January 27, 2019

"Getting There" - Global Warming vs Mass Transit

What follows is a public apology.  Not to you, dear reader, but to future generations.

“To my grand children:  I’m sorry we left you with this mess.  We should have done more, when we still had time.”

What am I referring to?  Not the national debt.  Not even global terrorism.  No, this apology is about coastal flooding that threatens the Northeast Corridor’s rail lines.

I won’t even get into the debate about what’s causing sea-level rise.  Whether it’s man-made or natural, it is happening and we have not been planning for its inevitable effects.  Sure, when the tides are high and the winds are from the east, we already see a little flooding along the Connecticut coastline.  “Look Dad!  The beach parking lot is under water,” the kids would say.  But the tides and winds then subsided and we’d forget about it.

Aside from pretty beaches and expensive homes, what else is along Connecticut’s coast?  Our railroads:  Metro-North, Shore Line East and Amtrak.  And according to a long hidden report, those tracks, and the trains that run on them, are being threatened by sea level rise.

Just before Christmas, Bloomberg wrote about a three year study“Amtrak NEC Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment,” that was finished in 2017 but never released to the public.  Using an FOI request, they got hold of a redacted (censored) portion of the study, and its findings are frightening.

The Northeast Corridor of Amtrak runs 457 miles from Washington to Boston and carries 12 million passengers a year on 2200 daily trains.  Those tracks not only serve Amtrak’s inter-city trains but also many commuter rail lines, like Metro-North and Shore Line East.  And the rising sea level is already lapping at its edge, where in some areas those tracks are just feet from the ocean. By 2050 the water may be two feet higher.

When it was originally built in the 19th century, the coastline made perfect sense as a location for the railroad tracks:  the coast is where the major cities were and the terrain was flat, perfect for trains.  Sure, there were storms (even hurricanes) that caused short-term flooding, but nothing that was persistent.  Until now.

So what’s to be done?

Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration have no plans to raise the tracks.  They’re already facing $40 billion in unfunded projects just to keep the darn trains running.  As for building a “wall” to keep out the sea water, even a temporary version erected before a storm would take 12 to 30 days to assemble and cost $24 million a mile.

Keeping this all in perspective, Amtrak reminds us that the cities they serve along the coast are also in danger of flooding, so what are a few damp railroad tracks when your city-center looks like Venice?

What’s most concerning is that this study was suppressed by Amtrak and the FRA because, as Bloomberg wrote, “The disclosure of that information “could possibly cause public confusion.” 

I’m not confused, are you?  Maybe enraged, but not confused.  I may not be around to see these predictions come to pass, but I do feel some sense of obligation (guilt) to future generations to whom I can offer little more than an apology.

Sorry kids.  We left you with a mess.  We should have done more.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 19, 2019

"Getting There" - Why Did Robert Moses Hate Transit?

What baseball fan doesn’t know who Babe Ruth was?  Or “Shoeless Joe Jackson”?  Every part of American history has its heroes and villains.

Yet, it’s frightening how much we forget about the past mistakes we have made in planning for transportation… lessons we should have learned from.  This became clear recently when I was asked to be a guest lecturer to a group of urban planning graduate students at UCONN.

I made reference in the class to Robert Moses and these planners of our future just gave me a blank stare.  “You do know who Robert Moses was, don’t you?” I asked.  They did not.  I was shocked.

No single individual was more powerful or made more decisions affecting the New York City area’s transportation network than the “master builder” Moses.  His grip on power came from holding 12 different job titles though he was never elected to public office.

From the 1930’s to the 1960’s he directed the building of 416 miles of parkways (Long Island’s Northern & Southern State and Westchester’s Taconic, to name a few), many bridges (the Tri-Borough, Throgs Neck, Henry Hudson, Verrazano-Narrows as well as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel) and designed Jones Beach and the NY State Parks system.  He presided over two Worlds Fairs (1939 and 1964) and helped bring the UN’s headquarters to NYC.

But he did nothing for mass transit.  He loved cars and didn’t really care for people who did not own them.

Where others had envisioned expanding the city’s subway lines, he built roads, displacing thousands of residents.  Robert Caro, author of the Pulitzer prize winning biography of Moses, “The Power Broker” even called Moses a racist, because he built motorways for the middle class while discouraging the car-less (blacks) from visiting Jones Beach.

He opposed blacks moving into Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan development on the lower east side for veterans.  City swimming pools in black neighborhoods were kept cold to discourage blacks from using them.

Moses’ dénouement came when he tried to build the elevated, ten-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have connected the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan Bridge straight through Greenwich Village and Little Italy, evicting 2000 families and 800+ businesses.  “The Master Builder” called it “slum clearance”, but residents like Jane Jacobs (author of the “Death and Life of Great American Cities”) fought back and the city’s artistic heart was saved.

Robert Moses was not an evil man.  Today, many hail his accomplishments and think we need a benevolent despot to get things done in transportation and urban planning, even if a few people get hurt along the way.  It’s all for the greater good, Moses once said:

"I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without moving people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs."

History will judge Moses… those he helped and those he hurt.  But I think of him, more than the people he displaced, when I drive on the Cross Bronx or any of the city’s bridges.  Love the omelet, forget about the eggs.

But for graduate students at UCONN to be unaware of this man, what he built and how, worries me greatly.  To paraphrase George Santayana:  those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 13, 2019

"Getting There" - Transportation Predictions for 2019

Each year I share my predictions for the coming months… and grade myself on last year’s crystal-ball gazing.

Upon reflection, I was way too pessimistic last year, predicting fare hikes, service cuts and delays in new M8 car orders for Metro-North.  I must have had some bad eggnog when I said that the Special Transportation Fund lockbox would be defeated.  Bah, humbug.  I’ll admit it:  I was wrong.

But I was spot-on in predicting further delays with Positive Train Control, no movement on infrastructure investment by the Trump administration and possible problems for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop schemes.

As for the year ahead…

We have a good sense of where Governor-elect Lamont says he wants to go.  And he’s surrounding his team with some real talent.

A NEW COMMISSIONER AT CDOT:            Lamont’s selection of Joseph Giulietti, former President of Metro-North, as his new Commissioner is a brilliant move.  Nobody else better understands the challenges of fixing our railroads.  Since he left Metro-North he’s been working as a transportation consultant, rounding out his skill set, so he’ll hit the ground running.

Here I expect we’ll have good news and bad.  The good:  the first of 66 additional M8 rail cars ordered years ago will start arriving, adding more seats to crowded trains.  The bad:  service will continue to deteriorate as necessary track work drags on. On time performance will continue a downward spiral. Commuters will be either furious or accepting, but can do little.

It’s clear the public is way ahead of legislators on this issue, so I think the pols will be dragged into a tolling scheme on all Interstates and parkways.  At first these tolls may just be for trucks (as in Rhode Island), but I’m guessing the courts will declare that a violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause.  By then, the toll collection system will be designed, if not being installed, so it will be relatively easy to “toggle it” to collect from cars, as well.
I’d also predict we’ll see a small increase in gasoline taxes to tank up the Special Transportation Fund.  With current fuel prices so low, few will notice or complain.

I’m fairly confident this will never happen, aside from a few “operational lane” enhancements around on and off-ramps.  I’ve written about the folly of solving traffic problems with wider highways for years now, but even if the Lamont administration goes forward with such a plan, the environmentalists will tie him up in the courts for years.

I completely missed this story last year, so shame on me.  Much to everyone’s surprise, the new commuter rail line from New Haven to Hartford (and on to Springfield) has been a huge success, surpassing even CDOT’s expectations of ridership.  Since opening in June, the line has carried over 300,000 riders! Trains have been so crowded that some conductors were kicking off students using GO passes, telling them to wait for “the next train”.  I’m predicting further ridership growth, especially over the winter, and the railroad will have to add more cars in 2019 to handle the crowds.

Much of what happens depends on our new Governor and his relations with the legislature, so stay tuned for a running score on this year’s prognostications.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - A Commuter's Diary

How bad has service got on Metro-North?  Ask Chris Golier, a 40-something family-man from Fairfield who rides the train daily from Southport to Grand Central.

“Commuting is a soul sucking exercise,” he says.  What used to be a 60 minute ride to and from NYC, now takes 75 minutes.  And though slower than in years past, his trains are rarely on time… not the 88% on-time performance claimed by the railroad, but more like 37%.”

How does he know?  He kept a log.

“People take it for granted that the train is going to be late.  Most of us just deal with it or take an earlier train.  But after riding Metro-North for ten years I knew trains were running late, so I kept a record for three months. I used my iPhone to record the exact time my train’s doors opened at Southport and when I got off in GCT.”

Golier’s log covers three months, from July through September 2018.  Though he usually takes the same morning train (scheduled for 7:12 am from Southport), he takes a variety of evening trains home, so his data reflects systemic delays. 

Even taking into account the railroad’s grace period of 5 minutes and 59 seconds in determining if a train is on time, only once in three months did the train meet the published timetable. Just once.

“These are new cars.  They should be quicker,” he says.  “I know the MTA needs to do maintenance, but I pay $391 a month and fares are rising faster than the inflation rate while service keeps getting worse.”

Armed with real, tangible data… not just the usual commuter complaints of “my train is always late”… Golier sent his findings to area politicians.  His local Selectman responded immediately and asked to meet with him.  But his town’s two State Reps and State Senators didn’t even reply, aside from robo-emails acknowledging receipt.

“I tried sending my spreadsheet to Senator Blumenthal but his website wasn’t working.  Senator Murphy gave me a boilerplate reply that wasn’t worth my time reading,” he lamented.

Yes, the elections are over and one wonders if the pols even care.

What he had hoped would get the officials’ attention wasn’t just the train data but its effect on the local tax base.  “Real estate values are going down as commuting time goes up, especially for bedroom communities farther east” (where slower trains mean longer and longer trips).

He also sent his data to Metro-North which responded with an explanation about needed maintenance.  “It’s frustrating because neither MTA nor the politicians have a long-term plan they can articulate which suggests the problem will be solved in the coming years. Commuters are stuck and have no recourse except to move,” which Grolier says he doesn’t want to do.

Who else should commuters turn to in frustration?  Golier admits the conductors, being the face of the railroad, are caught in the middle.  “We know they’re not driving the train, and many of them apologize and admit the railroad isn’t delivering the kind of service they should.”

Golier doesn’t know what his next step will be… or when he will get an answer from the folks he sent to Hartford and Washington to represent him. 

But at least he did the right thing.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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