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!

January 04, 2009

Consultants = Wasted Tax Dollars

Any PR person can tell you: the best way to bury bad news is to release it at 5 pm on a Friday because nobody pays attention to the news on the weekends.

So on Friday January 2nd at 5 pm, Governor Rell released the results of her $630,000 consultant’s report on the much needed New Haven Rail Yard. Reading the 55 page report you can understand why she didn’t want it drawing attention.

But let’s back up to explain why.

In 2005 when Hartford lawmakers finally approved funds for long-overdue new rail cars for Metro-North, CDOT told them an additional $331 million would also be needed for shops and improvements at the New Haven Rail Yard.

By 2008, the cost of the project had risen to $1.2 billion.

Mind you, the project had more than doubled in size. Costs for concrete and steel had soared. And because the project wouldn’t be finished until 2020, 10% annual construction inflation was factored in to the equation.

Never mind that inflation now is near zero and construction materials have plummeted in price.

Though she had been told of the cost increases, Governor Rell feigned outrage. Her budget chief, Robert Genuario, said it was his fault for not keeping the Governor informed about the money. Then an FOI suit by the Stamford Advocate turned up e-mails from the Governor’s Chief of Staff, Lisa Moody. (Remember her… disciplined for selling fundraiser tickets to state workers on “company time”?)

Well, the e-mails show that Moody knew about the budget increases. And a CT-N videotape of a ribbon-cutting ceremony (which I attended), show the Governor standing 10 feet away from a CDOT Deputy Commissioner who spoke of the cost increases.

Chagrined and embarrassed, Governor Rell ordered a study of the entire project by Hill International consulting. Usually consultants tell their clients what they want to hear, and I’m sure Governor Rell expected Hill to say an out-of-control CDOT had once again screwed up. But they hadn’t and Hill didn’t.

In fact, Hill’s estimate of the first phase of the project was $150 million higher even than CDOT’s.

While Hill did find fault with much of CDOT’s budget-making and oversight of such large projects, we’d heard this already when the I-84 storm sewer scandal was dissected last year. So most of the 55 page Hill report just tells us what we already know… the rail yard is necessary but can’t be built on the proposed schedule because the state is broke. And for this we paid $630,000?

Flash back to the summer of 2000 and a press conference in Hartford held by then-Speaker of the House, Moira Lyons. Surrounded by stacks of studies and consultant reports taller than her, Lyons said the state was in crisis when it came to transportation and had to do something. No more studies… it was time for action! And thus was born the Transportation Strategy Board.

Two years of further study, and recommendations were made by the TSB which were ignored by then-Governor Rowland. There was no will to embrace the TSB’s call for more rail cars and consideration of “value pricing” of our congested roads.

So, the TSB ordered more studies. A few days from now, the results of their $1 million consultant’s report on reinstating tolls on our highways will be made public.

But Governor Rell says she doesn’t care. She’s opposed to tolls and has said so. Why then spend $1 million studying the concept already embraced by progressive states from coast to coast if our prejudiced Governor says “no”?

Even before we realized we were heading to the poor house, our so-called leaders in Hartford didn’t have the courage or conviction to actually do anything. “We need to study the issue,” was their constant excuse.

Now, with a $6 billion deficit looming, lawmakers have the ultimate out for further inaction: there’s no money.

So instead of putting in signals and passing tracks on the one-track Danbury branch of Metro-North, we’re still studying the issue after five years.

Rather than build the New Haven – Springfield commuter line or expand Shore Line East service to New London, we’re stuck in a quagmire of reviews.

Rather than create a separate mass transit agency apart from CDOT (one of the Governor’s better proposals, following the lead of 48 other states), the idea was sent by the legislature for further study.

Rather than open truck inspection stations 24 hours a day, we hired a consultant.

As the Federal government gets ready to pour billions into public works projects, Connecticut has dozens of such developments under study and review, but precious few that are “shovel ready”.

The only people making money on transportation in this state are the consultants.
And lawmakers wonder why the public has such a cynical attitude toward their efforts at fixing our transportation mess.


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