June 24, 2013

Another Gas Tax Increase?

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Mianus River Bridge collapse, which killed three people.  That accident on I-95 in Greenwich was attributed to years of neglected inspections and maintenance, the inevitable result of penny-pinching in Hartford.
Will the recent Metro-North crash (which injured 76 passengers) also be tied to long-postponed repairs?
Last week, the CDOT’s Commissioner testified before US Senator Blumenthal that Connecticut has spent $3.2 billion in the last decade on the New Haven rail line, while Amtrak spent just $64 million.  And all that spending still couldn’t prevent the May 17 derailment.
But Commissioner James Redeker also said there’s another $4.5 billion needed to bring the line into a “state of good repair” in the short term.  That includes work on the catenary and replacement of four movable bridges, some of them 100+ years old.  Layer on top of this $130 million to meet the federal mandate for PTC (Positive Train Control), and you can see the problem.
Where’s the money to come from? 
Well, it will come from you and me.  On July 1st we will all start paying an additional 4 cents per gallon for gasoline, tax money that will go into the Special Transportation Fund (STF), supposedly to be spent on rails and roads.
But remember that it was Governor Malloy who (again) balanced this year’s state budget by raiding $110 million from that STF, something that, as a candidate, he swore he would never do.  Voters will decide if that makes Malloy a hypocrite… or just a pragmatist.  Either way, future Governors won’t be able to do it again as the legislature has voted to put the STF into an untouchable “lock box” starting in 2015, after the next election.
Over the past decade various lawmakers and Governors have stolen a billion dollars from the STF.  So not only are we about $4.5 billion short on needed funds for rail repairs, but the STF has been treated like a petty cash box and drained it at will.
How sad it is when we have to balance our state’s budget by taking money targeted for keeping our rails and highways safe… not to mention starting a state-wide Keno game, basically a “tax” on those ignorant enough to play it (with odds of about 9 million to one of winning the jackpot).
Kudos to Senator Blumenthal for pushing safety as a top priority.  Maybe he can also get Amtrak to start paying its fair share for running trains over our (state-owned and maintained) tracks.
But it’s not just our rails that are in bad shape.  This week the group Transportation for America released its annual report on the deterioration of US highway bridges:  one in nine of those bridges is structurally deficient and in need of repair or replacement.  In Connecticut, that number has grown, not declined, since last year.
Yet, our DOT is still moving forward with a half-billion dollar rebuild of the structurally sound Waterbury “mix-master” where Route 8 crosses I-84.  Why?
So, next time you’re filling your tank with the priciest gasoline in the Northeast, pick-up a Keno ticket.  You might have a better chance of winning there than ever seeing your taxes spent on improving transportation safety.

June 09, 2013

Metro-North In Crisis?

“Is it safe to ride Metro-North?”   I’ve been asked that question by reporters and commuters alike dozens of times in recent weeks.  My answer in a moment, after some background.

Days ago the NTSB released its initial report on the cause of the May 17th derailment and subsequent collision of two trains, a report that seemed to fault the railroad, not just our aging tracks.  The federal safety agency says that just two days before the accident, a Metro-North inspection identified a problem at the site of the derailment:  an insulated joint connecting two sections of track that had insufficient ballast (the large gravel supporting the ties).  As trains rolled over the joint, the track moved up and down, straining the joint.

Metro-North admits its track crews found the problem but says that they didn’t think it serious enough to close the track or issue a “slow order”.  The question is, why?  Shouldn’t the railroad always err on the side of safety?  Was the weak spot slated for repairs?  If so, when?

Days later, another tragedy:  a Metro-North track worker was struck by an oncoming train near West Haven.  This accident seems to have been caused by human error:  a rookie in traffic control reportedly cleared signals for the work area, sending the train at full speed into the area workers thought was shut to traffic.  Metro-North President Howard Permut called the accident “the worst… in Metro-North’s history.”

Metro-North worker and managers are not stupid.  They are highly trained and want to run a world class railroad that’s safe and on-time.  But they are only human and are under tremendous pressure, exacerbated by a serious loss of experienced staff.

Since the first of the year, 34 managers have retired including the senior vice president of operations, the senior construction engineer, the chief training officer and assistant director of track projects.  Many engineers, conductors and track workers have also retired, because after 30 years on the job they are eligible to leave with full pension benefits.

"Right now, this is a tinderbox," Anthony Bottalico, general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees (ACRE) told The NY Daily News.  

"The loss of thousands of years of experience is something we have all warned about for years," Bottalico said in a letter to Permut. " Our employees and managers tell me they see a railroad in dysfunction, a railroad more concerned with budgets and long meetings and (with) no attention to actual management of the operations."

According to a report in the NY Post, the Federal Transit Administration is so concerned they have twice warned Metro-North’s parent, the MTA, they need to bring in experienced managers for mega-projects like the Second Avenue subway.  Morale is down even among remaining managers who haven’t seen a pay hike in years.

The railroad knew this was coming.  But has it done enough to promote from within or bring in fresh talent from other railroads.  And who wants to go from being an engineer (earning up to $175,000) into management and take a pay cut?

Even with new hires, there are problems.  Chris Silvera, the head of the track workers union told Newsday: "We are a very young workforce, a very inexperienced workforce. We're used to having people with 15, 16 years of experience doing these jobs. We're not able to do that anymore. When you've got all rookies on the team you have to have leadership."

So, is it safe to ride Metro-North?  Yes, I think it is… and I do.

Since these two accidents, vigilance has been redoubled.  I’m sure everyone on the railroad is thinking “safety” first and foremost, as they should.

So the next time your train is delayed a few minutes or seems to be running slow, don’t complain.  It’s probably for a good reason… keeping you, your fellow passengers and the folks that work 24 x 7 to run the busiest commuter railroad in the US safe!


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...