May 20, 2023

HOW TO KILL A TRAIN

 

Our politician friends in Hartford are trying to kill mass transit in Connecticut, worsen our air quality and increase traffic, all in a move that contradicts public policy.

They want to cut train service on Metro-North and Shore Line East railroads.

As early as this fall CDOT’s budget cuts would see Metro-North reduce service from 309 daily trains in Connecticut to just 260, cutting back from 100% of pre-pandemic service to just 86%.  Though peak-hour trains would not be cut (for now), off-peak service would go from once an hour to every 90 minutes.

Shore Line East, still only at 66% of pre-pandemic service, would be pared back to 40%, cutting all mid-day service Monday through Friday.

WHY THE CUTS ?:           Even before COVID, every train in service lost money and was subsidized by funds in the Special Transportation Fund.  Post-pandemic, the ridership has come back much too slowly, increasing the per-passenger, per-trip taxpayer subsidy to unsustainable levels:

BRANCH

PRE-COVID SUBSIDY PER PASSENGER, PER RIDE

CURRENT SUBSIDY PER PASSENGER, PER RIDE

 

RIDERSHIP NOW VS PRE-COVID

Main Line of MNR

$ 3.25

$ 5.38

70.5%

Danbury Branch

$ 17.04

NA

NA

Waterbury Branch

$ 24.46

NA

NA

Shore Line East

$ 49.52

$ 131.87

32.8%

Hartford Line

$ 55.70

$ 58.99

80.4%

 

Commuter advocates would argue that one reason ridership hasn’t come back stronger since the pandemic is that service (especially on Shore Line East) wasn’t restored to the old level.  They say that the way to cut the subsidy is to increase service and get ridership back.  Cutting service, they argue, would only cut passenger loads further, increasing the losses.

THE DEATH SPIRAL:       Reducing train service only sends mass transit into an inevitable “death spiral”:  fewer trains discourages ridership… fewer riders equals higher subsidies… leading to more service cuts.  As ridership further erodes there will be the inevitable calls for shutting down service completely, which we’ve heard in the past (under Gov Rowland) when the subsidy was much, much lower.

PUBLIC POLICY:   Governor Lamont has set a lofty goal of reducing “vehicle miles traveled” and greenhouse gas emissions in Connecticut by 5% by 2030.  He’s directed CDOT to do this by increasing the frequency of mass transit.  The Governor is also promoting TOD, transit oriented development.

But what developer wants to build housing, luxury or affordable, next to a train station with less and less train service?  And why are all of the legislature’s zoning reform bills also tied to TOD if they’re going to kill the trains?

She won't be smiling when her train gets killed 

We just added shiny new M8 cars to Shore Line East and increased train frequency on the Waterbury branch… and now they want to cut service?  And whatever happened to Lamont’s dream of “30-30-30”, faster trains:  faster, maybe, but fewer for certain? 

HARTFORD POLITICS ?:           Of course, all of this is tied to the budget negotiations as the legislative session comes down to the wire.  Maybe, just maybe, all of these train cuts are just a bargain chip? 

But I’ve seen this movie before and I don’t like the way it turns out.  The railroads have told us they’re making serious plans for these service cuts and this is not a drill.

So if you care about your commute, now would be the time to ask your elected officials what the heck they’re doing… and why they want to kill your trains.

May 19, 2023

NEW CANAAN BRANCH SHUTDOWN

 

It’s going to be a rough summer for commuters from New Canaan and Darien as they cope with the repercussions of Metro-North’s coming shutdown of all trains on the New Canaan branch from May 30th to September 1st.  Parking will be tight and travel times lengthened.

TRACK WORK:       CDOT says it’s doing major track work on the branch, including replacement of 8000 ties, 1600 feet of rail and needed bridge work. Because the New Canaan branch is a one-track railroad, trains cannot operate while the work is being done.

BUSING ALTERNATIVES:           In lieu of the trains, Metro-North will run bus service from New Canaan to Stamford but the running time will be 44 minutes at best (compared to 17 minutes by train). 

There will be three bus routes:  one bus from New Canaan will stop at Talmadge Hill, then run express to Stamford.  Another bus will leave New Canaan and stop at all the intermediate stations (Talmadge Hill, Springdale and Glenbrook) before heading to Stamford. And a third bus will run from Springdale and Glenbrook to Stamford.  The buses will run 30 minutes earlier than the old train schedule just to make the mainline train connection in Stamford to journey on the GCT.

However, because each bus can carry about 50 passengers and some New Canaan rush hour trains now have 200+ passengers, this will not be enough.

The Town of New Canaan is considering running a private charter bus from Talmadge Hill to Noroton Heights.  Roundtrip fare is reported to be about $10 - $15 with four departures each in AM and PM peak hours, but details are uncertain.

PARKING OPTIONS:        Given the limited bus options it’s expected that many New Canaan commuters will drive to Darien or Noroton Heights train stations on the main line.  But day-parking is already at near capacity at both stations and Darien officials have declined New Canaan’s requests to set aside special spaces for commuters from the north.

Day-parking ($4 per day, $65 per month) is also allowed in both of Darien stations’ annual permit lots but not until after 9:30 am. The Town does issue tickets for offenders. Parking fees can be paid either on an app or at kiosks at both stations.

At Noroton Heights the day-parking nearest The Depot teen center (on the NY-bound side) is usually full by 7:30 am.  But the day-parking lot directly across the tracks, next to the Post 53 EMS building, is almost always the last to be filled all day.

KOONS LOT:          Your best chance for parking will be near the Darien train station at the privately-run Koons lot on the NY-bound side, across from Tilley Pond Park.  Day parking there is $8 or $120 monthly. Owner Kip Koons tells me he has declined New Canaan’s “request” to set-aside half of his lot for New Canaan commuters, insisting that “it’s always been (our policy that) our spaces are available first-come, first-served.”


The Koons lot can hold 300 cars and has been averaging about 150 – 200 spaces occupied (on the busiest day, Wednesdays).  Koons says he was not interested in working with New Canaan or its vendor (Boxcar) to “reserve” spaces for new customers.  “We’ve run the business the same way since 1949,” Koons told me.

Koons, a former Selectman in Darien, says he has not raised his parking rates since 2011 and doesn’t intend to now (day-parking in 1951 was ten cents).  But one wonders what the free market price might be for a parking space with demand so high and supply so inadequate.

BOXCAR:     New Canaan has been working with “commuter concierge” and entrepreneur Joe Colangelo from New Jersey who, pre-pandemic, had an interesting business renting out private day-parking spaces near train stations using his Boxcar app.

Colangelo has been tasked by New Canaan officials with surveying available private parking near Darien’s two stations but tells me “It’s hard to make this happen with such a short time left”.  When COVID hit and commuter parking became overly abundant. his Boxcar company pivoted into chartering of “luxury motor coaches” to serve bedroom communities in New Jersey, so it seems likely it may be one of his buses (“luxury motor coaches”) that will be used to shuttle New Canaan riders to the main line.

(Interestingly, Colangelo is experimenting with sleeper seats on one of his NJ runs.  Previously he tried launching direct bus service from Darien to midtown Manhattan but couldn’t find the ridership as his coach ran slower than the train.)

BUT… ARE THERE ENOUGH SEATS ON THE TRAIN?:      Ridership has been coming back quickly on Metro-North with some rush hour trains showing standing room only conditions on the busiest days, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  Metro-North has warned New Canaan town hall that existing trains stopping at Darien and Noroton Heights may not have enough seats already and trying to cram on hundreds of New Canaan passengers won’t be possible.

SERVICE REDUCTIONS:            Compounding the commuter woes, Metro-North has just told the CT Commuter Rail Council it is planning service reductions on the main line “starting in the fall”.  Service would be cut from 309 trains daily to 260 runs, going from the current 100% of pre-COVID service to 86%.

The railroad says it will “probably leave rush hour (schedules) alone” but that off-peak service would go from hourly to every 90 minutes.  The reason?  Budget cuts.

FULL DISCLOSURE:         I am a resident of Darien but not prone to the rivalry between our neighboring towns.  I was asked by New Canaan officials to review their plans and offered my candid assessments. So while I’m a journalist I’ve also been asked to consult (unpaid, as a volunteer) on planning underway. I hope I can do both roles objectively and serve my fellow commuters.

COMMENTARY:      I’ve been writing about and advocating for rail commuters statewide for 25+ years, so very little surprises me:  I’ve seen this all before.  But when one local government official predicted this New Canaan branch shutdown will be a “cluster {expletive}”, I thought “Oh yeah”.  They’re right and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

We’ve all known since March that the New Canaan branch would be shut down.  Train conductors were sharing rumors with riders months earlier.  Everyone has had ample time to plan alternatives.  The last minute scramble underway now, days before the trains stop, wasn’t necessary.

Darien town officials gave their New Canaan counterparts full details on the limited parking at its train stations months ago.  And Boxcar’s last minute appeals to local Darien merchants to sublet a few parking spaces near the stations will, I predict, come up short. 

As for Metro-North and CDOT, they have been, true to form, slow to communicate important news their customers need to understand.  As for potential over-crowding, that’s what the railroad has actually been hoping, if not praying, for since the pandemic: they want commuters to come back.  But commuters expect on-time service and available seats.  The railroad has plenty of extra train cars sitting idle, so why not put them to use?  There is no reason anyone should have to stand.

As for what individual commuters can do… well, working from home has never looked so good!

May 12, 2023

CONNECTICUT HAS A DRUNK DRIVING PROBLEM

 

“Connecticut has a drunk driving problem”

Those are the words of CDOT Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto in testifying before the legislature recently.  And boy, is he right.

In 2020 our state ranked third in the nation in drunk driving deaths.  And our lawmakers are not setting a very good example.

State Rep. Quentin Williams:       We finally have the State Police report on the January death of Middletown lawmaker Quentin Williams, who died in a wrong-way-driver head-on crash on Route 9 as he headed home from Governor Lamont’s inaugural ball.  True, he was a victim of a drunk driver speeding on the wrong side of the highway.  But he was also found to have twice the legal limit for alcohol in his blood stream… and THC.

State Rep. Robin Comey:               In March this Branford lawmaker rolled her car near the state Capitol.  Though uninjured she failed a sobriety test and was arrested for DWI.  A year ago Comey, obviously impaired, couldn’t speak coherently during a floor debate, was told to “stand at ease” and was escorted from the hall by worried colleagues.


Tailgating:                 During the  pandemic House Speaker Matt Ritter had to admonish lawmakers after reports that, during the long session (held virtually) some had been regularly ‘tailgating’ on the roof of the LOB parking lot.  Drinking on the job is not why constituents sent them to Hartford, is it?

Nips:               Nips are the small airline-style booze bottles.  You’ll find many neighborhoods littered with dozens of empties, obviously tossed by drinkers, probably from their cars.  Since last fall there’s been a five cent deposit collected on each nip with the money shared with towns where they’re sold, presumably to help pay for their clean-up.  In the first year and a half since deposits began, some $6.6 million has been collected state-wide.  According to my math, that represents 132 million nips that were sold.  The biggest “winners” in nip deposit money were New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford.

Open Container Law:         Connecticut is one of only nine states that allow open containers of alcohol in moving vehicles.  The “Vision Zero” bill (HB-917) currently under consideration would change that and also lower the threshold for DWI from .08% to .05% BAC.

Drinks To Go:           In another strange move the State House has voted 149-1 to allow continues sale of “cocktails to go” at restaurants and cafes… as if we don’t have enough impaired drivers already.  That bill now moves to the State Senate, if we can get them away from their tailgating party on the roof.

Psilocybin Mushrooms:    As with medicinal marijuana, there are legitimate medical reasons for using ‘shrooms.  But another bill before the legislature would decriminalize possession up to a half ounce of mushrooms to just a $150 fine.  Opponents say, as with marijuana, this is just another step toward full legalization.

Even before the pandemic our state had a drinking problem.  Today it’s even worse as people anesthetize themselves with drink and drugs.  And you wonder why we have a mental health crisis?

Do as you wish to your own body in your own home.  But when you put yourself behind the wheel in an impaired state, be you drunk, drugged or just drowsy, you’re endangering the lives of others.

Maybe this year our lawmakers will stay sober long enough to do the right thing and penalize those who act so recklessly.

 

 

 

May 04, 2023

BED BUGS, TWITTER AND THE REVOLVING DOOR

It’s been an interesting week for the transportation scene in Connecticut, with good news and bad.  See if you can figure out which is which.

BED BUGS:           The ornate waiting room at the New Haven Union Station had to be closed the other day as the Parking Authority undertook a cleaning after bed bugs were discovered.  Though it’s a very busy station and any passenger might have brought the critters into the space, it’s the people who are “unhoused” (the new euphemism for homeless) who are the likely source.  This is what happens when the city treats a public transit facility as a solution for those lacking access to shelter.


STAMFORD STATION:     Like New Haven’s station the Stamford Transportation Center also has a lot of homeless lingering at all hours.  But how do they tolerate the noise from all the construction work?  In the 30+ years I’ve been riding Metro-North I can’t remember a time when the station was NOT under construction.  The latest work is not expected to end until the fall of 2024, more than a year behind schedule.  What is moving faster is the new parking structure just west of the station.  That should be done by Labor day… this year.

TWITTER BLINKS:           When Twitter told the MTA it would have to pay $50,000 a month to keep access to its code to send tweets to riders about delays, the agency refused, threatening to leave Twitter completely.  After less than a week, Twitter reconsidered its demand and will allow the agency continued free access to its millions of users.

BACK FROM THE FISCAL CLIFF:        Continued reduced ridership and dwindling Federal bailout money had seen the MTA (parent agency for Metro-North and NYC subways and buses) heading toward what it described as a “fiscal cliff” that might have meant layoffs and service cuts.  But the crisis seems to have been averted as NY Governor Kathy Hochul reached a deal with lawmakers in Albany to plug the MTA’s $600 million budget gap this year and $1 billion each of the years to come. The can-kicking-solution this time is tax hikes for NYC businesses and a smaller-than-feared subway fare increase to just under $3 a ride.  Mind you, the MTA also admits it loses $500 million a year to fare evasion. 

THE REVOLVING DOOR:           What do you do when you leave a $281,000 a year job as CT Commission of Transportation?  Why, you become a consultant… again!  Former CDOT Commissioner Joe Giulietti has just done it, re-joining the consulting firm TYLin.

Former CDOT Commr Giulietti

You’ll remember that when he last worked for TYLin he did a study proposing “30-30-30” train running times between Hartford, New Haven, Stamford and NYC… an idea endorsed by Gov Lamont that, as Commissioner of DOT, Giulietti was never able to deliver on.

But don’t expect Giulietti to be doing any high priced consulting for CDOT, at least not for a while.  Under the state’s ethics laws, ex-State employees can’t take any consulting work from their old agency for one year, locking the “revolving door” from state jobs to consulting for your old employer.

 


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