April 30, 2017

"Getting There" - Who Sets Our Speed Limits ?

Crawling along I-95 the other day in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic, I snickered when I noticed the “Speed Limit 55” sign alongside the highway.  We wish!
Of course, when the highway is not jammed, speeds are more like 70 mph, with the legal limit, unfortunately, rarely being enforced.  Which got me thinking:  who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?
Why is the speed limit on I-95 in Fairfield County only 55 mph but 65 mph east of New Haven?  And why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the NY border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”?  Does the eastern half of the state get a break because nobody lives there?
Well, you can blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT for all the above.  This body regulates everything from speed limits to traffic signals, working with local traffic authorities (usually local Police Departments, mayors or Boards of Selectmen).
OSTA is also responsible for traffic rules for trucks (usually lower speed limits),  including the ban on their use of the left hand lane on I-95 in most places.
It was the Federal government (Congress) that dropped the Interstate speed limit to 55 mph in 1973 during the oil crisis, only to raise it to 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the Federal speed limit altogether in 1995 (followed by a national 21% increase in fatal crashes),  leaving it to each state to decide what’s best.
In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads permit 80 mph.  Trust me… having recently driven 1000+ miles in remote stretches of Utah, things happen very fast when you’re doing 80 – 85 mph!  Fast means dangerous.
Driving too slow can also get you in trouble as many states are now ticketing drivers hanging out in the left-hand passing lane if they’re slowing down traffic.
About half of Germany’s famed Autobahns have speed limits of 100 km/hr (62 mph), but outside of the cities the top speed is discretionary. A minimum of 130 km/hr (81 mph) is generally the rule, but top speed can often be 200 km/hr (120 mph).
Mind you, the Autobahn is a superbly maintained road system without the bone-rattling potholes and divots we enjoy on our highways.  And the German-built Mercedes and Audis on these roads are certainly engineered for such speed.
American cars are designed more for fuel efficiency than speed. Best gas mileage is achieved by driving in the 55 – 60 mph range.  Speed up to 65 mph and your engine runs 8% less efficient.  At 70 mph the loss is 17%.  That adds up to more money spent on gasoline and more environmental pollution, all to save a few minutes of driving time.
But an even bigger for the loss of fuel efficiency is aerodynamic drag, which can eat up to 40% of total fuel consumption.  Lugging bulky roof-top cargo boxes worsens fuel economy by 25% at interstate speeds.  So does carrying junk in your trunk (or a lot of passengers!):  a 1% penalty for every 100 pounds.

Even with cheaper gasoline, it all adds up… at any speed.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

April 26, 2017

"Getting There" - The Smartest Guy In Transportation

Jim Redeker has the best job in transportation.  And the toughest. 

As Commissioner of Transportation for CT for the past six years, he’s guided the agency through hundreds of millions of dollars in spending while managing three competing taskmasters:  his boss, Governor Malloy… the legislature, which controls his budget… and commuters / drivers who depend on his product.

Redeker has successfully managed all three.

I’ve known the Commissioner for all his years in Connecticut and always considered him the smartest guy in the room. But last Monday I watched him in action in a venue he told me he actually enjoys: a commuter forum sponsored by Danbury line politicians.

Organized by St Rep Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton), the single best commuter advocate in the State House, it was held on the first night of Passover in a week of school vacations, so the crowds were thin.  The 780 seat Clune auditorium at Wilton HS was empty aside from the 30 or so commuters spread across the room.  On the dais, a long table filled with area State Representatives and Senators looked like The Last Supper with Commissioner Redeker as the main course.

“Why was there no publicity for this event on the trains or at the stations?,” asked one commuter.  No answer.  “Why was I stuck three times this winter on diesel trains with no explanation from conductors?”  No answer.  “Why do we pay all the taxes but get nothing back from Hartford?”  No answer, even from the pols.

Redeker was pacing himself, giving each complainer a chance to vent, then cherry-picking which issue to address.  When he didn’t have an answer (which was rare), he said so.  But when he did have a response (most often), he nailed it.

“Why does the New Canaan branch have more trains at lower fares?”   Easy one:  the New Canaan branch is electrified and has twice the ridership.  “The Danbury branch only has 1400 daily passengers,” said Redeker.  “That works out to a per-trip subsidy of $17.  Now if we had better service we’d probably have more riders.  I just don’t have the money.”

Surprisingly, only a few of the 11 Hartford lawmakers on the dais said anything all evening.  Given their budget-juggling skills, they offered no explanation or optimism for improved funding of mass transit.

But to the downtrodden Dashing Dans and Danielle’s, the Commissioner offered some hope:  new rail cars for the branch lines are coming (in about 4 years) and old diesel locomotives are being rebuilt.

Less satisfied were residents of semi-rural Georgetown and Redding who complained about the trains’ noise pollution:  constant horn-blowing and bell-ringing at crossing gates.  Three folks from Metro-North sitting in the auditorium were mute as neighbors said they were afraid to complain ‘lest train engineers retaliate by leaning on the horn.

“We want express trains,” said several commuters.  “We want you to re-open the Wall Street station in downtown Norwalk,” said others.  Well which do you want, asked Redeker… more stations or fewer stops?  “Both,” seemed the reply.

The highlight of the evening for me was when a woman from Norwalk said she actually supported highway tolls.  The table of lawmakers looked like they’d found a turd in the punchbowl while Redeker suppressed a grin.

I’ve had my fights with Commissioner Redeker over the years, but I’ve never envied his job.  We are lucky to have him with us as CDOT Commissioner.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 14, 2017

"Getting There" - The Greatest Railroad NEVER Built

What happens when a great transportation idea gets ahead of itself?  Consider the story of the greatest American railroad that never got built.

We are all familiar with The Twentieth Century Limited and The Broadway Limited, the crack trains of the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads that ran for decades between New York and Chicago.

Those daily trains defined deluxe, pampering passengers with plush Pullman cars, fine dining and even an on-train barber shop.  But they each took 16 hours to make the run because they took different circuitous routes.  The NY Central followed the “water level route” north to Albany, then across upstate New York and down the coast of Lake Erie.  The Pennsylvania RR journeyed south to Philadelphia, then west to Pittsburgh and beyond.

Today on Amtrak the NYC to Chicago run takes 19 hours following the route of the Twentieth Century.  Compare that to modern Chinese high speed trains that run from Beijing to Shanghai (about the same distance as NY to Chicago) in just five hours.

But way back in 1905, inventor Alexander Miller had a better idea:  build a brand new, flat and straight interurban railroad that would run directly between the two cities, The Chicago – New York Electric Air Line Railroad.

The train would be “faster than the limited” and make the run in 10 hours for $10 a ticket.  Powered by the new marvel of electricity, the train could operate at a third the cost of steam engines.  And by running in a straight line the 743 mile route would be 168 to 237 miles shorter than its competitors.  In principal, it was brilliant.  And the timing was perfect.

Mind you, its interurban cars (think trolley cars on steroids) might not be as plush, but they would average 70+ mph thanks to the almost flat grade of one percent and no pesky grade crossings.  There would also be few stops as the route would bypass all major cities.  And this train would be fast… 100 mph on the straight-aways!

Five million dollars worth of stock was issued with shareholders promised first priority for thousands of potential jobs.  Railroads were the dot-coms of the era, and people rushed to invest.

With no bonded debt, the company’s prospectus promised stock dividends of 14% on top of the shares’ appreciation. You just couldn’t lose!

Construction began from west to east, as the railroad opened in stages to help pay for itself and further building toward New York.  A mighty four track railroad, akin to Metro-North, was envisioned and it was hoped that the project would be completed in just ten years.  Spur lines would be constructed to serve the cities by-passed by the “air line”.

Then, reality set in with the depression of 1907 – 1908.  Construction got as far as Gary Indiana, about 25 miles from Chicago, when the money started to run out.  The engineering of this mighty railroad was just too expensive.

Shareholders revolted when news came that the railroad’s officers were getting fat paychecks as the coffers were drained.  A hoped-for bailout by British banks never happened.

Shareholders lost everything.  And the impending arrival of automobiles might have doomed the line anyway.  Even The Twentieth Century and Broadway Ltd eventually succumbed to the competition of true “air lines”.

But for a brief moment, a century ago, a dream almost became a reality in the greatest railroad that never was.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 10, 2017

"Getting There": It's Time for Tolls

Nobody likes the idea of paying tolls.  But tolls are coming back to Connecticut and I just wish that lawmakers in Hartford would honest with us about why.

We are running out of money for the Special Transportation Fund, that’s why.  And none of the re-funding alternatives are attractive:  vehicle miles tax, sales tax, gas tax and yes, tolls.  But tolls on our highways would not be a tax.

Tolls are a user fee.  You only pay a toll if you drive. If you use mass transit or ride a bike, you pay no tolls.  Doesn’t that seem fairer than taxing everyone, even those who don’t drive?

Let me dispel a few other myths about highway tolling being spread by dishonest pols:

TOLLS ARE NOT SAFE:  When is the media going to stop telling us that tolls were eliminated in Connecticut because of the “fiery truck crash” at a toll barrier in Stratford in 1983?  Tolls are collected thousands of times a minute in NY and NJ without a single toll booth or fiery truck crash.  EZ-Pass toll collection is fast and safe.

WASHINGTON WON’T LET US TOLL:    Not so.  The Federal Highway Administration has told Hartford that we can toll I-95 and I-84 if tolling is used to manage traffic as opposed to just raise money.

TOLLS SLOW TRAFFIC:  In fact, the opposite is true.  With barrier free tolls, cars don’t slow down.  And by making people pay for the privilege of driving on a major highway (especially at rush hour), those that don’t want to pay won’t drive then, making for less traffic and a faster ride for those who are willing to pay.

LET’S JUST TOLL OUT-OF-STATERS:                     Sorry, that’s against the law.  These are our highways so we all should pay for them.  And PS:  we all pay tolls when we drive in NY and NJ, so why are we now giving those states’ residents a free ride in Connecticut?

TOLLS WILL DIVERT TRAFFIC TO LOCAL ROADS:          Maybe so for the first week or two.  If people would rather drive on Route 1 instead of paying a 50 cent tolls on I-95 they obviously don’t value their time, so let ‘em:  it will just mean a faster ride (and less traffic) on the toll road for us who do.

TOLL MONEY WILL BE MIS-USED:     I share this concern and think nobody will support tolls or taxes until we have a “lock box” on transportation funds to be certain they are not mis-appropriated.  But the absence of a lock-box is not an excuse to deny the need for funding.

THE ROADS SHOULD BE FREE:          Every time we hit a pothole on a highway or bridge that should have been repaired, we’re paying a toll.  Maintaining our interstates is expensive and paying a toll for road repairs seems cheaper than paying for blown tires, alignments and bent rims.  A recent study says those car repairs average $864 a year for every Connecticut motorist.

But why am I the only one talking about the value of tolls?   Where’s the Governor, our transportation advocate?  Where’s the Commissioner of the DOT?  Why aren’t they explaining the why’s and how’s of modern tolling?

Even the Democrats who voted tolling bills out of committee for broader debate are reluctant to make the case that it’s time for tolls.  And nay-saying opponents of tolls, pandering to the public, are offering no alternatives.

Shame on all of them.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 01, 2017

"Getting There": How & Where to Complain About Metro-North

You may start your day with a cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast.  I start my day by reading complaints about Metro-North: e-mails, tweets and social media posts by fellow commuters who don’t know where to turn for help.  Such is the life of a “commuter advocate”.

The problem is that every ride on Metro-North is controlled by many different agencies and there’s no way for commuters to know who’s responsible.  For years I offered a simple solution:  a sign at every station explaining who was in charge of parking, the station, the conditions on the trains, etc…. and names and phone numbers of whom to contact. 

Lacking this simple signage, I suggest the following:

HOW TO COMPLAIN:            You must be specific:  date, time, location and names.  Simply saying “my train is always late” gives nobody any actionable information.  But saying “train #634, the 7:31 out of Westport has a standing-room-only condition on dates X and Y because it is operating with six cars and used to have seven” gives folks a chance to analyze a problem and maybe find a solution.

WHERE TO COMPLAIN:       Here’s where it gets tricky.  You must direct your complaint to the proper agency with operating authority.

STATION PARKING:             In most cases, station parking is run by the Town where the station is located, so call Town Hall.  (Stamford and Bridgeport are notable exceptions as the CDOT manages both the stations and the adjacent parking.)

THE TRAIN STATIONS:       Though owned by the CDOT, the stations are operated by the Towns.  If your station waiting-room is locked, leaving you standing on a freezing platform, call City Hall.

TIMETABLES:           The trains operate on a schedule jointly agree to by CDOT and Metro-North.  But don’t waste your time appealing to either because you don’t like the service.  Instead, got to the folks who control their budgets:  your state elected officials.  You’ll find a search engine for those pols on our Commuter Action Group website (see below).

CONDITIONS ON THE TRAIN:         In this case, Metro-North is responsible.  Buried on their website you’ll find an e-complaint template (there’s also a direct link to it on our www.CommuterActionGroup.org website.  Fill it out with specific information every time you see a problem and ask for a follow-up.  Sadly, once acknowledged, we have no way of knowing if the railroad ever does anything to address the issues.

TRAIN PERSONNEL:            Unhappy with a conductor or train engineer?  Complain to Metro-North with specific information, including names or descriptions.  Get the names and contact info for other witnesses.  If a complaint actually escalates to disciplinary action, be prepared to attend a hearing.

GRAND CENTRAL:               Don’t like the fact that your train always arrives on the lower level?  Unhappy that the bar carts are still missing after three months.  Complain to Metro-North and cc your elected officials.

FARES:           Fares in Connecticut are set by CDOT, not Metro-North.  There’s always a public hearing process before new fares go into effect, but it’s all just “political theater”:  cathartic but ineffective.  The people who really control fares are your elected officials in the legislature.

It shouldn’t be so confusing as to where to complain.  Nor should we be so cynical about the lack of response.  But we are dealing here with local and state agencies running a monopoly, not a competitive, for-profit, customer-oriented business.

Still, as Edmund Burke once said:  “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.  So do something:  complain!

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media


In my college days I did some strange stuff… like driving all night from Chicago to NYC, hitting 75 mph on Interstate 80, just me and the tr...