February 19, 2021

"Getting There" - Stop the Maybrook Madness

 Anyone who follows this column knows I’m a “train guy”.  I’ve always been a supporter of mass transit and continue to be.  But sometimes I wonder just where the state’s priorities are when they chose to waste a million dollars on yet another crazy study.

This time it’s a study of the Maybrook line, a 14-mile, single-track of rusting rail running west from Danbury to Brewster NY and beyond.

Metro-North used to run their equipment (not passenger trains) over to their Croton shops via the line, but little else.  Now there’s going to be a study (yes, for one million dollars) of converting the line for passenger trains.

The idea was pushed heavily by former Danbury mayor Mark Boughton who promised it could “shave an hour” off commuting time to Grand Central. Oh, really?

Rather than crawling down the existing Danbury branch to Norwalk and then on the mainline to New York, Maybrook trains would go west from Danbury and connect with the Harlem branch of Metro-North, then head south through White Plains and into the city.

But Boughton’s dream has about as much of a grip on reality as Governor Lamont’s wishful 30-30-30 plan (30 minutes from Stamford to GCT, etc).  It just isn’t physically possible.  And I won’t need a million bucks to tell you why.

The average train from Danbury to NYC on the existing branch takes about two hours and 17 minutes (including a change of trains at South Norwalk).  The trains from Brewster NY to Grand Central take about an hour and 39 minutes.  But add in the running time from Danbury to Brewster (and another train connection there)  and you’re probably talking an additional 30 minutes, meaning a total time savings of less than ten minutes of commuting time via Maybrook.

Just how does that “shave an hour” off that commute?

But there are other problems to consider too.

In Connecticut the Maybrook line is owned by the Housatonic Railroad, a tiny freight railroad, not by Metro-North.  And parts of this single-track railroad now have a pedestrian and bicycle “rail trail” running alongside making it unsuitable for double-tracking.  There are dozens of grade crossings and no signal system. And it’s not electrified.

Further, parking in downtown Danbury near the Metro-North station is limited and to get there you have to fight local traffic.  So why go to that trouble if you can just hop on I-84 and make the drive in 11 minutes instead of 30 minutes by train?

Plus, we’re already spending $715 million to widen I-84 west of Danbury to make the drive even quicker.

Putnam County NY officials are enthusiastic about this Maybrook idea (and are paying $200,000 of the study’s cost)  because so many Connecticut residents already make that drive, catching the train in Brewster or Southeast, but clogging up “their” parking lots with Connecticut-plated cars.

That’s why there’s already a frequent bus shuttle run by HART that connects Danbury and Brewster in 28 minutes. It’s hardly luxurious.  But what do you expect for $1.75 one way?

With so much of our existing railroad system in need of repair and replacement, why are we wasting a million dollars on yet another study of a politician’s pipedream that will prove unnecessary, impractical and too expensive?

Forget about this Maybrook Madness and let’s fix what we already have.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 06, 2021

"Getting There" - Transportation Construction is Too Expensive

 Why is transportation construction so expensive in our area?  What kind of honor was it when New York City recently surpassed Zurich (one of the most expensive cities in the world) as #1 on the most-expensive-place-to-do-underground-construction dishonor roll?

The highly respected Regional Plan Association (RPA.org) has studied that question and offers some explanations and frightening examples.  Focusing on three recent MTA mega-projects in New York City… the Second Avenue Subway, the #7 subway extension to Manhattan’s west side and the LIRR’s East Side Access project (ESA), their findings make for depressing reading.

Let’s focus on the ESA plan… an ambitious project to construct new rail tunnels under Park Avenue and a new rail station ten storeys beneath Grand Central to serve LIRR trains. This is an important project for Connecticut as it will eventually allow some Metro-North trains to run across the Hells Gate Bridge to Penn Station.

Once estimated to cost $4.3 B and to be finished by 2009, ESA may not be finished until 2022 at a total cost of $12.2 B.  So, what happened?

The RPA report says the project was initially pushed by politicians who grossly underestimated the initial budget just to get it approved. Because Metro-North and the LIRR (both part of the MTA) operate as silos, they had trouble coordinating their efforts.  Worst of all, the procurement process and contract writing was a mess, adding four years of delays.

Though the ESA project was huge in cost, it was small in distance:  only 3.5 miles of new tunnels and track.  But it involved boring huge tunnels through bedrock and ended up building the most expensive mile of railroad track in the world… over $3B.

One big culprit was labor.

In 2010 auditors found that 900 workers were each being paid about $1000 a day though only 700 workers were needed for the job.  Nobody could explain what the other 200 workers were doing every day, aside from getting rich.

An investigation by the New York Times blamed the cozy relationship between labor unions and politicians, consultants who hired MTA bosses to gain more work and contractors and vendors regularly inflating their bids by 15 – 25% for what’s known as “the MTA factor”, i.e. the hassles of working with that agency.

Jobs like running the tunnel boring machines were staffed with 25 workers on the ESA project, about triple the number employed on the same equipment overseas.  Elevators at the construction site each had an human operator even though they ran automatically.  Crane operators also had an “oiler”, an unneeded throwback to older times.  All told, staffing for underground construction in New York City was quadruple that of similar jobs abroad.

The labor unions push back saying the work is dirty and dangerous and their members live in one of the most expensive cities in the world so they deserve more.

The RPA report also cites other problems including lengthy environmental reviews (up to seven years vs. two years in Europe), insurance and liability roadblocks, flawed project designs causing frequent (and expensive) change orders and a lack of post-project reviews to learn from mistakes.

If we are ever going to see New York City grow and prosper again, expanding (and repairing) its transportation system will be essential… if we don’t price ourselves out of business.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

 

BUILDING GREAT (AND REALLY EXPENSIVE) THINGS

Grand Central Madison, the new train station bored into the rock beneath Grand Central Terminal, is finally open.  When it’s fully operation...