December 28, 2010

A Report Card for CDOT

You probably missed it in the run-up to Christmas, but a new legislative report has again given poor grades to the CDOT.  This report from the General Assembly’s chief investigative panel was released, strangely, on December 23rd, a date that all but guaranteed it would get no news coverage.  Do you think this was by chance?  Hardly.

But credit should go to the excellent online newspaper CT Mirror, which broke the story, and to a few print dailies across the state which picked it up.

In summary, the report said the CDOT is late in finishing its work, especially its most expensive undertakings.  On average, the agency took 5.3 years to finish big projects, with only 37% of work finished on time (think I-95).  That compares with others states’ 57% on-time completions.

Not only were the projects late, 74% of them were over budget with an average added cost of 23%.  Over the decade of work studied, that added up to an additional half-billion of your tax dollars.

Part of the problem is that CDOT has no automated project management system to track these multi-million dollar projects.  In other words, nobody is keeping score.  Nor, in my view, does there seem to be any accountability for mistakes.  In the private sector a batting record this dismal would cause heads to roll.

Of course, there are fewer “heads” at CDOT to roll: the agency today has 20% less staff than in 1990.  Past budget cuts have seen the most experienced engineers accept buy-outs, taking their expertise with them as they exited the agency.  And it’s only going to get worse:  29% of CDOT engineers are over age 50 and are edging toward the door.

Out-sourcing work to consultants doesn’t seem the answer, as their work was slower and more expensive than jobs done in-house by the civil servants.

On the plus side, progress has been made in highway safety.  Connecticut’s annual highway fatality rate of 0.83 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled ranks well below the US average of 1.25 deaths.

Among possible explanations for this good news are that 8.8% of all Connecticut roads are “over capacity” and only 41% of our highways are ranked as giving a “good” ride.  Those factors could slow you down and keep roads safer.

Even federal stimulus money hasn’t been spent all that well.  The long over-due work repairing our rail stations has been uncoordinated and, in my view, inept.  In April the overhead canopies at several rail stations were removed, leaving passengers still standing unprotected from rain and snow seven months later. 

CDOT says the canopies can’t be replaced until overhead caternary wires are replaced on an opposite track.  But they don’t hesitate to plaster these and other ARRA job sites with hundreds of thousands of dollars in signs proclaiming their good works.  At least the sign makers got jobs if not the roof-installers.

While the legislative report does give CDOT points for increased “transparency” in its dealings with the public, the recently announced delay (again) in the delivery and testing of the new M8 rail cars stands in contradiction to that claim.

More candor and communication by the agency on this crucial infrastructure investment could have gone a long way to lessening the cynicism and distrust most have of this agency.

And we still have no idea who our next Governor will chose as Commissioner of the DOT.  Who could possibly want the job?

December 13, 2010

To Florida, By Train

Any regular reader of this column knows my long-held disdain of flying.  The recently added insult of irradiation or proctological examination by the TSA made it a no-brainer when I had to travel this week to Miami on business:  Amtrak all the way.

The Silver Star departs NYC’s Penn Station each day at 11 am.  Its sister train, The Silver Meteor, leaves at 3:15 pm.  Both trains end up in Miami within minutes of each other, but take different routes south of Richmond.  I’m on The Star, which actually goes to Tampa, then on to Miami.

Secure in my roomy bedroom compartment (complete with sink, shower and bathroom), I fire up my radio scanner to hear the conductor call an on-time departure from New York.

Even though our ten-car train (engine, baggage car, two sleepers, dining car, lounge and four coaches) has a mixture of old “heritage fleet” and newer Amfleet equipment, my Blackberry GPS says we’re doing more than 105 mph as we careen thru central New Jersey.

On this Wednesday departure the train is only half-full, though the attendant assures me “she’ll fill up along the way.”  Fares are not cheap. Coach fare NY-Miami is $125, but adding a ”sleeper” on top of that adds $509 for a single-person roomette or $769 for my commodious bedroom.  However, sleeper pricing includes all meals.  And believe me, though the china in the dining car is plastic, the food is freshly cooked and delicious.

Mind you, my own roundtrip is free -- thanks to points accumulated in Amtrak’s excellent Guest Rewards program.  All those Acela and Northeast Corridor trips in recent months really paid off.
On this journey, unlike my “land cruises” out West, the scenery is far from spectacular.  But as the terrain moves from the urban squalor of the Northeast Corridor to the scrub pine of the Carolinas to the palmetto plains of Florida, I can tell I’m transitioning southward.

Our train is on time the entire way, thanks to heavy padding of the schedule at stops where the crew changes and many passengers disembark for a fast smoke.  It’s amazing how fast I can consume a cigar when I know I have limited time (and hours till the next opportunity.)

A couple of Tylenol PM’s and I sleep well through the night, missing stops in Columbia, SC and Savannah, GA.  The CSX track is well maintained, welded rail with none of the “clickety-clack” of olden times.  I awaken just after sunrise and well past Jacksonville, as our zigzag tour of the Sunshine State begins in earnest.

This is the Florida you don’t see from the Interstates:  miles of orange groves filled with fruit… the cattle farms… wild birds taking flight from countless swamps at the sound of the loco’s blasts… and trailer homes tucked into the brush everywhere.  The occasional Christmas trees in small towns just don’t seem to fit.

Instead of heading due south to Miami, we turn inland to Orlando, then west to Tampa.  High speed rail is planned here, but we’re cranking along at 75 mph before we turn on the wye and ignominiously back into Tampa Union Station in Ybor City.  Alas, no time for a tour of the local cigar factories as we board maybe a hundred intra-state riders heading to the east coast.  Our inter-city train from the northeast is now a Florida local serving such hot spots as Lakeland, Winter Haven and Okeechobee before arriving on the Gold Coast (West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami).

At West Palm Beach we start sharing the track with Tri-Rail, Florida’s answer to Metro-North, also paralleling I-95.  Except these trains are newer double-deckers and painted for full effect.  Their gaudy colors are designed to be visible as they zoom past the congested highways, almost taunting the motorists.

It’s raining lightly but about 40 degrees warmer than when we left NYC 30 hours ago.  Hardly tropical.  But the billboards are in Spanish and the city lights of Miami glow in the distance as we arrive five minutes ahead of schedule.

I think it was the folks at Cunard who said “getting there is half the fun.”  Certainly true for cruising, and equally so on Amtrak. 

“Saving Your Transit Benefits… and Your Trains”

Don’t look now, but Congress is about to give motoring commuters a big tax break and take one away from riders of mass transit.
Under current federal law, commuters can deduct up to $230 a month from their pre-tax paychecks to pay for the trips to and from work.  That deduction can cover bus / rail tickets via programs like TransitChek or pay their parking expenses.  But unless Congress acts by the end of the year, the mass transit commuter’s benefit will be cut to $120 per month while the motoring commuter keeps the full benefit. Huh?
Cutting this pre-tax benefit would hurt low income workers the most because they often have no car and must rely on bus and train.  At a time when we’re trying to reduce highway congestion and improve air quality, penalizing mass transit riders and rewarding users of autos makes no sense.
But these tax benefits are for more than commuters.  Employers can save 10% on payroll taxes if they sign up employees for the program.  According to MetroPool, over 100 businesses in Fairfield County hiring over 34,000 workers participate in the commuter pre-tax program.
Here’s an example of the savings:  Let’s say you ride from Fairfield to NYC, and then take the subway.  With a monthly rail pass at $308 and monthly MetroCard at $45, you’d spend $4,200 a year just to get to and from work.  The current commuter benefit defrays 68% of this cost, saving you $1,355 a year in taxes.
But again, this tax break will be cut in half if Congress doesn’t act quickly.
Connecticut’s Senators Dodd and Lieberman are con-sponsors of The Commuter Benefits Equity Act (S 322 / HR 891) which would keep benefits equal for drivers and mass transit users at $230 per month.  Strangely, in the House, none of the co-sponsors are from our state.
If this bill doesn’t come out of Committee and get approved by December 31st 2010, reduced tax benefits for rail and bus riders may incentivize some commuters to get back in their cars.  According to TransitCenter Inc., a drop in the transit benefit will reduce ridership by as much as 9% among commuter benefit users. And you know what that means for traffic.
What can you do?  You need to contact your Congressman and ask him or her to support the bill.  Also, ask your employer’s Human Resources office why they don’t offer these pre-tax benefits, reminding them it’s in their interest as well as yours.
Finally, get in touch with the TSTC (Tri-State Transportation Campaign) at and support their strong advocacy on this and so many other transportation issues.  They are among commuters’ greatest allies.
And while you’re in a mood to contact your elected officials, don’t forget to call or e-mail your State Rep and Senator.  We need their help to defeat Governor Rell’s recent senseless call to shut down trains on the New Canaan, Waterbury and Danbury branch lines.
Just weeks ago I was hailing Governor Rell for her leadership and support of mass transit.  Then she turns around and tries to save $5 million a year by stranding 4,300 daily riders of those lines.  And this, after spending $60 million in federal funds to put signals on the Danbury branch, only to suggest it be shut down? 
Days after her call to close down the trains, she literally “back-tracked”.  Her office called me to say she didn’t mean it, that she was trying to get attention of lawmakers and blaming her budget folks at OPM for putting rail cuts on the list of possible cost savings.
Shame on her for frightening commuters and using them as a political lever.  By admitting she was “crying wolf”, who will take her seriously on the next crisis?

Thank You Governor Rell

Anyone who follows this column knows I’m bipartisan in my criticism.  Whoever is in power, Democrat or Republican, I’ve got “suggestions” on how they could improve our transportation mess.
Since she came to office in the midst of a scandal, no other politician has been the target of my commentary more often than Governor M. Jodi Rell.  Today, however, I want to give her the credit she’s due for all she’s done on the transportation front.
Watching the Governor ride the first of the new M8 rail cars this week, I was struck by how she had come full circle in only six years.  The irony is it took her entire tenure in office to order, design, build, test and finally deliver these new cars.
In Governor Rell’s first budget address to lawmakers in February 2005 she started to undo years of her predecessors’ neglect of our trains.  She told lawmakers we must order 300 new rail cars, and they did.  Mind you, she told us then the cars would be in service by 2008.  I predicted, accurately it turned out, that 2010 was a better guess.
The Governor said riders should pay a small part of their cost with a modest fare hike, and that too was passed by lawmakers.
But Governor Rell also said that commuters shouldn’t pay more until they were actually riding in the new cars… a promise she kept.  As manufacturing delays by Kawasaki slowed delivery of the M8’s, that planned 1.25% fare hike was deferred.   A politician who keeps a promise.  Imagine that.
More recently, Governor Rell also told the New York MTA, parent of Metro-North, there was no way she was going to raise fares in Connecticut to pay for the budget problems of New York’s own making.  That was a first in the troubled history of Connecticut / New York relations, but again the Governor deserves credit for doing the right thing.
But not every dream came true during the Rell administration. 
Grumblings about a lack of a voting seat on the MTA or Metro-North boards never amounted to more than that… grumbling.
And yes, Governor Rell did change Commissioners in the Dept. of Transportation at a pace that left many people wondering who was in charge:  five Commissioners in six years.  One was a former State Trooper, another had run Bradley airport.  The two most recent of them actually had experience in rail transportation.
Wracked by scandals, Governor Rell was embarrassed on several occasions by her DOT, eventually asking local businessman Michael Critelli to study the agency and issue recommendations for reform.  Of course, few of the group’s suggestions were ever embraced.
Long promised repairs to our dilapidated train stations took four years to happen, thanks mainly to Federal stimulus money.  If this work wasn’t “shovel ready”, nothing was.
We’re still not certain if the much-needed New Haven Rail facility will ever be fully built, as its price yo-yoed from $300 million in 2005 to $1.2 billion in 2008.  The Governor’s solution… pay consultants $630,000 for an audit.  Their report found only $11 million in potential cuts.
Still, Governor Rell was a big rail fan, realizing the importance not only of fixing Metro-North, but planning for the future.  Together with fellow lame-duck Senator Chris Dodd, she secured a serious down-payment on high-speed rail between New Haven and Springfield.  Well, maybe not true “high-speed”, but certainly higher speed than Amtrak currently offers.
I’m not sure how Governor-elect Malloy will do on transportation, though he clearly understands the problems from his years as mayor of Stamford.  His dreams for better mass transit will be most tempered by our economic crisis.

But to outgoing Governor Rell all commuters should give a loud “thank you” for all that she accomplished.  She’ll be a hard act to follow.


Enjoying the heatwave this summer?  The electric utilities sure are.  And just wait ‘til you get your next bill.   They’ve been warning us...