Sunday, August 19, 2018

Trucks as Scapegoats

“Why don’t we just ban all trucks from our interstate highways in rush hour?” 

The question was asked of me by a small town mayor in Fairfield County who’d obviously given a lot of thought to solutions to our traffic woes.  He’s a smart guy and thought he’d come up with “the answer” to our transportation crisis.

He said he wasn’t in favor of tolls, but liked them as a traffic mitigation tool.  By charging trucks more to drive our highways in rush hour, they’d be incentivized to instead go off-peak.  He was just taking the idea a step further:  ban them completely at certain hours.

Well, I explained, that’s probably illegal.  This is an interstate, federal highway built to carry trucks.  Wouldn’t it be a better idea to tell the merchants where they are going to only accept deliveries at, say, 3 am instead of 9 – 5 which is more convenient for the stores?

But the truck-haters are not satisfied.  Any number of candidates are calling for truck-only tolls, pointing to Rhode Island’s recent launch of such as system.  It’s been a huge success, raking in $625,000 in its first month of operation.

But it’s also attracted lawsuits, because it is illegal, just like the Mayor’s idea.  Tolling only big-rigs is a violation of the US Constitution’s “Commerce Clause”.  The truckers and big-box stores say it’s not fair to toll them and not charge drivers of cars and small trucks.  I’m no lawyer, but I think they’re right.

Trucks are not the problem.  Cars are.

But it’s so easy to blame the trucks for delays on our roads, isn’t it?  Blame them, instead of ourselves.  Toll them, not me. I’m not creating the traffic, they are.

Trucks are not allowed on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, so why are those roads so congested?  Look at I-95 in rush hour and count the number of trucks vs. single-occupancy-vehicles.  Again, it’s the volume of the traffic, not the kind of vehicles that are causing the delays.  It’s the geometry of the highway… too many exits and entrances… and too few alternatives (aside from rail).

Truckers don’t want to be on the interstates in bumper-to-bumper traffic any more than you do.  They are not out there, driving on I-95 and I-84, just to annoy you.  Compared to you, driving solo in your automobile, they are high-occupancy vehicles carrying your Amazon orders and making deliveries to the big box stores.  You put those trucks on the road, and now you want to ban them at certain hours?  Then you’ll be moaning about late deliveries.

You don’t want to pay tolls?  Trucks already do, even in Connecticut.  They pay higher state gas taxes (44 cents for diesel vs. 25 cents for gasoline), even if they don’t buy that gas in Connecticut.  And they must pay to register their trucks in CT, even if they are from out of state, thanks to the International Fuel Tax Agreement, or IFTA.

Add a layer of tolls on top of those costs and guess who’s going to pay?  You!
There’s no free lunch, folks.  And the solution to our traffic is not to blame others… but to look in the mirror.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Beware of Politicians' Promises

I used to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and Politicians.  I actually thought the first two brought me gifts and the latter cared about me and my community.   Well, those days are gone.

We are now neck deep in the primary round of campaigning for our state’s top officials and I hope you’ve been paying attention.  The promises and the BS are piling up pretty fast, especially when it comes to the issue of transportation.

A few candidates have been brave enough to endorse the idea of tolls while others just mouth vague platitudes like “we should have free-flowing traffic on I-95…”.   No explanations of how or who’d pay for it, just the pandering promises.  Why not a chicken in every pot, too?

For the past few years I have had a standing offer to meet with anyone running for public office to talk about transportation.  Republican, Democrat, Independent… I don’t care.  If you want to build an informed platform on this issue, I’ll give you the history and perspective and you take it from there.

I’ll explain Metro-North’s complicated relationship with the CDOT.  I’ll give you the facts about the pilfering of money from the Special Transportation Fund by both Republicans and Democrats.  I know all this stuff, having immersed myself in it for over 20 years.  And I know there are no easy answers.

So far this election I’ve met with two gubernatorial candidates and several folks running for State Rep and State Senate.  I won’t reveal the names, but I will tell you I’ve found two things to be true:  1) Regardless of party affiliation, most candidates know nothing about transportation, and 2) their “solutions” to the problem they don’t understand are facile.

One- party rule is a dangerous thing as the Democrats have shown for the past eight years.  Holding a super-majority breeds arrogance and zero interest in the minority party’s views.  If the Republicans flip things to their favor in November I’m sure they’d be just as arrogant. A pox on both their houses.

Here’s what I do not understand:  why are Democrats and Republicans unwilling to work together, especially on issues of common interest, like transportation?  Did you know that there is no caucus in the state legislature of D’s and R’s from Fairfield County? 

With all the issues this transportation-crippled corner of Connecticut shares in common, the State Representatives and State Senators from this area do not meet together to strategize how to fight for our area’s interests.  Instead, they caucus only with the members of their own party and snipe at each other and whoever is Governor.

It’s so much easier to blame than to fix.

I knew that party politics on the national level was bad, but this is ridiculous.  Whether Republican or Democrat, if you represent voters in Fairfield County you should be meeting with your fellow pols and fighting for the region, not scoring political points by Tweeting attacks to your base.

So pardon my cynicism as we get ready for the August 14th primary.  I’m just losing faith in the whole system.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Sunday, August 5, 2018

London's Necropolis Railroad

Imagine a railroad where the customers never spoke, never complained about being late and only traveled one way.  A railroad that offered three classes of service and had only one destination.

Such a railroad was the London Necropolis Railroad:  a train for the dead.

By 1850, London’s population had doubled to one million inhabitants in just 50 years and the city had run out of burial grounds in local church yards.  Public health required that something be done about disposing of the dead, and a cholera outbreak in 1849 hastened the decision.

Two entrepreneurs, Sir Richard Broun and Richard Sprye, proposed opening a giant cemetery 23 miles outside of the city which would have enough room for 5.8 million graves.  The challenge was… how to get the coffins and the mourners to the site.  The solution was a purpose-built railroad offering a package deal.

Family members could buy their deceased a first, second or third class ticket non-stop from the LNR’s London station (near Waterloo) straight to the magnificent Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.  A first class ticket included choice of burial plots, transportation of the deceased and family members (they went round-trip) and the right to erect a marker on the grave.  Second class tickets meant your grave could be re-used and third class passage was for paupers with no markers.

The station’s Waterloo location, close to the River Thames, was chosen to make it easy for funeral homes to deliver their clients to the LNR by boat as well as hearse.  Coffins were received and stored on the trains separate from the mourners, by ticket class and religion.  Each class had its own waiting room at the station, as well.

The train carriages were nothing special, though after continual use for 40 years there were some complaints about their condition.

The train departed London each morning at 11:35 am (11:20 am on Sundays) and would arrive at Brookwood 50 minutes later.  Return trains (for the mourners) departed each afternoon at 2:30 following services.

The railroad negotiated the right to run up to three roundtrips daily if there was demand.  And on the occasion of at least one celebrity’s funeral, the LNR once carried 5000 passengers on three separate trains, one of them 17 carriages long.

But business wasn’t always this brisk… or profitable.  Because fares were set by law and didn’t change for 85 years, the funeral goers were getting a much cheaper ride than commuters along the same route.  In fact, golfers would sometimes disguise themselves as mourners and use the cheap fares to get them to the links adjacent to the cemetery.

By the start of the 20th century the motorized hearse had been invented and by the 1920’s the train seemed obsolete.  Also, given the distance of Brookwood from the city, it became a less desirable place for internment as family members didn’t like to travel that distance just to visit graveside.

The end came during World War II.  During the 1941 Blitz the London terminal took a direct hit and the railroad, by then running just two or three times a week, ceased operations.
The Brookwood Cemetery continues operations and is still the UK’s largest, including a 4.5 acre section dedicated to graves of thousands of American servicemen who died in the world wars.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Travel Trainers

Imagine being afraid to ride the bus, or being unable to read a timetable.  Can you think of what your life would be like without access to a car or mass transit?

There are hundreds of our neighbors who live lives of isolation because they are physically, emotionally or mentally unable to ride the bus or train.  Some have physical handicaps while others are autistic or have learning disabilities.  Shouldn’t they be able to travel like the rest of us?

That’s the question the non-profit Kennedy Center asked when it was founded in 1951 to assist kids with disabilities.  And in 1991 they added a new service to their roster… a Travel Training Program, to teach children and adults how to be independent by using mass transit.

Qualified instructors work one-on-one with clients for days or weeks, teaching them how to get from their homes to doctors’ offices, school or jobs.  They show them how to read timetables and escort them onto the trains and buses for dry runs until they’re ready to “fly solo”.

Bus drivers seem anxious to help those in need of a little help, whether it’s by getting their bus to “kneel” for the elderly and infirmed, lowering a ramp for those in wheelchairs or just reassuring an autistic teen en route to school.

The Kennedy Center’s Travel Trainers work with 200 clients a year while another team of Mobility Ombudsmen do community outreach, speaking at Senior Centers and Veterans Homes, educating folks on how to get around.

There are ParaTransit services available but they require reservations as much as weeks in advance and cost the rider double the transit fare.  They are also subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of $55 per ride.  So getting those riders onto regular trains and buses saves us all money.

And for these disabled residents, money is always a problem, especially if they’re unemployed or living on government assistance.  Which is why the Kennedy Center also does outreach to help the disabled and seniors to qualify for half-price fares.

Mobility Manager John Wardzala goes to food banks and helps people fill out state Reduced Fare ID Card applications.  He even helps them by taking an ID photo and printing it on a small ink-jet printer plugged into his car before handing them a self-addressed stamped envelope to mail in their application.

Bus fares are only $1.75, but if you’re living on a fixed income traveling to and from work five days a week, that can add up.  And if fear of those travel costs as well as apprehension about taking mass transit have kept you from school or a job-search, this program can change your life.

Lisa Rivers, CDOT’s Transit Manager and liaison to the Kennedy Center, says her agency’s job is to “get more people to use the system” by identifying gaps in service and information.  For example, some patients may not know that the American Cancer Society offers free rides to the hospital for those undergoing chemo or radiation treatments.

After travel training, the Center checks back with its graduates to see how things are going.  One success story stands out:  an elderly woman who was able to take the train into the city at Christmas, transfer to a subway and arrive at her son’s apartment who didn’t even know she was coming.  Now that is a gift.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Sunday, July 22, 2018

It's Too Hot To Fly

Is it hot enough for ya?

Even if you don’t believe it’s caused by humans, there is no doubt our planet is heating up.  And as global warming increases, so will our travel problems.

Meteorologists agree that thunderstorms, tornados and hurricanes are all getting stronger and causing greater damage.  Hardly a summer passes without extensive flight delays caused by storm-fronts, let alone hurricanes like Harvey and Maria.

A stronger jet-stream also means slower going when flying west and bumpier flights at many altitudes.  Clearly, our weather patterns are changing.  But increasing temperatures are also affecting the airlines in other ways.

Last summer there were days when it was literally too hot in Phoenix for planes to fly.  It was just a matter of physics:  the 120 degree air was too thin to allow some planes to get enough lift to go airborne.

American Airlines’ CRJ jets’ performance charts say the regional jets cannot fly in temperatures over 118 degrees.  Of course, those planes Canadian manufacturer (Canadair) may not have considered this a possibility during design, let alone an issue.  In cold weather the air is heavier and thicker and planes can easily take off, eh?

Larger planes like Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’ A320 could still get airborne in Phoenix as their maximum operating temperature was 126 degrees.

One Columbia University professor says this problem is not unique to the scorching desert southwest.  Even at New York’s LaGuardia and DC’s Ronald Reagan airports, the shorter runways mean planes must often be “weight restricted” on hot summer days.  Professor Radley Horton says since 1980 there has been a 20-30% increase in planes being forced to bump passengers, fuel or cargo to get airborne.

A few years ago I was on a supposedly non-stop flight from LGA to Kansas City, an easy enough 3-hour flight.  But on that hot summer day the old Midwest Express DC-9 we were on was forced to make a stop in Milwaukee to refuel before continuing to KC, turning the trip into almost 6 hours.

Internationally, torrid cities like Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong are all expected to see flight delays or weight restrictions.  And high altitude destinations like Denver, where the air is already thinner, will also suffer.

The industry trade journal Travel Weekly says Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner will be most likely to face restrictions because it flies farther and needs more fuel.  But Airbus’ double-deck A380 will be less affected as it usually flies only to major airports with long runways.

And, by the way, I should also note that aviation is suffering this problem partly out of its own creation:  airplanes contribute 2% of all the carbon dioxide produced each year.

What’s the answer to this hot issue?

Well, keeping flights on-time may mean avoiding take-offs in the 3 – 6 pm part of the day when the temps are the highest. But tell that to the busy executive who doesn’t want to wait for sundown to get home!

Alternatively, aircraft makers like Boeing and Airbus could design planes with better lift equipped with stronger engines, to overcome the hottest conditions.  But those planes won’t be ready for decades.

Or, of course, we could just try solving the problem of global warming.  But that’s probably too late.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Metro-North's Quiet Car Debacle

Train time is your own time” was the old marketing slogan of Metro-North, encouraging commuters to kick back and enjoy the ride while reading, working or taking a snooze.

But in reality, train time is shared time.  They don’t call it “mass transit” for nothing as passengers much share their space with a hundred other commuters on each railcar.  

Assuming you get a seat, this means you’re squeezed in next to one or two fellow riders.
Usually commuters are respectful of each other and don’t blare their radios or carry on loud conversations, with each other or on cell-phones.  Or so we’d hope.

It was almost 20 years ago that Amtrak first introduced the concept of The Quiet Car, following suggestions of daily commuters riding to DC.  It was such a success that quiet cars were soon added to other Northeast Corridor trains and Acela.

The concept was simple, as conductors reminded passengers on every trip:  maintain a “library like atmosphere”.  That meant no cell phone calls and only quiet, subdued conversation.  You want to yuck it up over a beer, go to the CafĂ© Car.  Got an important phone call… sit in any other coach.

Other commuter railroads picked up Amtrak’s cue… but not Metro-North. While serving on the CT Metro-North Commuter Council I regularly beseeched the railroad to give us a break and dedicate just one car to peace and quiet, convinced it would attract riders.  Finally in 2011, the railroad took the hint and launched such a car, branded as a “Quiet CALMmute”.
Victory for the sonically overloaded?  Not by a long shot.  This is Metro-North and if anyone can screw up a good idea, they can.

First, they offered the worst car location on the train to their CALMmute:  the last car in-bound and the first car out-bound from GCT.  And there were no signs indicating which car was “quiet”.  Worst of all, conductors all but refused to enforce the quiet rules, leading to altercations between passengers.

Conductors have no trouble enforcing other rules:  luggage on the overhead racks, no feet on the seats, no smoking etc.  But asking people to keep down the chatter was apparently too much.  All they would do, at first, was hand “Shhh cards” to offenders.

In 2016 the quiet car program was expanded to two cars per train, peak and off-peak.  But, still no signage (until just recently) and no enforcement.

Now, a major change.  The railroad announced that effective immediately there would be only one quiet car per off-peak train.  And the PR team at MNRR spun the story so well that some local media made it sound like the program was being expanded, not cut in half.  Brilliant.

There was no explanation for the cut in quiet cars though one official told me “we have had no reports of quiet car demand exceeding availability in the off-peak”.  In other words, people who ride off-peak just prefer to yap.

That’s an amazing PR “spin” on what is really an admission of failure.  Metro-North never wanted quiet cars and clearly didn’t want to enforce the rules.  The people have literally “spoken” and the Quiet CALMmute won’t be as accessible anymore.

This is what happens when you have a monopoly, answerable to nobody, especially its customers.  I’d raise my voice in protest but… I’m in the quiet car.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Automobile - Construction Complex

How did Americans develop their love affair with driving?

Visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington and the transportation exhibit “America on the Move” will sell you on the commonly held theory that when Henry Ford made cars affordable, Americans loved them and demanded more and more highways.

Of course, that exhibit is sponsored by General Motors, which donated millions to put its name on the collection.

But University of Virginia history Professor Peter Norton, author of “Fighting Traffic:  The Dawn of the Motor Age in American cities” says that’s a myth.  Just as outgoing President Eisenhower warned us of the military industrial complex, Norton says an automotive – construction complex took over our country, paving from coast to coast. 

Sure, Americans like their cars.  But it was a conspiracy of economic interests that turned us into a car culture.  Where cities once enjoyed a network of cheap, fast streetcars, GM, Firestone and the oil companies bought and wiped them out, replacing them with buses and cars.

“This country destroyed and rebuilt its cities in the 20th century to serve automobiles,” says Norton.  And those same interest groups are alive and well today in Connecticut.

Groups like “Move CT Forward” aren’t pro-transportation as much as they are pro jobs… their jobs, in construction.  And they’ve spent a lot of money lobbying in Hartford to keep their members, the unions and contractors, busy.   While I’m happy they’re promoting transportation, their motives are hardly altruistic.

This is nothing new, says Norton.  The original interstate highways built in the 1950’s used Portland Cement because that company lobbied so hard for its product over cheaper asphalt.  And now that rusting rebar and crumbling cement is costing us a fortune.

Another myth from that era was that President Eisenhower built the interstates to move troops quickly for national defense.  That may have been the pitch to Congress, but the real reason for the highways was to evacuate civilians from the big cities in the event of nuclear war.  Lucky we never had to test that idea.

Last August when hurricane Harvey hit Houston… the most urbanized highway city in the country… authorities didn’t even try to evacuate people because they knew more would die on congested roads than in the storm.

Who pays for all this road building?  You do, in the form of income taxes and, yes, gasoline taxes.  But Norton says gas taxes are hardly a fair way to pay for all this.

Why does the motorist driving on a dirt road pay the same gas tax as one driving I-95?  The costs they place on road maintenance, the environment and our stress levels are grossly different, so why isn’t the cost?

“It would be like having Best Buy selling everything by the pound.  People would flock to the electronics (our crowded interstates) instead of the towels,” he notes (though I’m not sure Best Buy even sells towels, but I take his point).

He reminds us that before the interstates, the nation’s first “super highways” like the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the New Jersey Turnpike were built not as freeways but toll roads, and they still are today.

Driving may seem to be free, but it isn’t.  And until we ask drivers to pay for its real cost there is no incentive to do anything but drive (and pave) more.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.