January 27, 2017

"Getting There": Who Should Pay for Sound Barriers?

Building and maintaining our highways is expensive.  But here’s a quiz question:  on interstates 95 and 84, what costs a half-million dollars a mile to construct?  The answer:  sound barriers.

Why are we spending that kind of money to enshroud our interstates simply to protect the peace and quiet of its neighbors?  Didn’t they know that living that close to a highway came with the twin costs of increased noise and air pollution along with the benefits of proximity to the highways?

Do you have sympathy for people who live near airports and then complain about the jets?  Neither do I.   But the solution to highway noise is not to create a walled canyon paid for by others.

Sound barriers, in my view, are a waste of precious resources.  They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or do anything about congestion.  And they’re a magnet for graffiti artists.  Three miles of sound barriers on both sides of an interstate would buy another M8 railcar for Metro-North, taking 100 passengers out of their cars.

Worse yet, sound barriers really just reflect the sound, not absorb it, sending the noise further afield.  But there are alternatives:

1)     Why not sound-proof the homes?  That has worked well for neighbors of big airports and would be a lot cheaper than miles of sound barriers.  Plus, insulation against sound also insulates against energy loss, saving money.

2)    Rubberized asphalt.  Let’s reduce the highway noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”.  Using the latest in rubberized asphalt some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise.  And rubberized asphalt, as its name implies, is made from old tires… about 12 million a year that would otherwise be junked.

3)    Pay for it yourself.  Create special taxing zones in noisy neighborhoods and let those home owners pay for their sound barriers.  They’re the ones who are benefiting, so shouldn’t they be the ones who pay?  And that investment will easily be recouped in increased property values.

4)    Penalize the noise makers.  Let’s crack down on truckers who “Jake brake”, downshifting noisily to slow their speed instead of using their real brakes.  And motorcyclists or those cars with busted mufflers, they too should be penalized.

5)    Go electric.  Electric cars are virtually silent.  And there are electronic ways of using noise cancellation technology that, on a large scale, can induce quiet at a lower price than building wooden barricades.

6)    Go absorbent.  Where there is room, erect earthen berms alongside the highway which will absorb the sound.  Or if you are constructing sound barriers, fill them with sound absorbing material, treating the noise like a sponge, not bouncing it off a hard, flat reflective surface.

Our interstates, especially I-95, are carrying far more traffic than they were ever planned to handle.  And there is no sign of it decreasing.  In Fairfield County the rush hour starts about 6 am and runs continuously until 8 pm without a break.

If our state’s economy depends on these highways we will have to live with the karmic cost of a little noise.  But if it’s too much to take, why ask others to pay for its remediation when they are the only ones benefiting from that spending?

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 13, 2017

"Getting There": CDOT's Doomsday Scenario

As the legislature reconvenes this week in Hartford, all are buzzing about filling the predicted $41 million deficit in the state’s budget.  While the Governor is again pledging no tax increases (we’ve heard that before!), the alternatives are looking pretty ugly.
For the state’s Department of Transportation it may mean drastic cuts in services and staffing with long term implications… what I’m calling the “Doomsday Scenario”.

A few months ago, the state’s Office of Policy and Management asked each department to come up with a plan for an additional 10% budget cut on top of last year’s reduction of the same amount.  Commuters will remember how that last cut was partially funded:  with fare increases.  But this time, CDOT planners say that’s not an option because it would take too long.

According to the CDOT’s own plan, here’s what another 10% budget cut would mean to that agency and everyone in the state:

HIGHWAYS:    Patching potholes and repairing cracks on our highways would be curtailed.  Tree removal, fence and drainage repairs would be reduced or eliminated.  Highway Rest Areas (not Service Areas) would be closed, replaced by porta-potties.

IMPACT:   Worsening road conditions causing more damage to cars and costly repairs.  Predictions of vandalism at closed Rest Areas.

WINTER:   Elimination of 220 contract snow plow operators would mean cycle times for plowing would go from 2 hours to 3+ hours on secondary roads (but not Rt 1, I-95 or the Parkways).

IMPACT:  Less plowing means some secondary roads will be impassible during heavy storms.

RAIL SERVICE:   Postpone the planned opening of the new Hartford Line (commuter rail from New Haven) to 2018.  Reduced weekend and weekday off-peak service on Waterbury and Danbury Lines and 50% cut in service on Shore Line East.

IMPACT:   Delay in opening Hartford Line could make the Feds request refund of $200 million in construction funding.  Cuts in rail service would affect state’s economy and “attractiveness” to people looking for a new home.  Highways could gridlock as more commuters are forced to drive.

BUS SERVICE:   Cut subsidies to municipal transit districts by 50%.  CT Transit bus service would be cut 15 – 20%.  Funding for new bus purchases would be cut.

IMPACT:   Greatest impact on minority, economically stressed populations with no transportation alternatives.  Less bus service, more car traffic, more delays.  Funding cut would mean new bus purchases would have to be bonded instead of bought with 80% Federal funding.

CDOT STAFF:   Layoffs of 6% of existing workforce, 213 positions.  Curtailed planning for widening I-84 in Danbury, West Rock Tunnel on Wilbur Cross, design of I-91 / 691 / Rt 15 interchange and planning and design for widening I-95.   Staff cuts in Finance and Administration would delay contract awards, contractor and municipal payments, highway safety campaigns and environmental permits.

IMPACT:   Though one of the largest state agencies as measured by number of employees, these layoffs on top of last year’s staff cuts would leave CDOT 15% below predicted staffing needs projected for 2019.  Planning for new projects would be in gridlock, possibly imperiling Federal funding grant applications.

If any of these cuts happen it will hasten a vicious cycle of less service and more delays encouraging even more people to leave the state, further reducing tax collections.  Now would be the time to tell your lawmakers in Hartford that we must avoid “Doomsday”.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There": Transportation Predictions for 2017

Everybody writes “year in review” stories, but not me.  Instead, I’m going to predict the future and tell you what’s going to happen in transportation next year!

METRO-NORTH:   The new M8 cars will perform well in the winter, but the aging tracks, switches and catenary (overhead power lines) will continue to suffer breakdowns, causing delays.  Ridership will continue to climb, causing further rush-hour crowding until new railcars start arriving in 2019.

GASOLINE PRICES:    The party’s over, folks.  Gasoline prices will continue to rise as OPEC gets its act together to limit oil production.  These rising prices will nudge American drillers and producers back in the game, but it may be months until resumed domestic consumption matches reduced imports.

STAMFORD GARAGE:   As I predicted last year, CDOT finally pulled the plug on its 3+ year unsigned deal with private developer JHM Group to demolish the old station garage and build a mixed use office / condo / hotel building.  But CDOT vows to revisit the P3 (public private partnership) concept, only this time I predict they will have learned their lesson and will find ways to engage and inform the public in their planning.

STATE TAKE-OVER:   They’ve been quietly working toward this for years, but I predict that the CDOT will finally announce they plan to takeover all rail station parking on the New Haven line, standardizing rates and permit wait lists.  Expect a huge fight from the towns, but the state will win. Doesn’t it always?

FLYING:    It’s the beginning of the end for the 747, especially with fuel prices increasing.  Fewer of the jumbos will be flying, replaced by much more fuel efficient mid-sized craft like the 787.  Even the mega-jumbo A380 double-deckers may have seen their day.  Ironically, in 2017 there will be renewed interest in a commercial supersonic jetliner to save time for the ultra-rich who are willing to pay.

INTERSTATE 95:   Traffic will only get worse on I-95 as the legislature hems and haws over Gov. Malloy’s call for its widening.  Despite a 2004 study that said that using break-down lanes for rush-hour traffic was unsafe and would yield little traffic improvement, the CDOT’s new $2 million consultant study will, (surprise!),  support the scheme.  But budget cuts may kill the plan, for now.

LET’S GO CT:   Governor Malloy’s $100 billion transportation scheme will remain stuck, just like his political career.  (Hillary didn’t get elected and he didn’t get plucked from his budget-balancing woes in Hartford to serve in her administration.)  Still, the Governor will continue to criss-cross the state, ballyhooing the need for transportation spending. But without a legislative “lock box” on transportation dollars, none of his funding mechanisms (tolls, vehicle-miles and sales taxes) will be embraced by lawmakers.

TRUMP MONEY:    This is the real wild card which, like the President-elect himself, is hard to predict.  “Donald the Builder” has spoken about spending $1 trillion to rebuild America’s roads, rails, airports and ports.  But he has to get a reluctant Congress to find and then agree to spend that money.  If he does, expect even the bluest of states like Connecticut to be clamoring for their share.  And maybe, just maybe, Connecticut will get some, meaning the Malloy transportation “plan” (being “shovel ready”) will find new life.

No guts, no glory.  Those are my predictions for the year ahead!

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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