January 29, 2020

"Getting There" - The Waterbury Branch

Remember Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian always complaining that he “gets no respect”?  That’s how Waterbury line commuters (and local officials) feel.  Their little branch line gets no respect.
In fact, the Waterbury branch of Metro-North is the longest of three branch lines:  27 miles from the mainline (at Devon) to Waterbury.  It carries about 1000 passengers a day… the same as a single ten-car train on the mainline.
The service on the branch is abysmal:  only two rush hour trains in the morning and three at night.  If you miss the 6:03 pm train from Bridgeport you have to wait 2 ½ hours for the next train.  The diesel locomotives are old and hard to maintain, breaking down often so riders must take buses.
And the on-time performance has been as low as an underwhelming 75% in recent months.  The stations lack any amenities, are old, decrepit and hardly attractive.  And they’ve been that way for years, despite local mayors’, developers and activists’ cries for improvement.
That’s why I wanted to attend a recent “Rail Conference” in Naugatuck, bringing together everyone interested in improving the trains to face off with local State Rep’s and Senators who can make it happen.  It was a real eye-opener.
The venue was an old UniRoyal building on Rubber Ave, a sad looking structure next to a potholed parking lot.  My GPS said I was in the right place, but there was no signage aside from the women’s clothing sale going on in the first floor.  Heading upstairs I found the meeting room… complete with a bar.
Inside the pols were gathering, the mayors on one side of the table, the state elected officials on the other.  Across the state these meetings happen before the legislature comes into session, giving the lawmakers their marching orders.
Two years ago, the same meeting was held and the same cries were heard to “fix our trains”.  But little has happened.
Rail sidings are being built and a signal system installed, but ‘til then only one train can operate on the line, in either direction, at one time.
The mayors speechified that the Naugatuck Valley was ripe for development.  In Ansonia alone there are 40 empty acres in downtown… never mind that much of the entire valley land is polluted from factories of the past, scaring off developers.
Still, people are flocking to the Valley for the affordable homes and good schools, but they can’t get to work because train service is so poor.  Why no progress on new cars and better service?  The mayors blame the legislature while the state elected officials blame the Governor.
With limited funding the CDOT prioritizes the mainline, Shore Line East and the new Hartford Line for investment.
One veteran observed that in the good old days, the Democrats and Republicans in Hartford would work together on common issues like transportation.  But today, not even House minority leader Themis Klarides, representing Derby, can get her fellow lawmakers to achieve consensus.
“She seems more interested in fighting over tolls and taxes than delivering for her district,” said one observer to me on the sidelines.
The potential for the Valley is huge, both for commuters and freight.  But the legislators keep making excuses instead of making deals.  Will things be any different this year?  Stay tuned.

​Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 23, 2020

"Getting There" - VW, Dieselgate and CT's Electric Buses

The new year will bring some big changes at Greater Bridgeport Transit (GBT):  the introduction of two new, all-electric buses to the fleet.

GBT current runs 57 buses, 35 of them diesel-powered and 22 of them hybrids.  The diesels get 3.2 mpg and the hybrids just 4.5 mpg, which means the busy transit agency must buy over a half-million gallons of diesel fuel a year.

It’s a very busy transit agency carrying over 5 million passengers a year (about 17,000 a day).  Fares have been steady since 2010:  $1.75 for 90 minutes on any route, $4 a day or $70 for a monthly pass.  And ten percent of their riders are students, many of whom wouldn’t be able to go to school if it weren’t for their bus passes.

Why electric buses?  “We want to reduce our use of fossil fuels and cut pollution,” says GBT General Manager Doug Holcomb. “It’s just the right thing to do.”  But finding the best electric bus hasn’t been easy.

The transit agency needed to do a lot of modeling looking at the length of their routes, the passenger loads and recharging times.  While GBT’s average bus drives about 250 miles in its 16 hour workday, there was no electric bus which could reach that range in local conditions.

Finally, they settled on a new 40 foot bus built by Proterra.  To be assembled in South Carolina and made with 75% US built parts, the first two buses should arrive by this spring, with three more coming later in the year. But they won’t be cheap.

Each electric bus, kitted out the way GBT wants them, will cost $970,000.  That compares to $630,000 for a hybrid bus and $460,000 for a traditional diesel.  The good news is that 80% of the cost will be paid by a Federal grant with the other 20% coming from the state.

Aside from being much quieter, these new electric buses will be an environmentalist’s delight.  Even factoring in the emissions from the additional utility generation of electricity to charge these buses, just two electric buses in the GBTA fleet will mean almost a half-million pounds less of CO2 in the environment.

The transit agency will also be buying less diesel fuel and expects to reduce its maintenance costs given the simplicity of the motors.  To handle the overnight charging the agency has had to make a significant upgrade in its Cross Street garage.  But that too is mostly being covered by Federal funds.

What will riders see in the new electric buses?  Comfy seats (but without padding to make cleaning them easier), a security surveillance system, USB charging ports at every seat and the all the ADA bells and whistles.

Even non-riders will benefit from the move to electric buses as diesel fumes have been linked to asthma and any reduction in that pollution is a positive.

CT Transit is also looking at electric buses for their New Haven and Stamford systems.  They have an RFP on the street now and with any luck will start approving bids for 12 buses by March.

Fittingly, the federal funds for these new CTtransit buses come from Connecticut's slice of the “Dieselgate” settlement with Volkswagen after the German carmaker was caught cheating on the emissions standards of its “clean diesel” cars." The state reportedly received $55.7 million and planned to spend $7.5 million on upgrading public services fleets.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 17, 2020

"Getting There" - Conversation w the Commr - Part Two

CDOT Commissioner Joseph Giulietti is about to finish his first year on the job and his plate is more than full.  It’s overflowing with controversy.

Last week, in part one of an exclusive, no-holds barred interview he spoke of his challenges in speeding up Metro-North, coping with the over-budget, behind-schedule Walk Bridge replacement and ordering new rail cars.

This week, in part two of our conversation he speaks of the biggest issue of all… getting the legislature to pass truck tolls to raise money to replenish the Special Transportation Fund which pays for transportation in our state.

I asked the Commissioner if Governor Lamont had “bungled” this initiative by his constant flip-flopping on what to toll and where.

Choosing his words very carefully he said “The Governor has admitted that there were some things he wished had been done differently.  If it was bungled it was because he was trying to come up with bipartisan support for a solution everyone could buy into.”

Giulietti said nobody expected the how pervasive and organized the opposition forces would be against tolling.

As for Mr. Sasser, leader of the #NoTollsCT movement, “I’ve never him. This is never a personal issue.” But when the initial tolling plan was unveiled he said the #NoTollsCT forces “ran with the paranoia”.  But if not tolls, “how do you want to pay for it (transportation)?  Connecticut drivers have been subsidizing out of state drivers for years. Tolls are the closest thing we have to a user fee.”

As for the claim that truck tolls will lead to car tolls and the money will be misspent, “The Federal government determines that and that those funds must be spent on the roads (where the tolls would be)”.  Trucks don’t buy gas in Connecticut so they’re getting a free ride.

On the claim that the CDOT wastes money: “We used to have 5000 people at the CDOT.  Now we have 2700.” Even snow plowing is done with one driver, guided by a computer on where to deploy brine and how to best clear the snow.  One truck can now even handle three lanes of pavement.

“We’ve always looked how we can be more efficient. That’s the type of department CDOT has become. We always want to be good stewards of the public’s money.”

“I don’t know of a better way (to pay for transportation) than tolls.  The Governor has always said ‘If you have a better idea, come to me with it.’, so if we’re not going to do tolling what’s the alternative… gas tax, income tax, sales tax?  But there don’t seem to be any alternate ideas on how to get this thing (funding) through.”

Giulietti says he has a good working relation with Governor Lamont. “I’m not a politician, I don’t run for office,” he said. “But I know of very honorable people who do the right thing (like voting in favor of tolls) despite the threats of being voted out of their jobs.”

“I’ve worked now for six or seven governors. Lamont is one of the most honest and decent people I’ve worked with… a genuine good guy who truly wants bipartisan support to try and get this thing through.  It makes it easy (for me) to face the criticism because I know he’s trying to do the right thing.”

To which I can only add… Amen!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 10, 2020

"Getting There" - Conversation with the Commissioner - Part One

Joseph Giulietti is finishing his first year as Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, CDOT.  He’s been busy and less visible in recent months, so imagine my surprise when he offered me a one-on-one, no holds barred interview. 
“You’ve always been fair, Jim.  You’ve hit me hard but you’ve always been fair,” said the Commissioner.  That’s music to my ears and I hope he feels the same way after reading this column.
Our conversation covered every aspect of CDOT’s operations from Metro-North to CT 2030 to tolls (which we will cover next week in Part Two).  Here are some highlights.
I reminded the Commissioner that before he joined CDOT he authored the infamous “30-30-30” report as a consultant to the Business Council of Fairfield County, arguing that it was possible to speed up trains to be able to go between GCT, Stamford, New Haven and Hartford in 30 minutes per leg.  Any regrets at such a promise?
Giulietti said such speeds are still possible… in a few years.  He wants to increase train speeds, re-do some bridges to avoid slowing down and save “five minutes here and 10 minutes there”.  He also held out hope for faster service on Metro-North trains to Penn Station (after the LIRR’s East Side Access project is finished going into GCT).
“We’ve got cell-phone data from the Feds showing that 40% of riders to Grand Central continue south to Wall Street but 20% go west toward Penn Station,” he added.
He also held out hope for limited, rush-hour non-stop express service from New Haven to GCT and Stamford to GCT.
As for new rail cars… the additional 66 M8 cars that were to be delivered this year “are running a bit late”, but he called the M8’s a tremendous success.  Those M8 cars were supposed to also run on Shore Line East, but even with 405 M8s CDOT doesn’t have enough of them even for the mainline given increased ridership.  The Commissioner said he’s still looking at diesel push-pull double-decker cars where a ten-car train could carry almost 2000 passengers.
But he says that electrification of the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines just isn’t in the cards due to the cost.
As for fares:  he couldn’t say if they’d go up because he doesn’t know what funding in the Special Transportation Fund will be like.  But he did pledge cost savings in his department calling possible rail service cuts “the worst of all worlds”.
While the Walk Bridge project in Norwalk is running late and over-budget he blamed litigation and said he has firm funding commitments from Amtrak on that bridge and the one over the Connecticut River.
But will CDOT have enough talented engineers after 2022 when 40% of the department’s most experienced staffers will be up for retirement?  The Commissioner said that succession planning is a huge priority for him.  He’s even grooming replacements for his own job.
But among the rank-and-file it’s hard to keep talent.  “I can’t hold onto someone with a CDL (Commercial Drivers License).  “Some of the towns are paying more (than CDOT).”
With a special session of the legislature coming up in January to consider tolls there’s a lot hanging in the balance.  What does Giulietti think of his boss (the Governor) and Mr Sasser’s “No Tolls CT” movement?
Those frank comments next week in part two of our conversation.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

January 02, 2020

"Getting There" - Speed Kills

Speed kills… and I don’t just mean methamphetamines.  

Speeding on our roads is linked to over 36,000 deaths each year in the US.  That’s almost 700 deaths a week… 100 a day.

If a hundred people die in a plane crash, we go nuts.  But if they die on our roads we see it as the cost of doing business.  As one blogger put it… “it’s high time to stop sacrificing safety on the altar of speed”.

Most of those 36,000 deaths are pedestrians or bicyclists.  But tens of thousands of those deaths involve the motorists in the cars tied to the “accidents” caused by distracted driving, drink or drugs or fatigue. 

Federal statistics show if you’re hit by a vehicle going 20 mph you have a 90% chance of surviving.  If the car or truck is going at 40 miles an hour your survival chances are just 10%.  Speed kills.  So why are we all driving so fast?

Because we have so far to travel and want to save time getting there.  In Connecticut, our homes and our work are far apart because we can’t afford (or don’t chose) to live closer to our jobs.  And either because we don’t want to (or chose not to), we don’t take mass transit, preferring the cocoon of our cars.

Sure, seat belts in cars save lives… if you wear them.  And air bags and other tech in cars are helping us avoid many accidents. But the death toll keeps climbing, especially where cars occupy the same driving space as bikes and pedestrians.

Consider New York City.

In 1990 there were 700 traffic deaths in NYC.  But by 2018 that number had dropped to 202, thanks to “Vision Zero”, Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious, billion dollar plan to reduce road deaths to zero by 2024.  More bike lanes, sidewalks and a 25 mph city-wide speed limit have made a big difference.  But this year saw an uptick in deaths, most of them involving bicyclists driving on city streets lacking bike lanes.

In Connecticut we have nowhere near the same density of urban traffic fighting for space with folks on two feet or two wheels, but neither do we have sidewalks in many towns.  Or bike lanes.  But we do have speeders, scofflaws and insufficient enforcement.

When it’s not crawling bumper-to-bumper, try driving 55 mph on the Merritt, I-95 or I-84 and see what happens.  As a State Trooper once told me as we cruised along at about 75 mph with the flow of traffic, “I look for the driver likely to cause an accident” by weaving or not signaling lane changes.  Even those enforcing our laws admit they don’t or can’t keep up with motorists’ need for speed.

Even when the cops do look for speeders, legal radar detectors and laser-jammers help violators from getting caught.  Attempts to install red-light cameras in Connecticut have always failed due to a combination of Big Brother paranoia and fears of the safety tech being turned into an unending revenue spigot for Towns and cities.

Weather conditions of course exacerbate the problem, especially with those driving the tanks we call SUVs who think they are immune to the laws of physics.

Bottom line:  can’t we all just chill out a bit and think of the safety of others if not ourselves?

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...