Monday, January 22, 2018

Malloy's Transportation Cuts

Fare hikes, rail service cuts and a freeze on transportation projects.  As he promised in December, Governor Malloy announced them all last week.  Rail commuters and highway drivers are justifiably outraged, but they should direct their anger not at the Governor or CDOT but at the legislature.

WHY NOW?            This funding crisis has been years in the making, exacerbated 20 years ago when lawmakers’ political pandering saw them lower the gasoline tax.  Coupled with better gas mileage and increased use of electric cars, the Special Transportation Fund (STF) which pays for our roads and rails has been running out of money.  By next year it will be in deficit.

RAIDS ON THE STF:        His critics are quick to blame Malloy, correctly noting that he raided the STF for money to balance the state’s budget.  But so did Governors Rell and Rowland.  Blaming their past mistakes doesn’t answer the question of what we do now.

FARE HIKES:         Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  The proposed 10% hike in July, while unpopular, will be absorbed by commuters who have no real choice in how to get to their jobs in NYC… assuming they don’t move. 

PUBLIC HEARINGS:        Required by law 90 days before they go into effect, the public hearings on fare hikes will be cathartic but meaningless.  Think of them as political theater.  The CDOT will present the numbers, explain why the STF is running out of money and sit patiently as commuters yell and scream.  Then they will do what they must:  raise fares.

RAIL SERVICE CUTS:      Why is Malloy cutting off-peak weekday and all weekend service on the New Canaan, Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East lines?  Because, unlike the mainline, these lines are subsidized 100% by Connecticut, have lower ridership and are much more expensive to operate. 

ECONOMIC IMPACT:       While higher fares are never popular, cuts in train service can be economically devastating.  Without daily trains, houses in communities like Wilton and Redding will be less desirable.  Property values will decrease, affecting local taxes.  Transit oriented development dreams for communities in the Naugatuck Valley will be dashed. 

FUTURE PROJECTS:       Not only is the Governor threatening fare hikes and service cuts, he’s freezing $4.3 billion worth of transportation projects across the state.  Forget about the new Stamford rail garage, Route 8 – I-84 “mixmaster” in Waterbury, the Barnum rail station in east Bridgeport, and hundreds of other projects.  There may even be a 15% staff cut at CDOT.  That means months or years of delays on these projects if and when money is ever found, making our state even less desirable for new business investment.

ROAD MAINTENANCE:    These cuts may even affect CDOT’s ability to plow our roads in the next blizzard, let alone fix the potholes and our aging bridges.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?:     It will be up the legislature to finally address STF funding.  None of the alternatives will be popular, especially in an election year.  But I’d expect tolls, taxes, and yes, fare hikes… all predicated on passage of a true STF “lock box” in November’s referendum.

If you’re as angry as I am, do something.  Call your state representative and senator and demand that they vote on new funding sources for the STF to stop these service cuts and project delays.  They created this problem.  Now they’ll have to solve it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, January 15, 2018

Transportation Predictions for 2018

Recently I reviewed my transportation predictions for 2017 and gave myself a final grade of B+.  Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even own a crystal ball.

This week, I’m doubling down on some predictions and offering a few new ones.  So tuck this column away and give me a prognostication grade this time next year.

Commuters…  you’re not going to like this one.  With the Special Transportation Fund (STF) imperiled (see below) I predict that there won’t be money to pay for the additional M8 railcars on order for delivery in 2019.  Crowding will continue to the point that ridership will peak and start to drop.  Adding insult to toe-stepping injury, there will be calls for another fare increase of at least 10%.  Ouch.

As he threatened, Governor Malloy will cut transportation spending when the legislature does not act on new funding sources for the Special Transportation Fund.  Even before the STF runs dry, expect reduced or eliminated train service, fewer road repairs, less snow plowing, etc.   It’s going to be bad, really bad.

Before we see discussion of new tolls or taxes, we will need a lock-box on the STF.  We will have a chance to vote on that in a November referendum.  But I predict the vote will be “NO”… not because we don’t need a lock-box, but because the one proposed won’t be secure enough to persuade cynical voters it would be pilfer-proof.  A “no vote” on the lock-box will put any new tolls or taxes for transportation in question.

This is a hard one to call because none of the dozens of early-announced would-be candidates for Governor have said anything about transportation.  They all know this is going to be a crucial issue.  But they also know that voters don’t want any new taxes or tolls.  So, who among this gaggle of wannabe Governors will have the guts to be honest on this issue?  That’s the man (or woman) who’ll get my vote, if s/he exists.

In the wake of the recent Amtrak crash near Tacoma WA, this technology to control our trains is years late, millions over budget and in some peril.  Despite a three year extension by Congress, I fear that Metro-North will not have Positive Train Control up and running by the 12/31/18 deadline.

Fresh from his first (and only) legislative victory in 2017, President Trump will bask in the glory of his mighty tax cut but he will not be able to get Congress to make good on his promise to spend $1 trillion to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.  Why?  Because deficit-nervous Republicans won’t stomach the cost and so despise the Democrat-dominant Northeast that they’ll say “No way” to our multi-billion dollar projects.

Autonomous cars and trucks will start showing up on our roads.  The occasional accident will raise calls for better safety.  But the age of the auto-bots will continue, and we here in Connecticut will either get onboard or be declared irrelevant.


Elon Musk’s controversial system of high-speed tunnels will continue occupying the headlines despite predictions of its eventual failure.  A prototype has been completed and tested even as his Boring Company continues drilling.  But money problems at Tesla will drain his bank account and Hyperloop will be put on hold.

Those are my predictions for 2018.  Check back next year and see if I’m right.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, January 8, 2018

Transportation Armageddon

Fare increases, reduced train service, less highway snowing plowing, postponed construction.  All of these and more are on the horizon, say Governor Malloy and the Connecticut DOT because our Special Transportation Fund (STF) is running dry.

I hate to say I told you so, but…

We’ve been talking about this issue for years and our lawmakers have done nothing.  In fact, they’ve hastened this transportation Armageddon by their own short-sighted political pandering.

Remember in 1997 when the legislature lowered the gasoline tax by 14 cents a gallon?  Seemed like a popular move in a state with such high gasoline taxes.  But those taxes are how we fund our transportation!  And with lower oil prices, greater fuel efficiency and electric cars, people are buying less gas and the STF is running on empty.  And our debt service on transportation is growing faster than CDOT’s spending on operations.

Last week the Governor warned us that Wall Street won’t buy even our General Obligation bonds, let alone transportation bonds, if the STF goes into the red.  So unless we find new revenue sources soon, any bonding will be more expensive if not impossible.

So pick your poison:  tolls, sales taxes, Vehicle Miles Tax, gas tax, higher fares… none of them are popular, but some combination will be necessary.

The alternative is to cut spending, cancelling things like new railcar orders for the standing-room-only Metro-North… eliminating off-peak and weekend trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches… cutting Shore Line East rail service by 50%... and three fare increases from 2019 to 2022.

Forget about rebuilding the crumbling Stamford rail station garage, a new station garage in New Haven, widening I-95 or rebuilding the disintegrating Route 7 – I84 “Mixmaster” in Waterbury.  And as CDOT faces further staffing layoffs, don’t be surprised if our highways don’t get plowed.  Agency insiders tell me they’re already down 50% in snow plow staffers in some parts of the state.

Oh, but here come the uniformed suggestions for a quick fix.  You’ve heard them and maybe thought of them yourself.

Why not cancel the new New Haven to Springfield rail line?  Sure… but because it’s being built with federal money, the state would owe Washington a $191 million refund it doesn’t have.

Why not stop the raids on the STF to balance the budget with a lock-box?  Great idea and you’ll get a chance to vote on that in a November 2018 referendum assuming you think it’s a real lock on that box.

Why not wrap all Metro-North trains in advertising… collect all tickets… sell naming rights for stations?  Sure, but that would bring in chump change compared to the $1B we need just to keep the STF solvent and the state afloat.

Tolls and taxes are the only realistic alternatives. But our legislators, facing an election year, have no stomach for either.  They’re still recovering from wrenched shoulders from patting themselves on the back for achieving an unbalanced budget while they’re in serious denial about the real mess we are in.

Come January the CDOT will start a series of public hearings on the necessary fare hikes and spending cuts.  It will be a great time to see who among our lawmakers will be honest with us about the financial crisis they created.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Friday, January 5, 2018

Handling Disruptive Passengers

We’ve seen a number of reports lately about “disruptive passengers” forcing a plane to divert after exhibiting some sort of frightening behavior.  Imagine being along for the ride when something like this happens:

·       An Air Canada flight to Tel Aviv lands in London after a female passenger starts randomly choking people on board.  She is restrained in-flight and arrested upon landing.

·       A Southwest Airlines flight from LA to Houston detours to Corpus Christi after a woman tries to open the emergency exit door in mid-flight.  Seen before departure screaming at people in the terminal, passengers wondered why she was even allowed on board.  On landing she is arrested.  The captain buys his passengers pizza to apologize for the delay. Classy.

·       A Hawaiian airlines flight to the mainland returns to the islands after a passenger becomes verbally abusive to his family and strikes a flight attendant.  On landing he’s arrested.

What happens to these “disruptive passengers”?  It’s hard to say, but in the last case the passenger pleaded guilty, was sentenced to three months probation and was fined $97,000 for the cost of the Hawaii diversion.  Not included in the fine was the $46,000 the airline had to pony-up for meal vouchers for the delayed passengers. (Obviously NOT pizza).

But that guy got off light.  Passengers who disrupt the duties of a flight crew member can face fines up to $25,000 and sometimes imprisonment.  In addition, the airline can choose to ban the problem passenger from any future flights… for life!

In some cases this behavior is a sign of mental instability.  But too often the boorish behavior is tied to alcohol, a situation worsened by the airlines selling booze in-flight to already inebriated flyers (the Hawaiian passenger had also brought his own bottle onboard).

Handling a misbehaving passenger at 35,000 feet is one thing, but on the train the rules are a bit different.

Metro-North conductors have the power to “de-train” a passenger at the next station and call the authorities.  And assaulting a Metro-North conductor can get you arrested as two fare beaters found after getting in a tussle while being ejected from their train.  Assaulting an MTA employee is a Class D felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.

But by far my favorite story of a troublesome traveler involved Amtrak and a passenger who would not shut up.

I’m not referring to the time that NJ Governor Chris Christie was asked to move his seat when he mistakenly sat in the Acela’s Quiet Car and started yapping on his cell phone.

No, this case involved a woman who carried on a 16-hour cell-phone conversation on Amtrak’s “Coast Starlight” enroute from LA to Seattle.  Despite being seated in the train’s Quiet Car she ignored the withering gaze of fellow passengers as she continued her chat.  Finally, a passenger confronted her, told her she was in the Quiet Car and was met with an “aggressive response”.

That prompted conductors to stop the train and have her escorted off, far from her destination.  She was charged with disorderly conduct and told reporters she felt “disrespected” by her fellow travelers and Amtrak police.

Imagine that happening on a Metro-North train where the Quiet Car rules are seldom enforced.  Well, I guess we can all dream.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, January 1, 2018

Transportation Predictions for 2017 Come True

This is the time of year when some commentators kick back and do end-of-the-year wrap up stories, as if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 12 months.  Bah, humbug.   I don’t review the past… I predict the future!

So let’s review my prognostications as published one year ago and see how good my crystal ball really was.

I said the new M8 cars would perform well, which they did.  But the tracks, switches and catenary wires would need repairs, often causing delays… check.  Ridership would rise, leading to further crowding.  Oh, yeah.  On this one I’ll give myself a Grade of an A.

As predicted, gasoline prices went up as OPEC tightened its controls. And they’ll probably rise further next year. Grade:  A

A year ago CDOT had finally pulled the plug on its ill-fated deal with a private developer to replace the Stamford rail garage with a high rise, moving parking a quarter mile from the station.  That was a prediction I’d made 2 years ago, but when it came true in 2016 I predicted that CDOT would learn its lesson on any new development, engaging the public early on in the process… which they did.  No progress to report, yet.  But this time I’m confident it will be an open decision-making process.  Grade: A

Another oldie but goodie, my annual prediction that CDOT would finally take over control and operation of all rail station parking, standardizing rates and waiting lists.  This one I got wrong.  Grade:  F

I was 100% accurate in predicting the retirement of the 747 from US skies… and a slowdown in orders for the mega-jumbo A-380… all because of fuel inefficiencies.  But ironically, there is renewed interest in supersonic transports, with a US company looking for orders in 2018.  Grade:  A

This was a no-brainer.  More traffic, increased congestion and no activity on Governor Malloy’s plans to widen the highway.  We are still waiting for results of the $2 million consultant’s study of that plan (previously studied and rejected in 2004). But whatever they suggest this time, it’s moot because we have no money.  This one was too easy to call, so I’ll only give myself a B+.

I accurately predicted that Gov Malloy’s 30 year, $100 billion transportation wish-list (not a plan) would remain stuck, “just like his political career”.  Though it wasn’t until April 2017 that Malloy declared himself a lame duck, it seemed clear to many he wouldn’t run again, given his unpopularity and the state’s failing economy.  What we didn’t see was the legislature would ignore warnings about the draining of the Special Transportation Fund, all but dooming Malloy’s transportation vision, not to mention snow plowing, road repairs, additional M8 rail cars, etc.  Grade:  A-

Sure enough, this issue was what I’d feared: “a wild card, just like Trump himself”.  All of us who take the roads and rails were hopeful that “Donald the Builder” would find the $1 trillion he promised to spend on infrastructure.  But given the recent battle on tax reform, generating about that same amount in a looming deficit, infrastructure spending dreams seem on life support.  Again, that wasn’t the gutsiest of calls, so I’ll just give myself a B

Final average grade:  B+

Next week I’ll share my predictions for transportation in 2018.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Friday, December 15, 2017

Will the Real ID Act Disrupt Travel?

Something like 1.73 million Americans board airplanes ever day.  And each of them must go through a very necessary screening by the TSA, the Transportation Security Agency.  But beginning in late January 2018, a lot of passengers will be denied boarding because they don’t have the right kind of ID.

You can thank (or blame) the Real ID Act passed by Congress in 2005 after 9/11 to make sure people really are who they claim to be.  As any teen can tell you, it’s too easy to obtain a fake ID.  And if teens can do it, terrorists can also.

Because most people rely on their state driver’s license as ID, it’s been up to the states to gain compliance with the Federal rules.  A lot of those states are not in compliance, but Connecticut has passed the test, sort of.

If you’ve recently renewed your Connecticut license you know you were given an option:  get a “regular” license or a “verified” ID.  To get a verified license you needed to bring extra proof to the DMV:  a US passport, birth certificate, original Social Security card, etc.

Look at your CT license and you’ll easily see the difference.  If yours has a gold star in the upper right corner, you’re verified.  No gold star, NOT verified… meaning that as of 2020 your license will NOT be enough ID to get you on an airplane. That license clearly says “Not for Federal Identification”.  But for now, any CT driver’s license will get you past TSA.

Sure, you can always use your US Passport as ID.  It’s the gold standard and requires all kinds of identity proof to be issued. But if you don’t have a passport and don’t have a gold star on your CT driver’s license, starting in 2020 you’ll have to start thinking about taking Amtrak or driving.

Only about 40% of all Americans have a passport.  Compare that to countries like Canada (60%) or the UK (70%).  Considering the fact that millions of Americans have never even been out of the country, why would they need one? (PS:  Isn’t it amazing how those same people always say the USA is #1 having no point of comparison?)

Leaving aside the paranoids who think that having a passport is an invasion of privacy because they are now embedded with RFID chips containing who-knows-what kind of information about you, we should all have a passport. And getting one is pretty easy.

There are more than 8000 Passport Offices in the US, most of them US Post Offices or libraries which will process applications certain days each month.  But the main Passport Office for our state is in Stamford.  You can also file your application by mail, but only for renewals.  First time applicants must appear in person with all their documentation.

Mind you, US Passports are not cheap:  $110 for first time applicants, plus $25 application fee.  Renewals are also $110 and “expedited” passports are an extra $60.

Turn-around time on your application can be anywhere from two to six weeks.  There are also private services that claim to be able to get you a new passport in one day, but they’ll cost you.

So the bad news is:  if you don’t have a passport already, may need one eventually.  The good news is, December is a great time to apply as it’s the Passport Office’s “slow season”, compared to the summer travel rush.   Happy traveling!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Friday, December 8, 2017

Feeling Sorry for Dan Malloy

Six words I never thought I’d write:  “I feel sorry for Dannel Malloy”.

Sure, we’ve had our differences. And yeah, the Governor does have the personality of a porcupine and the disposition of a bully, sometimes.  But the man is not evil and he doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him now.  Nor do we.

Our Governor is a lame duck.  Because he’s announced he’s not running for re-election, he has the political clout of a used teabag.  And even though he’s our state’s leader for another eleven months, nobody cares about him or his ideas any longer.

Legislative leaders declared him “irrelevant” during the budget negotiations, ignoring his ideas and then handing him a billion dollar problem.  Sure, they met for weeks and hammered out a compromise budget, but it wasn’t balanced unless the Governor specified over $1 billion in cuts.

Lawmakers didn’t have the guts to order the cuts themselves. They made Malloy do it so he would take the blame, not them.  So when the Governor cut municipal aid, social serves and education, our lawmakers feigned shock and anger.

More importantly, whatever happened to the Governor’s (and our) transportation dreams?  What became of “Let’s Go CT”, his 30-year, $100 billion “plan” to rebuild our roads and rails?  It’s pretty derailed, like his political clout.

Sure, legislators scraped together a few million to “ramp up” the grand plan.  And about $5 million to do more studies on widening I-95 and improving rail service.  But our state’s Special Transportation Fund (STF) is going to run out of money within a year or so if we don’t find new funding sources.  No money in the STF means no new projects, no road repairs and, probably, cuts in mass transit.

None of the new funding ideas for transportation are popular, which is why lawmakers (facing re-election) couldn’t pull the trigger on tolls or taxes, knowing there would be no appetite for any added costs to transportation among skeptical voters… unless there was a “lock box”.

Even then-candidate Malloy broke his own promise to not use the STF like a petty cash box to balance the budget.  Which is why he pushed hard to safeguard those funds from future Governors:  with a lock box we would know that our tolls and taxes could only be spent on transportation.

Tolls could bring in $62 billion over 25 years, 20-30% of that revenue coming from out of state residents.  Imagine what that money would do for our roads and mass transit.
Yes, lawmakers did vote to move the lock box idea to a 2018 referendum.  But the Democrats’ lock box is no more than a sieve to Republicans who think it can be “picked with a bobby pin”.

Without a lock box, nobody will support new revenue.  And without money, the STF will be bone dry in a few years and Malloy’s transportation dreams will be dead.

Somewhere in Hartford, maybe at the State Library, I imagine there’s a special room where plans like “Let’s Go CT” go to die.  I envision that room as stacked ceiling to floor with scores of multi-million dollar consultant studies on how to fix our transportation crisis.   A few have been read.  Fewer still acted upon.  Almost none have been funded.

So yes, I feel sorry for Dannel Malloy.  But mostly I feel sorry for us.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media