December 30, 2021

TRAFFIC REPORTER TOM KAMINSKI

Tom Kaminski is like an omniscient guardian angel, floating in the heavens and keeping motorists in the tri-state area safe from motoring mayhem.

For 34 years Kaminski has been a traffic reporter for WCBS 880 radio, heading a team of producers, spotters and tipsters covering traffic and transit from his vantage point 1500 feet above the city in the station’s Bell 206 helicopter.

Most of the time he’s in the chopper, but always with a pilot and, more recently, a camera operator for his twice hourly updates for PIX-11 TV.  Six times each hour (“on the 8’s”) from 5:30 am to 9 am and again from 4:30 to 7 pm his live weekday traffic reports on WCBS 880 help steer thousands of travelers on their way to and from work.

“The rush hour never really ends in Connecticut,” he tells me.  So even when he’s not flying, the station is still staffed with traffic reporters.  “Fairfield County is a huge audience for us,” says WCBS News Director Tim Scheld.

Mid-day construction on I-95 or the Merritt Parkway can turn even off-peak travel into gridlock, so WCBS’s traffic reports are must-listening whenever I’m on the road.  And for rail commuters, Kaminski and crew have a direct line to Metro-North checking on Twitter tips about transit delays.

“I want our listeners to think ‘This guy has my back’, so I’m always on call should conditions warrant special reports,” says the 59 year old traffic veteran, one of the last live traffic reporters in and on the air.

Kaminski’s typical day starts by waking at 3:30 am.  He checks in with the station’s traffic producer by 4:30 am and is airborne from Linden airport in New Jersey in time for his first live report at 5:30 am.

“Then we head to where conditions are the worst,” he says.  Often, he hears from loyal listeners who call in tips (212-975-8888) in addition to the ground team back at the station monitoring police scanners, live traffic cams, Google Maps and WAZE.

Kaminski doesn’t see new traffic apps as competition.  “You look at WAZE and see an icon where delays begin.  But you can’t tell if it’s a stalled car or an overturned truck, so I’m their eyes in the sky painting the word pictures.”

By 7 am the chopper has to land to refuel, but the traffic reports continue.  When weather conditions are bad… low ceiling, gusty winds, poor visibility… Kaminski works from his base station either at the airport or his tech-equipped home.  Despite decades of flying in all sorts of weather conditions he claims “I’ve never been airsick”.

Working a split shift, Kaminski is off from mid-morning until early afternoon. “I always try to catch a nap,” he says, before diving into his PM drivetime duties.

Since COVID forever changed our commuting habits, he’s noticed a major change in traffic.  “Fewer people are taking the train, opting instead for the perceived safety of driving, despite the traffic.  But the increase in speeding accidents has led  to some horrendous accidents: really violent stuff”, he says.

“The worst accidents seem to be when the traffic is lightest and people are driving way too fast,” he laments.  His best advice for motorists is his signature sign-off line after his last report in the morning.

“Still on the road?  Easy does it!”

 

 

December 18, 2021

HIGHWAY SOUND BARRIERS

Building and maintaining our highways is expensive.  But here’s a quiz question:  on interstates 95 and 84, what costs a half-million dollars a mile to construct?  The answer:  sound barriers.

Why are we spending that kind of money to surround our interstate highways simply to protect the peace and quiet of their immediate neighbors?  Living that close to a highway built in the 1950s comes with the twin costs of increased noise and air pollution but with the benefits of quick access to the highways.

 

Do you have sympathy for people who move near airports and then complain about the jet noise?  Neither do I.   But the solution to highway noise is not to create a walled canyon paid for by others.

 

Sound barriers, in my view, are a waste of precious resources.  They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or do anything about road congestion.  And they’re a magnet for graffiti artists.  Three miles of sound barriers on both sides of an interstate would buy another M8 railcar for Metro-North, taking 100 passengers out of their cars on I-95.

 

Worse yet, Connecticut’s hard, wooden sound barriers (styled after Fort Apache) really just reflect the sound, not absorb it, bouncing the noise further afield.  But there are alternatives:

 

1)     Why not sound-proof the homes?  That has worked well for neighbors of big airports and would be a lot cheaper than miles of sound barriers.  Plus, insulation against sound also insulates against energy loss, saving money.

 

2)    Rubberized asphalt.  Let’s reduce the highway noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”.  Using the latest in rubberized asphalt some highways have seen a 12-decibel reduction in noise.  And rubberized asphalt, as its name implies, is made from old tires… about 12 million a year that would otherwise be junked.

 

3)    Pay for it yourself.  Create special taxing zones in noisy neighborhoods and let those home owners pay for their sound barriers.  They’re the ones who are benefiting, so shouldn’t they be the ones who pay?  And that investment will certainly be recouped in increased property values.

 

4)    Penalize the noise makers.  Let’s crack down on truckers who “Jake brake”, downshifting noisily to slow their speed instead of using their real brakes.  And motorcyclists or those cars with busted mufflers, they too should be penalized.

 

5)    Go electric.  Electric cars are virtually silent.  And there are electronic ways of using noise cancellation technology that, on a large scale, can induce quiet at a lower price than building wooden barricades.

 

6)    Go absorbent.  Where there is room, erect earthen berms alongside the highway which will absorb the sound.  Or if you must construct sound barriers, fill them with sound absorbing material, treating the noise like a sponge, not bouncing it off a hard, flat reflective surface.

 

Our interstates, especially I-95, are carrying far more traffic than they were ever planned to handle.  And there is no sign of it decreasing.  In Fairfield County the rush hour starts about 6 am and runs continuously until 8 pm without a break.

 

 

If our state’s economy depends on these highways we will have to live with the karmic cost of a little noise.  But if it’s too much to take, why ask others to pay for its remediation when immediate neighbors are the only ones benefiting from that spending?

 

 

December 12, 2021

ZOOMING THROUGH WINTER

Ah, winter in New England!  One day it’s foggy and mild, the next day it’s a blizzard.  How can we get through the next few months and still get where we’re going?  Here are a few tips crowd-source from your fellow commuters:

IF YOU TAKE THE TRAIN:

First, never assume your train will be operating on time.  Though Metro-North’s new M8 cars do much better in snow than the older cars, the railroad is quick to amend its schedules and reduce service as conditions warrant.  Check their app before you head to the station.  Leave early and expect to arrive late.

The same is true on Amtrak (and Shore Line East) where that railroad is predicting possible cancellations due to staffing shortages when mandatory vax rules go into effect for engineers in January.

Parking is still plentiful at stations (and, in most cases, free on weekends), but exercise caution in unplowed lots.  If the waiting room at your station isn’t open, call Town Hall as they’re the ones responsible for opening those warming shelters.

Do the same thing if you encounter icy steps and platforms:  call Town Hall.  They’re supposed to be using station parking revenues to keep the stations open and the lights on, not Metro-North.  If you see something, say something.

The HVAC systems on Metro-North trains are much more reliable than in years past.  The TrainTime app will alert you before your train pulls in which cars are the least crowded, but a seemingly empty car may be so for a good reason: no heat.  So be ready to move.

If your station is using “bridge plates” from the station platform to a middle-track for boarding, stay off the icy aluminum until the train pulls in and stops.  And always “mind the gap”.


Finally, please wear your mask at all times on the train.  It’s the Federal law and, whatever your vaccination status, you don’t want to suffer through an Omicron Christmas.

ON THE ROADS:

CDOT is already warning us of an impending shortage of snow-plow drivers as the agency is having trouble hiring staffers in the competitive jobs market.

They’ll still be pre-treating major roads with a snow / ice melting concoction, but depending on the rate of snowfall, even I-95 could become impassable.  In high wind conditions when big-rig trucks are banned, take that as a cue that you should reconsider your travel plans.

Keep your windshield-washer fluid tank full up as you’ll need it after driving through the nasty debris and ice tossed up from the road by cars ahead of you.  


Above all, slow down.  Even if you’re driving a tank-sized SUV, don’t assume you’re safe when things get slippery.

OR JUST STAY HOME:

Finally, ask yourself if your planned journey is really necessary. “Zooming” might  be an easier way to accomplish your tasks from the warmth and safety of your own home.

If there’s any silver lining to COVID, it’s taught us we can all be productive without risking our lives battling Mother Nature on the roads and rails, right?

 

December 04, 2021

A CONVERSATION WITH THE COMMISSIONER

Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Guilietti has a holiday gift for rail commuters… and maybe a lump of coal for the stockings for highway speeders.

Once a year I get a sit-down with the Commissioner.  We’ve known each other for many years since his days as President of Metro-North.  He knows I always ask him the tough questions but once told me “You’re always fair, Jim”, a comment that brought a tear to my eye.


So when I asked him when train service was going to get faster, he didn’t blink… or over-promise.

“My boss (the Governor) keeps asking me the same question.  We’re still doing the modeling,” he said.  And while a few months ago he promised a 10 min faster ride “by next year”, Metro-North trains are still slower and running less frequently than just a few years ago.

But while the railroad crews are still “playing whack-a-mole” with trouble spots, any hopes for expanded service and more express trains probably won’t happen “until the spring”, says the Commissioner.

Stats show overall weekday ridership is topping out at 53% of pre-COVID numbers.  But a handful of rush hour trains are up to 75%.  And new technology allows the railroad to know on a minute to minute basis just how crowded each train is.  He said that he has plenty of spare rail cars so that CDOT’s partner, Metro-North, is quick to add cars to increasingly crowded trains.

But while service or speed may not be increased, neither will the fares.  “We are having no discussions about fare increases,” said the Commissioner.  Neither does it seem that peak fares will be returning anytime soon, at least not until service improves.

What is still under consideration are new discount fare plans.  Though he wasn’t specific, such things as a discounted 30-trip ticket have been discussed previously.

Rail and signal enhancements on the diesel-only Waterbury branch line will mean expanded service but not new cars, at least not yet.  The CDOT request to the tiny rail car industry for new cars proposals brought a dismal response but the agency is working on other ways of modernizing the fleet.

And when the MTA’s $11 billion East Side Access project opens Grand Central to LIRR trains in December 2022, Commissioner Guilietti hopes that some New Haven line trains will then access Penn Station “the first day ESA opens”.

On the highway side traffic is worse than before COVID, both in delays and danger.  “It used to be that people drove 20 miles over the speed limit,” he said. “Now they drive 50 mph over the limit”.  Accidents are frequent and often deadly at these “horrific speeds”.

So CDOT is about to launch three pilot programs in work zones with speed enforcement cameras.  Sometime “before the spring” anyone speeding in these work zones will be ticketed automatically at a fine of up to $200.

The nation will soon be awash in money from the recent Infrastructure bill with $30 billion designated for Connecticut and another $100 billion up for grabs in competitive bidding.  But to write the grants and prepare the engineering to qualify for that money, CDOT needs to deal with its brain drain.

Almost 400 senior staffers at CDOT have retired this year with more expected to leave next year before pension rules change.  In addition, the agency needs to hire 200+ staffers just to handle the new infrastructure projects.  Commissioner Guilietti says his recruiters are visiting universities and even high schools to find and develop talent.

“These are good paying jobs,” he says. “ And they’ll be around for 20 to 30 years” as we rebuild our roads and rails.

YOU ARE THE TRAFFIC

Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...