Commentary on transportation in Connecticut and the Northeast by JIM CAMERON, for 19 years a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council.
Jim is also the founder of a new advocacy effort: www.CommuterActionGroup.org
Disclaimer: his comments are only his own. All contents of this blog are (c) Cameron Communications Inc
What is this fascination that people have with monorails? I can’t tell you how often people suggest them as “the answer” to our state’s clogged roads and rails.
“Why don’t we build a monorail down the middle of The Merritt Parkway?,” asked an architect at a recent meeting. To my astonishment, such an idea was once studied!
As lore has it, back in the mid-1980’s local tech giant Sikorsky was asked by CDOT if a monorail could be built and a plan was submitted. Sure, such a system could be built, they concluded, but where would you put the stations and the necessary parking?
The Merritt Parkway
Since hearing of this white-whale of a tale, shared by Merritt Parkway Conservancy Executive Director Wes Haynes, I have been on a relentless search for details of the proposal, but I’ve come up empty. Sikorsky has no record of the plan. CDOT said “Huh?”
Digging through the archives of the Stamford Advocate I found articles from 1985 discussing the idea: a $700 million monorail down the median of the Merritt Parkway from Greenwich to Trumbull as an alternative to Bridgeport developer Francis D’Addario’s idea of widening the parkway to eight lanes… or double-decking I-95.
Motorists were surveyed and CDOT apparently spent $250,000 for a study.
The amazing research librarians at the State Library dug through their dusty files and came up with a CDOT report from 1987 pooh-poohing the idea, not only on grounds of impracticality but because it would compete with existing rail service. Heavens no!
But again… why this obsession with monorails? I think people have been spending too much time at Disneyworld.
In 1998 a monorail was once proposed for Hartford, connecting downtown to Rentschler Field in East Hartford. It was to cost only $33 million and the cost was supposedly to be paid by the Feds. It never happened. The idea was revived again in 2006 when the Adriaen’s Landing convention complex was opened, but again, nothing.
A pseudo-monorail “People Mover” system was built at Hartford’s Bradley Airport in 1976 connecting the remote parking to the main terminal, all of seven-tenths of a mile away. The fixed-guideway system, with cars designed by Ford Motor Company, cost $4 million but
Bradley Airport People Mover
never operated because the $250,000 annual operating was cost was deemed impractical. In 1984 it was dismantled, though you can still see one of the original cars at the Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor.
Whatever your fantasies are about space-age travel by monorail, let me dispel your dreams with some facts.
Monorails are not fast. The Disneyworld monorail, built by a Japanese company, has a top speed of 55 mph but usually just averages 40 mph. Even on a bad day Metro-North can better that. The 3.9 mile long Las Vegas monorail does about 50 mph shuttling losers from casino to casino.
Monorails are expensive. The Vegas system, opened in 2004, cost $654 million. That’s why existing monorails like Disney’s have never been extended.
Monorails are not Maglevs. Don’t confuse the single-track, rubber-tired monorails with the magnetic-levitation technology in use in Shanghai and being tested for passenger trains in Japan. The Shanghai maglev can travel over 250 mph, the Japanese test trains have hit 374 mph.
No, monorails are not in Connecticut’s future and are not the answer to our woes.
Hey, all you Soccer Moms out there! Tired of feeling like an Uber driver for your kids, shuttling them from school to practice, from playdate to home? Well, I have an answer and an app for you: VANgo
Launched last year by Connecticut native Marta Jamrozik, a newly minted Stanford MBA named as one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” and herself the daughter of a working Mom, the concept is simple: a rides app for pre-teens and teens with drivers who know about child-care.
“All of our drivers are thoroughly vetted,” says Jamrozik. “They need to have at least three years of child-care experience, a clean DMV record, undergo a background check, fingerprinting, reference checks and even an inspection of their vehicle.” All drivers have company-provided insurance, too.
Right now VANgo is operating in Fairfield County and Phoenix AZ, but they hope to add two more cities this summer. Here in Connecticut they have 60 drivers who work part-time, averaging three to five rides a day. The service is available 6 to 8:30 am and from 2 to 10:30 pm, shuttling kids aged ten to eighteen from place to place.
Rides can be booked up to two weeks in advance or on as little as four hours notice. When the booking is accepted both parents and the kids receive a text with confirmation including the name of the driver, a photo, description of the car and ratings info on the driver.
Local trips start at $17 with a $2 discount for recurring trips. Pricing, says Jamrozik, is based on distance and time with the “vast majority” of the fee going to the driver.
“Our pricing is about 15% higher than Uber and Lyft,” she says but emphasizes that VANgo drivers are experienced with child care: 85% of them are Moms. But so far all the drivers are women… teachers, babysitters, nannies etc.
Unlike Uber, there is no “surge pricing”, raising rates when demand is unusually high. Tipping is allowed, via the app, and all charges are direct to the parents’ credit card so the young riders don’t have to carry cash.
One Mom from Pound Ridge NY who uses VANgo to get her kids to school in New Canaan every day says she loves the service. She has three kids on varying schedules and has to commute to Fairfield herself, so she tried to find a nanny who’d drop and pick-up her kids for five hours a week, but nobody wanted the split-shift gig.
She says the drivers are great and she’s reassured in knowing they’ve all been checked out. Booking in advance fits in with everyone’s routine and while she’s at work she gets peace of mind when she receives a text alerting her that her son’s been picked up and is heading home.
The drivers also like the gig. Fifty-six year old Christina, a grandmother herself, has been driving for nine months and loves the kids… especially their conversations. She wasn’t interested in driving for Uber doing airport runs and ferrying drunk folks home at 3 am, so VANgo was a perfect fit.
Founder Jamrozik says she may expand the service to include parents and the elderly, but for now she’s happy with the kids as her clients and their parents as customers.
A good boss cares about his customers. He wants to keep them happy and actively seeks out their feedback. Such is not the case at the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
The CDOT’s new Commissioner, Joseph Giulietti, has missed several important opportunities to interface with riders in his first 100 days in office. Not that he hasn’t been working. He just hasn’t been meeting with customers.
Remember that Giulietti came to his new job after a stint as President of Metro-North and in that role he held a number of “meet-the-commuter” events, handling himself quite well in answering questions and defusing angry riders.
A year ago, after leaving the railroad, he became a consultant to T Y Lin’s study of how to improve running times on the railroad to achieve the “30-30-30” dream espoused by the Fairfield Business Council’s Joe McGee. That $400,000 study, using Giulietti’s input, said it could be done.
But if it was going to be so easy to cut running time from Stamford to Grand Central (now 51 minutes at best) to just a half-hour, you’d think he’d have done so as President of the railroad. But he didn’t.
He did accept an invitation to attend the April 17th meeting of the official Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, only to cancel on short notice. Council Chairman Jim Gildea says a staffer promised to reschedule but has never called back.
Days later the new timetable came out, including a nasty surprise for Waterbury branch riders. Their usual 4:42 train from GCT arriving in Bridgeport at 5:58 used to connect to their Waterbury train. But under the new timetable the Waterbury shuttle leaves four minutes before the NY train arrives. The next train wouldn’t be for three more hours.
Alternatively, would-be Waterbury riders could make the 6:03 pm Bridgeport connection if they left GCT at 4:11 pm. Try explaining that to your boss.
How could such a mistake in scheduling be made? Where was Giulietti?
When the Commuter Council asked for answers, they got excuses. Not until US Senator Chris Murphy wrote a letter to MNRR was the mistake corrected.
Then, on Thursday April 26th Commissioner Giulietti and Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi took a train ride. Last December Hearst reporter Jacqueline Smith had challenged them to ride the Danbury line to see the current conditions.
Accepting the “invitation”, the Giuliettiand Rinaldi boarded the post rush-hour 9:05 am train from Danbury, but only after a meet-and-great with that city’s mayor Mark Boughton who must have known they were coming. At Bethel, First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker came aboard to lobby for transit-oriented-development.
Smith interviewed the pair all the way to South Norwalk and wrote of the trip. But when I asked Smith what had happened when the railroaders talked with commuters, she said they didn’t. They were too busy being interviewed and lobbied, I guess.
When they finally had a chance to ride the rails and talk to their customers, Giuliettiand Rinaldi turn fact-finding into a PR photo op.
Giulietti’s predecessor as Commissioner, Jim Redeker, was a constant presence in public (and to his employees). He attended numerous Commuter Council, business group and community meetings.
Public transportation is a money-losing proposition. But Connecticut is home to one of the few profitable transit companies in the US. It’s not CT Transit or Metro-North, both of which are heavily subsidized. No, the operation that’s squarely in the black is the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, a.k.a. “the ferry”.
“If you tried to start this ferry company today, you couldn’t do it,” says the ferry company’s Chief Operating Officer, Fred Hall. Today’s ferry is a legacy of the 1883 cross-Sound service run by PT Barnum.
Hall has been on the boats since 1976 when he worked weekends as a bartender as a “side-hustle” to his advertising job in New York City. In those days they used to run a Friday and Saturday night “Rock the Sound” cruise leaving Port Jefferson at 10 pm. Complete with a live rock band and a lot of drinking (the legal age then was 18), the three hour cruise drew 600 passengers a night.
From there Hall was promoted to General Manager of the Bridgeport terminal, Assistant General Manager and finally to Vice President in charge of the entire operation. And he thoroughly enjoys his work, commuting from his home on Long Island to inspect the three-vessel fleet several times a week.
He’s not alone: the ferry carries almost 100 daily walk-on commuters, crossing in both directions, who are an important indicator of the economy’s strength to Hall. “When the numbers of monthly commuter (at $240 per month) are high, that’s a sign of a weakening jobs market because people have to commute long distances to find work,” he observes.
But for cars carried on the ferry the opposite is true. “In 2005 we carried 460,000 cars. In 2018, only 450,000.” Why? Because Hall says so many of his repeat customers are using the ferry to get to second homes… beach homes on Long Island or winter ski cabins in New England.
“You can probably fly out West in the winter and get more reliable snow conditions and still save money compared to driving to Vermont,” Hall says of his northbound Long Island customers.
Big changes are coming for the Bridgeport ferry, starting with an annual May fare increase. Tickets which used to be sold onboard “using carnival tickets on a broom handle” are now e-tickets sold and scanned before boarding. If you’re bringing a car, reservations are a must, especially on weekends. If you show up without a ticket expect to pay a surcharge, just like on Metro-North.
The ferry company is still working on moving to a new, larger terminal farther east in the harbor, a 19-acre site that will also support a deep-water shipping pier… if the US Army Corps of Engineers dredges the harbor. But that work is a Catch 22, he says. “They dredge where there’s shipping traffic. But that traffic depends on dredging.”
The new, $35 million ferry terminal will save up to eight minutes unloading and loading the ship and allow foot passengers to board using Jetways. Depending on permits, this new terminal might open in 2020 – 2021. The ferry company also hopes to add a fourth ferry to its fleet, built in the US and probably costing $30 – 40 million.
But long rumored plans to run additional ferry service from New Haven to Port Jefferson LI probably won’t happen, says Hall. “We just couldn’t find the land (for a terminal)” in New Haven.