May 29, 2021

Getting There - The CDOT Fare Hearings

 Our state government certainly moves in mysterious ways.

The Connecticut legislature seems unable to even discuss the crucial replenishing of the Special Transportation Fund to keep mass transit rolling… but they found hours to debate the merits of declaring pizza the “official state food”.  Really?

Kudos to the nine lawmakers who voted “no”, not because they don’t like pizza but because they saw this issue as a waste of time.

Also in the “waste of time” category were the recent series of virtual public hearings (May 18, 19, 20 & 25) by the Connecticut Department of Transportation.  The topic… service reductions on Metro-North and CT Transit that have already been implemented.

Twelve mind-numbing hours of Zoom hearings were planned, accompanied by hundreds of pages of legally mandated reports and analysis.  I can’t even imagine the hours of work that went into their preparation, and for what?

There are no fare increases planned and no further cuts in service beyond what was ordered months ago.  So why are they having public hearings on a moot issue?  In fact, if Metro-North gets its dreams fulfilled and ridership returns, schedules will have to be adjusted again, potentially triggering more hearings.

If the decisions have been made, why ask the public their opinion after the fact?  Does anybody really think that anything that gets said at these hearings will evoke a change of plans by CDOT or Metro-North? 

There has been one silver lining to the pandemic:  it’s got state government using virtual platforms like Zoom to better engage with the public. It used to be that you’d waste a day driving to the Capitol in Hartford, sitting through hours of others’ testimony and finally get your three minutes to speak.  Now you can attend the political theater of meaningless hearings without leaving the comfort of your own home.

To their credit some legislative committees held 24 hour-long hearings on such important issues as mandatory student vaccinations and forced re-zoning, allowing hundreds of voices to be heard.  But again, let’s not be na├»ve enough to assume that anyone’s testimony changed votes.

Sure, attending, watching or (if you were lucky enough) testifying on these matters may have been cathartic, but they didn’t change a darn thing.  Lawmakers were only going through the motions, just like CDOT will do in this case.

But here’s an idea: attend these virtual hearings and register to speak.  Not about these already-decided matters about fares and schedules, but about anything you’d like to say related to commuting.

Use your three minutes to ask why Metro-North is still running its trains slower than it did a decade ago.  Query the Commissioner of DOT about what happened to Governor Lamont’s illusory plan known as “30-30-30”.  Ask why Metro-North conductors aren’t enforcing Federal rules on mask wearing to keep passengers safe.  Or how long the railroad can keep operating with 20% ridership and who’s going to pay the bills.

There are so many questions that could be asked.  Don’t expect answers.  These are public hearings, not a dialogue with decision makers.  Officials will be in listen-only mode, probably chanting some secret mantra to fend off the verbal barbs and anger of those testifying.

These hearings won’t change anything, but they may make for fun viewing and a chance to vent your frustration.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

May 15, 2021

Getting There - Do You Feel Safe Riding Metro-North?

Is it safe to get back on the train to New York?  Casey (not her real name) thought so when, a couple of weekends back, she wanted to see some millennial friends in Manhattan for brunch.  But boarding the Saturday morning train she immediately started to worry and texted me.

The train was jammed, she said.  Very few empty seats.  No way to “socially distance” and many people were not wearing face masks.

Looking around, she saw large groups of NY Yankees and NY Rangers fans.  Sure enough, both teams had home games that afternoon. The fans were tailgating their way to the fun, already drinking (heavily and openly) by 11 am. 

Metro-North claims it’s doing everything it can to attract riders back, but this was just the opposite.  The railroad knew there were two major sport events that day, so why not schedule extra trains, giving people room to spread out? 

The conductors didn’t call out the non-mask wearers, didn’t ask them to cover their faces and didn’t offer them free masks.  They allowed them to break the law without so much as a warning.

Forget the latest guidance from the CDC:  masks are still required on all trains and planes by order of the TSA.

Sure, vaccination levels in Connecticut are rising.  To date 50% of the state has received full dosing.  But something told Casey these tipsy fans weren’t wearing masks because they’d had their shots, but because they just didn’t care.

Casey filed an online complaint with the MTA Police, hoping they would meet the incoming train at 125th Street and enforce the law.  No response.  A complaint on the Metro-North website generated a boilerplate response but no follow-thru.  And a Tweet, detailing her discomfort brought a tepid reply apologizing for “any unpleasantness” during her journey.

Unpleasant, for sure, but also potentially lethal.  The mask rules are there for public safety.  That’s a Federal rule with fines  of $250 to $1500. Those not wearing masks should have been kicked off the train.

Since the pandemic began, weekday ridership on Metro-North has been crawling back to about 25% of pre-COVID numbers, but on weekends almost half of the old ridership is back onboard.  The trains are getting crowded and more service is needed now.

While weekday commuters tell me mask compliance is almost 100%, it’s the weekend warriors, partying and carousing, that are not following the rules.  And the railroad seems to not care.  They run PSAs but don’t enforce the law. Are they that desperate for customers?

Last fall the railroad unveiled a new virus-zapping UV light air filter system to much acclaim, but it’s only operational on a handful of train cars. Why?

Their TrainTime app added functionality to advise passengers waiting for trains which cars were the least crowded.  It’s working on the LIRR and NY sections of Metro-North, but not in Connecticut. Why?

Every night the railroad sprays disinfectant in the interior of all railcars even though research shows that there’s only a one in 10,000 chance of getting the virus by contacting an infected surface.  It’s airborne transmission that presents the real danger.  And that’s why masks will be with us for a while longer in enclosed public spaces.

NYC Mayor de Blasio wants to re-open NYC on July 1st.  But riders are not coming back to Metro-North… some because they don’t have to (as they prefer to work from home), but many others because the railroad is still making them feel unsafe.

 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

May 01, 2021

"Getting There" - It's Time to Invest in Rail Freight

 How would you like a plan to remove thousands of trucks from Connecticut highways, clean up the air and create new jobs?

Who wouldn’t?  It’s a win-win-win plan that you’d expect Governor Lamont to embrace, especially in this time of TCI (the Transportation Climate Initiative).

The solution?  Invest in our state’s freight railroads.

Yes, there are still freight trains in Connecticut, just not very many. But there could be more.

In its earlier days as a profitable, private railroad the New Haven ran hundreds of freight trains each day.  But today the railroad is too crowded with (relatively faster) passenger trains and the bridges and catenary lines are too low for modern double-stack container trains.

But in other parts of Connecticut, freight still travels by rail on more than 500 miles of track, most of it owned by the state Department of Transportation and leased to eight different private operators.

In western Connecticut we have the Housatonic, Pam Am Southern, Connecticut Southern, the Naugatuck and Providence and Worcester Railroads, to name but a few.

These short line railroads already carry 3.8 million tons of freight annually in our state, keeping 350,000 truck loads off our roads and reducing greenhouse emissions by 75%.  Diesel trains can carry up to 500 ton-miles per gallon.  Trucks manage about 130.

These freight railroads carry everything from chlorine-based disinfectants for water treatment, food for our tables, huge electrical transformers and bulk commodities.  Their customers include such Connecticut businesses as Becton Dickinson, Kimberly Clark, Home Depot.

There are even plans to turn an abandoned factory site in Naugatuck into an inland port, receiving freight trains of goods to be offloaded onto trucks for local delivery.

Consider the mighty 19-mile-long Naugatuck RR.  Founded in 1845, the line once ran from Winsted to Bridgeport, offering both passenger trains and freight service.  These days the line is much shorter, but they still hand-off long loads of boxcars filled with construction debris bound for landfills in Ohio.

While marginally profitable, these freight railroads need help to continue, let alone expand, their service to the state’s businesses if they are to meet federal expectations of a 30% increase in rail freight traffic by 2040.

As their ‘landlord’, the State needs to invest in their infrastructure by rebuilding bridges to carry heavier loads, lay new track, replace worn ties and improve grade crossings.

Eight years ago the state bonded $10 million to fund such repairs and the railroads chipped in their own money, too.  They had to, with $80 million of needed work, most of which has gone unfinished.

Early in 2020 the legislature approved an additional $10 million in investments, but the Bond Commission has yet to approve the funding and issue the bonds.

When the Bond Commission met mid-April they found $467 million in total funding for dozens of projects but the $10 million for freight rail wasn’t even on the agenda.

The inestimable Ken Dixon asked the Governor if his old “debt diet” was over and the Governor said no, that the new bonding was an “investment” in everything from housing to economic development, thanks to interest rates being so low (1.8%).

Ten million dollars in state bonding is chump change. At their next meeting the Bond Commission and the Governor should get on with the job of investing in Connecticut’s rail freight.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

 

FEWER TRAINS & BUSES, HIGHER FARES

How’s this for a double-whammy?  CDOT is proposing a cut in train and bus service while also raising fares… just as I predicted months ago ....