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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

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