April 26, 2020

"Getting There" - Highway Speeding Amidst COVID-19

I’ll admit it:  I love driving fast.  I’ve even been known to drive faster than 55 mph on I-95, but who hasn’t?  (And I’ve never been given a ticket). When the road’s not crawling along bumper-to-bumper at rush hour, driving the speed limit almost seems unsafe, you’re getting passed so often.

A couple of years ago I had a reporter “ride along” on I-95 with a State Trooper.  It was a blast, going from fender-bender to catching cell phone users, the lights and siren wailing.  But at one point as we cruised along with traffic (in our unmarked car) we were doing about 70 mph just like all the other cars around us.

“Aren’t we all breaking the speed limit,” I asked the trooper.  “How do you decide who to pull over?”  He thought for a second, noticing I was transcribing his words to paper, and said “I look for the driver who’s likely to cause an accident… the guy who’s weaving or not using his signals.”

I suddenly felt I’d been given a green light to go 70 mph, as long as I did it safely.
Now, in the midst of this pandemic, people are taking that ‘permission’ too far, treating the near-empty highways like a drag strip.

The CDOT monitors traffic at 39 locations across the state.  And they have a neat online app showing real-time data that tells the tale of diminished traffic.

Take I-95 in Norwalk for example.  Last year the daily average was 147,000 vehicles.  Last week saw 79,000.  Another monitoring station in Newtown on I-84 went from 77,000 a day to 35,000.

According to the CT State Police traffic stops are down 50% from last year so ticketing is down also.  But so too is the accident rate… by about one third.

Driving in to New York City (why?), check your Waze app or Google Maps and you’ll see all the roads are “clean and green”… no delays.  But highway speeds are up, way up. And Big Apple speed cameras have issued 12% more tickets in recent weeks.

Driving interstate has never been faster.  So fast that some are combing the empty asphalt with excessive speeds to break the record for the fastest cross-country trip by car… the famous Cannonball Run.

It was Edwin George “Cannon Ball” Baker who made the first NY to LA drive in 1915, covering the distance in 11 days and seven hours.

But last week several challengers in this unauthorized road race claimed new records:  just under 27 hours.

That means they averaged over 100 mph on the almost 3000 mile trip.   There’s no prize aside from bragging rights but state troopers across the country are warning would-be drivers not to risk their lives or others’ with such a stunt.

In California the Highway Patrol recently issued 534 speeding tickets in just ten days, many of them for speeds over 100 mph.  That’s dangerous.

I’ve driven the maximum 80 mph in Utah and I gotta tell you… at those speeds things happen way too fast for you to be able to react.

I know we’re all getting cabin fever and long for the open road.  But I hope we haven’t gone this far to stay healthy only to do something stupid like driving 100 mph on our interstates.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Airlines Hit COVID-19 Turbulence

I’ve always been fascinated by the airline business.  Even though I’m not a great flyer, the whole idea of moving hundreds of people from point A to point B in a metal tube has astounded me.

I even remember the good old days of “Youth Standby” flights in the 1960’s when we could get a 50% fare discount just by helping fill empty seats.  But until recently the planes have been chock-a-block full and the airlines had actually been making money.

Of course, after 9/11 all that changed.  With increased TSA security and a major economic hit, people were afraid (or unable) to fly.  I remember one commentator calling the aftermath to 9/11 being like an example of product tampering, akin to putting poison in Tylenol bottles.

Now, all that has changed, thanks to COVID-19.

Airlines are curtailing service, and in some cases shutting down completely as people “shelter in place”.  That’s meant tens of thousands of layoffs of already underpaid airline employees.

But when we get through all this… and we will... what’s the long-term prospect for the airline business?

Will business people, the bread and butter of the airlines (because they pay the highest fares), return to the skies or find that teleconferencing is enough to make deals and stay in touch with clients?

Leisure travelers may still be there.  You can’t telecommute to Aruba.  And when the pandemic has passed there will doubtless be such pent up demand to get a change of scenery that will all want to get back on the road… at least if we have the money.

Even before COVID-19 airlines were mothballing their bigger, older planes.  The super-jumbo, double-decked A-380 was just too big and fuel inefficient to keep flying on most routes (which is why it was never adopted by a US airline).

The airline business is capital intensive (really expensive to run) and operates on very thin profit margins.  With low fares you really had to pack a plane to make any money.  And factoring in inflation, airfares (before the virus) were the lowest since 1995.

Going forward, will people really want to sit for hours, three-abreast, with 200+ strangers, sharing their air and whatever else, when we know of recent cases of contagious passengers flying, even on smaller jets?

And you thought that fellow passenger on your last flight who insisted on sanitizing her seatback tray was a germophobe?  You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Will people who survive the virus, and most of us will, still be contagious?  Will doctors have to give us a “COVID CARD” after we are “clear” that we will need to show when we travel or attend large events?

And most importantly, will the airlines themselves survive?  The government’s stimulus package sets aside $25 billion for the ailing carriers.  And Uncle Sam may turn those loans into grants in return for an equity stake in the airlines.

The big airlines will probably get through all this, but some small carriers are already closing up shop.  The airports themselves are also hurting, their runways stuffed with grounded jets parked for the duration.

As difficult as these times may be for us, sheltering in place, for the airlines and their employees this is much, much worse.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 21, 2020

"Getting There" - Transit Workers Are Heroes

“In my 30 years in the transit business I never thought I’d be asking people NOT to take the bus,” says Doug Holcomb, CEO of Greater Bridgeport Transit, the operator of 57 buses carrying 5 million passengers a year.  But not this year.

Like most transit agencies, GBT is asking people to stay home and to ride their buses only if it is essential.  So ridership on those buses has dropped 65%.  On Metro-North the ridership is down 90 – 95%.

But what has not lessened at all is the commitment of the drivers, engineers, conductors and maintenance crews that are literally keeping things moving.

“I’m scared to death,” says one Metro-North conductor I’ll call Sally (whom I contacted thru an intermediary and asked for anonymity). She’s not scared for herself but for what she might bring home to my family despite “bathing in Purell”.

Another veteran train conductor we’ll call Tom says it’s impossible to deal safely with the public without PPE’s (Personal Protection Equipment) likes masks, which are finally being distributed to the railroad employees.

Bus drivers are also wearing face masks and keeping a safe distance from riders by having everyone board and leave by the rear door.  Fare collection has also been suspended.
“Passengers have no reason to come up front (to the driver),” says Mustafa Salahuddin, President of the bus drivers union, local 1336.  “That puts drivers at ease.”

Bridgeport Transit is not only discouraging ridership, it’s trying to limit each bus to no more than 10 passengers versus the usual 30 – 35 rider capacity.  That gives everyone a chance to spread out.  The service schedule hasn’t been cut… yet.  That’s because the few remaining riders are folks who must get to work… hospital workers, fire fighters, etc….  and the bus is their only option.

On the trains the few remaining passengers are similar.  Sally and Tom agree it’s mostly cops and immigrant laborers.  “The immigrants are quiet, as always,” they say.  And the railroad workers are happy to see the first responders as they know their trains are getting them to jobs keeping everyone safe.

The train riders don’t seem frightened, says Tom.  “They’re just wary of each other.”  Neither the bus nor train staffers say they’ve seen any passengers obviously sick, though we know patients can be contagious days before showing such symptoms.

The conductors agree that ridership is tiny, no more than six people per car (which can usually accommodate almost 100).  And they’re trying to keep most cars on their train open for passengers, allowing maximum distancing.

Both GBT and Metro-North are still disinfecting their cars, wiping down every surface and even using foggers to disperse the virus-killing compounds.  But conductor Tom says he still wears gloves, not just to handle tickets but for all the other parts of the train car he must touch to do his job.

Conductor Sally says most people are paying their fare using the Metro-North ticking app, but if she doesn’t have gloves she won’t collect paper tickets.

The drivers and conductors are trying to keep their morale up, smiling and being friendly at an appropriately safe distance.

Asked what they’d say to their old passengers, their answers were unanimous;  Stay safe.  We will get through this… and we can’t wait to see you back on board.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 17, 2020

"Getting There" - CT's Transportation Future After COVID-19

When it comes to transportation, Joe McGee is often the smartest guy in the room.  If I want a vision of our state’s mobility future, he’s the first man I turn to.

McGee served as then Gov. Lowell Weicker’s Commissioner of Economic Development.  For years I worked with him on the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council.  And until recently he was the Fairfield Business Council’s VP for Public Policy, specializing in the intertwined issues of transportation and economic development.  Sadly, that group recently announced its closure after 50 years of service.

True, McGee and I have sparred in the past, especially over his uber-aspirational 30-30-30 plan for speeding up rail service.  But nobody is a better advocate for our state’s transportation future than McGee, so in this dismal period I turned to him for inspiration.

“We will get through this,” he says.  “There will be life after this and now’s the time to start planning.”

You’ll remember that McGee and the Business Council led the charge for tolling on our highways, rejecting Republican proposals that we instead dip into the state’s “rainy day” fund.  Wasn’t that prescient?

“Lamont is looking so good through all of this (crisis).  He’s handling it so much better than he dealt with the legislature,” McGee said with a smile.

Sure, transit ridership is down.  But he’s confident it will come back.

“I’m old enough to remember the days of polio when people evacuated cities.  Same thing with HIV,” he said.

Despite their new-found success with telecommuting, McGee is confident that once the virus is gone workers will return to their jobs in New York City.

“The city brings vitality, creativity and job opportunities.  People feel isolated now.  They need face to face physical contact to really be connected.”  McGee predicts that some companies may open new offices in the suburbs but will still maintain a presence in Manhattan.

And to get there they will need the trains.

“The trains are the economic backbone of our state,” he says.  And he means the branch lines as well as the main line.  McGee says he’s worried about CDOT’s recent decision to replace Waterbury line trains (which have seen a 95% drop in ridership) with buses for four weeks… both to save money and to accelerate construction of sidings.

“The (Naugatuck) Valley’s economic future depends on those trains,” he says.  With better train service will come jobs and economic growth, tying the Valley to both Stamford and New Haven. “It’s a regional economy,” he says.

Trains mean mobility and higher real estate values.  In New Jersey when they opened the new Secaucus line, communities offering a one-seat ride to NYC saw a 14% jump in home prices.

Just look at the twin communities of New Canaan (served by a branch line) and Darien (on the main line of Metro-North).  Housing prices in Darien have remained much stronger because of better access to the trains.

In the short run the railroad’s huge deficits will need Federal assistance.  MTA is already seeking Federal money to cover the $125 million they are losing in each week in lost fares.  “No one state (or agency) can handle this,” says McGee.

Now is the time for all the towns and states to work together, not throw up literal roadblocks to out-of-staters.  We will get through this.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 11, 2020

"Getting There" - Truckers to the Rescue

Trucks.  We used to hate them but now we love them.

We used to hate them when we thought they were clogging our over burdened highways, causing accidents and slowing our drive.  We even seemed happy when tolling would affect trucks but not passenger cars.

Now we finally appreciate how truckers are crucial to resupplying our stores, keeping us well fed in this time of crisis.

As one national trucking official once said, “I wish all trucks were equipped with glass walls so people could see all the things we deliver”.  Another trucking advocate told me “Now we have a chance for Americans to see how important trucking is, how good and decent the drivers are and how they really love this country.”

They’re all working longer hours now as Federal and State regulations limiting time on the road have been waived.  Where their work days used to be limited to 14 hours, 11 of them on the road, now they’re literally going the extra mile to restock our shelves.

But Joe Scully, President of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut says some of his 500+ members are getting slammed, like those who used to deliver to restaurants.  There he’s seeing his trucker members facing layoffs.  But other companies are actually hiring, especially those in the home delivery business.

Scully reassures us that “I truly believe the (food) supply chain will be fine.  This (virus) was totally unexpected. “

In the good old days grocery stores worked on a “just in time” stocking pattern.  A supermarket knew it might sell 200 cartons of eggs each day, so that’s what they got delivered each day.  But panic buying upended that equation.

Our eating patterns have also changed.  In the pre-virus days Zagats said the average American ate out almost 5 times per week.  Now we’re dining at home with only an occasional take-out.  That means the food purveyors have to change everything from the restaurant-sized food orders to family-sized.

Let’s also remember that the men and women behind the wheels of those trucks are also human.  Many of them are scared, unable to secure the gloves, wipes and sanitizers they need to stay healthy.

Scully is advising his members to minimize interactions during deliveries, like signing documents with their own pens, bringing their lunch and coffee from home and always keeping a safe distance.

“We don’t want them working if they are sick,” he says.  But so far he’s heard no reports of any members catching the virus.

Highway service areas remain open but sometimes the food drive-ins can’t accommodate big rigs.  “If you see a trucker at a McDonalds, offer to do the drive thru in your car and hand him the food,” says Scully.

The big truck stops on I-95 and I-84 are still open, fueling big rigs and their drivers with take-out food.  Their showers are still available, as truckers’ hygiene is important after spending so many hours on the road.

And the highways are almost empty, speeding deliveries even further.  Meanwhile the CDOT is taking advantage of the lull to accelerate road repairs and winter cleanups with little or no traffic being affected.  The virus aside, it’s a good time to be on the road. 

So here’s to America’s truckers, keeping us supplied with everything we need to weather this storm.  Thank you!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 05, 2020

"Getting There" - The Gift of Family Time

“One door closes.  Another door opens.” 

So said NY Governor Mario Cuomo in his a recent briefing.  He’s doing such a great job at relaying facts and allaying our fears.  Too bad he’s not running for President.

We now know our lives are going to be disrupted, probably for months.  That’s the door that has closed.

But the door that has opened is time with our families.  And that must be seen as a gift.

Our adult daughter came home from New York City on the train last week, her job on hold for who knows how long.  She probably would have been safe, staying in her apartment in Manhattan.  She’s a smart kid.  But as parents we felt she’d be safer still with us in Connecticut.  And so did she, though her biggest fear was possibly infecting us.

We’re all fine:  symptom free, social distancing and sanitizing regularly.  But if one of us gets sick we know we are here to help each other.  That’s what families are for.

We usually see our daughter for holidays and birthdays, sometimes in the city but usually out here in the ‘burbs.  Now we realize we will be together as a family for longer than expected.  And all of us are doing our best to keep a sense of humor and get along with each other.  That’s sometimes tough for me, I’ll admit.  After all, father knows best!

Funny… it used to be when someone was fired or quit their job the euphemism was that they wanted to “spend more time with their families”.  Well, I guess we’ve all been “fired” in that respect.

Whether our kids are young or old, many of us are together now as families.  Years from now when we look back on 2020 what will be our memories?

Can we all make the most of this time and bond, supporting each other… giving each other space but coming together for home cooked meals, TV binging of comedies and discussions of how we feel.

It’s okay to be scared.  What’s important is to listen to our loved ones and give them permission to have and share those emotions, rational or otherwise.

As we look through old photo albums we remember the early years, raising our kids for the bright future we all hoped for them and us.  Nobody could have expected this.

In our basement larder where we have always stored canned food and such we would jokingly refer to “bomb food”… the stuff we’d be eating in a time of war.  Well, here we are.  But the stores are open and our menus are far better than we might have hoped.  And there’s nothing like my daughter’s homemade bread!

We will get through this together and life will go on, changed for sure. But there is a tomorrow, a next week and next month.

There will be hardships, no doubt.  Not all families can be together if elderly parents are in lock-down at nursing homes, hospitals or in quarantine.  And we should always empathetic about those who’ve lost their jobs, worried about paying their bills or where their next meal will come from.

But for our family, we are trying to make the most of this time, stressed and fearful as we may feel. 

We are together with our families and that truly is a gift.

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...