December 15, 2017

"Getting There" - How will the Real ID Act affect you?

Something like 1.73 million Americans board airplanes ever day.  And each of them must go through a very necessary screening by the TSA, the Transportation Security Agency.  But beginning in late January 2018, a lot of passengers will be denied boarding because they don’t have the right kind of ID.

You can thank (or blame) the Real ID Act passed by Congress in 2005 after 9/11 to make sure people really are who they claim to be.  As any teen can tell you, it’s too easy to obtain a fake ID.  And if teens can do it, terrorists can also.

Because most people rely on their state driver’s license as ID, it’s been up to the states to gain compliance with the Federal rules.  A lot of those states are not in compliance, but Connecticut has passed the test, sort of.

If you’ve recently renewed your Connecticut license you know you were given an option:  get a “regular” license or a “verified” ID.  To get a verified license you needed to bring extra proof to the DMV:  a US passport, birth certificate, original Social Security card, etc.

Look at your CT license and you’ll easily see the difference.  If yours has a gold star in the upper right corner, you’re verified.  No gold star, NOT verified… meaning that as of 2020 your license will NOT be enough ID to get you on an airplane. That license clearly says “Not for Federal Identification”.  But for now, any CT driver’s license will get you past TSA.

Sure, you can always use your US Passport as ID.  It’s the gold standard and requires all kinds of identity proof to be issued. But if you don’t have a passport and don’t have a gold star on your CT driver’s license, starting in 2020 you’ll have to start thinking about taking Amtrak or driving.

Only about 40% of all Americans have a passport.  Compare that to countries like Canada (60%) or the UK (70%).  Considering the fact that millions of Americans have never even been out of the country, why would they need one? (PS:  Isn’t it amazing how those same people always say the USA is #1 having no point of comparison?)

Leaving aside the paranoids who think that having a passport is an invasion of privacy because they are now embedded with RFID chips containing who-knows-what kind of information about you, we should all have a passport. And getting one is pretty easy.

There are more than 8000 Passport Offices in the US, most of them US Post Offices or libraries which will process applications certain days each month.  But the main Passport Office for our state is in Stamford.  You can also file your application by mail, but only for renewals.  First time applicants must appear in person with all their documentation.

Mind you, US Passports are not cheap:  $110 for first time applicants, plus $25 application fee.  Renewals are also $110 and “expedited” passports are an extra $60.

Turn-around time on your application can be anywhere from two to six weeks.  There are also private services that claim to be able to get you a new passport in one day, but they’ll cost you.

So the bad news is:  if you don’t have a passport already, may need one eventually.  The good news is, December is a great time to apply as it’s the Passport Office’s “slow season”, compared to the summer travel rush.   Happy traveling!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 08, 2017

"Getting There" - Feeling Sorry for Dan Malloy

Six words I never thought I’d write:  “I feel sorry for Dannel Malloy”.

Sure, we’ve had our differences. And yeah, the Governor does have the personality of a porcupine and the disposition of a bully, sometimes.  But the man is not evil and he doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him now.  Nor do we.

Our Governor is a lame duck.  Because he’s announced he’s not running for re-election, he has the political clout of a used teabag.  And even though he’s our state’s leader for another eleven months, nobody cares about him or his ideas any longer.

Legislative leaders declared him “irrelevant” during the budget negotiations, ignoring his ideas and then handing him a billion dollar problem.  Sure, they met for weeks and hammered out a compromise budget, but it wasn’t balanced unless the Governor specified over $1 billion in cuts.

Lawmakers didn’t have the guts to order the cuts themselves. They made Malloy do it so he would take the blame, not them.  So when the Governor cut municipal aid, social serves and education, our lawmakers feigned shock and anger.

More importantly, whatever happened to the Governor’s (and our) transportation dreams?  What became of “Let’s Go CT”, his 30-year, $100 billion “plan” to rebuild our roads and rails?  It’s pretty derailed, like his political clout.

Sure, legislators scraped together a few million to “ramp up” the grand plan.  And about $5 million to do more studies on widening I-95 and improving rail service.  But our state’s Special Transportation Fund (STF) is going to run out of money within a year or so if we don’t find new funding sources.  No money in the STF means no new projects, no road repairs and, probably, cuts in mass transit.

None of the new funding ideas for transportation are popular, which is why lawmakers (facing re-election) couldn’t pull the trigger on tolls or taxes, knowing there would be no appetite for any added costs to transportation among skeptical voters… unless there was a “lock box”.

Even then-candidate Malloy broke his own promise to not use the STF like a petty cash box to balance the budget.  Which is why he pushed hard to safeguard those funds from future Governors:  with a lock box we would know that our tolls and taxes could only be spent on transportation.

Tolls could bring in $62 billion over 25 years, 20-30% of that revenue coming from out of state residents.  Imagine what that money would do for our roads and mass transit.

Yes, lawmakers did vote to move the lock box idea to a 2018 referendum.  But the Democrats’ lock box is no more than a sieve to Republicans who think it can be “picked with a bobby pin”.

Without a lock box, nobody will support new revenue.  And without money, the STF will be bone dry in a few years and Malloy’s transportation dreams will be dead.

Somewhere in Hartford, maybe at the State Library, I imagine there’s a special room where plans like “Let’s Go CT” go to die.  I envision that room as stacked ceiling to floor with scores of multi-million dollar consultant studies on how to fix our transportation crisis.   A few have been read.  Fewer still acted upon.  Almost none have been funded.

So yes, I feel sorry for Dannel Malloy.  But mostly I feel sorry for us.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 02, 2017

"Getting There" Seniors and Transportation

None of us is getting any younger.  Which is why we should all start thinking now about the challenges that seniors face when it comes to “getting there”.

That’s one of the top priorities of the SWCAA, the Southwest Connecticut Agency on Aging.  Because, to maintain an independent life, seniors need to be able to get from their homes to doctors appointments, social engagements and even volunteer work. And their care-givers need to be able to get to their clients’ homes.

In the SWCAA region (Greenwich to Stratford) 20% of all residents are over age 60.  By 2020 that proportion will be 25%.  And with aging come issues of vision and cognition, especially behind the wheel.

Giving up your private car is a much-feared rite of passage for seniors, usually prompted by coaxing from their kids who start noticing dented fenders.  The DMV has no mandatory retirement age for driving, though if you accumulate enough points on your license you may need re-testing.

That’s not to say there aren’t folks over the age of 90 who are still good drivers.  But seniors are also smart enough to avoid driving on the interstates and the parkways and they don’t like driving at night.

With both parents often holding down daytime jobs, it’s often the senior who’s tasked with picking up grandchildren after school in addition to tending to their own numerous medical appointments.

But what happens when seniors lose their cars and the sense of independence they provides?  They become isolated, sometimes going days without social interaction, provoking depression and even accelerating dementia.

That’s why SWCAA is doing a regional assessment of all our towns and cities to see what alternatives might be available.  Clearly in big cities like Stamford and Bridgeport there’s mass transit.  But in rural towns like Monroe and Weston, there’s none.

Most communities do have some sort of ADA transportation, but that’s only if you can prove you’re disabled.  While mandated by the Federal government, such senior shuttles only guarantee a 30 minute window when it comes to pick-ups, often leaving clients anxiously waiting outside in the cold, worrying if they’ve missed their ride.

Even in communities with bus service, seniors may not be big fans if they have to walk long distances to the bus stop… or cope with long walks home carrying groceries.

Sometimes church groups will organize driver-volunteers while in more affluent towns there are non-profits that specialize in assisting their residents aging issues, including transportation.

Another attractive alternative are services like Uber and Lyft which whisk you door to door, on demand.  But even these services have problems:  they’re not affordable if you’re poor and not accessible if you don’t know how to run a smartphone app.

SWCAA is hoping that a special “senior version” of Lyft and Uber can be developed where seniors can call a dispatcher to book a ride and handle payments.  That way the seniors have someone they can talk to, someone who can also follow-up and make sure they got to their destination safely.  That “human touch” means a lot.

Self-driving cars may soon be on our streets, but we’ll see if seniors feel comfortable with that tech, too.

Whatever the alternative, transportation is essential to keeping our seniors active and engaged.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - The New Canaan Club Car

We all dream about traveling first class.  Big comfy seats, real food and free drinks.  This is the only way to fly.

But did you know that there used to be a handful of private, first-class “club cars” on the New Haven Railroad’s commuter trains?  Among the most legendary was one that ran from New Canaan from 1908 to 1976, car # 5113.

Fortunately, the New Canaan Historical Society has preserved all of the original paperwork for private club known as “The New Canaan Car” (NCC).  And the story is fascinating.

The plush custom-built car carried about 60 passengers, half the load of a regular coach.  The car had its own buffet from which an attendant, Willie Spaulding (who worked for 26 
Attendant Willie Spauling at Christmas
years), dispensed continental breakfast in the morning and poured adult beverages in the evening.

Pulled on train #331 in the morning, the private car left New Canaan at 7:43 am, arriving at Grand Central by 8:48.  The return run on train #332 left at 5:09 pm and was back in New Canaan by 6:15.

Membership was not cheap.  In 1966 initiation fees were $200 and the monthly surcharge was $100, not including the price of the ticket.  By 1974 the NCC was paying Penn Central $69,300 a year to haul its private car.

Over the years I had heard rumors about this railroad “unicorn”… often reported but seldom seen.  And one of the rumors was that this gentlemen’s club did not allow women members.  Not so from reading their By Laws.  But neither did their membership directory ever show a female’s name as far as I could find.

Members were allowed to bring guests (even women!) with permission of all other 
Interior of The New Canaan Car
members.  And the NCC was famous for its birthday parties and holiday fests.  One set of minutes went into great detail about the BYO liquor cabinet which used to operate on the honor system but which by 1968 needed a lock and key.

Memberships in the NCC were handed down from father to son but there was no apparent waiting list.  In 1972 the Membership Committee was asking members to help identify “goodly and likely candidates” to replace retirees.

After the bankruptcy of the New Haven RR, Penn Central took over and the railroad raised its hauling fees.  Even though many of the NCC’s members were CEO’s of companies doing a lot of freight business with Penn Central, the railroad didn’t care.  It was broke.

The arrival of Metro-North saw the railroad convert from old, heavyweight cars pulled by locomotives to the all-electric M2’s, and this marked the end of the line for the NCC.
In 1976 Metro-North parent MTA said it was willing to rebuild a Bar Car just for the NCC; but at a cost of $70,000, that seemed too rich even for the New Canaan crowd.  Worse yet, then-Governor Ella Grasso said the state should not subsidize millionaire commuters in private cars.

The last run of the NCC’s private car was April 1st 1976.  When the train arrived in New Canaan at 6:15 pm, the party continued ‘til 8.  The next day members stripped the car of all its furnishing (which were owned by the club), including 64 chairs, six bridge tables and three smoke stands (ashtrays) which went into storage.  By 1979, the furniture storage fees had drained the NCC’s treasury and after 71 years, the club was dissolved… a sad end to such an illustrious history.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


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