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

June 24, 2019

"Getting There" - Confessions of a Metro-North Engineer

“Bobby” has every kid’s dream job:  he’s an engineer for Metro-North.  But “Bobby” isn’t his real name because he’s asked for anonymity so he can speak candidly about his work.

“I used to love this job,” he says.  “But I still take pride in it.  Not just anybody can drive a train safely and smoothly.”

Bobby has worked for the railroad for over 20 years.  Engineers start at $32 an hour, climbing to $46 after eight years. He says Metro-North receives thousands of applications each month for a handful of job openings.  After randomizing applicants’ resumes the railroad puts candidates through extensive background checks and, if finally hired, they enter a 15 to 18 month training program.

The “rule book” for being an engineer is daunting, requiring them to know every aspect of the railroad’s locomotives and rail cars’ systems to memorizing hundreds of miles of tracks and signals on all three lines.

Right now the railroad has something like 500 engineers (the folks who run the trains) and 900 conductors and assistant-conductors (trainmen).  Before every run the crew meets for a safety briefing and review of train order bulletins:  where the speed restrictions are, which stations operate with bridge plates, etc.

In a typical day the engineer and conductor work as a team all day with assistant-conductors rotating through.  They’re all paid by the hour and can do maybe 4 or 5 runs a day if their assignment is New Haven to Grand Central.  If they have a layover between runs they get three-quarters pay.  Anything over 8 hours is time-and-a-half overtime.  So are worked holidays.

Twice a year, when the timetables change, all the assignments are rearranged based on seniority.  First pick goes to the engineer with the most seniority (33 years on the job) which means the last-hired pick up the crumbs… nights and weekends.

If he volunteers to be on the “Extra-Board” Bobby can be called in on as little as two hours’ notice to work, challenging his family life.

“The benefits are excellent,” he says, including medical and dental coverage, 12 paid holidays, a dozen sick days and up to five weeks paid vacation per year.  Spouses also get a free railroad pass, but not employees’ kids.

Safety is always Bobby’s top priority but he does feel pressure to keep running on-time.  Even when he’s ordered to run slower for safety reasons, he risks being called into the office on arrival at Grand Central if he’s really late.  And he’s also not a fan of the new TV cameras in his cab monitoring his every move.

“But I get it.  As engineer I’m responsible for up to a thousand passengers, entrusted by the railroad with millions of dollars of equipment,” he says.

When an eight-car train is taken out of service and he has to run a six-car replacement, he knows conditions will be standing-room-only and passengers will be upset.  “We’re just told (by our bosses) to do the best we can.”  But he doesn’t enjoy seeing the angry gestures (and one finger salutes) from passengers on the platform when he pulls into a station 15 minutes late.

“I just wish that the passengers knew how much is involved in running a railroad,” instead of taking out their anger on the crew.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 09, 2019

"Getting There" - Why the Shaming of Bus Riders?

Why do many people have such scorn for those who take the bus?

Forty-one million trips are taken on 12,000 public buses each year in Connecticut in communities across the state (not counting school buses).  Yet, those riders are regarded as losers, not by the transit operators, but by those who drive by car.

When Southington was recently considering restoring bus service for the first time since 1969, a local resident wrote a letter to the local paper declaring “Towns that have bus service are towns that frankly have a lesser quality of people.”

Really?  “Lesser quality”, how?   Because they can’t afford to own a car?  Or because they are minorities?  That comment is either racist or classist or both.

As I wrote recently, the Greater Bridgeport Transit bus system carries 18,000 passengers every day (5.2 million a year), 90% of them either going to school or work.  Something like 26% of all Bridgeport train riders got to or from the station by bus.

Sure, some are non-white or non-English speaking.  But why begrudge them transportation?  You’d rather they not have a job or an education?

And yes, their fares are kept low with state subsidies.  But their incomes are also low and for them even a $1.75 bus fare is expensive.  Remember… Metro-North trips (26.5 million per year), though also expensive (the highest in the US), are also subsidized.

But the biggest target of transit scorn is CTfastrak, the four year old, 9.4 mile long dedicated BRT (bus rapid transit) system running between Hartford and New Britain. Transit planners from across the country come to study CTfastrak. The Feds are looking to spend $665 million on similar systems across the US.

Yet Connecticut Republicans were trying to close it before it even began. 

When it first opened in 2014 the CDOT projected 16,000 daily riders.  To date the ridership is closer to 11,400.  Fares are cheap ($1.75 round-trip) and service is frequent with buses departing every few minutes. From New Britain to downtown Hartford it’s only 20 minutes, even at rush hour.  That’s about half the time you’d spend on I-84 stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

From the dedicated bus-only right-of-way, buses can also transfer to local roads into downtown Hartford and communities ranging from New Britain and Bristol to Cheshire and Waterbury.  The stations are clean and modern and the buses even offer free Wi-Fi… something we still don’t (and probably never will) have on Metro-North.

Critics complain about “empty buses” riding up and down the system.  Sure, the buses may not be jammed like Metro-North on a summertime Friday, but they do carry thousands every day.  Imagine if those bus riders were in cars.  How’d you like the traffic then?

Why the scorn for bus riders?  Beyond racism and class-warfare, I think there’s actually some jealousy.  Why do they get a fast, clean, cheap ride when I’m stuck in traffic?  Well, for some it’s a matter of necessity:  they don’t own or have access to a car.  For others, as with train riders, it’s a matter of choice:  they prefer the bus for speed and convenience.

So can we please stop shaming bus riders?  Like all of us, they have places to go, so let’s just allow them to ride in peace and harmony.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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