February 29, 2020

"Getting There" - Maybe NoTollsCT Is Right After All

Maybe the NoTollsCT folks (and the recent Hearst editorial) are right:  the current toll proposal should be scrapped.

Mind you, I’m still pro-tolls and have been for years.  But the Governor’s latest plan is so insipid and compromised as to be a waste of time.  It raises too little money, doesn’t toll millions of out-of-state cars and most importantly… it seems that most people don’t want it. Nor do they trust it will be limited to trucks.

I once described NoTollsCT founder Patrick Sasser as a “bully” because he threatened to oust any legislator that voted for tolls.  Remember “Vote for Tolls, Lose at the Polls”?

I was wrong.  Sasser is mostly an activist and advocate.  And he has done an amazing job at organizing opposition to tolling on a shoestring budget of about $10,000 in small donations.  Compare that to the million dollars spent in tolls lobbying by the construction industry to little result.

Did you see the January 31st public hearing held at the Capitol on the Governor’s latest tolls bill? The Transportation Committee heard almost ten hours of testimony, most of it in opposition to the plan.  I watched it all (thanks to CT-N).

In his testimony Sasser cited his group’s 40 anti-toll rallies, 110,000 petition signatures and 29 towns (representing one million residents) which passed resolutions against tolls and asked lawmakers “what more will it take” to stop tolls.

Sasser isn’t a political professional, just a Stamford firefighter with a side job in construction.  But what he has built is amazing.  Some say he should run for the legislature.

I’m jealous of what he’s done and wish someone, anyone, had similarly galvanized those who support tolls.  In December when a handful of pro-tolls folks showed up at the State Capitol a Senate Democrat staffer greeted them with “Where have you been?”  Nice.

I fundamentally disagree with Sasser that there’s enough waste in CDOT spending to finance repairs of all that’s wrong with our roads and rails.  And it’s disingenuous of him to tap into the “no more taxes on anything” sentiment abroad in the land.   

For weeks we’ve been promised that a tolls vote was imminent in the legislature.  And for weeks that vote has been postponed.  Why?  Not because of alleged “scheduling issues” but because the Governor clearly doesn’t have the votes he needs to pass his plan.

Remember in May of 2019 when na├»ve Ned took the media with him into a House Democratic caucus seeking lawmakers’ support on tolls?  Lamont admitted to his party members that he’d put them “into a pickle” but promised if they’d support him on tolls he’d help them raise money for their re-election fights.

Now he’s delivering on that promise, adding an extra $300 million to the state’s bonding package to entice needed votes.  So much for his “debt diet”.  At least lawmakers who vote yes on tolls can tell constituents they “brought home the bacon”.

To many that’s just good ol’ politics.  But it’s unbecoming of a Governor who promised us better.  The end does not justify the means. 

It’s time to scrap the Governor’s anemic tolling bill and find an effective way to raise the money we need for transportation… like raising the gas or sales tax.  Let’s see how popular that will be.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 22, 2020

"Getting There" - Avoiding Air Turbulence

“Buckle up folks.  There’s some bumpy air ahead”, said the pilot on a recent flight.  No need to remind me; my seatbelt is always fastened as “bumpy air”… a euphemism for air turbulence… is my worst fear in flying. It’s the whole “fear of death” thing.

Intellectually I know that modern aircraft can survive all manner of stress from changing or violent winds, but can I?  I’ve been on flights where our aircraft plummeted hundreds of feet without notice, sending passengers, their drinks and laptops flying.  There’s not much you can do in a situation like that except, hang on,  breathe deeply and pray.

Thanks to climate change there are dire predictions that in-flight turbulence is getting worse, increasing by several hundred percent in some areas.  Even today severe air turbulence is thought to cost airlines $200 million a year and is the single biggest cause of passenger injuries.

According to the FAA there were 27 passengers and crew injured by turbulence in 2015.  In 2016 that number was 42.  And with more and more people flying those numbers will climb.

Only a few years ago United Airlines offered passengers an in-flight audio channel where they could listen to air traffic control handling their and other flights.  That was my favorite channel as I heard our flight being cleared to higher altitudes, warned about other aircraft and being guided across the country. It was reassuring to hear the professionalism of the flight crew and ATC.  But the channel was only available at the pilot’s discretion. And when it was turned off mid-flight I always knew something nasty was coming our way.

Pilots regularly ask ATC for “ride reports” from other aircraft at the same altitude and flight path, always seeking the smoothest flight.  But sometimes the turbulence is unexpected, the so-called “clear air turbulence”.  You can be cruising along at 35,000 feet when, without notice, you get slammed

On a Turkish Airlines flight to JFK last March the 777 jetliner encountered clear air turbulence over Maine that sent everything flying.  The terror lasted about ten minutes and when the plane finally landed, 30 passengers were taken to the hospital.

That’s why you should always keep your seatbelt fastened so if the plane drops, you don’t crash into the ceiling.

Now there’s new technology that may help us all have a smoother flight.

The IATA, the International Air Transport Association, is testing an automatic tracking and reporting system to warn flights of “bumpy air”.  So far 15 major airlines are sharing data in the test phase of the program.

Their planes are equipped with a black box measuring changes in the flight’s speed and tilt eight times each second.  That data is transmitted to the ground and within 30 seconds flights in the area can be warned of trouble ahead.

So far the participating airlines are generating 115,000 reports a day to the IATA Turbulence Aware system.  The system will be most valuable on long, overseas routes where there are fewer aircraft flying the same corridor.

The Turbulence Aware system should be fully operational this year when airlines will have installed the gear on most of their planes.  American Airlines alone hopes to have 800 airliners gathering and reporting data in the coming months.
Meantime… buckle up, friends!  There’s bumpy air ahead.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 13, 2020

"Getting There" - Train Horn Noise

Trains make noise, especially when they blow their horns entering stations and at grade crossings.  But for folks who live near the railroad branch lines, which have dozens of such crossings, the noise is too much.

Those neighbors crammed a Stamford meeting this week seeking solutions.  What they got was an education… and maybe some hope.

The New Canaan Branch has seven grade crossings in a two-mile stretch, each requiring (under Federal Railroad Administration safety regulations) ten seconds of horn blasts at 110 decibels.  That’s louder than a jet taking off and almost as loud as a clap of thunder. The horn must be hit 20 seconds before going through the crossing, so the faster the train the sooner it must start and the farther away from the crossing.

Do some engineers blow longer than required?  That’s now easily tracked using on-train black boxes and TV cameras watching the crew and the track ahead.  If engineers hit the horn for too short a time they risk losing their license.

Even on the main line of Metro-North where there are no grade crossings, the horns must be used entering each station to warn distracted riders to stand back. But between 9 pm and 6 am those blasts are optional.

Full disclosure:  I live about a half mile from the mainline and I can hear the trains, day and night.  I’m also about two miles from the New Canaan branch, and I can hear those trains’ horns as well.  But I hear planes and traffic on I-95 too.  It’s part of living in suburbia.

For more immediate neighbors on the branch this noise is a real problem.  It wakes up their kids and stresses their lives.  They want a solution.

Some said the horns on the M8s are louder than before.  They’re not.  They’ve been tested.  And the older the horn, the less the volume.  Some asked why we even need night time trains… at the same time as others complained about a lack of train service.

Remember folks:  the railroad came first and residential investment followed.  You chose to live there and you can’t have it both ways:  enjoying close proximity to the trains and then complaining about the noise.  Or can you?

One solution may be “Wayside Horns”, putting the horns at the crossings instead of on the trains.  They still have to blow as long and as loud, but where that’s been tried complaints actually went up from nearby neighbors.

The better solution may be creating an FRA-designated Quiet Zone.  That would require the towns to petition the feds and probably install “quad gates” stopping all traffic in both directions at a crossing at a cost of $2 million per set… and paid for by the towns, not CDOT or Metro-North.

In Quiet Zones there would be no train horns.  But would it compromise safety?

The one thing not really discussed at the noise-stressed neighbors meeting was why horns are needed at all:  because idiots ignore the gates and cause accidents getting themselves and / or passengers injured or killed.

One cynic in the crowd called that “natural selection”, taking such ignorant and self-centered motorists out of the gene pool.  Another lady said she missed the good old days of crossing accidents and being able to ogle the wreckage.

That’s just cold and misses the point: there are no easy solutions and even the difficult ones are really expensive.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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