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September 16, 2019

"Getting There" - Some Ideas for Gov Lamont on Fixing Transportation

How’s your commute going?  Traffic getting worse?  Trains still running late?  As we all get back to work after the summer, commuters’ frustration level is rising as it seems nothing is being done to fix transportation.

Lawmakers in Hartford couldn’t be persuaded to meet to debate tolling this summer, knowing full well the votes weren’t there, so they just kicked back.  But it seems that some on the Governor’s staff were busy this summer trying to “reboot” his transportation plans.  It’s to be billed as “CT 2030”.

May I be so bold as to offer a few suggestions to the Governor’s team?

BE HONEST WITH US:     Admit that Governor Lamont created this transportation crisis by reneging on a legislative plan to put $170 million in auto taxes into the Special Transportation Fund.  By law, that didn’t violate the STF Lock Box rule but it sure did so in spirit.  Lamont should admit that was a mistake.

We also need a full accounting of CDOT spending and waste.  And an explanation of why CT does so poorly on national rankings when it comes to the cost of maintaining our roads.  Scandals like the CT Port Authority & Lottery don’t instill a lot of confidence for taxpayers.

PRIORITIZE:          Rather than beating the dead horse of tolls, let’s do an accounting of what needs to be fixed.  When Governor Malloy rolled out his $100 billion, 30-year “Let’s Go CT” scheme he refused to prioritize.  “We need to do it all, now,” he would say.  So naïve.
Surely the CDOT has a list of what needs fixing first.  Let’s see it.

SAFETY FIRST:      Whether roads or rails, safety must be the top priority.  Who can argue with the need to replace a rusting bridge, corroding catenary or enforcing speed limits?  Safety isn’t shiny or sexy.  It just saves lives, even if it’s often invisible to commuters.
Stop dangling unachievable goals like “30-30-30” or one lawmaker’s fascination with Hyperloop in front of us to distract us.  Just focus on state of good repair. Get the trains running on time, the interstate truck inspection stations open, the speed limits enforced and prevent the bridges from collapsing.

THEN WE CAN TALK ABOUT MONEY:           Once we all understand what needs to be done, with a list of priorities based on urgency and safety, then we can discuss funding.  Tolls are just one option.  If you’re not a fan, fine… but you’re not going to like the alternatives:  sales / income / gas taxes, fees, fare hikes or service cuts.  There’s no “free lunch”, folks.  Decades of delayed repairs will require billions of dollars and we’re all going to pay.

STOP THE “NO TOLLS” BULLIES:        The anti-toll forces, both grassroots and lawmakers, have seemingly pounded a stake through the heart of user-fee options to pay for transportation.  They’re tapped into the rich vein of Nutmeggers’ cynicism and distrust of Hartford.  But now they’re going a step further, threatening anyone running for public office with an organized campaign of opposition if they support tolling… “Vote for tolls. Lose at the polls.”

I can see promising a State lawmaker a hard time if they vote for tolls, but implying similar threats in local municipal races seems unfair.  Why should a First Selectman or Board of Reps candidate, who doesn’t even have a vote on tolling, be held to these bullies’ litmus test for loyalty?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Commuting in the Good Ol' Days

Commuting is nothing new to Nutmeggers. But to appreciate our current challenges in “getting there”, consider what it was like centuries ago.
As early as 1699 roads had been laid out on routes still used today.  But where today those roads are now lined with trees, in the mid-1700’s those trees were gone as most of southern Fairfield county had been cleared to allow for farming. 
In the 1770’s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as The Boston Post Road) was the responsibility of the locals.  Every able bodied man and beast could be drafted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape.  But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians. 
At the end of the 18th century it was clear that Connecticut needed more roads and the state authorized more than a hundred privately-funded toll roads to be built. Yes, friends… toll roads are part of our DNA.
 The deal was that, after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were revert to state control.  Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal.
One of the first such toll roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1,  the Boston Post Road.  Another was the Norwalk to Danbury ‘pike, now Route 7.
On the Post Road four toll gates were erected:  Greenwich, Stamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge and Fairfield.  No tolls were collected for those going to church, militia muster or farmers going to the mills.  Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier, about $4 in today’s money!
The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls which were nicknamed “shun-pikes”.  Sound familiar?
Regular horse-drawn coaches carried passengers from Boston to NY.  And three days a week there was a coach from coastal towns to Stamford, connecting to a steamboat to New York.
The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York & New Haven Railroad started service.  An early timetable showed three trains a day from Stamford to NYC, each averaging two hours and ten minutes.  Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour.
The one way fare was 70 cents vs. today’s $15.25 at rush hour.
In the 1890’s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade, thereby eliminating street crossings.
In the 1890’s the trolleys arrived.  The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road connecting with the Norwalk Tramway; the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.
Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride.  There were so many trolley lines in the state that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents apiece.
The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.
Fast forward to the present where we are still debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in Stamford and T.O.D. (“transit oriented development”) is all the rage.  Have things really changed that much over two hundred years?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 30, 2019

"Getting There" - Metro-North's Ambassador

Anthony Scasino is an ambassador, not for a foreign country, but for Metro-North.  He doesn’t have a consulate or embassy, just the Stamford Railroad station as his headquarters.

Scasino is one of six Customer Service Ambassadors (CSA) who work at the railroad’s busiest stations… White Plains, Harlem – 125th St, Fordham, New Rochelle, Croton-Harmon and Stamford.  Having passed muster during a six month trial, the program is now permanent and may be expanded.

Scasino has worked for Metro-North for six and a half years, having previously been a ticket agent at Stamford. Now he dons a bright blue and yellow vest emblazoned with “Customer Service” on the back and helps customers in the main concourse and on the platforms.

“I really like helping people,” he says.  “I hold doors open, give people directions… anything they need help with, even their luggage.”

When Scasino starts his shift at 6 am the station is already busy with commuters heading into the city.  Though some have recently complained about the homeless camping out overnight in the waiting area, Scasino says he leaves that issue to the security team and a social services agency, BRC, which is hired by the MTA to get the homeless off the benches and into appropriate shelters.  But a recent report by the Office of the NY State Comptroller says the $14 million spent by MTA on homeless outreach has been a failure.

Unlike Grand Central Terminal which closes each night from 2 to 5:30 am, the Stamford station remains open 24 hours for cleaning and the few passengers catching Amtrak’s overnight trains.

Scasino sees a lot of regular commuters each morning who say hello on their way to the tracks. In one case he actually saved a blind woman on an escalator from a nasty fall.

At some hours there is a lot of crowding on the Stamford platforms as trains arrive, unloading passengers while others wait to board, but Scasino says he’s never seen a problem he thought would prove dangerous.  “Commuters are pretty sharp,” he says.  “They know to stay back from the platform edge.  That’s why we have that yellow warning strip.”

And they know exactly where to position themselves on the platform to be near the train’s door when it opens, giving them quick access to limited seating.

One of the reasons Stamford station needs a CSA is that the station is so confusing and still lacks adequate signage.   For example, there is no local map posted in the station where people can see the station in relation to downtown and how to get there.

Years ago, when Swiss Bank was still active in town I remember seeing nattily dressed businessmen arrive on trains from New York and make their way to the taxi stand.  On entering the cab they’d say ‘Swiss Bank please’ and off they’d go for 2 blocks and about a $10 fare even while the bank’s headquarters were just 250 yards from the station.

Arrive by train at the smallest village in Europe and there’s always a map in the station to guide you.  But not in Stamford.  Still, that isn’t Metro-North’s fault but CDOT’s which owns and runs the station.

Right now Scasino only works a morning shift, but there may be plans to expand the Ambassadors’ coverage to afternoon rush hours and even weekends.  Clearly, the railroad is working hard to improve its image and the service they provide, especially to new riders and visitors.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - America's First Transcons

How does this sound:  fly coast-to-coast in just 48 hours for only $5200?

That was the pitch for the first commercial, transcon air service in 1929 operated by TAT, Transcontinental Air Transport, much later to become TWA.  Founded by aviation pioneer Clement Melville Keys, the firm worked with Charles Lindbergh to also secure lucrative mail contracts.  But these flights were a first for passengers.

TAT was mocked as “take a train” because their service combined rail and air service to make it from New York to Los Angeles.

Passengers first boarded an overnight train at 6:05 pm from NY’s Penn Station, “the Airways Special”.  This first leg of the journey was to avoid flying over the Allegheny Mountains, known to air mail pilots as “Hells Stretch” due to the winds.

After an overnight journey in their luxury Pullman cars the train arrived at a special rail station at Port Columbus, Ohio’s airport, where they boarded a Ford Tri-Motor.  The small plane had a pilot, co-pilot, steward (always a man) and seated eight or nine passengers. 

The plan flew at 2,500 feet at about 100 mph…. straight through the clouds and rainstorms.

After two hours’ flight the plane made its first (of many) refueling stops in Indianapolis. Sandwiches were brought on board for the next hop, three hours away, in Kansas City.  Then Wichita and finally Waynoka OK.  There the passengers boarded a special TAT bus and were taken to the train station for their second overnight rail journey.  But first came dinner at a purpose-built Harvey House restaurant.

By morning the train arrived in Clovis NM where the passengers were again bused to the nearest airport, Portair NM, where they had breakfast before boarding another plane to continue on to Albuquerque, Winslow and Kingman AZ.  Over the western mountain ranges the Tri-Motor sometimes climbed as high as 8000 feet.

As the cabin was not pressurized, this brought about a lot of ear-popping and teeth chattering as a small onboard heater kept the cabin at no better than about 60 degrees. To treat air sickness caused by the turbulence, stewards passed out slices of lemon.

Finally, at about 6 pm Pacific time, more than 48 hours after leaving New York, these aviation pioneers arrived in Los Angeles.  The one-way fare was $352 (equal to $5200 in today’s dollars), and that was for the cheapest Pullman train accommodation, a lower berth.

Direct train service coast-to-coast in 1930 took three days, so the time savings by air was hard to justify when TAT tickets cost 50% more than luxurious Pullmans by rail.

In its first 18 months in operation, the TAT transcons lost $2.7 million ($41 million in 2019 dollars).  It didn’t help that, to maintain the prestige of flying TAT, each passenger was given a solid gold fountain pen from Tiffany’s.

Then came the stock market crash of 1929.  And on September 3, 1929, a literal crash, as a TAT plane collided with a New Mexico mountain killing all eight on board.  This was the first fatal crash of a commercial airplane, but just the first of three serious accidents in the next five months for TAT.

Today you can fly non-stop from New York to LA in six hours for less than $200 one-way.  You’ll cruise in comfort in a pressurized cabin at 35,000 feet, watch a movie and surf the web… and you might even get a meal.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 17, 2019

"Getting There" - The Train Ride From Hell

It was the railroad trip from hell:  the hottest day of the year, stuck for five hours on a sold out Amtrak train where only half the cars had air conditioning.

The ride to Washington days earlier had been uneventful, almost on time and pleasantly cool, even though I’d made the mistake of taking a Northeast Corridor train, not Acela.  Its older Amfleet cars, though recently refurbished on the inside, are still fifty years old.

But coming back from Washington on a torrid Sunday, by cheaping out for the slower, less expensive train I got what I’d paid for.  Put another way, I didn’t get what I’d paid for.

Already a half-hour late arriving in Washington from Newport News VA, train #88 arrived on one of DC’s low-level platforms, meaning boarding passengers had to cue up for about 30 minutes before even being allowed on the platform to board.

One of the station agents said that “extra cars” had been added in Washington, so I immediately headed to the front of the train where I assumed the new cars would be empty.  It was already 98 degrees in DC, heading for a “feels like” high that day of 110, so I was looking forward to the super-AC Amtrak is known for.

No such luck, as even the newly added cars were only slightly cooler than outside.  That’ll improve when we get going, I thought.  Wrong!

By Baltimore it was getting hot and the fan system was intermittent.  Pleas for help to the conductors brought nothing more than promises that “they’ll try to reset the system in Philly”, another hour away.

In desperation I turned to social media, Tweeting sarcastically about Amtrak’s new “Sauna Cars”.  Direct messaging to @Amtrak brought no response.

The train was getting later and later on its schedule, partly because of the heat’s adverse effect on the power lines and potential warping of the rails. Knowing there’d be a lot of passengers getting off and on in Philly, I plotted my move to one of the few cars with breathable air.  Success… a cooler, though not cold, car with seats.

At Philadelphia, nothing changed, though we did learn that five of the ten cars on this train bound for Boston carrying 700+ passengers were without air conditioning.

The DC conductor crew never apologized, though they did offer small, free bottles of water, which quickly ran out. But when a new set of conductors boarded in New York, the tone changed significantly.

“We apologize folks.  This is not the kind of service we want to provide or you deserve.  Please call 1-800-USA-RAIL and register a complaint.  If the cars don’t reset after New York, we’ll try again at New Haven,” said one conductor on the PA system.

We got off in Stamford, arriving 90 minutes late, so I don’t know if the cars ever did get cooler during the next four hours run to Boston.

The next day I called Amtrak Customer Service.  A 20+ year veteran agent commiserated, empathized and got me a refund voucher.

“Those old Amfleet cars shouldn’t be refurbished, they should be retired,” she said.  “Their air conditioning is either on or off.  There’s no moderating the temperature.  Next time you should take Acela,” she added. 

Never mind that Acela costs twice as much.  Its AC works and it’s mostly on time! I’ve learned from my mistakes.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 11, 2019

"Getting There" - Air Quality & Transportation

Do you know how bad Connecticut’s air quality is?  According to the American Lung Association, all of our state’s counties got a grade of “F” when it comes to ozone.

On hot, summer days the sun’s rays combine with auto, truck and power plant exhausts to create an invisible blanket of ozone over our state.  When it combines with fine particulate matter it turns into a grayish haze, making breathing difficult.

Sure, we can blame states to our west whose pollution blows our way, including those “clean coal” meccas of West Virginia and Ohio.  But before we point fingers, maybe we should consider what we are doing ourselves to worsen the problem.

Think of this next time you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 or the parkways.  Metro-North mostly runs its trains on electricity, but its diesels are downright filthy as are local buses, though many fleets are converting to natural gas or electric operation.

Even shipping by water contributes to pollution, though you hardly think about it as you’re breathing in the brisk air of Long Island Sound.  So it was great to read recently that Connecticut will soon have its first “hybrid” cross-Sound cargo vessel, “Harbor Harvest”, named after the natural food store and café in Norwalk.

The 65-foot, aluminum catamaran will carry everything from fresh produce to craft-brewed beer back and forth between Connecticut and Long Island.  The $2.8 million dollar vessel will charge its batteries using shore power for the 45 minute crossing.  Its owners estimate their cargo will take one or two trucks off of I-95 by cutting the travel time in half.

Mind you, the project wouldn’t even be possible were it not for a $1.8 million federal grant which the owners hope will keep them running for a couple of years.  Then we’ll see if it’s economically viable.  One shipping veteran on the coast tells me that’s “possible but not probable.”

Not that one little boat, displacing two trucks a day, is going to make our air breathable again.  But it’s a start.

Meanwhile in California, the shipping industry is “going green” on a massive scale.  The twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are the two busiest ports in the US, handling 400 ships a year. 

To reduce pollution, the ports introduced a speed limit of 12 knots for ships as far as 40 miles from the docks.  Those vessels used to constantly keep at least a generator running to power the vessel in port but now they too are “plugging in” when they tie-up to unload containers and freight.

Here’s an astounding statistic:  Allowing just one container ship to use shore-power for a single day is the pollution-reducing equivalent of taking 33,000 cars off the road for that day.  That’s a major impact on air quality.  But it’s only the beginning of the needed “greening” of this transportation hub.

Containers offloaded from the vessels will soon be moved around the port on electric trucks, then mounted on railcars and carried away by fuel-efficient (but still very dirty) diesel-pulled trains and 16,000 long-distance (equally dirty) trucks.  So there’s still much to be done.
We worry so much about traffic and getting where we must, quickly and safely.  Maybe we should also think about how our transportation choices effects on our health.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 02, 2019

"Getting There" - The Merritt Parkway Conservancy

Former Governor Malloy used to joke that southwest Connecticut has two highways, “One’s a parking lot and the other’s a museum”.  He was obviously referring to I-95 and the Merritt Parkway.  I agree with his first characterization but he’s wrong about the second.
The Merritt Parkway is not a museum but a transportation gem… a unique, historic highway we should preserve and cherish.
Sure, the traffic on the Merritt can be brutal, not because of its design but because of the sheer volume of traffic: up to 90,000 vehicles a day.  Widening the Parkway wouldn’t help, though it’s been suggested in the past.
Designed and built in the 1930’s as an alternative to The Boston Post Road (before there was an I-95), the Merritt Parkway was the first to incorporate cloverleafs for on and off-ramps.  Its 72 unique bridges, landscape and roadways are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Parkway itself is designated as a National Scenic Byway.
Preserving the look and historic feel of the Parkway over the past 81 years has not been easy.
Initially designed by the Merritt Highway Commission, once opened the parkway was controlled by the Merritt Parkway Commission until 1959 when that body was dissolved and care of the parkway was assumed by the Department of Transportation.
Efforts to expand interchanges at Routes 7, 8 and 25 saw community opposition and in 1973 the “Save the Merritt Association” fought back, at first successfully.  By 1976 a Merritt Parkway Advisory Committee was formed and still meets to this date.
The battle to stop freeway-like fly-overs to Routes 8 and 25 was lost, but efforts to prevent similar construction at the Route 7 interchange continues today, led  by The Merritt Parkway Conservancy.
The Conservancy was created at the suggestion of out-going CDOT Commissioner Emil Frankel who became its first Chairman in 2002. Its mission:  “to protect, preserve and enhance this historic roadway through education, advocacy and partnership ”.  Working alongside groups like the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Southwest Regional Planning Association (now West COG), the Conservancy has been a tireless advocate for preserving the Parkway’s past for the future.
Conservancy Executive Director Wes Haynes drives the length of the Parkway every week looking for problems, then meets with CDOT to address them. Thanks to the Conservancy invasive species of plants are being mitigated, installation of appropriate wooden and steel guardrails is being monitored, and historic bridges (like the Lake Avenue bridge in Greenwich) are being rehabilitated.
Fortunately, there are still some old-timers at CDOT who embrace the Parkway’s unique design and work collaboratively to preserve its look.  But the pressures to turn the Merritt into another interstate persist, which is why the Conservancy needs everyone’s help.
If the Conservancy didn’t exist, who would speak  up to preserve this bucolic, lovely highway so integral to the communities through which it runs?
The Conservancy’s Board of Directors  includes two architects, a forestry expert, preservationists, law enforcement, an artist and representatives from business.  (Full disclosure:  I too am a member of the Board).  As a private non-profit organization entirely supported by members, the Conservancy welcomes new Board members who share its preservation mission and bring new ties to local communities, governments and civic organizations.  If you would like to join in the Conservancy’s work or nominate a candidate for the Board, visit the Conservancy’s website

July 18, 2019

"Getting There" - After Tolls Fail, What's Plan B ?

It seems pretty clear that Governor Lamont’s tolling idea is dead.  The Republicans say “no way, ever” and his own Democrats can’t muster the guts to take an up or down vote because they’re so afraid of public reaction.

Oh, everyone in Hartford is still doing the usual square dance, posturing and politicking, but I doubt a special session to vote on tolls will ever happen:  tolls are dead.

But ‘lest the anti-toll forces should start to rejoice, they may have won this battle but the war is far from over.  Because when tolls go down to defeat, there are still plenty of “Plan B” options, none of which you (or they) will like.

Our bridges are still corroding, our highways are still potholed and our trains are running slower than ever.  Transportation is grinding to a halt, and with it our state’s economy.  Something must be done. The money must be found.

As one senior Lamont staffer told me, “The Governor refuses to preside over another Mianus River bridge collapse.  We cannot put politics ahead of peoples’ safety.”

It is clear that the Special Transportation Fund (STF) is headed into the red unless additional funding can be found.  And if the STF is going to be insolvent, the state won’t be able to borrow anything on Wall Street for anything, transportation or otherwise.  Our bond ratings will rival a third-world nation.

So, if not tolls, where do we find the money? 

STOP WASTING MONEY AT CDOT:    The Reason Foundation’s claim that Connecticut’s DOT ranks 46th in the nation in spending efficiency is bogus and has been widely debunked. Even if we could save a few million by cutting CDOT waste, we still need billions to repair our roads and rails.

RAISE THE GAS TAX:      It hasn’t changed a penny since 1997, not even adjusting for inflation. Like tolling, the gas tax would be a “user fee”… though not paid by those driving electric cars nor by out-of-staters who don’t buy gasoline here.

RAISE THE SALES TAX:  Easily done but fairly regressive as it would hit everyone in the state, even those who never drive on our highways.  And again, out-of-staters get a free ride assuming they don’t stop to buy anything passing through.

RAISE THE INCOME TAX:    Another easy revenue source, but even less popular than tolling and just as politically dangerous.

RAISE FARES & CUT SERVICE: This is what I call the Doomsday Scenario… worsening train and bus service, driving more people back to their cars.  It’s a sure way to save money, but at the expense of those using mass transit and adding to traffic.

PARTIAL TOLLING:         Maybe go back to the trucks-only option, not everywhere but just on bridges most needing repairs?  Makes sense, but the toll cynics won’t believe it will be so limited.

VEHICLE MILES TAX:      It works in Oregon, California and progressive EU countries, but when the idea was floated years ago by Malloy’s Transportation Finance panel it was immediately rejected.  Democrats pushed through a law stopping CDOT from even studying the concept.  Paranoids fear “big brother” would be following where they drive, forgetting that their iPhones and Google (not to mention the NSA & FBI) can do so already.

Money for transportation will be found.  If you’re not a fan of users paying their share (via tolling), get ready for the ugly alternatives.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 11, 2019

"Getting There" - Airlines That Are No More

Rail fans call them “fallen flags”… railroads that are no more, like the original New Haven and New York Central Railroads.  But before I start getting all misty eyed, let’s also pay homage to airlines that have flown away into history.

Like PEOPLExpress, the domestic discount airline which flew out of Newark’s grungy old North Terminal starting in 1981.  Fares were dirt cheap, collected on-board during the flight and checked bags cost you $3.00.  You even had to pay for sodas and snacks.  The airline expanded too fast, even adding a 747 to its fleet for $99 flights to Brussels, and was eventually merged with Continental under its rapacious Chairman Frank Lorenzo, later banished from the industry by the Department of Transportation.

There were any number of smaller, regional airlines that merged or just folded their wings, including MohawkNortheastSoutheast, MidwayL’ExpressIndependence AirAir CaliforniaPSA and a personal favorite, Midwest Express, started by the Kimberly Clark paper company to shuttle employees between its mills and headquarters in Milwaukee.

Midwest flew DC-9’s, usually fitted with coach seats in a 2-and-3 configuration, but equipped instead with business-class 2-and-2 leather seats.  Meals were free and included fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.

We all probably remember the fallen giants like TWA (acquired by American Airlines), Eastern Airlines (also gobbled up by Lorenzo), Braniff (which even flew a chartered Concorde at one point between Washington DC and Dallas TX) and Pan American (which was the US’s semi-official overseas airline for decades).

And let’s not forget more recent carriers like Continental, merged with United Airlines in 2012 or US Airways (previously known as Allegheny Airlines) which was taken over by American Airlines in 2015.  Or how about the old Northwest Orient which Delta took over in 2008?  I especially remember flying AmericaWest before its 2005 merger with USAir.

And then there were the name-change carriers, like ValueJet which rebranded as AirTran after a deadly crash in the Florida Everglades in 1996 following a series of maintenance and safety issues.  A 1982 crash of an Air Florida jet taking off in a Washington DC snowstorm quickly grounded that airline for financial reasons.

Anyone remember the Trump Shuttle, successor to Eastern Airlines’ Boston – LaGuardia – DC hourly service?  It only flew for three years but innovated such in-flight technology as GTE’s Airphone.  You could even rent laptops for use in-flight.

But did you know that the cruise ship line Carnival once had its own airline of the same name?  Its fleet of 25 jets funneled passengers to their ships in Fort Lauderdale until 1997 when Pan Am took it over, only to itself go belly-up months later.

Another quirky little airline was MGM Grand Air which flew JFK to LA in an all first-class, luxury configuration. There were swiveling lounge seats, private cabins, an onboard chef and even in-flight fax machines. Their 727 carried only 33 passengers and operated out of a private terminal at LAX, making it very popular with camera-shy celebrities. One way fares were $1400.

But did you know that there was also a Hooters Air, modeled after the restaurant chain of the same name? From 2003 to 2006 the seven plane fleet featured business class seating at low fares and in-flight meals served by, you guessed it, tight t-shirt clad Hooters Girls. The restaurant chain is still going, but the airline folded after $40 million in losses.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 05, 2019

"Getting There" - Should You Fly or Drive ?

Going on vacation this summer?  If so, the question is… how to travel: drive, take the train or fly? (I’m eliminating the bus option because, well, life is too short to endure that kind of misery.  I have no problems with commuting by bus, but a ten hour ride is not going to happen!).

In most cases the choice depends on how far you’re traveling and what your budget allows. For trips of 300 miles or less, the train is my first choice… assuming it goes where I want.  In the Northeast, Amtrak service is frequent, convenient and affordable.  But to other destinations, not so much.

But it also depends on how many are in your ‘party’ (and traveling with your family is always a party, right?), because traveling as a family of four can add up, especially when each member needs a ticket.  Even going into New York City can be cheaper by car (including tolls and parking) than on Metro-North when you have three or more people.

Flying is faster, but maybe not if you include all of the door-to-door time:  driving to the airport, arriving two or three hours before departure, checking your bags, going through security, then after arrival at your destination grabbing your bags, finding your rental car, driving to your destination.  In most cases by train you go from city-center to city-center.  And by car, well you get to determine where you’re going.

By train you get to see the country.  But so too with driving.  Train travel is pretty stress-free.  Not so with driving, and certainly not in flying.

In about eight hours you can drive 400+ miles, even with pit-stops.  If two drivers can share the behind-the-wheel duties, a full 12-hour day’s worth of driving can easily get you 700 miles.  That’s almost the distance to Chicago or maybe Atlanta.  But staying alert can really take its strain, so be sure to take frequent breaks and caffeinate.

Of course, having kids on board can complicate things… more stops, more whining.  “No, we’re not there yet!  Play with your Gameboy.”

If you’re confused about the fly-drive value calculations, there’s a great website that can help:  the Be Frugal Fly or Drive Calculator.  Plug in the information… origin, destination, make and model of car, driving hours… and voila!  The app will figure the cost for both alternatives, even including highway tolls and your car’s MPG.  Mind you, gas prices are heading up this summer, so factor that in too.

The final issue is safety.  You do want to arrive alive, right?

It used to be on airlines that after you landed the flight attendant would say something like “The safest part of your journey has just ended, so drive safely”.  Statistically, that’s true.

Federal safety stats say that one person dies for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.  (Interestingly, Connecticut’s statistics are lower than the national average). Still, there are a lot more highway crashes than air disasters. In 2018 there were no fatalities on US commercial flights and worldwide, only one fatal accident for every 300 million flights.

The National Safety Council says you have one chance in 114 of dying in an automobile crash, but only one chance in 9821 of dying on a flight.  You’re eight times likelier to die by drowning on vacation.

Thanks to the stronger US economy a lot more people will be taking a vacation this summer.  A little planning and you should be able to save time and money.  So bon voyage!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 27, 2019

"Getting There" - Why Nobody Trusts Hartford

Nobody trusts Hartford.  If cynicism is a disease, we’re in the midst of an epidemic.
Since last fall I’ve been touring the state speaking to groups large and small about Connecticut’s transportation crisis… about the $5 billion we need to just get Metro-North back in a state of good repair… about the hundreds of deficient bridges and potholed highways … and about the futility of depending mostly on the gasoline tax to fund long-needed repairs.
And when I got to the part in my talk pitching what I see as the necessity of tolls, safeguarded in the recently approved Special Transportation (STF) Lockbox, most audiences turned on me.  While there were a few true-believers who trust in the state’s role in keeping our transportation in a state of good repair, the vast majority in my audiences don’t believe that the STF is truly locked. 
“There’s no way that toll money won’t be misused.  It’s just another taxing mechanism. You’re nuts if you trust those idiots,” was the gist of their comments.  And maybe they’re right.
Governor Lamont flip-flopped on his campaign promise to only toll trucks.  Then he was brazen enough (in front of reporters!) to tell the Democrats’ caucus that he would help raise them campaign money if they’d support tolling.
He even tried to win over Greenwich Republican representatives by suggesting he wouldn’t toll the Merritt Parkway if they’d give him their votes for tolls… without really considering what that would do to Parkway traffic diverting off of I-95 to avoid tolls.
He also manufactured a funding crisis for the STF by halving earlier plans to place the car sales tax in that fund.
Meanwhile, the anti-toll forces filled the news vacuum winning wide popular support, gathering 100,000 petition signatures in opposition to tolling.  For that grassroots effort they deserve credit just as the policy amateurs in the Governor’s office deserve scorn.
Tolling will be debated in a special session of the legislature in the coming weeks but even the Democratic majority admits it only has a “50-50 chance” of passage. Still, in the race to adjournment June 6th, lawmakers did somehow find time to pass some crazy bills.
Like the one approving a study of burying I-95 in a tunnel from Greenwich to Bridgeport.  Never mind that we don’t have money to fix our bridges. Now lawmakers want to waste money on an impossible, multi-billion dollar “big dig” along the Gold Coast?
They also had time to stuff the budget full of hard-to-find special-funding “rats”, like $60,000 for the New London Little League or $37,000 for a New Haven Scout troop. They couldn’t find time to vote on healthcare, online gaming or marijuana, but succeeded in stuffing pork in every crack and crevice of the sure-to-pass budget.
One issue that did survive was SB 876 which would invest $10 million in bonding to improve the state’s rail freight system… the eight small freight railroads left in our state operating on infrastructure up to 100 years old.  That bill should be passed.  But $10 million?  That’s chump-change, a rounding error in most CDOT projects.
The post-election glow of optimism about a new Governor with a vision for the future is gone, replaced by the reality of an inept, dysfunctional legislature that just doesn’t care. 
The skeptics are right and I too have succumbed to the epidemic of cynicism.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media