’t drive get mobility. What’s not to like? Well, it seems some folks may be trying to scam the system.

The taxi voucher program is designed to give seniors and the disabled independence and spontaneity. Trips to the doctor, shopping maybe even the movies seem fine… and help local merchants.

But now the program is getting requests for half-price taxi rides to the airports… a $120 one-way trip! It’s one thing to give a senior mobility around town, but it’s a whole different matter to subsidize their summer vacation.

The Social Services Department is considering the request. But I hope people in need don’t get left at the curb when the funds run out because others gamed the system.

July 18, 2009

Fix My Station... Revisited

Three years ago, the Commuter Council launched the “Fix My Station” campaign, calling on Governor Rell to fix the crumbling, dilapidated and often-times dangerous conditions at CDOT-owned rail stations from New Haven to Greenwich.

Commuters sent in dozens of photos of their stations showing exposed wires, mold and graffiti which we posted on our website. Months later, CDOT finished a careful station by station engineering analysis recommending not just repairs but improvements. Special funds were allocated by the legislature for the needed work. Then… nothing happened.

Once again, we’d identified a problem, studied it and issued reports… and assumed the job was done. Few, if any, repairs were ever made to stations. If we were to revisit the same stations today we’d find things little improved.

But then, along came the Federal government this year with its “stimulus money” to create jobs with “shovel ready” public works projects.

Regional planners moaned, caught in a classic “Catch 22”. Because they had not been allowed for decades to plan for work that wasn’t already funded, there was little work that was truly “shovel ready”… except, in Connecticut’s case, at the train stations.

Here’s what happened at one station… Noroton Heights in Darien… but is doubtless being replicated across the country with similar public works projects.

One of the problems indentified at Noroton Hts as far back as 2004 was two sets of crumbling concrete steps leading from the west end of each platform up to Hollow Tree Ridge Road. Each set of stairs contains 28 steps.

Town officials initially estimated the repair work would cost $225,000, and the repairs were ordered, pending accumulation of enough money from parking revenues from commuters to pay for them.

Then the CDOT got involved. Because the steps were close to the track and overhead catenary power lines, CDOT said that Metro-North “flag men” would be required to oversee the repair work. That would add $80,000 to the job.

Because of the delays and since building supplies were then in such demand, prices escalated and the final bid for the work topped $400,000.

Then, along came Uncle Sam. When the feds dumped billions onto the states, somehow Hartford decided that $1.6 million should be spent at the Noroton Heights rail station. This would mean that in addition to fixing the steps, platform canopies could be extended and the platforms themselves could be resurfaced… projects long dreamt of but never put to paper by planners.

But be careful what you wish for.

Because Federal funds were now involved, CDOT had to revisit the stair rebuilding to be sure the work met Washington’s standards, not just Darien’s or the state’s.
Now, $30,000 will go to CDOT just to administer the project. But because CDOT is now under-staffed thanks to recent layoffs and early retirements, they can’t administer the job. The work is delayed again and the stairs probably won’t be repaired until 2010, six years after they were first identified as needing the work.

Had the Federal stimulus money gone directly to the towns, work would probably be underway by now. Heck… with a crew of Boy Scouts, a few sledge hammers and some local contractors, the steps could have been fixed in one week summers ago!
Instead, the steps are still crumbling. Federal funds are not being spent. Jobs have not been created. And another summer construction season will probably be wasted.

The “Fix My Station” campaign seemed like such a great idea three years ago, but those were simpler times and I was probably na├»ve to think anything so important could ever be done so quickly and easily. After all, this is Connecticut.

July 07, 2009

Getting To The Airport

They used to say that “getting there is half the fun”. Whoever “they” were, they haven’t endured the challenges and indignities of air travel post-9/11.
Even getting to the airport can sap your strength, if not your wallet. Consider the alternatives.

A car service is certainly convenient. But at $160 one way to LaGuardia’ $170 to JFK and $200+ to Newark, getting to the airport can cost more than your air fare. (Mind you, these are the advertised rates, so I wouldn’t be shy about asking for promotions and discounts when you call to book.)

But car services aren’t just expensive, they’re also wasteful. Couldn’t solo travelers share a car with others in a “limo-pool”? Is one passenger in a Lincoln Town Car an efficient use of limited space on I-95?

How about Connecticut Limousine? Now there’s a misnomer! Since when is a bus or cramped van a limo? And try explaining that name on the receipt on your expenses to your company’s accountant. “Really boss… it was just a bus!”

On a few occasions I’ve actually rented a car at the airport, driven home and then dropped the car the next day in Stamford. A day’s car rental is about half the cost of a car service. OK… so call me cheap.

Some regular fliers hire neighborhood teens to drive their own car to the airport, drop them off and drive home, repeating the process on their return. That’s cheaper than a car service, but puts double the miles on your car.

My preferred airport transfer is in my own car. Airport parking is $33 a day. Not cheap, but certainly convenient. And nobody complains about my cigar smoking enroute to the airport.

Another alternative, believe it or not, is Metro-North. Get off at 125th Street and catch a cab or livery and you’re at LaGuardia in about 15 minutes. Future plans call for some Metro-North trains to travel over the Hell’s Gate bridge, through Queens and into Penn Station. That could be a great chance to add a LaGuardia station with shuttle bus service to the terminals. But it’s a rail link our kids might see in their lifetimes, not ours.

If you’re heading to Newark, definitely consider Amtrak. Most Northeast corridor trains stop at Newark Airport where a convenient connection to the airport monorail has you at the terminals in just minutes. The train sure beats the Cross-Bronx and GWB any day. And fares are as low as $23 one way.

The proponents of ferry service on Long Island sound keep tempting us with talk about direct water-borne service to LaGuardia, but I’ll believe it when I see it. The old Pan Am Water Shuttle (a high speed ferry) couldn’t make a go of it carrying expense-account business fliers from the Marine Air Terminal to midtown, so I’m skeptical that operators could fill ferry boats to Stamford and Norwalk. And do you really want a sea cruise in the winter?

Mind you, New York’s three airports aren’t the only choices. Westchester County airport offers non-stop jet service to many cities and offers a variety of major carriers including JetBlue. Bridgeport’s Sikorsky airport used to get you to such cities as Philadelphia and Newark, but service now is very limited and expansion of both of these airports is challenged by local residents. Hartford’s Bradley Airport offers another alternative, including low fare carriers like Southwest… if you don’t mind a two-hour drive to get to the airport, north of Hartford.

One reader extols the virtues of New Haven’s Tweed Airport where US Air flies to Philly where you can connect to most anywhere.

Clearly, the trip to and from the airport can start and end a trip on a very sour, and expensive, note. But with a little imagination, this summer’s vacation can end on a thriftier note.

June 14, 2009

The Fare Hike Is Unfair

Once again, politicians who pay lip-service to improving transportation are trying to put your money where their mouths are: Governor Rell is proposing a 10% fare increase for Metro-North and a 40% fare hike for bus riders.

Her arguments for raising fares are specious:

1) New York Raised Its Fares, So We Should Also: NY State is raising its fares to pay debt service on $12 billion in bonds raised to invest in subways and trains. It had threatened 23% fare hikes and draconian service cuts (even in Connecticut), so the compromise 10% fare hike (June 17th) seems like a bargain. The MTA dug itself into a financial hole and wants riders to dig it back out. And Connecticut should mirror such bad public policy?

2) The Special Transportation Fund Is Running Out Of Money: True, but this is because lawmakers stupidly lowered gasoline taxes a decade ago. Those fuel taxes help subsidize rail fares and I predicted then that their loss would lead to higher fares. The way to replenish the Fund is to raise gas taxes. For just a one cent per gallon tax increase the state would gain enough revenue to halt the planned bus fare hike.

Sorry, Governor. Your rationale for taxing commuters just doesn’t make sense. Consider the consequences of these proposed fare hikes:

1) Increased Road Traffic:
Higher fares just encourage people to get back in their cars and drive on already congested highways. Isn’t this what we were trying to prevent?

2) Exploiting The Poor: The folks who take the bus don’t have cars. They have no other option than to travel by bus to school, to jobs and shopping. For them, a 40% fare increase means less money for food and medicine.

3) Discouraging Business: What employer will want to open a new business in a state where potential employees can’t afford to get to their jobs? A fare hike on trains and buses is anti-business and anti-growth.

4) Reduced Ridership / Even Higher Fares: Making the trains and buses more expensive will discourage ridership just as the new M8 cars start to arrive. Fixed operating costs won’t change, but reduced income from reduced ridership will just lead to calls for more fare hikes, a never-ending downward spiral.

5) Fare Increases Are Already Planned 2010 – 2016: Rail commuters already know they’ll be paying a 1.25% fare hike January 1st in 2010… and additional 1% fare hikes each New Years Day until 2016. This money is to help pay for the new M8 cars which are already behind schedule due to design problems and testing issues.

Hopefully, Governor Rell is just bluffing. Maybe she’s using the fare hike threat to jolt the legislature into action. But what politician would be so foolhardy as to support these fare increases, then look voters in the eye and ask for re-election?
While the downstate delegation may “get it” when it comes to supporting mass transit, the pols upstate clearly don’t have a clue.

Remember, it was just two years ago that Senate President Don Williams from “the quiet corner” of rural Connecticut was proposing free fares for senior citizens on all trains and buses. What a concept: a free ride on Metro-North for seniors while working stiffs pay $300 a month. Fortunately, that idea went nowhere.

So keep an eye on the legislature in the coming weeks. The process of creating a balanced budget won’t be easy or pretty to watch.

But if you want a say in stopping a hike on bus or train fares, contact your state lawmakers now. Only if bus and rail riders speak up can the Governor’s plan be defeated.

May 31, 2009

Unfinish Work at CDOT

Here’s a quick update on some issues I’ve written about recently, but first some breaking news!

FARE INCREASE: In desperation to find a way to balance our state’s budget, Governor Rell is playing her “trump card”, calling for a 10% fare hike on Metro-North. Her reasoning? “New York raised their fares, so should we”.

But remember… the NY fare hike came because of MTA’s budget crisis. Having spent billions for decades on rail improvements, they couldn’t get up-staters to pay the bills, so they threatened service cuts and 30% fare hikes. Bottom line: a 10% fare boost in NY looks cheap.

That is not our situation in Connecticut, where there wasn’t spending as train service deteriorated, ridership rose and fares remained steady. Yes, the long promised new M8 cars are coming, but will be paid for (in part) by long-planned annual fare hikes that begin January 1, 2010 and continue to rise 1% per year for the seven years.

Governor Rell’s call for a 10% fare hike now is a break of her promise of “no new taxes”. A fare hike now is a tax on commuters and another disincentive to live or work in Connecticut.

If the legislature approves the fare increase there will be public hearings, but they’ll be a meaningless, moot exercise. If you oppose a fare hike, call your state lawmakers now!

PARKING TASK FORCE: In January Governor Rell trumpeted a fresh new look at the issue of rail station parking, calling on CDOT to create a Parking Task Force (on which I was invited to serve). Five months later, CDOT’s Task Force has yet to meet, not even once. Blame it on foot-dragging by the regional planning agencies or lack of focus by CDOT, but nothing has been done to add parking at the stations even as the new M8 cars are scheduled to arrive, increasing capacity on our trains.

THE BRAIN DRAIN: In a call to save money, the state recently offered senior staffers at agencies like CDOT a sweet retirement deal. And many took it. So this week a former Deputy Commissioner and the Rail Bureau Chief have left the agency, taking nice pensions and a combined 50 years experience with them. (At least one is going to a consulting job where he’ll work on CDOT projects at better pay). A state hiring freeze means these men can’t be replaced. That means more work at CDOT for fewer, less experienced staffers.

You can finally get a seat at rush hour on Metro-North, as the railroad has seen ridership plummet 4% month over month thanks to the economic carnage and resulting jobs losses in NYC. Fewer riders means more pressure for fare increases.

However nasty your commute may seem, some have it worse… the riders of the Waterbury branch. At a recent CT Rail Commuter Council meeting in Naugatuck a mob of 50 angry passengers gave CDOT and Metro-North representatives an earful.

They have no stations, just bus shelters. Despite a 34% increase in ridership last year, they have only half as many trains as the Danbury branch. Cars are often filthy… in one case spewed with vomit that wasn’t cleaned up from the night before.
Automobiles parked in Waterbury are frequent targets of vandalism with local cops and the MTA Police blaming each other for lack of enforcement.

Adding insult to injury, all rail service is being halted for a month this summer to rebuild the tracks and ties (and an aging bridge) on the entire branch. That will mean busing… always a treat.

May 18, 2009

Gridlock in Hartford

I’ve written many times before of failed efforts to fix our transportation mess… how the only money being spent is not on solutions but on endless studies and consultant reports whose recommendations go unheeded.

Now we’re about to see another example as the Transportation Strategy Board is expected to do nothing with suggestions for electronic-tolling of our congested roads to mitigate congestion and raise badly need funds.

After commissioning a $1 million, 500-page study of the issue, the TSB is expected to say that the idea of “value pricing” our interstates needs, you guessed it, yet more study!

I could tell the fix was in when, even before the consultants delivered their million dollar baby, Governor Rell said she was against tolling.

And don’t expect any leadership on this issue from lawmakers, unable to write a budget let alone show the courage to face a controversial issue like tolls.

As one transportation expert says, the eight year old Transportation Strategy Board has turned into a “debating club”, endlessly talking but doing nothing. Their meetings get little attention and most members attend only sporadically. How would you like try making an 8 am weekday meeting in Hartford, so scheduled that even CT-N can’t cover it.

With a decimated corps of Capitol newspaper reporters, who’s to cover such important discussions? And local media coverage to date has been either shallow or factually inaccurate.

The idea of bringing back tolls has been discussed for almost a decade. Yet every newspaper report about their elimination in 1983 always mentions the firey truck crash at the Stratford toll barrier that killed seven, as if toll barriers are just waiting to get hit.

Current tolling technology eliminates toll booths and their delays, but the mis-reporting continues. So much for what passes for journalism these days. Stories about “killer chimps” make the front page for days on end, while the real news goes unreported.

When the TSB received its $1 million consultant report, outlining nine different tolling options, the board scheduled public hearings across the state… except in Fairfield County. Little was done to explain what the consultants suggested, despite pleas for informational meetings.

So when 50 concerned citizens turned out last week in Norwalk for a last-minute public hearing, their opinions were mostly based on inaccurate media coverage. Few had read or even knew about the 500-page report, summarized at the hearing in a one-page handout.

It’s almost as if the TSB wanted the plan to die.

I’m all for a good debate, but if you don’t educate the public, should their opinions be taken seriously?

One after another, people called tolls a hidden “tax”. They were so cynical that they didn’t believe tolls would do anything to improve traffic (they would). Some called for higher tolls on out-of-staters (illegal). Two who spoke noted the connection between traffic and affordable housing. And one suggested investing in more cars for Metro-North, paid for by employers, their exteriors wrapped in ads for the companies.

Resulting media coverage ignored those, like me, who spoke in favor of tolling. The headlines screamed “Commuters Speak Out Against Tolls” when they should have read “TSB Gets Uninformed Opinions on Unexplained Million Dollar Study”, but I guess that wouldn’t sell newspapers like stories of killer chimps.

Our state is in gridlock, not just on our roads but in our government. Nobody has the vision or the courage to do anything to change our situation, preferring to hide behind endless studies and consultant reports which then get ignored.

Debating the problem for a decade has done nothing. And there’s no sign that the TSB, the Governor or legislature will ever do anything about transportation except what they’re done so far… talk.

May 03, 2009

Views From The Train: "The Empire Builder"

This week, less “talking” and more observing as I share some “views from the train” on my recent ride from Seattle to Milwaukee on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder”.

Sure, it’s two days and nights, but I’m booked in a deluxe bedroom and am anxious to see the upper-tier of states that, to me, have always just been “fly over country”.

Puget Sound: Minutes after leaving Seattle, we run right alongside the beach. I see families walking their dogs, fishing boats brimming with their catch.

Into the Cascade Mountains and Stevens Pass, 4000 feet up, through the longest (7.9 miles) rail tunnel in the US. Still plenty of snow up here, but nothing like what’s to come.

Leavenworth Washington: 15% of the nation’s apples are grown in this one valley and in late April it is awash in blossoms. As far as the eye can see, neat rows of apple trees are festooned with delicate white flowers in the fading sunlight. Oh to be a honey bee!

Two Tylenol PM’s help me sleep. My bedroom is comfy but not for the claustrophobic. The only time I awake is when we’re not moving, stopped in Spokane where the other half of our train, originating from Portland OR, joins us.

The next morning we awake to four feet of snow in Whitefish Montana. After breakfast in the diner, it’s time to explore our eight car train. The sleepless from Seattle are still sprawled across coach seats. As we travel thru spectacular snow-capped peaks, one passenger sits watching a movie on his laptop, oblivious to the scenery.

A retired railroad guy regales me with stories of his days running steam locomotives, while a couple from Fargo ND tries to persuade me that they don’t really have accents like in that movie. Oh yah, eh?

No signal on my Blackberry, but a local paper is brought on board: “The Daily Inter Lake – Serving The Flathead Since 1869”. On the front page, news of yesterday’s amazing spring snowfall is still all too present out the window. On page two, a reminder that Friday is the deadline to apply for hunting permits to take moose and mountain goats.

I venture downstairs for a hot shower as we careen along welded track at 65 miles an hour. Try that on JetBlue!

My radio scanner crackles with automated “hot box” detectors reading off the number of axles scanned followed by a reassuring “no defects” and “temperature 25 degrees”.

Cutbank Montana: population 3171, 25 miles from Canada and a million miles from anywhere. This is why they call it “Big Sky Country”. We’ve gone from the Rockies to the prairies, the snow covered fields merging with the white clouds on the distant horizon. There’s no “here” here.

This is Indian territory, and what’s left of the reservations look like Appalachia without the pretty mountains. Trailers, abandoned trucks, trash strewn about and miles of nothingness. Hardly majestic. Mostly depressing.

In coach there are many Indians, moving across their country. This train isn’t just a land cruise for retirees but a vital transportation link for dozens of small towns long abandoned by even Greyhound.

Montana merges into North Dakota and we look forward to a servicing stop in the “big city” of Minot, population 37,745. While walking the length of the train I discover we’ve been hauling a private rail car, complete with observation platform. Crowds of curious passengers and towns-folk (not to mention a few “foamers”) snap pictures, but the sole inhabitant of the Soo Line business car doesn’t invite us in.

In the diner, a retired Schlitz worker heading to a reunion in Milwaukee (made famous by his suds!) complains he can’t get a beer with dinner. An ex-Canadian Navy guy regales me with stories of his last long-distance train ride… in 1955, on the way to basic training. Chris, our sleeping car attendant, chats with his 20-something buddies by cell phone planning his summer music festival itinerary. One perk of his job… free Amtrak travel.

A restless night and a long detour around still-flooded Fargo ND, we awake in St Paul MN. From here we follow the Mississippi, La Crosse and Wisconsin rivers to Milwaukee where I get off to catch a flight home.

This isn’t Amtrak’s most scenic trans-continental run, but it’s one of the most vital… connecting people to their work, their relatives and the rest of their country. I have a better understanding of the nation’s heartland thanks to this run.

But I’m also glad to get home.

NOTE: For a multimedia view of why folks loving riding the rails, see this link from The New York Times.

April 16, 2009

It's All About Affordable Housing

Whether by car, by train or on a bike, the reason we must commute is that, most often, we don’t live where we work. So any discussion of our transportation problems must include an understanding of our housing crisis in this area.

A recent report showed that housing in lower Fairfield County is the most expensive in the nation. You need an income of $70,000 just to afford a two bedroom apartment in the Stamford – Norwalk corridor.

So, people who come to work here can only afford to live further afield. Their daily drives / rides contribute to our congestion. The solution? More affordable housing!

A recent conference sponsored by SWRPA held some startling examples in that poster-boy of affluence, Greenwich. This 67 square mile city of 61,000 has 5545 town employees… teachers, cops, firefighters and the like. However, 67% of those workers don’t live in Greenwich, but commute daily from Danbury, Bridgeport, Westchester and even Long Island.

They spend an average of 103 minutes per day just getting to and from work, paying more than $2000 a year for gas. Combined, they add 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, just by their commuting.

In a city where the median home price is $2 million, the average Greenwich city worker makes $65,000. And because these teachers, civil servants and such have to come so far, they have to be paid more. The average teacher in Greenwich earns $12,338 a year more than their counterparts elsewhere in the state. These higher wages cost city taxpayers almost $19 million a year. But their larger paychecks come at the cost of lost time and expense on the road.

The Greenwich schools spend $10,000 to $15,000 recruiting and training each new teacher. But after five years of commuting (75% of the 912 teachers don’t live in Greenwich), they burn out, leave and find jobs elsewhere. Between 1998 and 2007, 581 teachers left Greenwich for reasons other than retirement and 81% of them had less than eight years on the job.

EMS workers in Greenwich have it even worse, averaging 151 minutes (2 ½ hours!) commute time. Just how fresh and ready for life-saving work do you think you’d be with a commute like that?

Greenwich is not unique. All of the towns on “the Gold Coast” rely on importing personnel from far afield. Schools in Darien often announce “snow days” not because its roads are impassable, but because teachers can’t drive through the snows farther north from communities like Danbury where can afford to live.

And what about the people that bag your groceries, clean your home or pump your gas? Where do you think they live? Just drive the Boston Post Road some morning and you’ll see them waiting for the bus.

Fairfield County has its own “migrant workers”. We couldn’t live with out them, but apparently we don’t want to live with them. Just listen to the local debates about adding “affordable housing” in these affluent towns. Whether because of their nationality or economic status, the expressed aversion to “those people” living in “our” towns is clearly xenophobic if not racist.

So how do we solve our transportation problems? Well, one solution is clearly related to affordable housing. Allow folks to live closer to their jobs and they won’t have to be in that car in front of you on I-95 or the Merritt at rush hour.

April 05, 2009

Free Parking Isn't Free

Our obsession with automobiles is not only creating gridlock and ruining the quality of our air, but it’s eating up our real estate and sending land costs upward. Because, once we drive our cars off the crowded highways, we assume it’s our constitutional right to find “free parking”.

Trust me: whether at rail stations or stores, parking comes at a price paid in more than just dollars.

For decades, city planners and zoning regulations have shared with Detroit in a conspiracy to deliver on that dream. Consider the following:

According to the industry standard-setting Institute of Transportation Engineers, there are 266 kinds of businesses which should be zoned to require a minimum amount of parking. Quoting from the ITE “bible”, religious convents must have one parking space for every ten nuns in residence. Hello? The residents aren’t going anywhere! Why do they need parking? Couldn’t the convents find better use for their land?

Or consider hotels. Why are parking regulations based on requiring enough parking for the few nights each year when the hotel is sold out, rather that the majority of nights when occupancy is much less? Would we require a movie theater to require parking for an every-seat-filled blockbuster when its more typical offerings fill far fewer seats?

Just drive up the Boston Post Rd and see for yourself. Due to zoning regulations, many shopping malls devote 60% of their land to parking and only 40% to buildings. Imagine what that does to the costs of what they sell.

Desperate to attract folks back to their decaying downtowns, some cities are putting more land into parking than to all other land uses combined. A Buffalo NY City Council member commented a few years ago: “There will be lots of places to park. There just won’t be a whole lot to do there.”

Last week I drove through downtown New Britain observing empty stores and sidewalks next to a gigantic ten storey parking lot. They “built it”, but nobody came.

In fact, the cities that have done the best jobs of economic revitalization aren’t the ones that provided the most parking… they’re the ones that provided the least. The vitality of towns and cities requires people… walking the streets, going into shops and interacting… not scurrying from car to shop to car to home.

In his recent book “The High Cost of Free Parking”, UCLA’s Donald Shoup recounts the following tale of two cities:

Both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new concert halls a few years back. The one in LA included a $10 million, six story parking garage for 2,100 cars. In San Francisco there was no parking built… saving the developers millions. After each concert, the LA crowd heads for their cars and drives away. But in San Francisco, patrons leave the hall, walk the streets and spend money in local restaurants, bars and bookstores. Guess which city has benefited most from its new arts center?

Why are Connecticut’s towns slaves to antiquated zoning mentalities that assume all humans come with four tires rather than two legs? Why do we waste precious land on often-empty parking spots instead of badly needed affordable housing?

Clearly, our transportation planners need to work much more closely with economic developers and sociologists to rethink what it is that we really need in our cities and towns.

We have become mindless slaves to car-obsessed planners for whom no vista is better than miles of open asphalt, be it highways or parking spaces.

March 23, 2009

"The Train Nuts"

Folks in the railroad industry refer to rail fans as “foamers”, because they supposedly foam at the mouth when they see any kind of train. When they move in groups, radio scanners on their belt and cameras at the ready, they seem to be harmless practitioners of an eccentric hobby.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I love trains. But I don’t “spot” them, recording car numbers in a small book. I read rail magazines, but I don’t know the number of axles on an FL9 locomotive or the running time of The Broadway Limited in 1942.

For me, trains are a means to an end… a transportation option, not a hobby.

Not all “rail fans” are transit advocates… a point I learned last weekend when I was asked to speak to the regional meeting of NARP, the National Association of Rail Passengers, about the work of the CT Rail Commuter Council.

NARP is a great organization and I’ve been a member for many years. Their President, Ross Capon, works tirelessly in Washington to promote rail alternatives to roads. But if this meeting was any indication, their 23,000 members don’t all live up to the group’s name.

Picture this hotel ballroom in New London, filled with balding white guys (like me). But there’s nobody of color (aside from the waiters) and the only women are dutiful wives along to support their husbands’ hobby, knitting all through the meeting. And this audience is supposed to represent rail passengers?

Where were the students, the business men, the handicapped… the folks who really take trains?

Capon gave a great speech about the many changes in Washington breathing new life into rail: increased funding for Amtrak, new initiatives to force freight rail lines to expedite passenger trains, even discussions about ten new high-speed rail corridors across the country.

Another NARP officer spoke of the crazy plans by NJ Transit to build new tunnels under the Hudson River which would dead-end at a new underground station for Garden State commuters instead of continuing on to Grand Central.

But when I spoke about Connecticut’s sorry history with commuter rail, the audience just didn’t get it.

Sure, they seemed to appreciate the slide show of the horrors of our aging fleet, broken down stations and over-crowded trains. They listened politely when I told of building grassroots and political support for improved service. And they clearly understood how important the new M8 cars will be. But during the Q&A it was clear I was dealing with a group of foamers, not passenger rail advocates.

“Why not build high-speed rail through Worcester Mass.?” I was asked. “Why should we when Acela already runs to Boston,” I replied.

“Did you know that the New Haven used to run from Waterbury to Boston,” asked another guy, handing me a photocopy of an old timetable. Nice historical touch, I thought, but why does that matter now that half the tracks are gone?

“Why not run double-deck cars from New Haven to Boston,” a third guy asked. “Why not add capacity where we really need it,” I impatiently replied. Foamers!

If NARP is to truly represent rail passengers it must get beyond these rail fans’ fantasies and nostalgia for a bygone era. We’ll never have parlor cars from New Canaan again nor ride the “Twentieth Century Limited”. But we can improve Amtrak and expand Shore Line East to Providence. We can refurbish our aging fleet of cars and keep fares affordable. We can add commuter rail to Hartford and beyond.

Rail advocates must be taken seriously, not seen as eccentric hobbyists. And NARP should do more to really represent all rail passengers, not just “foamers”.

March 09, 2009

Sound Barriers: A Waste of Money?

One and a half million dollars a mile. The cost of building a new lane on I-95? Hardly! That’s more like $20 million. No, “$1.5 million dollars a mile” would be the cost of building new sound barriers on that crowded highway, according to recent testimony by CDOT Commissioner Joseph Marie.

This won’t win me many friends among my neighbors in Darien, but I just don’t see that they should be asking the government to subsidize their peace and quiet. After all, most of them bought houses near the highway benefiting from speedy access to the roadway and should have known full-well that being that close would subject them to noise.

Do you have sympathy for those who buy homes near airport runways, then complain about the jets? Neither do I.

The first sections of what became I-95 were built in Darien in 1954, long before most current residents came to town. Sure, traffic has increased on I-95 over the years. We are well over the planned capacity of this interstate highway. But thinking the solution to highway noise is to create a walled concrete canyon through our coastal communities paid for by others, is just selfish and short-sighted.

I live about 1500 feet from I-95. On a quiet summer’s night I can hear the trucks as they whiz by at 70 mph, especially when they’re “Jake braking” (illegal in many states). And yes, there is a wooden sound barrier between me and the road which helps a bit. I try to think of the noise as like surf at the beach. But when shopping for my current home, I knew that highway noise was the price I would pay for being so near an on-ramp.

Some neighbors in my, and many other towns, want the state or Uncle Sam to build miles and miles of new sound barriers to cushion their karmic calm. But why should the few benefit at the expense of so many?

Can we really argue that someone in Tolland or Torrington should pay for sound barriers in Westport or Greenwich?

Sound-barriers seem to me to be wasted money. They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or solve congestion. Two miles of sound-barriers would buy a new M8 rail car on Metro-North, taking 100 passengers off the road. And sound-barriers are really sound-reflectors, not absorbers, just bouncing the sound off to bother others.
Consider these alternatives:

1) Sound-proof the homes. This has worked well for neighbors of big airports and is probably cheaper than sound-proofing entire neighborhoods. And insulation against noise also insulates against heat loss, saving energy.

2) Explore rubberized asphalt. Reduce the road noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”. Using this new road surface, some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise. Rubberized asphalt also reuses 12 million junked tires each year.

3) Pay for it yourself. Let neighborhood associations affected by road noise create special taxing zones to collect funds to build sound barriers they’ll benefit from, both with reduced noise and resulting increased home valuations.

Stamford / Darien state Senator Andrew McDonald points out a real contradiction in state and federal rules about new sound-barriers: they can only be built at taxpayer expense when the road in question is widened. Is that good public policy… to encourage bigger, wider roads carrying more traffic just to get “free” sound barriers? Clearly, we should be funding mass transit alternatives, not discussing the folly of adding a fourth lane to I-95.

I can think of any number of better places to spend federal dollars to improve mass transit than sound barriers. Can’t you?

February 22, 2009

Money Saving Travel Tips

In this economy we’re all looking to save money, especially on travel. So I’ve assembled a few tips I’ve learned over the years to keep you on the go while still saving dough.

Let’s consider a business day-trip to Washington, planned and booked one day in advance.

THE AIR SHUTTLES: You can’t beat the convenience, but it comes at a weighty cost. The walk-up one-way fare on the US Air Shuttle from LaGuardia is now $329 in coach (and $500 in First Class!). Given that flying time, gate to gate, is only an hour, this has to rank as one of the most expensive flights you can take out of NYC. But did you know that US Air is now part of the Star Alliance network so it code-shares its flights with United Airlines? A round-trip on the same US Air flights, booked through UAL, is $464. (PS: my last Shuttle flights were empty and even though pre-booked, the agent told me there’d be no problem catching an earlier or later flight.)

ALTERNATE AIRPORTS: If you’re willing to fly out of JFK, the savings are amazing… roundtrip on JetBlue is $116 and on Delta $137. And depending on where you’re heading in DC, flying into Dulles might save you time and money.

AMTRAK: Any regular reader of this column knows that I think Amtrak is the only way to “fly”, even to Washington. And you have plenty of trains to choose from departing New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford. The high-speed Acela would be my first pick, but Business Class (there is no “coach” fare) would set you back $412 roundtrip. And First Class on Acela is an additional $103 each way, adding up to $618 roundtrip.

A cheaper Am-alternative are the non-Acela “Northeast Regional” trains. Older, slower and making more stops, they’ll get you to DC in four hours and 35 minutes versus Acela’s three hours and fifty minutes… but coach is only $206 roundtrip. (I’d skip the $36 each way ‘upgrade’ to Business Class on these trains. All you get is a bit more leg-room and free sodas.)

AMTRAK DISCOUNTS: Amtrak rarely discounts its flagship Acela service, but it does offer AAA and NARP (Natl Assoc of Rail Passengers) members a 10% discount on bookings made three days in advance. Students, Seniors and Veterans can save 15%. Kids (age 2 – 15) travel half-price.

Amtrak’s “Guest Rewards” (frequent traveler) program is fabulous… and free. Rewards include free travel and, for heavy users, free upgrades for First Class, even on Acela. Last year I took a free trip, Chicago to LA, in a Deluxe Bedroom for two days and nights (including meals) on The Southwest Chief for free! If I’d paid for the trip it would’ve cost more than $1000.

WEB RESOURCES: My favorite online resource for comparing air fares (as well as hotels and car rentals) is, a Norwalk-based travel website. (In the interest of full-disclosure, they’re a consulting client of mine… but that’s not why I give them a plug.) Kayak shows you all the flights on all the airlines, not just a few, so you can prioritize by schedule, airport or fare.

What’s your favorite money-saving tip for travel? Drop me a line and I’ll share it with others. Just e-mail me at

February 08, 2009

"Emergency Landing!"

Taking off out of LaGuardia last week, my thoughts were of the recent US Air crash in the Hudson River. Maybe it was because I was flying the same airline and the same kind of jet. Or because I’ve always had a fear of flying.

But a couple of years ago, I was on a flight that really made an emergency landing. It wasn’t frightening and, in fact, made me feel a little safer in the skies.

Delta flight 222, a half-empty 767 bound from Atlanta to La Guardia, was more than half-way to its destination when I heard a beeping sound. Assuming some idiot had left his cell phone on, I wasn’t too concerned. Then, more beeping, this time from the rear of the plane. Concerned flight attendants scurried around trying to find the source. It turns out that most of the plane’s smoke detectors were going off, simultaneously.

There was no smell of smoke. (Believe me… I was sniffing furiously), but the captain whipped on the seat belt sign and said we were diverting. “A cockpit warning light”, was the way she put it, adding that she just wanted to “be safe.” Sounded good to me.

As we decended rapidly from 35,000 feet, dodging the thunderstorms, she told us that we’d be landing in Richmond. Fine… It’s a small airport and this is a big plane … just get us down!

During the decent, she reminded us to follow the instructions of the flight attendants “who are really onboard for your safety.” Really… not just to offer us pretzels for dinner? The attendants remained calm, but not having a script to work from, had to ad lib their instructions.

“Stay seated. Don’t get up until told to. Don’t open the emergency exits unless instructed. If an emergency evacuation is necessary, leave all luggage on board. And when we land, don’t be dismayed at the emergency equipment that we will see…”

Sure enough, Richmond Airport’s entire Fire Rescue Department turned out to greet us, racing down the runway as we landed. When we touched down (probably the first 767 ever to land at RIC), they surrounded us, nozzles aimed at our craft. With no smoke evident, we taxied near the terminal and stopped.

Air stairs were brought up and slowly, we all deplaned, walking past respirator-wearing firefighters who’d come on board. A short walk across the tarmac and we were in the terminal.

We all stood by, noses pressed to the windows watching the fire crews as they inspected our plane, running hoses into the baggage hold, but finding neither smoke nor fire.

While hoards of day-tripping business-people whipped out their cell phones and Blackberries, trying to find another flight, I consulted my Amtrak timetable and contemplated a long train ride home the next morning.

Angst was everywhere, but surprisingly there was no “air rage”. All the passengers were pretty mellow about the situation. In fact, we bonded. We all applauded when one guy’s cell phone rang and he learned that his wife had just delivered twins.
Soon, a Delta DC-9 arrived and a couple hours later we were on our way home to LGA, arriving just before a midnight curfew.

I never did find out what was wrong with our original plane. A small story on AP just referenced the “cockpit warning light,” but I knew better.

Fast forward to this week and I’m listening to a replay of the air traffic controller and US Air crew handling the emergency water landing and I’m struck with one thought… maybe two.

Facing a potential disaster, both the pilots and the controllers sounded amazingly calm and professional. They followed their training and nobody died.
Maybe flying isn’t as scary as I’d always thought.

January 28, 2009

RR Station Parking: A Fresh Look

What is wrong with this picture?

We say we are encouraging people to get out of their cars and try the train… yet, we have a six-year waiting list for parking permits at some stations!

But wait… there’s more: in a year we’ll finally be adding new M8 cars to our fleet, increasing capacity on trains. But we have no plans to expand parking at stations from Fairfield to Greenwich. (In fact, we may lose 800+ spaces while the Stamford garage is demolished and rebuilt for two years.)

Parking at rail stations in Connecticut is a mess. In Darien you’ll pay $315 for an annual permit. Next door in Stamford, it’s $840 a year. And at the South Norwalk station, $936! And that’s after waiting anywhere from 18 months to six years for the chance to buy a permit.

I’ve written before about possible solutions, including a Dutch auction that would let the market demand decide the value of the limited supply of spaces. But, instead, how about expanding the lots and adding more spaces?

A great idea, say the towns… as long as you do it someplace else. “We don’t want expanded parking in ‘our town’ at ‘our station” because it would only attract more traffic from “out of towners”, they say. The NIMBY’s rule!

Mind you, most of the rail stations and adjacent parking are owned by the CDOT, not the towns. But under their lease arrangements the towns set the parking rules and the rates and treat commuters as a convenient revenue source. Like commuters have any choice when the towns jack up rates?

This has got to change. And finally, Governor Rell agrees. She’s just told CDOT to form a task force with the CT Rail Commuter Council, the regional planning agencies and the towns to find a solution.

The issue’s been studied over and over again, but CDOT has seemed a reluctant landlord in imposing a solution serving the greater good if it risks angering the towns or jeopardizing the locals’ revenue stream from this “commuter tax”.

Here are some possible solutions:

In some places we might add parking lots or deck existing lots. But before we get asphalt-happy, let’s remember what we’re really looking for here.

What’s really needed is increased access to our rail stations, not just acres of more parking.

In some towns access might mean shuttle buses circulating through town, picking up commuters near their homes. In other towns, construction of sidewalks would make it possible to walk to the station without slogging through ice and snow. Or how about racks and lockers for bikes and mopeds… even “kiss and ride” drop-off points. Or subsidized taxi rides.

Where there is parking, why not incentives for those who bring more than one person per car to the station: better spots or lower rates?

And let’s not forget CDOT’s favorite three-letter word… T.O.D., transit oriented development… building homes and offices near the station eliminating the need for cars or shuttles.

We can’t bring these solutions to just one town or one station. We have to do it at all stations, spreading the pain and the benefit evenly across all the towns. We have to make all towns do what’s best for the region, not just their local fiefdom.

So thank you Governor Rell! Thanks for finally telling CDOT to do something and thanks for including the CT Rail Commuter Council as part of the Task Force.

After the Governor’s recent announcement, a reporter asked me if it wasn’t “too late for this effort?” “Heck no,” I said. “It may be a few years later than we’d have liked, but it’s never too late to start fixing this problem.”

So… let’s get going!


Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...