April 17, 2021

"Getting There" - Biden's Infrastructure Plan

 Hurrah!  It’s finally “infrastructure week” in Washington. 

In his first 100 days as President, Joe Biden has delivered a plan that his predecessor just kept teasing us with for four years:  a complete rehabilitation and expansion of the nation’s infrastructure.

Of course, Biden’s “American Jobs Act” goes way beyond just rebuilding roads, bridges and rails.  It also covers our water supply, electrical grid, internet, sea and airports, our housing stock and our very jobs.

It’s too much and way too expensive ($2+ trillion) for conservatives but hardly enough for progressives.  That sounds great to me. With plenty for everyone to hate there’s lots of negotiating room on all sides in the months ahead.

Biden is right to think big.  After decades of underinvestment in the ‘bones’ of our economy, it’s time to do more than catch up but to leapfrog ahead.  Remember it was Republican presidents who built the interstate highway system (Eisenhower) and the Panama Canal (Teddy Roosevelt) using public money.  Why did they have a long-range vision but today’s Republicans are so myopic?

Because this time it’s the corporations who’ll be asked to pay up by raising corporate taxes from 21% to 28%.  That’s still less than the 35% tax rate in effect before Trump’s 2017 tax cuts.  Remember them?… the corporate welfare program that was supposed to create jobs but ended up just making business fat-cats plumper thanks to corporate stock buybacks.

Why not ask business to pay its fair share?  How could 55 of the nation’s top businesses pay zero taxes last year despite billions in profits?

Who benefits from a better infrastructure more than business?  Better roads, safer bridges, dependable electricity, smooth running airports, clean water and a well trained workforce are the things that will make business thrive.

Right now, when it comes to infrastructure, we’re living in a third world country. 

If China can build the largest high speed rail system in the world in just 15 years, why do we make Amtrak to barely limp along on table scraps just to fund its operating costs?

If Germany can build a green energy network providing almost half of the nation’s electric needs, why does Texas go dark in a winter cold spell… or Connecticut when high winds take out our utilities’ fragile networks?

Anyone who drives on potholed I-95 or endures a teeth-chattering ride on Metro-North knows we can do better.  Do we need a bullet train to Ronkonkoma?  Maybe not.  But fixing our existing transportation network would be an easy start.

And that’s what the Biden team is counting on:  public pressure for a “Big Fix” to persuade Republican lawmakers to fund the “shovel ready” if not also the “shovel worthy”.

Shepherding this mammoth package of legislation through Congress won’t be easy.  Speaker Pelosi herself thinks it won’t emerge from the House until July and then the Senate negotiations begin.

Oh, there will be plenty of horse-trading and the final package will little resemble what’s been initially proposed, burdened down by special interest as lobbyists earn their keep in DC.

What do you think are the most important projects to prioritize?  Join the discussion on CTInsiders Facebook page or follow the #GettingThereCT hashtag on Twitter to add your thoughts and I’ll share them in my next column.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

April 03, 2021

"Getting There" - A Conversation with the Commissioner

 Joe Giulietti loves to talk, especially about trains.  As Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation when he calls me and say “Jim… let’s have a chat”, I’m all ears.  In a recent exclusive one-on-one, here’s what he said:

WILL RAIL COMMUTER COME BACK?

The Commissioner says yes, but maybe not until the fall.  “Am I optimistic?  I have to be. The disappointing fact right now is we (still) only have 10% of (pre-COVID) ridership.  The trains we have now can meet (that) demand.  If ridership increases we can add more. ”

ARE THE TRAINS SAFE?

“We have one of the safest (rail) systems out there.  The air is exchanged in the cars almost every five minutes. There’s a constant flow of fresh air.”  While Metro-North did experiment with virus-killing UV light treatments in the cars’ HVAC it turns out that an ionization process is more effective at scrubbing virus from the air.

MASK COMPLIANCE

Initially voluntary, then with a small fine for offenders, mask-wearing is now required by Federal rules.  “Compliance is between 95 and 97%.  Enforcement is done by the MTA Police, strategically placed to respond (to non-wearers).”

INCREASING TRAINS SPEED

Trains are still running slow under FRA rules following the Fairfield and Spuyten Duyvil derailments in 2013.  But now that Positive Train control is installed, CDOT is working with the FRA to get their speed restrictions lifted.

“People are asking for higher speeds.  We also have a Governor constantly reminding us he wants faster speeds,” says the Commissioner.  But, he added “you know I never bought into 30-30-30.  It’s just a vision and a goal.”

MODIFYING TIMETABLES

Commuters complain that trains make too many stops, further slowing up the ride.  So CDOT is studying ‘zoned service’.  A train might run from Grand Central to Stamford then skip-stop to Bridgeport.  The train behind it could make the intermediate stops.

“With ridership down we can step back and look at our schedules.  Modeling (by computer) has got a lot better. Of course every town wants express service from their station,” he said with a chuckle.  Best bet is the fastest service will be to and from the busiest stations, perhaps as early as the fall.

Commuting hours have also changed, so also look for added service earlier in the AM.

WHAT ABOUT FARES?

“I don’t know that we’ll have a monthly ticket anymore… based on the utilization. Maybe we’ll come up with a 30-trip ticket.”

There’s no plan to resume peak fares at rush hour but the railroad and CDOT have to find revenue to cover their huge operating deficits beyond Uncle Sam’s one-time bailout. “A lot of people don’t buy into the subsidization.  We’re trying to find a balance to keep trains running and meet the social justice (obligation of service).”

MORE M8 CARS

As the final new M8 cars get delivered, the railroad has more than enough cars for needed service.  CDOT may even have enough M8s to share a pair with MBTA in Boston for their testing, allowing for group orders of future cars. Testing of the M8s on Shore Line East is progressing (after six years) .

TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT

The legislature is debating looser, state-wide zoning regulations, especially near train stations.  But what happens to those developments ideas if ridership doesn’t come back?

“I do believe (ridership) is coming back. If it doesn’t we won’t just be talking about T.O.D. but the future of business itself.”

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

WHY IS THERE STILL NO WI-FI ON METRO-NORTH?

  Airplanes have Wi-Fi.   Even Connecticut’s   CTfastrak commuter bus system  from New Britain to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi. ...