June 25, 2022

WELCOME TO CONNECTICUT ???

First impressions count.  


If you’re going on a job interview you dress your best, put on a smile and try to be charming.  The same rule applies to transportation.

Arrive at any airport or train station, and you immediately start forming opinions of your destination.  Is it clean and modern, warm and welcoming?  How does the place make me feel?  Are the locals proud of themselves?

Well, “first impressions” also count when you are driving.

“Welcome to New Jersey,” said the perky young lady behind the Tourism Desk at the first service area in New Jersey when we pulled off Interstate 80 recently when driving from Pennsylvania.  I was just looking for the rest room, but this staffer made we feel welcome, offering me maps and brochures and ready to answer any questions I might have about the Garden State. 

I got the same vibe awhile back arriving in Maryland, driving south on I-95 where a big, mall-sized rest area in the median offered me about a dozen restaurant choices, relatively cheap gas and room to stretch my legs.  On the far side of the building there was parking for about fifty trucks and electric hook-ups so they didn’t need to idle their refrigerator units. 

In Virginia, the Tourist Center looked like a mini-Monticello and the helpful staffers were ready to answer all of our questions about our planned tour of Civil War battlefields.  These local guys were better than TripAdvisor and the AAA Guidebook.

Contrast that with the “first impression” we give tourists arriving on I-95 in Connecticut. 

On crossing the NY state line, they will immediately hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, for no apparent reason, no matter the time of day.  No accidents, just normal conditions on our major interstates.

The large electronic sign flashes “Delays:  Exit 2 -16, next 16 miles” as visitors inch along over the Mianus River Bridge, site of the 1983 collapse of a span that killed three.  

“Are we there yet?” the kids ask from the back seat.  “Not even close,” moans Dad, wondering if they’ll ever get to the Cape.  “I just hate Connecticut traffic,” he moans.  “But Dad, I gotta go,” says Junior.  “I’ve been ‘holding it ever since The Bronx!”


Then, like a mirage on the horizon, Dad sees hope:  not a break in the endless traffic, but the state’s first service area in Darien.  “Hang on Junior, we’re stopping in just a minute.

Not to buy gasoline, of course.  You never want to buy gasoline in Connecticut.  Prices are 30 cents a gallon higher at the service area than on local roads. No, these folks are in the tourist equivalent of “fly-over” mode.  They’re just stopping to “rest” and maybe pick up a map and a snack.

Arriving at the shiny new service area, complete with a Tesla charging station, they are met with such unique culinary options as McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts.   Long gone are the eateries “It’s Sugar”, “Cheese Boy”.  Yummy.

Inside there is a single masked staffer behind plexiglass at the information booth around the corner from a rack of brochures.  But he’s only there Wednesday through Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm.  We ask for a map on Connecticut and all he has is one showing motorcycle tours. 

First impressions do count.  And the first impressions we give visitors to our state aren’t as positive as they should be, are they?

 

 

June 11, 2022

WHY DO TRAINS HAVE NAMES ?

Ah, for the glory days of American railroads!


Back in the day you didn’t just take “a train”, you traveled on The 20th Century Limited or the Broadway Limited (named not for the street but the Pennsylvania Railroad’s four-track wide right-of-way).

Today, trains just have a number. Or a departure time.  But some railroads are trying to give named-trains a new chance.

There is, of course, “Eurostar”, the popular train between London and Paris via “the Chunnel”.  There’s also “Thalys” from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam, and “Lyria”, a super-fast service from Paris to Switzerland using French TGV’s.

Amtrak still has some named trains, though they are pale shadows of their historic namesakes:  The Silver Meteor and Silver Star to Florida, The Lakeshore Limited to Chicago and The California Zephyr

 

The New Haven Railroad used to name its trains:  The Merchants Ltd., The Owl, The Patriot and The Senator.  When Amtrak inherited The Owl, a night train from Boston to Washington, they renamed it “The Night Owl”.  But it was so slow and made so many stops, it was better known as “The Night Crawler”.  It’s long gone.

All of these trains sound a lot more exciting than “Acela”, Amtrak’s best effort at high speed rail.  As one-time Amtrak President David Gunn once said, “Everyone knows what Acela is… it’s your basement.”

It may well be that Acela will seem like a slow-poke if a new project ever takes wing: a maglev train linking New York and DC.  Out of the blue a few years back I got an online survey from a company testing names for the proposed service.

 Among the options I was asked to grade:  “Maglev”, “Quicksilver”, “Aero” and “Magenta”.  Really… magenta?  But clearly these planners knew that before they could even propose such a service, it needed an identity.  

Even stations’ names can evoke grandeur:  Grand Central Terminal (not station!) says it all… big, in the center of the city and a dead-end.  South Station and North Station in Boston give you a sense of location, like Paris’ Gare de Nord and Gare de L’Est.  And Gare de Lyon tells you one of the big cities where the trains are coming from.

On Metro-North most of the station names align with the towns where they are located.  But Westport residents still insist on calling their station “Saugatuck”.  And I only wish I knew how Green’s Farms got its name.  

Though it doesn’t name its trains, some Metro-North Bombardier-built cars

carry names tied to Connecticut lore:  The Danbury Hatter (alluding to the city’s old industry), The Ella Grasso (named after our former Governor) and my favorite, The Coast Watcher.

 

So the next time you’re on some generic, Metro-North car known only by a number or departure time, think of how much more glamorous your commute could be on a car and train with a name like “The Matinee Mule” or “The Weary Commuter”.

 

June 04, 2022

MARIJUANA TOURISM

Connecticut is investing $3 million in a new ad campaign to promote tourism in our state.  But here’s a theme you won’t hear mentioned… yet.

Whether you simply wander or plunge into the surf, cannabis can add pleasure to your beach visit.”

Such was the promise on a Mystic CT-based private tourism website, VisitNewEngland.com talking about Massachusetts beaches.  But the site’s flowery pot prose also goes on to describe some of our tourism haunts that can be enhanced by marijuana.

“If you’re the type of weed smoker who loves to think deep, pondering thoughts about space and time, you’re in luck: Connecticut is home to some of the nation’s oldest historic houses, buildings, and towns.”


According to state figures there are over 52,000 registered medical marijuana users in Connecticut.  The estimates of how many “recreational” users are anyone’s guess.

Possession of cannabis in our state has been legal for almost a year now.  Still,  Connecticut is many months away from legal ‘recreational’ sales.  So where do you buy it?  You’ve got to hit the road.

Marijuana is a big business, estimated to account for $40 billion nationally by 2025.  Some 35 states have legalized medical marijuana and 18 allow recreational sales.  And tourism is riding cannabis’s coattails, already accounting for $17 billion this year.

Colorado, one of the first states to legalize cannabis, saw pre-pandemic hotel bookings jump 7% and room rates climb almost 4% when commercial sales began.  In Denver you can book a bus tour to sample marijuana “tastings” and even visit a grow facility.  Some tours feature cannabis-centric restaurants with food and marijuana pairings, like fine wines.

Closer to home there are 15 recreational marijuana dispensaries just across the border in Massachusetts, from Great Barrington to Springfield. 

Right off I-91 is the flagship Insa mega-dispensary, outfitted like a high end boutique with fancy display cases and lush green plantings.   After scoring your weed you’re just minutes away from the MGM Casino where they’ll welcome your business.  Or later this summer, visit The Big E and satisfy your munchies after an edible.

New Jersey has just legalized recreational sales, but crossing any state line with even legal weed is still a violation of the law. 

Wherever your marijuana meanderings take you, travel safe.  Unfortunately, Amtrak is not a good alternative.  Smoking is banned on all trains as is transporting even legal weed.  And smoking while driving is just stupid, though enforcement is a problem for the police as there is, so far, no breathalyzer test for pot.

Connecticut is still many months away from licensing  its first adult-only recreational dispensaries.  But some 22 towns have already opted out of even allowing them, passing on the potentially lucrative local tax benefits.  But if Connecticut marijuana consumers are willing to drive to Springfield, won’t they be happy to drive to a town next door offering legal sales? 

When recreational sales of cannabis finally come to Connecticut, so too will the tourists and fresh tax revenues for the towns and cities permitting such sales.

 

 

 

 

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 ....