August 29, 2020

"Getting There" - Infrastructure Deja Vu

  

Welcome to Connecticut, the home of third world infrastructure.

Tropical storm Isaias has shown, once again, that we don’t want to invest in our state’s physical plant and we don’t learn from our mistakes.  But we are all so ready to blame somebody else when stuff goes wrong.

Every time a Metro-North train pulls down old catenary (overhead power lines), commuters scream “Where are the replacement buses?”, as if a fleet of buses is kept on permanent standby waiting for such strandings.

If we did better maintenance on the trains and wires, such accidents might not happen.  But that takes money we don’t have.

Tropical storm Isaias causes power outages for 2+ million Americans from Maryland to Maine, toppling thousands of trees, and angry residents cry “Where are the linemen?”

Did Eversource have a hard time organizing repair efforts?  Absolutely.  But were those delays caused because they had laid off hundreds of linemen over the years?  Probably not.  Had those jobs been kept the utility would still have required thousands of other utility workers to come to their aid, and maybe the National Guard, too.

Could Eversource done a better job of pruning trees near power lines?  Maybe.  But the devastation from Isaias went far beyond anything that pruning would have helped.

And where was Eversource CEO Jim Judge (a.k.a. The $19 Million Man) during all of this?  That’s a good question.  He was obviously in hiding, sending his subordinates out to face the media when he should have been there himself.  Bad optics, Jim.

But does yelling at him, trying to get his salary cut or getting him to resign really change anything?  Sure, it’s cathartic and makes for a good photo op for pols before an election, but maybe it’s not that productive.  Because we’ve been through this horror show before.

Remember the fall of 2011 when the state got hit with two massive, blackout-creating storms, Hurricane Irene and the October Nor’easter?  That wasn’t the first or last time we suffered blackouts as big as last week’s.  People were angry, demanding an investigation, and one was done.  Read the report of The Two Storms Panel commissioned by Governor Malloy and see if you don’t have a sense of déjà vu.

That panel held ten days of hearings and listened to 100 witnesses and their recommendations were so prescient yet so ignored:

·       Develop performance standards for recovery efforts from true worst-case scenarios (like a category 3 hurricane, not just a tropical storm).

·       Update and harden our infrastructure

·       Improve communications with towns and customers

·       Give PURA, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, some “teeth” for better enforcement

How many of those recommendations do you think were acted upon?  A handful, but not many. Why?

If you live amongst the trees, you must expect that they may fall down in 70 mile an hour winds, despite your pruning. 

Should we bury the power lines?  Sure, if we are willing to spend $1 million per mile to protect them.  Do the math on the cost of the spoiled food you had to throw out or your willingness to invest $2000 in a home generator and you tell me how we should invest for the next storm and the one after that.

It’s so frustrating to me, and hopefully to you, that as our infrastructure keeps crumbling, we keep asking why and yet, we’re unwilling to do something about it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 21, 2020

"Getting There" - What's a Fair Fare?

   

Ridership on Metro-North is still down 85% from pre-pandemic levels, but in-state bus ridership is coming back… up to 70% of normal from a March low of 40%. 

Why the difference?  Because bus riders and rail riders are very different.

Surveys by CDOT and Metro-North showed the average income of a Metro-North rider was about $150,000, given that many were living in affluent Fairfield County towns and commuting to good paying jobs in New York City.

Bus riders are predominantly working class, urban dwellers who make less money and, in many cases don’t own cars.  They’re not riding the bus (more often than others take the train) because they feel safer, but because they have no choice.  No bus, no ride, no job.

And while fares on Metro-North are still the highest of any commuter railroad in the US, bus fares in Connecticut are low compared to “peer transit systems”, just $1.75.  While a buck and three-quarters is nothing to a Metro-North commuter, to bus riders those fares represent real money, given their lower incomes.

So the question is, who determines what’s a fair fare.

You have to go back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 where Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.  Gone are the days when developers like Robert Moses can bulldoze poor neighborhoods to build highways for the rich.

Even when it comes to transit fares and service, protections are in place to protect minorities.  In our case it’s the CDOT that keeps things “fair and equitable” through constant surveys and public input.

That’s why they must hold public hearings anytime there’s a change suggested in fares or service, what I’ve called “political theater”.  Throngs of angry commuters show up to protest fare hikes, CDOT listens and, because those hikes are really required by legislative budget crises, the agency can do little to change the inevitable.  Officials I spoke with at CDOT couldn’t remember a single instance when hearings changed planned fare increases.

By the way… no transit fare increases are planned right now, but given the railroad’s economic plight, I’m guessing there may be service reductions.  There are even predictions that peak fares for rush hour trains could soon return.

But these are different times.  The combination of massive unemployment, changing working locations and conditions and people moving their homes has a new, added layer:  the social justice movement.

The “Desegregate CT” forces propose massive changes in zoning, replacing single family homes with affordable, multi-family dwellings.  They would also have the state control housing within a half-mile of transit stations.

Though their proposed legislation has yet to come before lawmakers in Hartford, there is little doubt that Connecticut, a small state of 169 even smaller communities, could see profound change, all of which will affect transportation.

Our fares in Connecticut seem to be based on the balance between riders’ ability to pay while still keeping mass transit affordable.  Commuters to NYC really have little choice but to take the train.  They’re a captive audience.  They don’t like fare hikes, but they pay them. 

Bus riders also have few options, but their fares are kept low because, as CDOT told me, “we want to assist people who are struggling”.

Right now CDOT is seeking public comment on all this.  You can email your comments to  CTDOT.EquityPolicy@CT.gov .  What do you think is a fair fare?

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 15, 2020

"Getting There" - Thank You Oz Griebel

 Every commuter on Metro-North owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to one man:  Oz Griebel.  He is the reason we can ride the new M8 rail cars.

Much has been written since Oz’s passing (at age 71) this week from an auto accident while jogging, especially about his two unsuccessful runs for Governor.  I remember distinctly in the debates with Stefanowski and Lamont how Griebel would take off his suit jacket, roll up his sleeves and jump into the fray.  His energy and passion were electrifying.

But what seems to have been just a small footnote in those tributes was his work at the first Chairman of the Transportation Strategy Board, or TSB.  This was a body created in 2001 and tasked with developing a 20-year vision for our state’s transportation future.

I served alongside Griebel in a regional body and was impressed with his work, doing deep dives into the problems with our highways, commuter trains and airports.

Once I joined him and other TSB members on a road trip to Port Elizabeth, NJ to see the region’s largest container port where thousands of shipping containers were off-loaded from megaships and onto trucks which then drove up I-95 to New England.  This was not just a perfunctory windshield tour but an intense grilling of our Port Authority hosts with Griebel leading the discussion. 

One solution to those trucks clogging our highways was the “feeder barge” concept, moving the containers off the ships and onto barges which would then be towed to Bridgeport, New Haven and points north.  Sadly, the idea never came to pass.

But when it came to prioritizing spending on Connecticut’s transportation, the TSB’s first report singled out one item:  ordering new rail cars for Metro-North.  That was the idea I pushed hard for many months and Oz got it done.

Still, it was not until 2006 that the first M8 cars were ordered and they didn’t go into service until 2011. 

Not only did the TSB come up with prioritized projects, they came up with a plan to pay for them:  a combination of a state gasoline tax increase (which has been unchanged since 1997), a sales tax surcharge and, you guessed it, tolls.

Griebel was a businessman.  He knew it wasn’t enough to come up with a “wish list” like Governor Malloy’s pie-in-the-sky $100 billion, 30-year “Let’s Go CT” scheme or Governor Lamont’s sci-fi like dream of “30-30-30” commuter rail service screaming down the tracks from city to city.  Griebel took the TSB’s mandate and delivered a workable plan… which, of course, fell on deaf ears in the legislature.

Governor Malloy’s thank you gift to Griebel was replacing him as Chairman and eventually eliminating the TSB completely.

I spoke with Griebel for a column last year, revisiting his work as the tolls debate revved up.  He told me “It was like that movie ‘Groundhog Day’,  It was the same people we saw at the TSB debating the same issues ten years later.”

But while “Groundhog Day” had a sweet ending, our state’s debate over transportation drags on with little progress.

Had the TSB’s recommendations been adopted, their 20-year vision for the future would be close to completion.

Griebel is gone.  But at least one of his ideas for rejuvenating Metro-North did come to pass.  I shall think of Oz and say a small prayer of thanks to him each time I see an M8 car rolling down the track.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

August 09, 2020

"Getting There" - The City Island Monorail

 

Looking for a fun day-trip for the family?  Don’t miss City Island, a boat-centric New England style “village” just off the east coast of The Bronx.   In addition to some of the city’s best seafood restaurants, City Island was also home to a monorail over a century ago.

The three-mile line from the Bartow train station on what was then the Harlem River branch of the NY, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (near what today is Co-Op City in the Bronx) through Pelham Park, over a rickety bridge and ending at the Island.  It would replace the slow, forty minute ride to the resort in a horse-pulled trolley with a three to five minute adventure zooming along at a mile a minute.

City dwellers heading to the beach wanted to get there fast and a monorail was not only speedy, but modern and exciting.

It was bankrolled by August Belmont Jr. (after whom Belmont Park racetrack is named) who had financed much of the construction of the City’s IRT subway, often touring that subterranean investment in a private rail car.

Belmont was intrigued with the monorail when he saw it demonstrated at an exposition and especially liked its ability to bank into curves at higher speeds… a design feature that would doom it on its first trip.

This monorail was unlike those we know today as it actually ran on three tracks:  two guiding it from the top, hung from support piers and a single track on the ground over which it was propelled by electric motors.

Belmont used the old horse-drawn tram’s right-of-way he owned along the route to lay out his monorail, known as “The Flying Lady”.  But it took so long for Belmont to find money that his franchise from the City was about to expire so work was rushed to completion.

The line had just a single car…yellow, cigar shaped and about 75 feet in length.  Inside it was equipped with movable rattan-covered chairs.  It was hardly luxurious, but if it hit its goal of running 60 mph it would only be a three-minute ride, so who cared.

On opening day, July 16 1910, the crowds grew anxious to be among the first to ride this marvel of transportation’s future.  The car, designed to carry 40 passengers, was soon jammed with about 100.  When the car groaned into motion it made the first two curves just fine.  But while tilting into the third curve, the “Flying Lady” just flopped on her side.

Fearing that electric lines might be dangling from the overhead towers, the conductor locked the doors as pancaked passengers struggled to get out.  Some of the inaugural riders were injured but there were no deaths.

Among those injured was Howard Tunis, inventor of the monorail, who suffered a broken rib but told waiting reporters he could rebuild the train, chalking up the incident to “a minor mishap which occurs daily in every scientist's laboratory."

“The Flying Lady” was uprighted and her roadbed strengthened and service resumed, albeit at slower speeds.  But the damage had been done and the combination of costly lawsuits and dwindling ridership led to the point that the line went bankrupt and the last train ran in April 1914.

Today City Island is still a summer destination, but one best accessed by car or bicycle.

 

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

August 01, 2020

"GETTING THERE" - Shipping Containers Changed Our World

They’re just a big metal box, but they’ve revolutionized the transportation world in the last decades, enabling global trade at unimaginable levels and changing all of our lives.  The story of the invention of the shipping container is an unheralded part of transportation history.

In the old days, freighters carrying cargo overseas loaded and unloaded pallets or bails of cargo, one at a time.  I witnessed this myself as a child when my father, a real fan of the seas, took me on cargo ships as a passenger on trips from the Great Lakes to the Caribbean.

At each port the ship would dock and a swarm of dock workers would clamber aboard, open the hatches and descend into the cargo hold, loading single crane loads, one at time.  Then they’d load new cargo repeating the pattern in reverse.

Though these were small freighters it could take a day or two in port to finish the process, an incredible waste of time and costly labor.

In 1952 American trucking magnate Malcolm Mclean thought there must be a better system, so he came up with the idea of a metal shipping container which could be loaded at a factory, carried to ports on his trucks, loaded onto vessels and sent on their way.

The container would safeguard the contents, be easier to load and unload and save time for ships in port.  In 1956 he bought two war-surplus oil tankers and converted them to carry his boxes.  By 1959 customized cranes had been developed to expedite their handling.  And in 1962 the world’s first container port opened at Port Elizabeth, NJ.  The system was a huge success.

While the old system of stevedores cost shippers almost $6 a ton to load and unload, the container system cost sixteen cents a ton.  When a longshoreman’s union leader was asked what he thought of McLean’s container ships he’s quoted as saying “I’d like to sink that son of a bitch”.

Not only was port time cut, but the off-loaded shipping containers could be put on a chassis and hauled by truck (you see them on I-95 every day) or loaded on special rail cars and moved by train.  Some containers were also outfitted with refrigeration units to keep perishable cargoes fresh, bringing new fruits and vegetables to our food markets.

In the late 60’s international standards were set for containers’ dimensions, the most common being 53 feet in length with up to 3000 cubic feet capacity and a maximum weight of 30 tons.  A box that size can hold a lot of cell phones, fresh bananas or textiles.

By 1982 McLean’s dream of saving time and money by standardizing shipping put him on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans with a net worth of $400 million.  But a few years later he declared bankruptcy owing $1.3 billion after he gambled on rising oil prices which never materialized.

Today megaships capable of handling over 10,000 shipping containers are the largest vessels afloat carrying cargoes around the world.  But even before the COVID-19 pandemic sank the freight industry, the US’s imbalance of imports to exports left American ports with thousands of empty containers.  Drive on the NJ Turnpike past Newark Airport and you’ll see them towering to the east of the highway.

Because they’re relatively cheap and still sturdy, old shipping containers are now being repurposed for everything from housing to cafes.  Some have even been converted into glass-sided swimming pools.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


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