August 27, 2022

NIMBYs and Noise

“… life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  That’s what the Declaration of  Independence sought for us.  But how can we be “happy” with so much noise in our lives?

Boom boxes, leaf blowers, trucks’ jake-braking on the highway… you know the annoyances.  But what can be done and who is responsible?

Sometimes, dear reader, it’s our own fault.  Consider the following:

·       People living near to New Haven’s Tweed airport complain about expansion of Avelo airline’s flights and their jet noise.

 

·       Folks living along Metro-North’s branch lines and the new Hartford Line say that trains are blowing their horns too often and too long at highway grade crossings.

 

·       Residents near I-95 say that increased traffic noise has made living in their nearby homes unbearable.

 

But wait.  Didn’t those people know they were buying homes next to an airport, train line or interstate?  With few exceptions, those transportation thoroughfares were there long before the complainers moved in.

These are NIMBYs… the Not In My Back Yard contingent that’s often as vocal as the noise they complain about.   Mind you, some of them may have a point about their noise levels changing since they established residency.

Yes, jet traffic has increased at Tweed.  But that’s why the airport authority is spending  $5 million to retrofit neighbors’ homes with sound proofing (which, like good insulation, might cut their energy bills too).


Railroad engineers don’t lean on their horns to annoy neighbors, but to prevent accidents when idiots drive around safety crossing gates.  Still, WestCOG is working with consultants to reduce the need for horns on the New Canaan branch with new technologies.

And on our interestates there are miles of expensive sound barriers, walling off the highway from neighbors.  And new pavement technology might cut tire-noise as well.

Admittedly, in some areas (like Greenwich) the topography has changed.  When Metro-North clear-cut dense foliage alongside I-95, neighbors lost some sound-dampening benefits.  That should be addressed.

But remember… those people chose to live next to that airport (built in 1931), those rail lines (built in 1868) and interstates (built in 1957) to give them proximity to that transportation.  Their convenience comes at a cost.

Full disclosure:  our home is about a quarter mile from I-95 and the railroad’s main line.  We can hear trucks and trains, but it’s not annoying.  And we love being so close to the highway and train station… one of the reasons we chose our home.

In New Haven Tweed’s case, might not property values of some homes actually go up as airport workers and new businesses want to be close by?

If branch line service on Metro-North increases, won’t that improved mobility mean more jobs and, again, greater demand for nearby housing?

And as the carotid arteries of Connecticut commerce, isn’t the viability of our interstates essential to our economy?

NIMBYs want it both ways, complaining about the noise while ignoring the benefit  to themselves and others.

But as for those leaf-blowers and lawn mowers at 8 am… something must be done!

August 22, 2022

GOING CARLESS

 It’s been a helluva summer for air travel.  FAA staff shortages, flight cancellations, delays and crowding… combined with air fares soaring higher than the planes themselves.  Is this any way to travel?

Steve Fainer thinks not.  He’s a “train guy” whose passion makes me look like a wannabe.

“I have chosen to be car-free for over 15 years,” he tells me proudly.  A native of Connecticut (though now living in transit-friendly Northampton, MA) he enjoys senior fares on all manner of buses and trains, traveling almost daily.


I belong to a group called Trains in the Valley, which advocates for trains in the Western MA area and particularly the ‘knowledge corridor’ which includes Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield.”  Almost daily he’s at a local train station measuring on-time performance of Amtrak’s “Valley Flyer” trains and counting the number of passengers boarding and getting off.  A bit nerdy, right?

But last weekend he had to attend a family wedding in Washington DC and, true to form, he skipped the airport and took the train, detailing his journey on Twitter (@SteveFainer).

Because the Hartford line (trains from New Haven to Springfield) is shut down for summer construction work, he ended up taking more buses than trains, but he made the entire round trip to Washington without ever once stepping into an automobile.

Northampton to Springfield on an express bus cost him 75 cents (vs $11 by train).  Then another bus to New Haven ($6.25 though his ticket was never collected) and a connection to Amtrak.

Because he booked weeks in advance and took advantage of one of Amtrak’s occasional “Flash Sales” his coach fare to DC was just $29 (vs $82 regularly).  The train arrived in Washington five minutes early and was pretty much sold out, typical for a Friday.


From Union Station in Washington he hopped on the
DC Circulator Bus ($1 vs $22 for an Uber) arriving at his Air B&B.  The next day it was a quick stroll to the wedding and back.

His return trip on Amtrak cost $56 (also purchased in advance) and took eight hours door to door vs an estimated 6.5 hours if he drove, not factoring in Sunday traffic.   Total cost for the roundtrip:  $87.75

Admittedly, being retired Fainer is a bit obsessive about saving money and looking for bargains.  Booking in advance always saves on ticket prices… assuming you have the flexibility to do that.  But even without the senior discount and “flash sale”, taking mass transit is a money-saver.  Plus, taking the train is stress-free compared to driving.

Fainer says he doesn’t miss owning a car.  Since I haven't had a car in 15 years, it's tough to put a dollar figure on what I save but I'm sure it goes into the thousands considering gas, repairs, taxes, insurance, registration, parking fees, etc etc.”

So next time you’re traveling in the Northeast, consider your options.  You might end up saving money and a lot of travel stress if you try taking the train.

 

 

August 13, 2022

BEAUTIFYING YOUR TRAIN STATION

 

Every train journey, whether a cross-country adventure on Amtrak or a mundane daily commute on Metro-North, starts with the same thing: a train station.

Consider Grand Central (Terminal, not Station).

The architecture is so rich, the spaces so varied, that any time spent in this cathedral to transportation is time well spent.  You can have a sit-down meal or grab a beer and a sandwich… pick up a newspaper, or a new iPhone… it’s all there.

GCT is clean (mostly), well patrolled and filled with people, each giving the others a share sense of safety and community.

However, visit any commuter rail station in Connecticut and the vibe is often quite different.

First, is the station waiting room locked or open?  Same with the restrooms. Are the platforms clean and the benches available?  Does the platform have a canopy? 

Grand Central is owned and operated by the MTA.  But in Connecticut, most train stations are owned by CTDOT but managed by the local town.  Got a complaint?  Take it to Town Hall.  I’m sure they’d welcome your input.

Even the smallest things like the d├ęcor of the station and its surroundings can make a positive impression, kicking off your trip with a smile, especially when it comes to flowers.

Our gardens at home are near peak right now, abundant with blooms.  Why too can’t there be such beauty at our train stations?

In England, even tiny train stations compete for the honors of most beautiful plantings.  Garden clubs and civic groups see their local stations for what they are:  a gateway to their town where first impressions count.  The growing season in the UK may be short, but it clearly gives locals a chance to show their pride.

At big city stations in the UK there are flowers too, and surveys show that 70% of riders say their mental health was improved by seeing such displays.

Here in Connecticut, the floral efforts are much more “grass roots”, based largely on a few volunteers and even fewer donations.

I made such a donation this spring to my town’s Beautification Commission specifically earmarked for my local train station, and now the flowers are in full bloom… Rose of Sharon, Anise Hyssop and white Coneflowers, all attracting native bees, butterflies and pollinators.  The beds require regular watering and weeding, a labor of love for the handful of volunteers who tend to their flocks.

Darien’s Beautification Commission Chair Juliet Cain likens the station plantings to a way-station for native insects. “If we do this right, we may increase ridership and pollinator numbers!”


In New Canaan their Beautification League has done extensive plantings and plans a bluestone patio at their train station, which their VP Faith Kerchoff calls the lifeline of her town to the outside world.

“It’s so important to make a good first impression when people come to New Canaan,” she says.  Especially folks thinking of moving up from the gritty city to the leafy ‘burbs.

Gee… I wonder why local real estate agents don’t sponsor station plantings.  Good PR for potential buyers and brand reinforcement for eventual sellers who commute.

How do the plantings around your local train station look?  Send us your pictures (CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com)

August 04, 2022

THE MTA FINALLY TELLS US THE TRUTH

The MTA, parent of Metro-North, did something rare last week:  the told us the unvarnished truth.

Not that the MTA has outright lied to us before.  Well, at least not very often.  But they are the masters of obfuscation and garbled communication.  Consider these gems:

“Wear A Mask”, now part of their daily mantra.  Any commuter can tell you the transit agency doesn’t follow its own rule, doesn’t issue tickets to offenders and even allows its conductors and transit cops to walk around unmasked.

“The train is delayed by operational issues.”   That’s kind of redundant, isn’t it?  It’s delayed because it isn’t operating.  The question is why?

Or my most recent favorite… “ridership on Metro-North hits record levels”.  Technically correct, but actually BS.  Weekday ridership has maxed out at only 63% of pre-COVID levels… a ‘record’ since 2020 but hardly a real record.

All of this seems like the agency is communicating with its customers, but it isn’t.  And we all know it, which just adds to our cynicism.  Sometimes I feel like the Lewis Black of transportation.

But then, this week, something amazing:  they told us the truth.  The MTA admitted it made some big mistakes and is in real financial trouble.  They are running out of money and are heading toward a “fiscal cliff”.

They even admitted what went wrong and, maybe, how maybe to fix it.

Of course it’s all tied to COVID and the resulting huge drop in ridership.  The mistake they made was hiring McKinsey & Co consultants to help them forecast when ridership would return.  When you pay consultants millions of dollars, they usually end up telling you what you want to hear.

McKinsey said that subway and  train ridership would be back to 80 – 90% of pre-COVID levels by 2025.  That obviously is not happening and we all know why.

Sure, there are the new COVID variants slowing the return to the office.  But it’s a complete, systemic change in what we consider work that MTA is in denial about.  People don’t want to commute if they can work from home and they won’t.

I think MTA should demand a refund from McKinsey.

Meantime, it’s Uncle Sam who’s been picking up the deficit tab to the tune of $15 billion given to the MTA.  That money was supposed to see the transit agency through 2025 by which time ridership would be back to normal.  Right?  Wrong.

Subway fares used to account for 51% of operating costs.  Today they cover only 32%.  The agency is burning through Uncle Sam’s $15 billion much too fast.  Hence the fiscal cliff in 2024.

What’s in the abyss when MTA runs out of money and goes off that cliff?  You don’t want to know.  Fare hikes, service cuts, layoffs.  You think Metro-North is bad now?  You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Falling off that cliff will lead to a death spiral of worsening service, fewer riders, less fare collection, etc. 

What’s the solution?  MTA says it’s congestion pricing, NYC’s plan to toll cars and trucks entering midtown Manhattan.  That plan is inching forward but is far from a done deal.

So kudos to MTA for finally being honest with us about the problems ahead.  I’ll give them points for candor.  But now… can we talk about that mask rule?

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