March 30, 2019

"Getting There" - The TSB Deja Vu

When are we finally going to do something about our transportation crisis?

That question has been asked for decades… but never answered, or more importantly, acted upon.

I remember back in 2001 when then-Speaker of the CT House Moira Lyons held a news conference about our state’s transportation mess.  The six-term Stamford Democrat, who was long on power by short in stature, stood next to a stack of consultant studies and reports almost as tall as she was.  Enough with the studies, she said.  Let’s fix it!

One of the best things to come out of that call to action was creation of the Transportation Strategy Board.  It had representatives from business, labor, commuters, academics and planners.  They had a one year deadline to come up with a 20 year plan for Connecticut’s transportation future and how to pay for it.  And they did.

Chairman of the TSB was Oz Griebel.  Yes, the same Oz Griebel who ran unsuccessfully for Governor last fall.

One of the TSB’s top recommendations was ordering new railcars for Metro-North, which finally happened under Governor Rell.  But they also recommended highly unpopular funding mechanisms:  a gasoline tax increase, sales tax surcharge and, yes, tolls.

What have we done since?  More studies making consultants rich but never persuading lawmakers to do something.  When our elected officials have no political will, they just suggest another study, board or commission.

Former Governor Dannel Malloy had ideas. His $100 billion, 30 year “Let’s Go CT” plan had something for everyone in every corner of the state.  It was ambitious, but it wasn’t really a plan, just a laundry list of projects without priorities or funding.

Politicians love to take credit for the ideas but never want their finger prints on the nasty business of paying for them.  That’s why Malloy created… you guessed it… a blue ribbon panel:  The Transportation Finance.  Among its members… Oz Griebel.

“It was like that movie ‘Groundhog Day’,” Griebel recently told me.  “It was the same people we saw at the TSB debating the same issues” ten years later.

And what did Malloy’s Transportation Finance Panel recommend to pay for his $100 billion “plan”?  A gasoline tax increase, a sales tax surcharge, fare hikes and, you guessed it, highway tolls.

Of course, none of those came to pass.  It was an election year and who wants to run for a job in Hartford explaining to constituents that they have to pay more, especially when the Republicans mischaracterized such funding as “taxes” instead of user fees.

Along the way then-Governor Malloy abolished the TSB, ‘lest it should suggest one project had priority over another.  He wanted it all, but got none, because he couldn’t sell the plan to pay for it.

But now we have the Special Transportation Fund Lockbox, right?  Any money that goes in can only be spent on transportation.  Or so we were told.  But as one sage observer of the transportation scene for decades recently told me, “The lockbox has more backdoors than a hot-sheets motel on the Berlin Turnpike”.  We’ll see.

Will the new legislature have the guts to finally raise the funding we need to fix our roads and rails?  Or will I be re-writing this column again in another decade, like “déjà vu all over again”?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 24, 2019

"Getting There" - Travel by Tube

Is Elon Musk a brilliant innovator, or is he just smoking dope?

Well, we know the answer to the second question as a viral video has shown him puffing (legal) weed on a talk show. The man is under a lot of stress, right?

There’s no doubt that Musk’s privately funded ventures in space travel and electric cars are prescient, maybe even profitable someday.  But his transportation vision for Hyperloop has yet to be proven viable.

Hyperloop is Musk’s 2013 vision of high-speed underground tube-travel in a near-vacuum using liner induction motors akin to maglev.  The concept has already gained “traction” with private companies like Virgin Hyperloop One and HyperloopTT, which are looking to commercialize Musk’s idea.

They’ve signed deals in South Korea, India, the United Arab Emirates, China, Indonesia and Ukraine.  In the US, Virgin is working with the states of Missouri and Colorado on projects, envisioning things like a 250 mile run from St Louis to Kansas City in 28 minutes (vs three and a half hours by car).  They say that development costs would be 40% less than those for high speed rail.

Even some in Connecticut are thinking about tube travel in the Northeast.  State Representative Tom O’Dea (R – New Canaan) has been in touch with Musk’s Boring Company (that’s its name, not an adjective) which says they are “literally on board with the idea of Hyperloop” between New York and Boston.

So far Musk’s only demonstration project has been a bumpy ride in a Tesla on a short 1.14 mile stretch of tunnel under Hawthorne CA it cost him $10 million to drill.  Reporters who tried the system in December seemed underwhelmed as speeds hit only 49 mph in a self-driving Tesla with special guide-wheels.  Musk told skeptics he could get speeds up to 150 mph over time.  But to me the whole thing looks sketchy.

First, you have to use a Tesla.  And that has to go underground on an elevator. Imagine the lines you’ll wait in for that.  Once underway, what happens if there’s a derailment or crash, or worse yet, a fire?  There are no escape hatches.   And this demonstration project hasn’t even touched on the issues of running in a sealed pod, in a vacuum using maglev technology.

At his Las Vegas test track, a scaled down model of a Hyperloop “pod” hit 230 mph, a far cry from rumored speeds of 700 mph.  Clearly, this technology is not the ride for you if you are claustrophobic.

In fact, Musk’s tube-travel idea isn’t all that new.

Back in 1904 Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry, wrote a paper as a freshman at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describing a system almost identical to Musk’s.  He predicted a high speed “Vactrain”, suspended by magnetic levitation, hurtling through underground tunnels in a near vacuum.  Passengers would be strapped in for a speedy but exhilarating ride at about 1200 mph, hurtling you from New York to Boston in ten minutes.

As I’ve written before, pneumatic tube subways were running, at least on a trial basis, in New York City as early as 1870.  The city also used smaller vacuum tubes to deliver mail over a 27 mile network.

So put that bit of history in your pipe and smoke it, Elon!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 16, 2019

"Getting There" - How I Lost My Lead-Foot

I like to go fast.  Really fast.  Nothing makes me happier than hurtling along to Boston on Acela at 145 mph, brief as those sprints may be, or catching the jet-stream on a flight and hitting 600 mph.  And nothing frustrates me more, like you, than being in slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95, that highway’s normative state.

But I’m also thrifty, some might even say “cheap”, especially when it comes to buying gasoline.  Which is why I recently traded in my powerful six-cylinder sedan for a very cool electric hybrid. 

While I used to get about 20 mpg in the sedan, the hybrid now gets me 40 – 45 mpg. That means I’m using half as much gasoline (and contributing half of what I used to pay in gas taxes to fund road repairs).  Those who drive all-electric cars, like Teslas, pay nothing toward Connecticut roads.

The hybrid achieves these impressive miles-per-gallon stats because it runs much of the time on electricity.  Its battery gets charged every time I hit the brakes, turning the engine into an electric generator.

But to get the best mileage I’ve also had to change the way I drive:  accelerating more slowly and relying on the visual feedback from the car’s dashboard display.  It’s a game the car has taught me to play:  keep the monitor display in the green, not the red. I’m hooked.

Oh, this car can accelerate quickly when I need to, by slipping out of “Eco” mode into “PWR”.  But I’m constantly challenging myself to maximize MPG by driving and braking efficiently.  I’m finally losing my “lead foot”, compromising my love of speed for saving money.

Whatever kind of car you drive, four, six or eight cylinders, you can save gasoline by avoid these mistakes:

·         Don’t accelerate too quickly, especially from a dead stop.  Pretend there’s a raw egg between your foot and the gas pedal and ease into it

·       While driving down the road, if you see the light ahead turn red, take your foot off the gas and coast to a stop.  It will also save wear and tear on your brakes.

·       Keep your vehicle as light as possible.  No need to waste fuel hauling extra weight.

·       Keep your tires properly, but not over-, inflated.  Softer tires increase road friction. Over inflation causes more wear on your tires.

·       Keep your gas tank cap tightly closed. If you get air in your gas tank your engine has to burn more fuel.

·       Don’t idle unnecessarily.  Sitting still can burn one to two ounces of fuel a minute or about a gallon an hour that’s giving you zero MPG

·       When you gas-up, do it in the morning when the station’s underground tanks are coldest and the fuel is the densest.

·       Replace your engine’s air filter as often as recommended by the manufacturer.  A clogged air filter has to work harder to combust the fuel, cutting down on efficiency.

·       Use your car’s air conditioner sparingly.  But for 60 mph highway driving, keeping your windows closed actually improves mileage by cutting down on drag.

·       Use your car’s cruise control to avoid unnecessary braking and acceleration, the two enemies of good MPG.

·       Just slow down.  Driving at 60 mph instead of 70 can save you two to four miles per gallon!

  • Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Anti-Toll Forces Get Organized

Was anyone really surprised when Ned did a flip-flop on tolls?  Not me. 

If you’ll remember when he first announced his candidacy for Governor, he said he’d sign a toll bill his first day in office.   Then he saw the polling data and backtracked, saying he’d only toll trucks.

Trucks seem like such a convenient scapegoat.  Sure, let’s blame them for our traffic and bad roads.   We’re not responsible, it’s “them”.  Everybody hates trucks, unless they’re delivering my Amazon package.  But just tolling trucks won’t get the money needed, so the Governor gave lawmakers a second option.

Yes, lawmakers.   It’s the legislature that must pass a tolling bill before the Governor can sign it, so that’s where the debate has quickly shifted, bringing out… the Zombies!

Usually when you lose an election you slink off in a corner to sulk and regroup.  But not the Republicans.   Their standard bearers have risen again from the dead to lead a new fight, this time against tolls.

Bob Stefanowski, the guy who didn’t vote for 16 years and then couldn’t decide if he was a Republican or Democrat, is now leading his “party of NO” in a crusade to stop the “tolls tax”.

Scott Frantz who lost his Greenwich Senate seat to, gasp, a Democrat...( and a woman !)... is said to be behind his town’s pushback on tolling.  And fellow GOP loser, Toni Boucher of Wilton is still on social media fanning the flames of discontent.  It’s a trifecta of Zombie losers who refuse to admit they were rejected by the voters.

Elsewhere, the GOP is organizing local “informational meetings” with constituents to attack the Lamont budget.   But if you look at who’s providing the “information” you’ll see it’s just the GOP.   There are no voices in support of tolling, just the trolls who oppose it.

The Zombies and Trolls are hoping to find new political life on an issue they campaigned and lost on, big time.

When 88% of the voters said “yes” to a Lockbox on the Special Transportation Fund last November, we witnessed a sea-change in voters’ attitudes toward raising revenue for our roads and rails.   People understand that tolls are not a “tax” as the Zombies would have us believe, but a user fee.

If you don’t want to pay tolls, don’t.   Take mass transit.  And when the anti-toll trolls now complain about how unfair it is to charge tolls to working men and women just trying to get to their jobs, where is their sympathy for the hours they now waste in traffic each day?  

Even Stefanowksi mentor Arthur Laffler understands the issue of supply and demand:  we have a limited supply of highway and insatiable demand.  Tolling will moderate our greed.

Mind you, with the Zombies and Trolls now running lose across the state I’m seriously underwhelmed at our new Governor’s inability to sell his vision on tolling.   His budget speech was fine, but there’s been no follow through.  Let’s get cranking Ned!

It’s time for Governor Lamont to sell the reality and necessity of tolling and finally put a silver stake through the heart of the Zombies and Trolls.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 02, 2019

"Getting There" - Mr. Haskell Goes to Hartford

Will Haskell is 22 years old.  And he’s about two months into his first full-time paying job:  Connecticut State Senator, representing the 26th District covering much of the interior of Fairfield County.  His election victory in November over Senator Toni Boucher, who’d been in office since he was born, was astonishing.

And he has certainly hit the ground running as he is sponsor or co-sponsor of 68 different bills that are “in the hopper” in the State Senate.  Of course, submitting a bill is the easy part.  A Senator can submit a bill ordering anything, but it may never see the light of day… making it out of Committee for a vote.

Senator Haskell’s “progressive” proposals cover everything from voting rights to ghost guns, from a plastic bag ban to fracking.  But the proposed bill that first caught my eye concerned Metro-North whose Danbury and New Canaan branches run through his district.  I’m thrilled that the Senator appreciates the value of the railroad to his constituents, but his bill (SB 163) says nothing about the speed or safety of the trains.  It doesn’t talk about fares, lack of seats, insufficient station parking or electrification of the diesel line to Danbury.

No, the Senator’s two sentence bill would address only one issue:  requiring Metro-North to provide free Wi-Fi on all its trains.  Wow.  That is a hugely misplaced priority.

There are so many more pressing needs for rail commuters in Connecticut:  the aging catenary, the signal system, grade-crossing safety, unreliable locomotives, etc.  But Senator Haskell wants us to have free Wi-Fi.

Why?  Because the cell service along much of the line is so poor.  But does the Senator understand that “free Wi-Fi” on trains relies on local cell service?  If there’s no local cell signal, the Wi-Fi won’t work.  And anybody who’s ridden Amtrak lately can testify about the slow speeds and unreliability of their technology.  So imagine a packed Metro-North train with 50% more passengers than an Amtrak coach and you’ll be lucky to get any bandwidth at all.  Don’t commuters have enough to complain about already?

There are legitimate reasons that Metro-North doesn’t offer Wi-Fi (as I’ve written about before).  The railroad considered Wi-Fi and even issued an RFP for vendors, including Cablevision.  But they balked at once again adopting a technology that would be leapfrogged.

Does anybody remember the 1990’s when Metro-North use to offer pay-phones on trains?  They were made obsolete in months when cellphone prices dropped and everyone could afford one.  Once burned, twice shy.

Today’s “state of the art” 4G cellphones will be toast in another year or two when 5G technology starts getting built-out.  That 5G will give you connection speeds making today’s fast connection look like the early days of dial-up modems.  And, of course, we will all need new phones.

So, isn’t Metro-North busy enough with getting Positive Train Control’s sophisticated radio tech working right that we don’t need to burden them with a millennial’s dream of free Wi-Fi?   If you really want to have hi-speed internet on your daily commute, get yourself a wireless card from your cell provider and an unlimited data plan.

But please, Senator Haskell, let’s get our priorities right when it comes to telling Metro-North how to run a railroad.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

"Getting There" - The Taxi Driver

“You know how much money I make driving this cab?” the thickly accented New York cabbie asked me as we careened down Lexington Avenue. 

I was just trying to make conversation, as I usually do (often in my Canadian French), and after a trite observation about the weather, I asked him about the new taxi / car service surcharge recently applied to Manhattan rides:  $2.50 for taxis and $2.75 for Uber and Lyft.  He exploded.

It was proposed as a fund raising effort to fix the subways.  But the taxi drivers, call it the “suicide surcharge”… making taxi rides so expensive the industry will collapse.  Or maybe they’re referring to the fact that eight taxi and Uber drivers in NYC have killed themselves in the past year, no longer able to bear the financial burden of driving.

The surcharge was held up by the courts for awhile, but now it’s in effect.  Step in a NYC taxi south of 96th Street in Manhattan and the meter will start at $5.80.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is, you won’t have trouble finding a cab.  Savvy New Yorkers are either walking, or taking the bus or subway.  Taxis are now expensive. Ubers, too.

So, glancing at the meter which was quickly ticking off the dollars, I asked my driver if the surcharge was hurting tips.  When you see an extra $2.50 added to your fare, I’d guess many passengers are reluctant to also tip the driver.

“WHATDAYOUTHINK?”, said my driver.  “I drive this cab 12 hours a day, and you know how much I make,” he asked?  I didn’t even want to guess.  “I lease this car from the (taxi) medallion owner and I gotta pay for the gas.  I even have to pay tax on my tips (when passengers use the credit card instead of paying cash). And for all that I make $100 a day.”

A C-note a day for driving in Manhattan traffic?  That’s about $8 an hour. Guys slinging burgers make $15, the new minimum wage, and have much better working conditions… like access to bathrooms and people seldom pulling a gun on them from the back seat. So why does he drive?

My driver said he’d been behind the wheel for 12 years, a veteran for an industry that is often a first job for immigrants.  He told me he was ready to retire.  Doubtless when he hangs up his keys, someone new will take his place.

Taxis and Ubers are a service. They take you door to door, in your own little steel cocoon, usually heated and cooled appropriately.  You can get there fast without the noise and accompaniment of the “interesting” people who ride the subway.  Taxis are usually clean and the drivers competent.

And those drivers are doing this job to make a living, just like the gal who is a waitress or the guy at Grand Central who shines my shoes.  It’s less a professional ambition and career track than a way to get by for another week, paying the bills and putting food on the table for the family.

So I don’t resent the new surcharge.  I’m okay with paying to fix mass transit.  But for my taxi driver on this ride, I gave him my empathy and a 25% tip.  He seemed grateful and I felt less guilty.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - CT's Hometown Railroad

You might not realize it, but Connecticut is home to the world headquarters of a $5 billion international railroad company on whose trains you’ll never be able to ride.

In a small office building across from the Darien railroad station sits the offices of Genesee and Wyoming Inc, a “short line” railroad conglomerate.  The original railroad, founded in 1899, hauled salt on a 14-mile track in upstate NY.  Today, G&W owns 122 different railroads on three continents, serving 3000 customers with over 16,000 miles of track.

A “short line” railroad, as its name implies, only operates over short distances, sometimes thought of as rail freight’s first and last mile.  They pick up boxcars and tankers at factories and plants and carry them to junction points where they hand them off to the major railroads which carry them to their ultimate destination, a journey often completed by another short line railroad.

In the US G&W’s railroads are as short as a single mile in length and as long as 739 miles.  They operate 1300 locomotives and 30,000 railcars.  But they only carry freight, not passengers.

And because they only travel short distances, they’re not looking for speed as much as customer service.  Moving along at 15 mph saves a lot on track maintenance.

How does G&W’s sales team sell companies on shipping by rail instead of truck?  Fuel costs.  Trains are four times more energy efficient, a crucial consideration when you’re hauling tons of stone, coal, or wheat instead of Amazon boxes filled with packing peanuts.

The G&W’s most local affiliate, The Providence & Worcester, runs a train on Metro-North tracks each night, hauling crushed rock from Connecticut quarries to Queens NY.  I can hear the train from my home, usually just before midnight, as its locomotives strain under the load and rumble through town.

That’s about the only freight train left on the New Haven line.  But that’s another story for another time.

Overseas the G&W owns some much larger railroads, but still dedicated only to freight.  They run trains, container terminals and freight yards in the UK, Germany, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Down under in Australia the G&W runs a huge freight operation running north-south through the heart of the continent serving the iron ore and manganese mines hauling intermodal containers through the desert-like interior.

How does a tiny, 20-person office in Darien oversee such a massive railroad network around the planet?  It doesn’t.  Each of G&W’s nine operating regions is locally managed with capital allocated from headquarters.  Keeping the decision-making close to the customers, not being second-guessed from thousands of miles away, has been the key to G&W’s success.

But one thing that all of G&W’s railroads do share in common is the color scheme of their logos, originally designed by Milton Glaser (famous for the I  Love NY logo).  Every G&W railroad’s logo is orange and black.  Not just any orange, but Princeton orange, harkening back to its former chairman’s alma mater.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


Enjoying the heatwave this summer?  The electric utilities sure are.  And just wait ‘til you get your next bill.   They’ve been warning us...