January 29, 2018

"Getting There" - The Hudson River Tunnels

It should have been done by now.

2018 was the expected completion date of the new railroad tunnels under the Hudson River first proposed in 2009.  At the time the $9 billion project was the biggest infrastructure project in the country.  Now it’s just a footnote to history.

Why do rail tunnels from New York’s Penn Station to New Jersey matter to us here in Connecticut?  Because they are the weakest but most crucial link in the northeast corridor, the $50 billion heart of the US economy.  Imagine trying to get to Philadelphia or Washington without Amtrak running through our state, into those tunnels and to points south.

There are 23 bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan from the north and east.  But between that island and New Jersey there are only six… two of them those rail tunnels built in 1910.  And when super-storm Sandy flooded those tunnels in October 2012 with 3.5 million gallons of salt water, their lifespan was shortened by decades due to corrosion.

If one of those two rail tunnels were to fail, the entire nation would be in an economic crisis.
New York’s Penn Station was never built to handle the 430,000 daily passengers it now handles each day (vs the 750,000 who enter the much-larger Grand Central Terminal).  Amtrak, NJ Transit and the LIRR carry twice as many riders at Penn as New York’s three airports combined.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents alone make up 16% of Manhattan’s workforce.  Their rail commuting options are so tight that many rely on the 7700 daily commuter buses that bring them into the transit cesspool known as The Port Authority bus terminal.

All that could have changed if the 2009 plan to build additional rail tunnels had gone through.  But then, along came Chris Christie, the newly elected Governor of the Garden State who balked at the cost and pulled the plug.

Cynics say that he did so to instead spend money on highways and keep the state’s gasoline tax low for another few years, even after repaying Uncle Sam for $95 million already spent on the project.

Now the project has been redesigned… and re-priced at a staggering $20 billion, which also includes adding seven more tracks at the overcrowded Penn Station.  The new target for completion is 2030.  Of the total, both NY and NJ would each contribute $3.6 billion with another $1.9 billion coming from the Port Authority.

But that’s only if President Trump’s promise for $1 trillion of spending on infrastructure makes it through Congress.  And that seems iffy.  The Trump campaign promise hinges on public-private-partnerships (P3’s).  The White House even convened a panel of high powered business leaders to study the idea, but they all quit after the President’s comments following the Charlottesville riots.

Imagine that:  Tweets that killed a tunnel.

Even basking in the glow of tax reform, I don’t think Congress has the appetite to tackle the infrastructure plan if it adds further to the deficit.  Worse yet, those in the red states so loathe the liberal New York area that they’d just love to see us crumble… like an aging railroad tunnel.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

January 22, 2018

"Getting There" - Malloy's Transportation Cuts

Fare hikes, rail service cuts and a freeze on transportation projects.  As he promised in December, Governor Malloy announced them all last week.  Rail commuters and highway drivers are justifiably outraged, but they should direct their anger not at the Governor or CDOT but at the legislature.

WHY NOW?            This funding crisis has been years in the making, exacerbated 20 years ago when lawmakers’ political pandering saw them lower the gasoline tax.  Coupled with better gas mileage and increased use of electric cars, the Special Transportation Fund (STF) which pays for our roads and rails has been running out of money.  By next year it will be in deficit.

RAIDS ON THE STF:        His critics are quick to blame Malloy, correctly noting that he raided the STF for money to balance the state’s budget.  But so did Governors Rell and Rowland.  Blaming their past mistakes doesn’t answer the question of what we do now.

FARE HIKES:         Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  The proposed 10% hike in July, while unpopular, will be absorbed by commuters who have no real choice in how to get to their jobs in NYC… assuming they don’t move. 

PUBLIC HEARINGS:        Required by law 90 days before they go into effect, the public hearings on fare hikes will be cathartic but meaningless.  Think of them as political theater.  The CDOT will present the numbers, explain why the STF is running out of money and sit patiently as commuters yell and scream.  Then they will do what they must:  raise fares.

RAIL SERVICE CUTS:      Why is Malloy cutting off-peak weekday and all weekend service on the New Canaan, Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East lines?  Because, unlike the mainline, these lines are subsidized 100% by Connecticut, have lower ridership and are much more expensive to operate. 

ECONOMIC IMPACT:       While higher fares are never popular, cuts in train service can be economically devastating.  Without daily trains, houses in communities like Wilton and Redding will be less desirable.  Property values will decrease, affecting local taxes.  Transit oriented development dreams for communities in the Naugatuck Valley will be dashed. 

FUTURE PROJECTS:       Not only is the Governor threatening fare hikes and service cuts, he’s freezing $4.3 billion worth of transportation projects across the state.  Forget about the new Stamford rail garage, Route 8 – I-84 “mixmaster” in Waterbury, the Barnum rail station in east Bridgeport, and hundreds of other projects.  There may even be a 15% staff cut at CDOT.  That means months or years of delays on these projects if and when money is ever found, making our state even less desirable for new business investment.

ROAD MAINTENANCE:    These cuts may even affect CDOT’s ability to plow our roads in the next blizzard, let alone fix the potholes and our aging bridges.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?:     It will be up the legislature to finally address STF funding.  None of the alternatives will be popular, especially in an election year.  But I’d expect tolls, taxes, and yes, fare hikes… all predicated on passage of a true STF “lock box” in November’s referendum.

If you’re as angry as I am, do something.  Call your state representative and senator and demand that they vote on new funding sources for the STF to stop these service cuts and project delays.  They created this problem.  Now they’ll have to solve it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 15, 2018

"Getting There" - Transportation Predictions for 2018

Recently I reviewed my transportation predictions for 2017 and gave myself a final grade of B+.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even own a crystal ball.

This week, I’m doubling down on some predictions and offering a few new ones.  So tuck this column away and give me a prognostication grade this time next year.

Commuters…  you’re not going to like this one.  With the Special Transportation Fund (STF) imperiled (see below) I predict that there won’t be money to pay for the additional M8 railcars on order for delivery in 2019.  Crowding will continue to the point that ridership will peak and start to drop.  Adding insult to toe-stepping injury, there will be calls for another fare increase of at least 10%.  Ouch.

As he threatened, Governor Malloy will cut transportation spending when the legislature does not act on new funding sources for the Special Transportation Fund.  Even before the STF runs dry, expect reduced or eliminated train service, fewer road repairs, less snow plowing, etc.   It’s going to be bad, really bad.

Before we see discussion of new tolls or taxes, we will need a lock-box on the STF.  We will have a chance to vote on that in a November referendum.  But I predict the vote will be “NO”… not because we don’t need a lock-box, but because the one proposed won’t be secure enough to persuade cynical voters it would be pilfer-proof.  A “no vote” on the lock-box will put any new tolls or taxes for transportation in question.

This is a hard one to call because none of the dozens of early-announced would-be candidates for Governor have said anything about transportation.  They all know this is going to be a crucial issue.  But they also know that voters don’t want any new taxes or tolls.  So, who among this gaggle of wannabe Governors will have the guts to be honest on this issue?  That’s the man (or woman) who’ll get my vote, if s/he exists.

In the wake of the recent Amtrak crash near Tacoma WA, this technology to control our trains is years late, millions over budget and in some peril.  Despite a three year extension by Congress, I fear that Metro-North will not have Positive Train Control up and running by the 12/31/18 deadline.

Fresh from his first (and only) legislative victory in 2017, President Trump will bask in the glory of his mighty tax cut but he will not be able to get Congress to make good on his promise to spend $1 trillion to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.  Why?  Because deficit-nervous Republicans won’t stomach the cost and so despise the Democrat-dominant Northeast that they’ll say “No way” to our multi-billion dollar projects.

Autonomous cars and trucks will start showing up on our roads.  The occasional accident will raise calls for better safety.  But the age of the auto-bots will continue, and we here in Connecticut will either get onboard or be declared irrelevant.


Elon Musk’s controversial system of high-speed tunnels will continue occupying the headlines despite predictions of its eventual failure.  A prototype has been completed and tested even as his Boring Company continues drilling.  But money problems at Tesla will drain his bank account and Hyperloop will be put on hold.

Those are my predictions for 2018.  Check back next year and see if I’m right.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 08, 2018

"Getting There" - Transportation Armageddon

Fare increases, reduced train service, less highway snowing plowing, postponed construction.  All of these and more are on the horizon, say Governor Malloy and the Connecticut DOT because our Special Transportation Fund (STF) is running dry.

I hate to say I told you so, but…

We’ve been talking about this issue for years and our lawmakers have done nothing.  In fact, they’ve hastened this transportation Armageddon by their own short-sighted political pandering.

Remember in 1997 when the legislature lowered the gasoline tax by 14 cents a gallon?  Seemed like a popular move in a state with such high gasoline taxes.  But those taxes are how we fund our transportation!  And with lower oil prices, greater fuel efficiency and electric cars, people are buying less gas and the STF is running on empty.  And our debt service on transportation is growing faster than CDOT’s spending on operations.

Last week the Governor warned us that Wall Street won’t buy even our General Obligation bonds, let alone transportation bonds, if the STF goes into the red.  So unless we find new revenue sources soon, any bonding will be more expensive if not impossible.

So pick your poison:  tolls, sales taxes, Vehicle Miles Tax, gas tax, higher fares… none of them are popular, but some combination will be necessary.

The alternative is to cut spending, cancelling things like new railcar orders for the standing-room-only Metro-North… eliminating off-peak and weekend trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches… cutting Shore Line East rail service by 50%... and three fare increases from 2019 to 2022.

Forget about rebuilding the crumbling Stamford rail station garage, a new station garage in New Haven, widening I-95 or rebuilding the disintegrating Route 7 – I84 “Mixmaster” in Waterbury.  And as CDOT faces further staffing layoffs, don’t be surprised if our highways don’t get plowed.  Agency insiders tell me they’re already down 50% in snow plow staffers in some parts of the state.

Oh, but here come the uniformed suggestions for a quick fix.  You’ve heard them and maybe thought of them yourself.

Why not cancel the new New Haven to Springfield rail line?  Sure… but because it’s being built with federal money, the state would owe Washington a $191 million refund it doesn’t have.

Why not stop the raids on the STF to balance the budget with a lock-box?  Great idea and you’ll get a chance to vote on that in a November 2018 referendum assuming you think it’s a real lock on that box.

Why not wrap all Metro-North trains in advertising… collect all tickets… sell naming rights for stations?  Sure, but that would bring in chump change compared to the $1B we need just to keep the STF solvent and the state afloat.

Tolls and taxes are the only realistic alternatives. But our legislators, facing an election year, have no stomach for either.  They’re still recovering from wrenched shoulders from patting themselves on the back for achieving an unbalanced budget while they’re in serious denial about the real mess we are in.

Come January the CDOT will start a series of public hearings on the necessary fare hikes and spending cuts.  It will be a great time to see who among our lawmakers will be honest with us about the financial crisis they created.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 05, 2018

"Getting There" - Handling Disruptive Passengers

We’ve seen a number of reports lately about “disruptive passengers” forcing a plane to divert after exhibiting some sort of frightening behavior.  Imagine being along for the ride when something like this happens:

·       An Air Canada flight to Tel Aviv lands in London after a female passenger starts randomly choking people on board.  She is restrained in-flight and arrested upon landing.

·       A Southwest Airlines flight from LA to Houston detours to Corpus Christi after a woman tries to open the emergency exit door in mid-flight.  Seen before departure screaming at people in the terminal, passengers wondered why she was even allowed on board.  On landing she is arrested.  The captain buys his passengers pizza to apologize for the delay. Classy.

·       A Hawaiian airlines flight to the mainland returns to the islands after a passenger becomes verbally abusive to his family and strikes a flight attendant.  On landing he’s arrested.

What happens to these “disruptive passengers”?  It’s hard to say, but in the last case the passenger pleaded guilty, was sentenced to three months probation and was fined $97,000 for the cost of the Hawaii diversion.  Not included in the fine was the $46,000 the airline had to pony-up for meal vouchers for the delayed passengers. (Obviously NOT pizza).

But that guy got off light.  Passengers who disrupt the duties of a flight crew member can face fines up to $25,000 and sometimes imprisonment.  In addition, the airline can choose to ban the problem passenger from any future flights… for life!

In some cases this behavior is a sign of mental instability.  But too often the boorish behavior is tied to alcohol, a situation worsened by the airlines selling booze in-flight to already inebriated flyers (the Hawaiian passenger had also brought his own bottle onboard).

Handling a misbehaving passenger at 35,000 feet is one thing, but on the train the rules are a bit different.

Metro-North conductors have the power to “de-train” a passenger at the next station and call the authorities.  And assaulting a Metro-North conductor can get you arrested as two fare beaters found after getting in a tussle while being ejected from their train.  Assaulting an MTA employee is a Class D felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.

But by far my favorite story of a troublesome traveler involved Amtrak and a passenger who would not shut up.

I’m not referring to the time that NJ Governor Chris Christie was asked to move his seat when he mistakenly sat in the Acela’s Quiet Car and started yapping on his cell phone.

No, this case involved a woman who carried on a 16-hour cell-phone conversation on Amtrak’s “Coast Starlight” enroute from LA to Seattle.  Despite being seated in the train’s Quiet Car she ignored the withering gaze of fellow passengers as she continued her chat.  Finally, a passenger confronted her, told her she was in the Quiet Car and was met with an “aggressive response”.

That prompted conductors to stop the train and have her escorted off, far from her destination.  She was charged with disorderly conduct and told reporters she felt “disrespected” by her fellow travelers and Amtrak police.

Imagine that happening on a Metro-North train where the Quiet Car rules are seldom enforced.  Well, I guess we can all dream.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 01, 2018

"Getting There" Transportation Predictions for 2017 Come True

This is the time of year when some commentators kick back and do end-of-the-year wrap up stories, as if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 12 months.  Bah, humbug.   I don’t review the past… I predict the future!

So let’s review my prognostications as published one year ago and see how good my crystal ball really was.

I said the new M8 cars would perform well, which they did.  But the tracks, switches and catenary wires would need repairs, often causing delays… check.  Ridership would rise, leading to further crowding.  Oh, yeah.  On this one I’ll give myself a Grade of an A.

As predicted, gasoline prices went up as OPEC tightened its controls. And they’ll probably rise further next year. Grade:  A

A year ago CDOT had finally pulled the plug on its ill-fated deal with a private developer to replace the Stamford rail garage with a high rise, moving parking a quarter mile from the station.  That was a prediction I’d made 2 years ago, but when it came true in 2016 I predicted that CDOT would learn its lesson on any new development, engaging the public early on in the process… which they did.  No progress to report, yet.  But this time I’m confident it will be an open decision-making process.  Grade: A

Another oldie but goodie, my annual prediction that CDOT would finally take over control and operation of all rail station parking, standardizing rates and waiting lists.  This one I got wrong.  Grade:  F

I was 100% accurate in predicting the retirement of the 747 from US skies… and a slowdown in orders for the mega-jumbo A-380… all because of fuel inefficiencies.  But ironically, there is renewed interest in supersonic transports, with a US company looking for orders in 2018.  Grade:  A

This was a no-brainer.  More traffic, increased congestion and no activity on Governor Malloy’s plans to widen the highway.  We are still waiting for results of the $2 million consultant’s study of that plan (previously studied and rejected in 2004). But whatever they suggest this time, it’s moot because we have no money.  This one was too easy to call, so I’ll only give myself a B+.

I accurately predicted that Gov Malloy’s 30 year, $100 billion transportation wish-list (not a plan) would remain stuck, “just like his political career”.  Though it wasn’t until April 2017 that Malloy declared himself a lame duck, it seemed clear to many he wouldn’t run again, given his unpopularity and the state’s failing economy.  What we didn’t see was the legislature would ignore warnings about the draining of the Special Transportation Fund, all but dooming Malloy’s transportation vision, not to mention snow plowing, road repairs, additional M8 rail cars, etc.  Grade:  A-

Sure enough, this issue was what I’d feared: “a wild card, just like Trump himself”.  All of us who take the roads and rails were hopeful that “Donald the Builder” would find the $1 trillion he promised to spend on infrastructure.  But given the recent battle on tax reform, generating about that same amount in a looming deficit, infrastructure spending dreams seem on life support.  Again, that wasn’t the gutsiest of calls, so I’ll just give myself a B

Final average grade:  B+

Next week I’ll share my predictions for transportation in 2018.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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