November 25, 2022

A NEW COMMISSIONER AT CDOT

 

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) is getting a new Commissioner. After four years on the job, Joe Giulietti is retiring.


Giulietti has spent more than 50 years in transportation, starting as a brakeman and conductor on the old Penn Central RR while still a student at Southern CT State University.  He graduated to road foreman and then assistant manager for operating rules before joining the new Metro-North in 1983 as superintendent of transportation.

In 1998 he pulled up stakes and moved to Florida where, for 14 years, he ran the Tri-Rail commuter rail system.  Then Metro-North called him back to become President of the railroad from 2014 to 2017, when he retired after a health scare.

As he likes to tell the story, Giulietti got a cold call in 2018 from newly elected Governor Ned Lamont, beckoning him out of retirement (again) to become CDOT Commissioner, his “job of a lifetime”.

Joe G accomplished a lot in his tenure, delivering projects on-time and on-budget while being constantly pushed by his boss to speed up rail service to fulfill Lamont’s pipedream of “30-30-30” service.  The Commissioner also took one for the team, serving as front-man for Lamont’s unpopular tolls initiative, long since abandoned.

Insiders tell me Giulietti is heading south again to warmer climes, but I’m guessing he may resurface in some consulting role.  He knows too much to just sit on a beach.

The 70-year-old Giulietti’s successor is Garrett Eucalitto, his former Deputy Commissioner, a self-described “policy nerd”, not a railroad or highways guy.  Eucalitto, who’s in his 40’s, may be the perfect guy for the job because the challenge at CDOT has changed.

The task now is finding the money and the talent to execute on long-planned transportation improvements.  While Connecticut is getting $5.38 billion in federal funding, the new Commissioner has to match those funds with state money and compete with other states for $100 billion in additional funding for specific projects.

Eucalitto knows funding like Giulietti knew railroad switches.  The new Commissioner spent time at OPM, the state’s Office of Planning and Management, which controls the budget purse strings.  And he worked for the National Governor’s Association, turning transportation wishes into funding realities.

But finding the money is only half the battle that Eucalitto will face.  He also needs to find talent to execute on the plans.  After years of attrition under the Malloy administration, CDOT still has 700 unfilled jobs.

Eucalitto says the agency is attending jobs fairs and scouring the region for engineers.  The CDOT is even having trouble hiring truck drivers, competing as it must with the private sector.

Eucalitto inherits an agency with a strong direction and good momentum.  The all-important Special Transportation Fund (STF) which subsidizes these projects is coming back from life-support, the current “gas tax holiday” notwithstanding.

Asked if tolls were back on the table as a funding source for the STF, Eucalitto said “No… but…”.  In 20 years when we’re all driving electric vehicles, a tax on petroleum products to pay for transportation will be an odd footnote in history.

November 17, 2022

AMTRAK'S STRUGGLES

This week will be the busiest of the year for Amtrak as hundreds of thousands of Americans depend on the nation’s passenger railroad to get them to and from their Thanksgiving plans.

If you don’t have train reservations by now, good luck.  Every seat on every train will probably be taken, especially in the heavily traveled Northeast corridor and the New Haven to Springfield (and points north) service.  You should anticipate delays and maybe even standing-room-only conditions. (By the way… only folding bicycles are allowed on Amtrak this holiday week.)


The question is why.  Why can’t Amtrak add more cars to its trains to carry the extra loads, earn some badly needed revenue and help people make their holiday journey?  The answer:  bad management.

When COVID hit, Metro-North decided to not lay off engineers and conductors, a costly but prescient decision.  But when ridership returned, they were ready, adding trains and serving passengers.  Capacity wasn’t a problem and won’t be going forward.

Amtrak, on the other hand, contracted quickly despite receiving $3.7 billion from Congress to minimize disruptions.  Long distance trains, which once ran daily, were cut to three times a week.  Trains between Washington and Boston, including the money-making Acela, saw revenue drop 98%.

The railroad’s workforce was cut 20% with 500 veteran employees leaping at buyout offers, taking with them experience and institutional knowledge hard to replace.  That made it even more difficult to maintain Amtrak’s 40+ year-old railcars and 20-year-old locomotives, many of which are still “shopped”.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s management was pocketing $2.3 million in bonuses in 2021 for cost reduction efforts.  Critics are now implying the bosses were slow to restore service to protect their own bonus checks, the riders be damned.

By the time COVID vaccines arrived and ridership demand returned, the damage was done. Long distance Superliner cars, diners and sleeping cars, are still awaiting repairs because Amtrak can’t find skilled workers or even would-be apprentices. The railroad is on a hiring blitz but they can’t compete with private industry.

One insider tells Trains Magazine Amtrak is seeing a 50% cancellation rate even for interviews.  And hiring, then training, an electrician to work on railcars built in the 1980’s is quite different than the skills those wiring-jockeys might use in building a new house.

Staff shortages for on-board personnel mean that CafĂ© Cars may not be in service or sleeping cars can’t be used, despite demand. That means fares will remain high. Like Uber, Amtrak operates on a “surge pricing” model:  the higher the demand, the higher the fares.  At last check, one-way from NY to Boston on the days before and after Thanksgiving was $309… in coach!


Train watchers in the Connecticut River Valley have seen ridership there soar in recent months.  But while CTRail (run by the CDOT) will be adding more trains (no reservations necessary) next week, Amtrak (which runs half of all trains), will not.  They just don’t have the cars.

EV ANXIETY

There’s no doubt that EVs (electric vehicles) are our future.  The question is, are we ready for them?

There are already over 25,000 EVs in Connecticut, almost half of that number in Fairfield County with Westport drivers owning the most.  They’re not cheap to buy ($30,000+ each) but cheaper to operate (for now).

Charging up a Tesla costs about $14 and can take you maybe 300 miles.  But that’s based on current electric rates.  But they’re going up, way up.

Eversource CEO Joe Nolan recently told investors he anticipates a 40% boost in electric rates next year, mostly due to the price of natural gas which is responsible for generating about 50% of our juice.  Nuclear generates another 30% with “renewables” (solar, trash burning, wood and wind) coming in at just 10%, but climbing.

Blame it on the Russians’ invasion of Ukraine, inflation or whatever.  Energy is going to be tighter and more expensive.  And remember:  Eversource only distributes the electricity, it doesn’t generate it, so don’t blame them.

All of this may mean a long, cold winter ahead for residential users who’ll be turning off lights, cranking down the thermostat and piling on the sweaters.  But nobody’s expecting a reduction in driving.  Just look at current traffic despite the high gasoline prices.

One of the big concerns of potential EV buyers is “range anxiety”:  can I get a charge if I’m away from my usual neighborhood?   That’s why Eversource is gearing up to install hundreds of new EV charging stations, both at home and work.

Eversource is offering incentives of up to $1000 to put in a Level 2 (220 volt) charging station in your home (which may cost you $650 - $700).  That charger will give you 12 - 80 miles of range per hour of charging… about four times faster than a standard 120 volt charger.

But that incentive comes with a catch:  the utility can throttle back your charging during hours of peak demand, say 4-6 pm on a hot summer day, to protect the grid.

Offices and retail locations can get $40K per property for Level 2 charger installations or up to $250K for Level 3, DC “Fast Chargers” (DCFC).  Those beasts can give a Tesla an 80% charge in about 40 minutes.  But they use an amazing amount of power… according to one charger company, the equivalent of five residential households for a week for a one hour charge! 


While residential users will pay standard electric rates, commercial chargers at offices, stores and such can make you pay whatever they want.  You’ll probably use an app to find the nearest charger which will show its rates.  Think “Gas Buddy” for EVs.

Who pays for these new EV chargers?  The rate payers (customers), not utility company shareholders.  Blame PURA, our state’s Public Utilities regulator.

The bigger question is … with 13% of all cars in Connecticut expected to be EVs by 2031, will there be enough electricity on the grid to charge all them all, let alone all the electric trucks, buses etc.?

The short answer is yes… given that most charging of EVs is done overnight and with the expectation that we’ll all be conserving electricity at home and work.  So turning off lights will mean there’s juice for your EV.


BUILDING GREAT (AND REALLY EXPENSIVE) THINGS

Grand Central Madison, the new train station bored into the rock beneath Grand Central Terminal, is finally open.  When it’s fully operation...