November 27, 2019

"Getting There" - 2020 Hindsight

As we review the details of Governor Lamont’s CT2030 transportation plan, I have a strange sense of déjà vu.  Haven’t we been through all this before?

Journey back with me to 1999 when the famous Gallis Report warned that southwestern Connecticut’s transportation woes were strangling the entire state.  If something wasn’t done, they warned, we would become “an economic cul de sac” in the burgeoning northeast.

The solution?  Yet another study, this one undertaken by Wilbur Smith Associates for SWRPA, the SouthWest Regional Planning Agency (now part of WestCOG). The report specifically looked at “congestion mitigation”, i.e. doing something about our traffic problems.

The $903,000 report was submitted in February 2003 and was titled “Vision 2020”.  You see the pattern… Vision 2020 morphs into CT2030?

Rereading the report I am struck with its many good ideas, a few of which actually came to pass:

Land Use Review:   The idea of T.O.D. (transit oriented development) has been embraced throughout the state with towns and cities planning for dense (hopefully car-free) developments near transit hubs.

More Rail Station Parking:   Also some progress, though many towns still have a 6+ year wait for annual permits.  And 20 years ago who’d have even imagined apps like Boxcar or Uber?

More Bike & Pedestrian Options:    We now have more sidewalks and bike paths as well as bike racks on buses and Metro-North.

But other “low hanging fruit” ideas still haven’t happened, like…

·       FlexTime, Staggered Work Hours and Vanpools to lighten the rush hour.  Next time you’re stuck in traffic look around:  it’s almost all SOV’s (single occupancy vehicles).

·       A “Smart Card” universally accepted for payment on all public transit.  And free transfers from buses to trains.

·       A “Weigh In Motion” system to monitor trucks without long queues at seldom-open weigh stations.

But never addressed were the big (expensive) ideas like:

·       Ramp metering, like they have in California, to stop cars from piling onto I-95 at will adding to the crush.

·       Closing some interchanges to make I-95 a truly interstate highway, not a local shortcut.
·       Adding a “zipper lane” to I-95 heading west in the AM and east in the PM… with tolls!
·       Running BRT (bus rapid transit) along the Route One corridor

·       Double tracking the Danbury branch of Metro-North.

·       Start a “feeder barge” system to bring shipping containers from NJ to New England by water, not truck.

·       Resume rail freight service by adding a rail bridge across the Hudson River.
·       Widen I-84 and Route 7 to four lanes.

·       Study the idea of high speed ferry service along the coast.

Haven’t we heard all this before?  How many of these ideas are posed again Lamont’s CT2030?  A Lot of them.

We are not lacking in ideas, just political will.  For decades the legislature has been unwilling to commit resources to our transportation infrastructure and economic future, instead wasting millions on more and more studies of the same problems.

All of these big ideas take money… big money.  But the “No Tolls CT” folks have tapped into residents’ cynicism that anything in terms of new revenue will be misspent.  And they’ve so intimidated lawmakers with threats of “Vote for Tolls, Lose at the polls” that even the bravest members can’t muster the courage to do the right thing.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 18, 2019

"Getting There" - Super Trains

What do Ayn Rand, Hollywood and Adolph Hitler have in common?

They all dreamt of building super-trains!

Maybe it was because their visions for giant, high-speed trains came before the era of cheap flights moving large numbers of people over great distances, but each of them had a grandiose vision of fast, luxurious rail travel.

In her 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged”, Rand made the construction of a coast-to-coast train, “The Taggart Comet”, central to the plot of her dystopian America set some time in the future.  In an era of crumbling infrastructure, the construction of an eight mile long rail-tunnel under the continental divide saw mismanagement lead to a fatal passage, killing all on board.

Fast forward 22 years and NBC was still dreaming of high-speed, transcontinental rail travel, this time on “Supertrain”.  This fictitious nuclear-powered cruise-ship-on-rails would zoom from New York to Los Angeles in 36 hours at a cruising speed of 190 mph.

Equipped with a swimming pool, disco, infirmary and shopping center, the dreamt-of double-decker train was so big it had to run on a broad-gauge track.  One-way tickets in a roomette were $450.

The life-sized set for the show’s shooting looked tacky, and the few cutaway shots of the $10 million Supertrain scale-model cruising across the country were unconvincing.  Of course, the show wasn’t about the train but the people who rode it, like a “Loveboat” on land.  The vision of TV mogul Fred Silverman, the show was a disaster and lasted only one season.

Mind you, by 1979 when Supertrain was taking to air, Amtrak was debuting its own double-deck long distance trains, dubbed Superliners.  The cars still run today on such trains as The Empire Builder (Seattle to Chicago) and the California Zephyr (San Francisco to Chicago).  But these trains are more ballast than bullet, with a (rarely achieved) top speed of 100 mph.  And though they do offer a dining car and glass-topped observation lounge, there is no pool or disco.

What inspired Rand, NBC and Amtrak to such rail dreams?  It might have been Adolph Hitler.

Early during World War II, Hitler was thinking and building big.  Berlin was to be rebuilt as Welthauptstadt Germania, capital of the world. And to move people across conquered Europe, the network of Autobahns was to be complimented with the Breitspurbahn, translated as broad-gauge railroad, with trains twice as wide as standard gauge.

The locomotives’ designs ranged from traditional steam to gas turbine, but the rail cars would make Supertrain pale in comparison.  Each double-deck car would be 138 feet long, 20 feet wide and 23 feet tall, the size of a small house.

The train would be a third of a mile long carrying 2000 to 4000 passengers at 120 mph.  On board would be a 196-seat cinema, barbershop, sauna and a dining car for 176.  Daytime and night seating (and sleepers) would be offered in three classes.  Additionally a single car could carry up to 450 slave laborers.  There was also room for several 20 mm anti-aircraft guns.

Hitler had a team of 100 top engineers working on the railroad’s design right up until the end of the war, though a prototype was never built.

Today we have any number of super-fast trains, but none as large as earlier generations had imagined.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Coffee, Tea ... or E-Coli

You should never drink coffee or tea prepared on an airplane:  you may get very sick.

That’s the bottom line to recent studies (by Hunter College’s NYC Food Safety Center) of the safety of airplanes’ water tanks which, it turns out, can be harboring some nasty contaminants such as e coli and coliform.  Some suggest you shouldn’t even wash your hands in on-board water.

Airlines are only required to flush and clean their on-board water tanks four times a year.  But when they fly to exotic destinations and get serviced between flights, they take on local water which may not meet US standards.  The tanks aren’t emptied and cleaned, just topped-off, leaving the nasty stuff at the bottom. And those tanks can often sit long periods (think overnight) between fillings.

The airlines say there isn’t time between flights to do more than clean the cabin, off-load and load baggage and get their expensive jets back in the air, making money.

Back in 2011 the EPA instituted the Airline Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) which was to “ensure that safe and reliable drinking water is provided to aircraft passengers and crew.”  But a year later, one in ten aircraft tested still showed signs of coliform.

Coliform itself won’t make you sick but it’s often a sign of other dangerous bacteria lurking in your drinks: viruses, protozoa and multicellular parasites.

Some airlines, like Southwest which has one of the best water safety records, disinfect their tanks with ozone.  But while OCDC flyers may swab their seatback tables with disinfectant wipes, there’s not much they can know (or do) about those hidden water tanks… or your fellow passengers spewing germs into the recirculated air.  Maybe you should bring a surgical mask, too?

It’s also not very reassuring to learn that the EPA has rarely, if ever, levied a fine against those airlines failing inspections.  Even airlines failing quarterly water sample tests don’t have to shut down their water use for 24 hours.  Huh?

The Hunter College study ranked the top ten domestic airlines’ water safety.  Top scores for the cleanest water went to Alaska and Allegiant with scores of 3.3 on a scale of 5 (where 5 is best).  The major carriers like Delta, American and United and got scores of 1.6, 1.5 and 1.2  respectively.  At the bottom of the rankings, with scores of just 1, were JetBlue and Spirit.

You absolutely need to hydrate, especially on longer flights, but you should either BYO bottled water or drink the airlines’ water distributed in flight, but only if it’s bottled.  That coffee or tea you’re offered in-flight is not made with bottled water.  Plus, the caffeine in tea or coffee only dehydrates you further.

On the railroads I can remember the olden days when rail passengers could get water from a cooler in each car, quaffing their thirst with tiny, triangular paper cups dispensed next to the spigots.  Not anymore.  Amtrak even reminds passengers not to drink restroom sink water.

On Metro-North there are no water spigots, though each train does carry emergency “boxed” water in case of a breakdown and lengthy delays.  But even those supplies have a five year safety limit.

Bottom line:  don’t be paranoid but do be safe.  Bring your own water, even if it means carrying any empty bottle through TSA for filling at a water fountain.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 04, 2019

"Getting There" - The Folly of Fast Ferries

Just when I thought Governor Lamont was getting it together to launch a thoughtful, considered “take two” on his transportation vision… bam!  Along comes another nonsensical idea.

It wasn’t enough that he tried to sell us on the zany, physically / fiscally impossible 30-30-30 vision of faster train speeds, now he is (literally) refloating the idea of “high speed” ferry service from Bridgeport and Stamford to NYC.

Such ferry service wouldn’t take cars off of I-95.  Those drivers aren’t going where the ferry does.  And if they haven’t already opted for the train, why would they ever take a ferry?

As my Hearst colleague Kaitlyn Krasselt reported, the lure of Federal funding is what’s getting the Lamont team to revisit the often studied, always rejected idea of aquatic commutation.  Since 2006 I have written about why ferries will never work here.  But let me remind you of the high points:

·       “High speed” ferries aren’t fast.  They can only go 29 mph in open waters, half the speed of a Metro-North train.  Speeds in excess of 30 mean higher operating costs for additional highly skilled crew.

·       They only carry 149 passengers (vs 1000 on a train) and are gas-guzzling polluters (vs clean electric trains). 

·       A fleet of two such ferries might make two round-trips a day (vs every-20 minute rush hour trains).

·       They can’t operate in all weather.

·       The fares would be at least double those of the train and they’d still need huge subsidies to attract operators.

NY State and Federal subsidies of $4.7 million were wasted on a ferry from Yonkers to NYC which ran for four years.  At its peak it carried just 90 passengers a day paying $8 each way… subsidized at $50 per ride.

Or consider Glen Cove LI’s experience with failed ferries.

In 2001 that bedroom community just 28 miles from NYC on the LIRR, began ferry service to NYC at fares pretty close to those charged on the train.  It failed after a year due to low ridership and despite $1 million subsidy by the MTA.

In the “summer of hell” in 2017 when track work at Penn station delayed trains, the service resumed with two boats each rush hour carrying fewer than 80 passengers between them.  The subsidies for the July to September runs totaled over $1.5 million.  That’s a $257 subsidy per passenger per trip.

In 2016 Glen Cove built a stylish new ferry terminal and dock costing $16.6 million using a Federal grant.  But aside from the summer of 2017, the city has been unable to find a ferry operator to resume service.

So guess what:  the Fed’s asked for their money back.

Glen Cove had until January 2019 to resume ferry service or refund Washington its money.  After an extension, the city Council voted 4-3 to hire a new, heavily subsidized ferry operator… not because they liked their proposal but because the alternative of paying back $16 million was even worse.

So if the Lamont transportation team is so excited about using Federal money to study, build or even start a private – public partnership for ferry service from Connecticut they should consider the consequences.  Federal money may seem “free”, but if it locks you into a money-losing, heavily subsidized, under-utilized fast ferry for Fat Cats going to Wall Street, the long-term cost could be huge.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...