Monday, November 20, 2017

Updates on Past "Getting There" Columns

This week, a few updates on some recent “Getting There” columns:

HYPERLOOP:         In July I wrote about tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s idea to build a 700+ mph tube system to whisk passengers from Washington DC to NYC in 29 minutes.  Using a combination of a near-vacuum and linear induction motors, I noted that Musk has yet to build a working full-scale prototype, and called him “the PT Barnum of technology” offering “more hype than hope”.

At the time, Musk had just gone public after a meeting at the White House saying he’d been given “approval” to start boring giant tunnels for his project.  I scoffed at the notion, but have been proven wrong.

Sure enough, a faithful reader of this column told me that several weeks ago Maryland’s Governor has given Musk permission to start digging 10 miles of tunnels under the Baltimore – Washington Parkway to eventually link the two cities.  Boring will cost up to $1 billion a mile.  So, though I remain skeptical of Hyperloop’s future, I stand corrected.

MYTH OF THE THIRD RAIL:                 In October I wrote about our state’s complex electric system to power Metro-North… how in Connecticut those trains rely on overhead catenary to get power, but in Westchester County and into Grand Central, the trains convert to third rail for their power.

Given the perennial problems with the overhead wires, both old and new, I explained why converting to a third rail system in Connecticut didn’t make sense:  the trains would accelerate slower, we would still need catenary for Amtrak, etc.

What I did not know was that third rail power had been outlawed by the Connecticut State Supreme Court back in 1906 after a center-track third rail power system installed near Hartford by the New Haven RR resulted in several electrocutions.

Clearly, the current third-rail power system in use today is much safer than the one experimented with a century ago, but in this “land of steady habits” overturning that ban might be a challenge.

HIGH SPEED RAIL:          This summer the FRA and Amtrak released plans for a new high-speed rail (HSR) corridor through our state.  The very fuzzy drawings we had at the time showed new tracks running somewhere near I-95, not the current Metro-North tracks.

Now we have more detailed maps and, as feared, the mostly-elevated HSR system will fly over the interstate, smoothing out the curves to allow 200+ mph speeds.  But don’t get too enthused (or exasperated, depending on where you live): nobody likes the plan… our Congressional delegation, the CDOT and even local officials, all of whom must approve and fund the idea. And, oh yeah, we don’t have the money.

THE BILLION DOLLAR BRIDGE:          Preliminary work to replace the 121 year-old Walk Bridge in South Norwalk continues apace, even as local elections have turned the project into a political hot-potato.  Some oppose the cost and disruption of replacing the swing bridge with a two-section lift bridge while others, more nostalgic, want the new bridge to resemble the old.  Those proposing a fixed bridge, effectively closing the Norwalk river to commercial boat traffic, are keeping their hopes alive even though CDOT has rejected that idea.

Rumors that construction of the new bridge might require demolition of the Norwalk Aquarium’s Imax theater seem to have been confirmed.  But the real heavy construction won’t begin until 2019, so there’s plenty of time to catch a movie.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, November 13, 2017

Repaving Our Roads

Tired of driving on potholed roads?  Who isn’t?  We may not (yet) have tolls, but the terrible condition of our highways takes its toll on our vehicles with bent rims, alignments and other repairs.

There are more than 10,000 lane-miles of state highways in Connecticut, of which only 300 are repaved each year.  But that work involves more than just slapping a new layer of asphalt on those roads.

Repaving costs anywhere from $305,000 per mile and is funded with 20 year bonds.

PLANNING:            Years of planning go into repaving projects, making sure that all necessary utility work, drainage projects and water mains are finished before the CDOT comes in. Catch basins must be realigned, curbs replaced and sometimes even the guard rails raised before any work can be done.   Nothing pains the state more than to see a newly repaved road get dug up, creating cracks that can lead to potholes.

CDOT issues contracts for all repaving projects rather than using their own crews and those contractors must be sensitive to abutting neighbors, including businesses, which don’t want to be interfered with during construction.

As a result, most work is done at night with contractual obligations to return the road to use by the morning rush hour.  CDOT inspectors monitor every step of the project.

MILLING:     The repaving work begins by “milling” the old asphalt off the roadway, removing anywhere from the top inch to as much as six inches.  Some highways have up to 15 inches of old asphalt! 

The old asphalt is recycled and about 10% of it is re-used after necessary refining. 
Ideally, milling is quickly followed by the repaving, often in a day or so.  But as with the recent Route 1 repaving in project in Darien and Stamford, the contractor’s other obligations can leave the highway milled but unpaved for days or weeks.

REPAVING:            Laying down the new layer of asphalt can progress quickly if the road isn’t heavily traveled at night.  The fresh layer of new (and recycle asphalt) is usually two to three inches thick.

STRIPING:              CDOT always works with the local communities on how to designate the new traffic lanes with striping, coordinating with each town or city’s Local Traffic Authority.

Some towns want narrower lanes and wider shoulders, either for bicyclists or pedestrians.  But because these are state highways, CDOT always has the final say. 

A subsidiary of CDOT, the Office of the State Traffic Administration sets the speeds limits, sometimes higher than the local authorities might like.  CDOT says it’s looking for consistency in state roads going through towns, so a two-lane highway with a speed of 40 mph doesn’t go to a one-lane highway at 25 mph and back to two lanes as it crosses the town line.

The latest technology used in striping is a recessed epoxy compound, where the new pavement is carved out to about the depth of a penny before painting. This increases the striping’s lifespan after tough winters of plowing and sanding.
After the work is done, inspected and approved, the new paving can last anywhere from eight to 15 years, depending on traffic.  So, happy motoring!

SIDEBAR:  Annual repaving miles & cost

2017: 259 miles; $69 million
2016: 302 miles; $72.9 million
2015: 330 miles, $74.6 million
2014: 305 miles, $68.9 million
2013: 242 miles, $57 million
2012: 223 miles, $57 million
2011: 271 miles, $50 million
2010: 241 miles, $50 million
2009: 216 miles, $49 million
2008: 265 miles, $54 million
2007: 165 miles, $48 million
2006: 191 miles, $42 million
2005: 253 miles, $49 million


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, November 6, 2017

"CT's Budget Crisis and Transportation"

“Why don’t they build a monorail down the middle of I-95?”

So began the latest in a series of well-intentioned emails I regularly receive from readers, anxious to offer what seem like smart solutions to our transportation crisis in Connecticut.  Why no monorail?  Because we don’t have the money.

So let me ask — and answer — a few questions:

Why do we issue 20-year bonds to pay for highway repaving that, at best, will last 15 years?

Why does 40 percent of the state’s Department of Transportation’s annual budget pay for debt service on old bonds instead of buying new trains?  Because we don’t have the money.

In China, they spend 10 percent of their GDP on infrastructure. In the U.S., it’s more like 2 percent. Why the under-investment?  Because we are paying so much to play catchup on the lack of savings in previous decades for things like pensions for state worker and teachers.

In other words, we don’t have money for new trains — let alone a monorail — because we’re stuck paying the bills passed down to us that our parents didn’t pay. But nobody in Hartford has the guts to tell you that truth.

But objective experts who follow the budget process for a living have some ominous warnings:
  • The state has authorized $3 billion in transportation bonds we can’t even issue because we don’t have the money to pay for them.
  • We are in so much debt that some towns have been forced to issue bonds (IOUs) to pay for snow removal.
  • The state has issued bonds to make payments on other bonds — like taking out a second mortgage to pay your first.
  • Connecticut’s debt now adds up to $14,800 for every man, woman and child in the state. That compares to a national average of $4,300 in other states.
  • We have a $6 billion “balloon payment” upcoming on the underfunded teachers’ pension, and we don’t have the money. Yet, pandering politicians now give teacher retirees a 25 percent state income tax exemption on their pensions — soon to rise to 50 percent. Why? The average teacher pension in Connecticut is $59,700.
  • Pensions and medical care for teachers and state employees plus debt service will soon be 60 percent of the state’s budget.
  • Experts say it will soon be legally and mathematically impossible NOT to raise taxes in Connecticut. The latest deal with state workers promises no layoffs for four years and declaring bankruptcy is not legally possible.

So you wonder why our roads are potholed, our rails so rickety and our airports so poorly ranked? It’s because we don’t have the money.

The economic piggy bank known as Fairfield County still provides 40 percent of all the income taxes in this state, but it’s no longer growing by double-digits like previous years. A handful of billionaires in Greenwich and New Canaan could throw us into chaos if they all decided to pull up stakes and move elsewhere. And if train service on Metro-North gets much worse, they’ll have even more incentive to leave.

Yet, our elected officials in Hartford continue to lie to us about what’s coming, more concerned with their re-election by not being seen as raising taxes than telling us that Armageddon is just around the corner.

So expect our transportation infrastructure to get much worse before it gets any better. And no, we will not be building a monorail.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

To Vermont By Train

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there.
From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas each way.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive it’s not much better and about $160. But there’s another alternative: Amtrak.
There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:
THE VERMONTER:          Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT (right next to Burlington), coming through Stamford at about noontime each day.  It also stops in Bridgeport and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction (Burlington), to name but a few.
It’s not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly beautiful and relaxing.  A frustrating reverse move at Palmer MA has been eliminated with new tracks, shaving an hour off the run.
The Amfleet seats in coach are comfy. There’s also business class seating (for a premium).  The AmFood is tasty.  The crew is great… and there’s even free WiFi.  Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.  And the views of fall foliage can’t be beat.
Remember:  Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.
THE ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS:            If you’re heading to Rutland VT on the western side of the state, this is your train. Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just before 9 pm with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton VT.  For Connecticut residents, the best strategy is to catch this train at Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking available.  The hope is that the Ethan Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.  And maybe from there to Montreal.
Same kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free WiFi.
THE ADIRONDACK:         This daily train from NY’s Penn Station to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it gets you close… if you don’t mind a ferry boat ride.  Leaving NYC at 8:15 am, you detrain at Port Kent NY on the western shore of Lake Champlain about 2:40 pm, walk about 100 yards down to the dock and catch the ferry to downtown Burlington.
Same kind of seating, WiFi etc, but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Poutine anyone?  And in the fall they even run a special dome car several days a week for the gorgeous scenery north of Albany.

Thanks to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are very affordable:  on The Vermonter, Stamford to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $50 one-way and kids are half-price.  

So if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that getting there can be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak… the “green” way to travel.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Friday, October 27, 2017

"The Third Rail Myth"

Hardly a season goes by without service on Metro-North being disrupted by a “wires down” accident.  That’s when the overhead catenary that powers our trains breaks or is ripped from its poles, cutting electricity and service and ruining the commute for thousands.
But why do we rely on such fragile wires, some of them installed 100 years ago?  Isn’t there a better way of powering our trains?  Probably not.
Consider this:  ours is the only commuter railroad in the US that relies on three modes of power:  AC, DC and diesel.
Trains leaving Grand Central first operate on 750 DC current picked up from the third-rail, just like NYC’s subways.  Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the trains raise their pantographs (those triangular shaped contraptions atop the cars) and convert to 12,500 volt AC current picked up from the catenary, hence the phrase “operating under the wire”.
On the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines there is no electricity, so those trains must be powered by diesel.  But even those diesels must operate on third-rail power in the Park Avenue tunnels for environmental and safety reasons.
That’s a lot of technology for one railroad to administer, and a lot of electronics.  That is why the M8 cars that operate on AC and DC require separate power processing, adding to their cost.  The third-rail only M7 cars that run on the Hudson and Harlem lines cost about $2 million each.  But our newer and more complicated M8’s cost about $2.75 million apiece.
So a lot of people ask me… “Why not just use one power source by converting the entire line to third rail?”  As with so many other seemingly simple solutions there are several good reasons why it wouldn’t work.
Mind you, the idea was studied by CDOT in the 1980s and rejected.  And here’s why:
1)     There’s not enough room to add a third rail along most of the four-track system.  You’d have to move the tracks, widen the right-of-way and expand a lot of the bridges and tunnels it uses.  Imagine the cost.
2)    Even if we did convert to third-rail, we’d still have to maintain the overhead catenary system for Amtrak whose locomotives get their power under the wire.
3)    A third-rail power system needs more real estate:  power substations every few miles, adding to construction and cost.
4)    Third-rail DC power is nowhere near as efficient as overhead wire AC power.  That means slower acceleration in third-rail territory and speed limits of about 75 mph vs 90 mph under the wire.  Remember… the fastest trains in the world (like the TGV and Shinkansen) operate under the wire, though theirs is not as aged and brittle as ours.
5)    Third-rail is dangerous to track workers and trespassers.  Overhead wires, much less so.
6)    Third-rail can ice up and get buried in blizzards, causing short-circuits.  We’ve had some amazing winter weather in Connecticut, but nothing that piled snow high enough to touch the overhead wires.
I’ll admit that weather does cause problems for the catenary.  In extreme heat it can expand and sag and in bitter cold it can become brittle and snap.  Both conditions require our trains to operate (even) more slowly, but they still get you where you’re going.
So what’s the solution to our “wires down” problems?  Accelerated replacement of old wire, better maintenance of pantographs and a little common sense… and not conversion to third-rail.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, October 14, 2017

"The Long Haul Trucker"

Why do most motorists hate truck drivers?  Is it because their big rigs are so intimidating?  Or do we think they’re all red-neck cowboys, living the life on the range and we’re secretly jealous?

I respect truckers and think, for the most part, they are much better drivers than the rest of us.  They have stiffer licensing requirements, better safety monitoring and much more experience behind the wheel.  And unlike most of us driving solo in our cars, they are driving truly “high occupancy (cargo) vehicles”… 22 tons when fully loaded.

For an inside look at the unglamorous life of a trucker, I can highly recommend the new book “Long Haul” by Greenwich native Finn Murphy who’s been driving since he was 18 for the Joyce Moving Company.

Murphy is what truckers call a “bedbugger” because he specializes in high-end corporate relocations.  He’s at the top of the trucker food chain, both in income and prestige, far ahead of car haulers (parking lot attendants), animal haulers (chicken chokers) and even hazmat haulers (suicide jockeys).

While Murphy says a lot of long haul truckers do the job because they can’t find any other work, his career choice was an educated decision as his left Colby College before graduation, realizing he could easily make $100,000 packing, moving and unpacking executives’ possessions without a BA.

Forty million Americans move each year and from this author’s perspective they all have too much stuff.  They covet their capitalist consumption of furniture and junk (what movers call chowder).  And it ain’t cheap to move it, averaging about $20,000 for a long distance relocation.   But as he sees it, he’s more in the “lifestyle transition” business than simply hauling and is sensitive to clients’ emotional state.

Murphy’s African American boss nicknamed him “The Great White Mover” as, at age 59, he’s one of the last few white drivers.  Most of the industry is now handled by people of color, especially the local crews that do the packing and unpacking.  When self-driving trucks hit the road, thousands of minority drivers are going to be out of luck.  Robots already do most of the loading and unloading of trucked merchandise bound for big-box stores.

As an independent operator, Murphy incurs all of the expenses.  His tractor (the detachable engine part of the truck) costs $125,000.  That’s not counting the $3500 he pays to register it or $10,000 to insure it.  A new tire (his rig has 18) costs $400 at a truck stop and maybe double that if he’s stranded on some interstate.

The average rig isn’t just a tractor hauling an empty trailer.  Even before loading, that trailer has hundreds of pads (each of which must be neatly folded), plywood planks, dollies, tools, ramps and hundreds of rubber straps for tying things down.  Loading his truck is like solving a giant Tretris 3D puzzle.

Murphy’s driving hours are regulated and carefully logged, then checked at every inspection station.  But he thinks nothing of driving 700 miles per day, usually parking at a truck stop and sleeping in his on-board bunk equipped with a high-end stereo and 600 count Egyptian cotton sheets.

On the road he listens to audio books and NPR, which is probably how he learned to write so well (the book is not ghost written).  Finn Murphy isn’t the brawniest of movers, but he’s easily among the smartest and most articulate.  Even if you have no aspirations of life on the open road, you’ll enjoy this articulate author’s prose.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, September 30, 2017

"Death on the Tracks"

Nationally, more than 400 people are killed by trains each year, most at grade-crossings where highways go over railroad tracks.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration “ the average victim is most often a 38-year-old Caucasian male under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, with a median household income of $36,000. More than 25 percent did not graduate from high school, and 18 percent were determined to be suicides. “

In Connecticut last year the FRA says there were six deaths on the tracks, most of them involving Amtrak trains, but a few by Metro-North.  The question is: were they preventable?

When I started researching this story nobody wanted to talk to me.  The railroads told me that writing about suicides just provoked others to take their lives, even referring me to a psychologist who has studied this issue, Dr. Scott Gabree at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.  He also tried to dissuade me from writing about this.  The less people wanted to talk, the more interested I became.

But my focus here is not on those trying to take their own lives, but those who die by accident or out of ignorance.

Last month there were two such deaths in as many days, one in Port Chester and the other near Fairfield.  The results of the investigations into the deaths have not been released, but the victims are described as “trespassers”.  They were on foot, near the tracks, not in a car.

There are no grade crossings on Metro-North’s main line between Grand Central and New Haven, though the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines have 53 such crossings, most equipped with gates and lights.  In all, Connecticut has more than 600 grade crossings, most of them rarely used by trains.

But on Metro-North’s Harlem branch, a deadly collision in February 2015 took the life of a distracted driver stopped on the tracks and five others on the train that hit her car, killed by the resulting fire.  The NTSB blamed that auto driver, not the railroad, for the deaths.

After the Valhalla NY crash, deadliest in Metro-North’s history, the railroad started its own education effort:  TRACKS, or Together Railroads and Communities Keeping Safe.  They’re also working on preventing suicides with a phone hotline.

Working with the nation’s railroads, the Washington DC-based “Operation Lifesaver” tries to educate everyone about the dangers of getting in the way of trains, in your car or on foot.  With slogans like “Train time is anytime” and “Stand clear, Stand here” their PSA’s warn people that trains can be deadly.

In each state, local coordinators for “Operation Lifesaver” use grants for public education, including posters, PSA’s, brochures and such, in English and Spanish.  But the Connecticut DOT has not applied for, nor received, any “Operation Lifesaver” money in the past two years.

The CDOT tells me they are spending $2 million a year to improve grade crossing safety and that the lapse in Operation Lifesaver grant requests was due to a change in personnel.  Still, the state left a lot of needed money on the table.

Without education, the soon-to-open New Haven to Hartford commuter line will mean more trains and more danger at that line’s 25 grade crossings.  The message is simple:  stay off the tracks!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media