March 28, 2024

THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE

With the sad news out of Baltimore this week about the collapse of the Key Bridge, I thought we’d reprise a story I wrote awhile back about NYC’s iconic George Washington bridge.


It’s the bridge we love to hate.  Congested, expensive ($17 toll) and nowhere near as modern as the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the George Washington Bridge is best to be avoided, but often you can’t.

 

The “GW” was not the first New York City bridge designed to cross the Hudson River.  Back in 1885 there were discussions about building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at 23rd Street.  Tunnels proved a better idea in 1904.

 

By the 1920’s it was automobile traffic that needed access and designers conceived of a double deck, 16-lane wide roadway (with an additional 12 tracks for railroads on the lower level), crossing at 57th Street.

 

But it was in 1927 and farther uptown that construction finally began on the George Washington Bridge, crossing from the NJ palisades to 179th Street in Manhattan.  The $75 million single-level bridge opened in 1931 with six lanes of traffic, widened by another two lanes in 1946.

 


Initially the span was to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise, but a naming campaign by school kids ended up honoring our first President.

 

Fortunately, the bridge’s designers had planned for future growth and in 1962 the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” section of the bridge was opened, increasing capacity by 75%.

 

Unless you see the bridge from the Hudson River, it’s hard to take it all in.  Highway approaches from the east and west don’t give you much perspective.  And it’s hard to play sightseer when you’re coping with all that traffic. 

 

Original plans called for the bridge to be clad in concrete and granite, but the open criss-cross girders and bracing are much more elegant.  Though we take it for granted, the GW is recognized by architects as one of the most beautiful bridges in the word.

 

In its first year of operations the bridge carried 5.5 million vehicles.  In recent years the counts exceed 100 million per year.  While vehicles pay tolls, there’s one way to cross the bridge for free:  by walking.  While offering great views, the bridge’s pedestrian walkways have a dark side… suicide attempts.

 

Though motorists never see it, the bridge also has its own bus terminal on the New York side, sitting astride the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx) serving 1000 buses and some 20,000 passengers each day.  Officially known as The George Washington Bridge Bus Station, the terminal recently underwent a $180 million renovation.

 

The bridge itself also got a facelift.  In 2011 the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace 529 vertical suspender wires holding up the roadways.  

 

A great time to cross the bridge is on important civic holidays, including President’s Day, when the world’s largest free-flying American flag is displayed on the New Jersey tower.  Measuring 90 feet in length and 60 feet wide, the flag weighs 450 pounds. 


 

March 22, 2024

SHOULD EVs BE TAXED?

Awhile back I was in Greenwich doing one of my regular talks about transportation and conducted a quick poll, asking the crowd, “How many of you drive EVs (all-electric vehicles)?”   Being Greenwich, about five hands went up.  I congratulated the early adopters of cleaner driving and then said, “You know you’re not paying for our highways… and that’s not fair.”

It’s true.  Drivers of EVs are literally getting a free ride on our highways because they don’t buy gasoline and therefore don’t pay gas taxes, which are used to pay for the maintenance and repair of our roads.


Full disclosure:  I drive a Prius hybrid that gives me double the mileage of my old Honda, so I’m half a freeloader, buying only half the gasoline I used to.

The point is… EV drivers should be paying for our roads just like everybody else. Why?  Because EVs beat up our highways more than traditional ICE (internal combustion engine) cars. 

Due to their batteries, EVs are super heavy.  A Tesla model X weighs over 5000 pounds compared to the average American ICE which weighs 3750 pounds.  Heavier vehicles cause more damage to our roads than lighter ones and should pay accordingly.

Instead, EV buyers are given discounts.  When you buy most new EVs you can get a $7500 tax credit, effectively lowering your purchase price.  Many utility companies will also give you a rebate for installing a home charging system. 

And don’t forget that $7.5 billion in federal money is being used to build 500,000 commercial EV charging stations across the US, one every 50 miles on our interstates.  Without those charging stations drivers won’t buy EVs and we’ve already seen sales slow down this year as a result.  In fact, it’s the plug-in hybrid vehicles (that run on gasoline and electric) that are in hottest demand.


We need to encourage, not mandate by law, a conversion from gasoline to electric powered vehicles to preserve what’s left of our environment.

But how to get EV owners, most of whom are presumably well-off financially if they can afford one, to pay their fair share for the roads they drive on?

Thirty states are now charging EV owners a registration fee of up to $400 to make up for their lost gas tax revenue.  Other states are also adding a surcharge to electric bills:  the bigger the EV, the more electricity it needs for the miles it drives, the more its owner will pay.

Of course, all this could change with the upcoming Presidential election.  Donald Trump doesn’t believe in global warming or EVs, claiming their adoption will cause a “bloodbath” in the US auto industry costing 40% of its jobs.

Should he be re-elected, Trump 2.0 could easily overturn much of the Biden administration’s plans and upend the EV business far more than a small EV tax to pay for our roads.

As for Connecticut EV owners, good news.  Our state’s Special Transportation Fund has so much money from gasoline tax revenues that no EV tax is contemplated here… for now.

 

 

 

March 15, 2024

LICENSE PLATE READERS

We all know how bad the traffic is despite the State Police’s recent ticketing blitz on reckless drivers.  On the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, in just one week, they made 170 traffic stops and issued 150 tickets (including 51 commercial vehicles) totaling $8,000 in fines

That includes the arrest of a Norwalk cop accused of a road rage incident when he tried to run another car off the road.  When even the cops are acting out, you know things are bad.

Aside from radar, red light and speed cameras, some of the best tech being employed by cops these days is license plate readers (LPRs)… special cameras mounted on vehicles scanning license plates on passing cars.  The system recognizes the plate number and sends the data to a national crime database, immediately alerting the officer to violations.


Have an outstanding arrest warrant?  Registration expired?  No insurance?  The LPR will know and you’ll probably get pulled over.

A few years ago when my town was testing the technology, I did a ride-along with a local officer and watched it in action.  The system flashed red so often, notifying the officer, that she couldn’t decide which violator to pull over.

Just last week an LPR in Glastonbury pinged a stolen vehicle leading to a stop where the cop found the out-of-town driver not only had committed a larceny but had no driver’s license.

Some police departments are finding the technology so valuable they’re mounting LPR’s in permanent locations scanning every car entering their community.  They argue that LPRs are no different than having officers’ eyeballs looking for violators, just faster.

Civil libertarians worry about the implications of all this… not, perhaps, the legit arrests but the data that gets stored and can later be reviewed.  Were you driving in town X on date Y?  The database can let them know.

Of course, if you have an E-ZPass to handle your out-of-state tolls, that data is also being collected.  And your driving is also being tracked by your cellphone, equipped with GPS.

But LPRs only work if they can read the cars’ license plates.  So bad guys are now looking to obscure the tech’s vision with plastic covers over their plates.  Some even have a gizmo that, on activation,  pulls a shutter down over the plate so nobody can read it.


This is leading to what NYC cops call “ghost cars” that can evade electronic tolls or the city’s pending congestion pricing toll system.  A recent crackdown against these scofflaws has led to eight arrests, 200+ summons and 73 cars being impounded for toll violations and other fines.

Darien’s police chief Don Anderson tells me he’s got standing orders for his officers to pull over anyone with an obscured plate. 

“I want my officers to have a conversation with that driver… on their body camera… asking them ‘Why do you have these shrouds over your license plates?’… and are you aware they’re illegal (in Connecticut)?  I know why (they have them)… they want to avoid the tolls and speed cameras and drive with impunity.”

 

 

March 08, 2024

NYC SUBWAYS ARE NOT SAFE

It’s not safe to ride the subways in New York City.

Not that the subways aren’t operated safely, it’s just that the people riding them are victimizing each other as well as MTA personnel.  Hardly a day passes without another report of incidents like these:

·       A man is slashed with a box cutter by an assailant spewing anti-LGBTQ remarks, who then runs off.

·       In another incident a 64 year old postal worker is kicked down off the platform, falling onto the tracks.  He was rescued by bystanders before the subway train entered the station.  NYPD has surveillance video but they are still looking for the assailant.

·       An MTA conductor, leaning out of his cab, is slashed in his head and neck requiring 34 stitches.  Again, no arrest.

In January subway crime was up 45%.  The NYPD then sent an additional 1000 cops into the subway. Last week NY Governor Hochul called out a thousand members of the National Guard and instituted random bag checks of passengers entering the system, looking for weapons.  Will that result in weapons arrests or just send the bad guys to another station not staffed with cops?  What’s next… metal detectors?


This is unsustainable and very expensive, especially at a time when the MTA estimates they lost a half-billion dollars due to fare evasion last year, with 12% of all riders skipping the turnstiles.

Clearly, there are too many guns and knives being carried by people in NYC.  Though undoubtedly discriminatory, I wonder if a return to former Mayor Bloomberg’s old policy of “stop and frisk” might not reduce this arms race.

Mind you, these aren’t just one-off crimes.  Thirty-eight people who were arrested in the subways for assault last year were responsible for 1100 additional crimes in the city, according to Mayor Adams.  

The homeless woman who was seen on video attacking a cello player with a metal bottle was arrested in mid-February and set free without bail.  Days later she was arrested again, this time for shoplifting a $235 baseball cap.  This time her bail was $500 (though prosecutors had sought $10,000), but that was enough to keep her in jail… for now.

So the issue is more than just attacks:  it’s about our judicial system which spits people back onto the streets without bail, even when they commit violence.

This lawlessness in New York City is out of control and literal armies of cops and camo-dressed Guardsmen aren’t much of a deterrent.  Even without guns or knives, the crazy (sorry… “mentally unstable”) people roaming the streets and subways are making everyone feel nervous.

What does this mean for Connecticut commuters?  They’re probably safe on Metro-North but when they get to Grand Central they’re understandably reluctant to take the subway to their office. 

It’s just another reason for commuters to persuade their bosses they’re better off working from home, further reducing fare revenue for the cash-strapped Metro-North division of the MTA.

 

 

 

 

 


March 01, 2024

COPS CRACKDOWN, NEW STAMFORD RR GARAGE

Forget what the calendar says, I say it’s Spring!  And with this hopeful season comes good news on the Connecticut’s transportation front.

A reader recently told me my weekly screed comes off sounding like I’m a “cranky old man”.  Guilty, on both counts.  So let’s celebrate these rare glimmers of hope for our roads and rails.

INCREASED TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT:        The CT State Police has announced a new crackdown on reckless drivers to, as one pol put it, “take back the highways”.  Special patrols will be working the interstates and parkways and writing a lot of tickets.


The problem is that this State Police traffic unit is only a quarter the size of what it once was, and the overall force is still only 75% of what it should be.  But even spread this thin, any enforcement may help stop the speeding, red-light-running and impaired driving that has seen death tolls soar in the last few years.

The question is:  why the increased enforcement now?  Why wasn’t this begun months ago? 

The trend in fatalities has been obvious as has the lack of police enforcement.  The more people see others behaving badly on the roads the more they’re likely to do the same thing.

But, it’s Spring!  So let’s take this as good news, albeit it late.

DRUNK DRIVING:            As I wrote last May, Connecticut has a serious drunk / drugged driving problem.  Last year a state lawmakers died in a wrong-way crash and, in another case, a pol flipped her car in front of the Capitol and was arrested for DWI.  Meanwhile, lawmakers have been encouraging more boozing… allowing “to go” purchases from bars while Connecticut is one of only nine states not banning open containers while driving.

Well, this year the Transportation Committee is reportedly considering lowering the blood alcohol limit defining drunk driving from .08% to .05%.  That’s good news… if it passes and there are enough cops to enforce it.

STAMFORD STATION GARAGE:          Lastly, we celebrate the long overdue opening of the massive new garage at the Stamford train station:   914 parking spaces, 92 electric vehicle charging stations, and 120 spots for bicycles.

Rendering of new garage


The structure is beautiful, inside and out, adorned with 200,000 color LED lights you can’t miss while driving by on I-95.  Like the old garage, it’s connected by a covered pedestrian walkway directly into the station.

The $100 million garage was months late in opening and years later than planned. It was back in 2006 that CDOT decided that it would be cheaper to replace than to repair the 1985 garage, crumbling from neglect.  A planned PPP (Public Private Partnership) to do the work got embroiled in political intrigue and a zoning fight with the city and went nowhere.

With the new, larger garage now open for business the old garage will be torn down, a messy project that will take about six months.  The space will then be home to a massive TOD (Transit Oriented Development) project.

Another reason for hope, so Think Spring!

DROWSY DRIVING

In my college days I did some strange stuff… like driving all night from Chicago to NYC, hitting 75 mph on Interstate 80, just me and the tr...