September 27, 2019

"Getting There" - U-Pass Helps "Train" CT College Students

Imagine having an unlimited-rides pass on all public transit in Connecticut, including Metro-North.  Then imagine this pass only cost you $20 a year.

Such is the reality of U-Pass, the transit pass given to almost 15,000 community college and state university students in our state.  Not only does U-Pass give them affordable access to mass transit, in some cases the pass is a life changer.

“If I didn’t have U-Pass I wouldn’t be able to go to school,” says 21 year old part-time student Sabrina from Stratford.  Sabrina relies on her U-Pass to get her to classes at Norwalk Community College where she’s studying early childhood education.

The daughter of a single mom who doesn’t own a car (and also relies on the bus), Sabrina takes a bus, a train and another bus for her 90 minute one-way commute.  She also uses the pass to run personal errands like doctor’s appointments, which is fine with the CDOT and transit operators who devised the U-Pass.

Some students use their U-Pass on the CTFastrak busway system, journeying from campus to downtown to party.  Better they be on a bus than on the highway if they’ve had a couple of beers, no?

Created in 2017 as a brainchild of then CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker, U-Pass costs every student at enrolled schools $20 a year, whether they use the pass or not, though 26% of all students do.  Many are first-generation college students coming from homes like Sabrina’s, which rely on public transportation.

U-Pass sales bring CDOT and the transit operators $800,000 a year, far less than the individual rides would cost a la carte.

“U-Pass is a great way of introducing public transportation to the next generation,” says CDOT’s Lisa Rivers.  And the response has been phenomenal, enjoying a 47% increase in usage in its second year of operation.

Students just flash their U-Pass and college ID, and they’re on their way.  This fall the U-Pass is being redesigned to show the student’s name and school, making the check of that student ID even easier.

U-Pass is honored not only on the bus but the trains, including Metro-North, but only within the state.  “If you travel beyond Greenwich to New York City, you pay the local fare,” says Rivers.

Students can also use U-Pass on Shore Line East from New Haven to New London and on the new CTrail Hartford Line trains from New Haven to Hartford.  That’s how 20 year old Daniel Pinto from UConn got to his summer job in New Haven where he was applying his civil engineering studies toward a career.  (PS:  He says he plans to keep living in Connecticut.)

But the Hartford Line trains, jointly operated by CDOT and Amtrak, have been having problems with U-Pass riders.  Though both CDOT and Amtrak tickets can be used on either Amtrak or CTRail trains, Amtrak has been refusing service to U-Pass holders on busy afternoon trains due to a lack of seats.  In some cases, U-Pass holders have been kicked off the train so their seats could go to Amtrak riders with reservations.

That’s not supposed to happen and it really speaks to how little Amtrak cares about this line or the service they provide.  Their trains have fewer cars than the CTrail trains, the conductors aren’t properly trained and when CDOT complains, Amtrak basically doesn’t listen.

Some have suggested that the U-Pass program be extended to state workers, though Rivers points out that, unlike struggling college students who must often choose between eating and going to school, the state employees get a paycheck… and free parking.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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 na├»ve.
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


FEWER TRAINS & BUSES, HIGHER FARES

How’s this for a double-whammy?  CDOT is proposing a cut in train and bus service while also raising fares… just as I predicted months ago ....