March 21, 2021

"Getting There" - How To Save Metro-North

 How are we going to get riders back on the trains and save Metro-North from ballooning deficits, potential service cuts or fare hikes?  That’s the question I crowd-sourced on social media last week and found dozens of great answers!

Most respondents said they won’t be commuting as much as before because they will continue working from home. It’s not that they are shunning the rails out of fear,  just that commuting won’t be necessary. “Most of us have figured out how to work without riding a train every day”, one rider opined.

A few cynics said mass transit is dead.  “Rip out the rails. Pave it over. Deploy autonomous minivans,” said one. 

But for the believers they still want reassurance that, even post-vaccinations, safety will continue:  “Better ventilation. More cleaning. Cars look like they’re being ‘wiped down’ using rags from a dumpster.  Clean the bathrooms!”

A few sang the praises of the new M8 railcars: “So much better.  Never a hot or cold car. No doors out of service. Cars ride smooth.”  But a former Shore Line East rider said the seats on their old hand-me-down railcars were causing him back aches so he’s now driving.

But the biggest areas for needed improvement for Metro-North seemed to be speed, frequency and lower cost.

The vast majority of respondents said the trains are “too slow”, that “it shouldn’t take 90 minutes to go 40 miles”  As one veteran rider put it, “My 50 min ride when I started commuting in 2004 is now an hour and 10 plus.”  Many noted it’s now faster and cheaper to drive than take the train.

The railroad is still operating under FRA speed restrictions since the 2013 Fairfield derailment.  But the other reason the run to NYC is so slow is the schedule.  “There’s way too many stops on the New Haven Line”… “go back to zoned service”… and “speed, speed, speed”, they observed.

This is actually an idea CDOT is pursuing… having more express trains skipping stations, so let’s see if they can make it happen.

Commuters said that schedules need to offer “better connections” to buses and the ferry.  Some suggested “through-running service to NJ and Long Island” offering a one-seat ride to JFK and Newark airports.  Several wanted bike rentals at all stations.

More frequent service was a big issue.  “Rapid transit trains every 15 minutes.” And “more off-peak service”.  Surprisingly, nobody complained about rush-hour trains.

One person suggested “reserved seating”, others dreamt of “no standees”.  And there were many complaints about the fares and availability of station parking.

“Between station parking and monthly pass it’s $400 a month, almost the same as driving.”  “Lower fares” and “more flexibility on tickets.  A monthly is too much and a ten-trip too little.  Maybe a 30 trip?”

Others suggested group fares and lower fares off-peak to spread out the riders.  One even wished for “buy one get one weekend fares”.

Other desired amenities included “Wi-Fi” and, yes, “bar cars!”.

To save money on labor, several proposed pre-paid tickets with inspectors and fines.  “No other developed countries’ railroads have conductors manually check tickets.”  Others suggested cross-honoring tickets on still-empty Amtrak trains.

Thanks to everybody for chiming in with your ideas, all of which I’ll be sharing verbatim with MNRR and CDOT. Let’s hope they include past-riders’ ideas in their future plans.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 05, 2021

"Getting There" - Governor Lamont's Transportation Budget Doesn't Add Up

 The Governor’s proposed biennial budget for transportation just doesn’t add up.

Thanks to reduced rail ridership he’s projecting cost savings in the CDOT budget of $82 million over the next two years but promises no further cuts in service beyond those already taken during the pandemic.  But how does that jibe with Metro-North parent MTA’s projected $8 billion operating deficit through 2024?

Even pre-pandemic when ridership was at record highs, Metro-North still lost money.  And taxpayers made up the difference.  Grumbling commuters packed in SRO rush-hour trains paying the highest commuter rail fares in the US still couldn’t cover operating costs, let alone capital expansion.

Now, with ridership down 80% those deficits are exploding.  And even if relief money comes from Uncle Sam, how long can near-empty trains be kept running?

As I’ve written before, I don’t think commuters will be coming back post-pandemic in anywhere near the old numbers.  So if ridership remains low and the MTA sticks to its promise of no layoffs or fare hikes, something’s got to give.

Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi says I’m wrong.  She says post-COVID daily ridership will only drop 10 – 20 percent.  But it’s those monthly pass holders who gave the railroad almost half of its revenue pre-COVID and their loss can never be made up by off-peak and weekend day-trippers to New York City’s attractions as she hopes.

Stay tuned for mandatory public hearings on all this, what I’ve called “political theater”.   But whatever commuters may say, however they might complain, their testimony won’t make a darn bit of difference.  The CDOT budget won’t change.  The fiscal die has been cast and come up “snake eyes”.

None of this should surprise you when you consider how the Governor writes his budget.  In fact, the document is not of his creation but OPM’s… the Office of Policy and Management. 

OPM doesn’t ask the CDOT “how much do you need for roads and rails?”.  They tell the agency, “Here’s how much you’ll get.  And here’s where to make the cuts.”

But while the Lamont budget sees “savings” through reduced rail and bus operations, it has found money for any number of highway projects while at the same time saying we need to reduce air pollution.  More highways, more cars, more pollution.  So much for their vaunted Transportation Climate Initiative.

Folks, it just doesn’t add up.

There are no tolls in this proposed budget. But there is a “mileage tax” on heavy trucks passing through our state.  That’s fine with me as I’ve always supported user fees.  But the $90 million that tax is expected to generate will do little to save the Special Transportation Fund from a deficit this year and insolvency by 2024.

In fact, that $90 million will just be used to fund issuance of more bonds to be paid off by our grandchildren.  Never mind the $92 billion (yes, billion) in long term debt coming due in the next 20 years for underfunded teacher pensions and such.

Today, 40% of the CDOT budget goes to paying debt service on bonds issued decades back.  We can’t even pay for the decrepit transportation we have today, so our short-sighted lawmakers just kick the proverbial can down the road. 

The problem is… we’ve run out of road.

 Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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