Monday, June 12, 2017

"CT Legislature Fiddles While Rome Burns"

Days before a new state budget is due, our legislature seems as dysfunctional as ever.  Rome is burning and our “Neros” are just fiddling around.

To date only seven bills have passed and been signed into law compared to an average 275 in recent years.  Lawmakers debate such crucial issues as bear hunting, playground surfacing and dairy cows, while our roads and rail repairs remain unfunded.

True, it looks like long-debated reinstatement of tolls may yet happen this session, but another potential funding mechanism has been killed before it was even studied, let alone debated.  I speak of the “mileage tax” or VMT (vehicle miles tax).

What could be fairer to all Connecticut motorists than to ask them to pay for the miles they drive?  Unlike tolls, this user-fee could not be avoided.  The more you drive, the more you’d pay.  But take mass transit and you’d drive less and pay less.

We already pay a VMT of sorts every time we fill up at the pump.  But the gasoline tax hits high mpg vehicles (think Prius and Tesla) less than low mpg cars and trucks.  Is that fair?

The VMT idea is already being tested in progressive states like Oregon and has been endorsed by the US Government Accountability Office. It was also recommended by the Governor’s Transportation Finance Panel.  But the VMT idea is DOA in Connecticut.

The State Senate recently voted unanimously to prohibit even the study of a VMT.  Our CDOT was even prohibited from attending a conference on that idea without permission of lawmakers.

The regressive Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) proudly proclaimed that the bill would guarantee “that the study that we know is never going to happen, never happens once and for all.”

The regressive Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) proudly proclaimed that the bill would guarantee “that the study that we know is never going to happen, never happens once and for all.”

Before even understanding how a VMT might work, how much money it could raise and how easy it would be to implement, our prejudiced State Senators have killed the concept in a unanimous gesture of stupidity.

Of course a VMT was unpopular because it had never been explained, let alone studied.  So shame as well on our Governor and CDOT Commissioner for floating such a concept without explanation.

Critics said it would be “big brother” tracking where we drive, though our cell phones and E-ZPass devices do that now without their complaints.  We even submit to odometer checks every time we get an emissions inspection. Privacy is a myth.

Nobody likes a tax they have to pay. Tax the other guy… the trucker, the out-of-state driver, the real estate transferror… but don’t tax me!  Make them pay for my roads.

Hypocrisy, prejudice, ignorance and denial are feeding inaction in Hartford.  We won’t get tolls without the long-promised “lock box” for transportation funds and we won’t get even that without a referendum on a constitutional amendment before 2018.

Meanwhile our roads deteriorate.  According to the national transportation research group TRIP, 57% of Connecticut roads are in “poor condition” which costs state motorists $2.2 billion annually in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs.

Do our lawmakers think we are chumps, willing to pay for front-end alignments and bent wheel rims while they are unwilling to even study a VMT?

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Ride Along with a State Trooper - Part 2"

Last week I started telling you about a recent ride-along with CT State Trooper Shawn Mansfield as he patrolled I-95.  It was a real eye-opener to see the road from his perspective as we answered accident calls and pulled over at least one motorist for talking on his cell-phone.

Trooper Mansfield works five days on and three days off.  He gets to bid for his favorite shift, in his case starting at 5:30 am.  He also gets to drive “his” car home each night as he’s technically always on duty.

Mansfield’s car is an unmarked, super-charged beast that easily hit 80 mph as we zoomed to assignments, its hidden lights flashing and siren wailing.  He told me his favorite patrol is to drive in the middle lane just waiting for unsuspecting speeders to pass him on the left.  The day I rode, he sounded disappointed.  “I can’t believe nobody was trying to blow my doors off,” he chuckled.

Our patrol included visits to the DMV in Norwalk and a stop where we walked through an I-95 Service Area.  “I like to be visible,” he said as travelers and shop keepers nodded his way.

But when we were back on the road, the post-rush hour traffic was moving at the usual 70 mph.  “Aren’t we and most of these vehicles violating the speed limit,” I asked?  I wanted to know what the real speed limit is on our interstates and how Troopers choose whom to ticket.

“I can’t comment on that,” he said, noticing my pen poised to quote him.  But he did offer what seemed a logical and fair answer:  “I’m looking to catch the people whose driving might cause an accident.”

In other words, if you’re going with the flow a bit over the speed limit but using your turn-signals and not hogging the left hand lane, you’re probably OK.  But when you start weaving between lanes or driving much faster than the rest of the vehicles, Mansfield will get you.  At least that’s what I think he was saying.

“We can’t use radar on 95.  There are just too many cars.  But I do have a laser speed-gun which is very accurate,” he said.

But the best way Trooper Mansfield catches motorists is to compare his car’s speedometer (calibrated monthly) as he catches up to an offender.  That’s how your speed is most often clocked.

Going too slow or not staying in-lane is also suspicious, often leading to DUI (driving under the influence) arrests.  The Trooper said he’s seeing more and more DUI’s tied to drug use, not just alcohol.

Once stopped, your car can be searched if the Trooper has probable cause… an aroma of marijuana, for example.   If you refuse a search, they can always call out the canine unit whose olfactory skills are finely tuned.  Last January Mansfield says a highway stop lead to the seizure of 10,000 fentanyl tablets, an opiod 50 times more powerful than morphine.

Ending my “ride along” I was duly impressed with Trooper Mansfield, an earnest young man who takes his job of protecting the public very seriously.  Driving on I-95, I even feel a bit safer knowing he and his colleagues are out there.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ride Along with a State Trooper - Part One

Shawn Mansfield drives I-95 for a living, occasionally at 120 miles an hour.  Five days a week you’ll find him in his super-charged muscle car, sipping a coffee and listening to his FM radio, driving up and down the highway starting at 5:30 am.  You see, Shawn is a Connecticut State Trooper.

“I love my job,” he tells me during a recent ride-along in his unmarked car as I was squeezed next to his on-board computer and wearing an under-sized bullet-proof vest.

Shawn’s been a Trooper for almost three years following a stint as a corrections officer and six years in the US Navy, including a deployment to Afghanistan.  “Six years in the Navy and I was never on a ship,” he says as we race down the interstate enroute to an accident.

It’s 8:30 am and the southbound highway is bumper-to-bumper, yet he weaves his way through the cars, choosing not to drive on the breakdown lane.  “There’s too much debris there,” he says, adding that he loves to issue tickets to impatient motorists who think the “emergency rescue lane” is their express lane through the delays.

He’s also quick to ticket trucks driving in the left lane.  But his favorite targets are “distracted drivers”, especially people on their cell-phones.  Sure enough, we stealthily pass a Colorado van with the guy oblivious to our unmarked police vehicle.

Shawn pulls him over and the driver immediately ‘fesses up.  “Honesty is always the best policy,” says Shawn, issuing the out-of-stater a $150 ticket for his first offense.  Troopers’ cars even have an on-board printer so they can hand the driver the citation and a pre-addressed envelope.

In the course of four hours we make four stops, most of them accidents… a few rear-enders in congested I-95 traffic, another on Super 7.  In addition to tickets for “following too close”, several stops found unregistered vehicles or unlicensed drivers.  “She won’t be going anywhere today,” he says as we watch a tow-truck remove her from the highway.

Even illegal aliens can get a Connecticut driver’s license, and should.  But illegals have nothing to fear from their interactions with State Troopers… or nothing more than any other motorist.  “We don’t toss anybody to ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement)” he notes.

At every stop Shawn uses his onboard laptop to “run” the license plates of the vehicles involved as well as their drivers’ licenses.  He writes up his accident reports on the scene with his dispatchers at Troop G in Bridgeport able to follow every key-stroke.  They also know his location, minute-by-minute, thanks to the GPS transponder mounted on his roof… the only telltale sign that his super-charged speedster is part of the State Police.

In each case, the motorists involved in the accidents are patient and friendly, some of them even shaking hands after receiving their citations.  “You can be a nice guy and still do your job,” Shawn said with a smile.

But sometimes, he says, he has to break up fights.  Or deal with people who don’t speak English.  “My Spanish isn’t great”, he says, “but one time I used Google Translate to talk with a Korean gentleman.”

Next week, our discussion with Shawn about speeding on our interstates.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Stamford RR Station Garage - Take Two

The CDOT is back again with another proposal to demolish the old parking garage at Stamford’s train station and replace it with a new facility.  After the embarrassment of the first TOD (transit oriented development) effort, which languished for over three years before being killed, let’s hope they learned their lessons from past mistakes.

LISTEN TO COMMUTERS:         Commuters want a new garage where the existing one stands, right across the street from the train station, not a quarter mile away.  But CDOT insists the land is “too valuable” and should be developed for public gain.

Last time there was zero public input on CDOT’s proposals.  This time I hope there are many public information sessions and that CDOT will actually listen to its customers, daily commuters who need access to their trains with close-in parking.  This land is owned by taxpayers and they should have a voice in its development.

INVOLVE THE CITY:         Last time CDOT thumbed its nose at the city of Stamford telling developers that this was state-owned land not subject to city rules.  The city responded by rezoning the area around the train station, looking out for its interests.  This time I hope CDOT works with the City for everyone’s benefit.

LIFT THE VEIL OF SECRECY:   In its previous TOD effort the developers’ bids and detailed plans were secret.  The public never saw the specifics nor were they given a chance to comment.  That is just wrong and cannot be repeated.

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS:           So far all we know is that CDOT proposes a 950-1000 car garage at the corner of South State Street and Washington Blvd.  There are no plans so far on its design, traffic flow or how the old garage across from the station will be demolished while still keeping access to the station, the busiest on the line (after Grand Central). 

Both the construction and demolition will wreak havoc on traffic for months, probably years.  There must be a plan to accomplish both with minimal impact on the thousands of daily Metro-North and Amtrak passengers.  But so far, all that CDOT says is “we don’t know” how the work will be done.

AVOID CORRUPTION:      Was it by chance that the previous developer (John McClutchy) just happened to donate $30,000 to the CT Democrats days before being chosen for the TOD project?  Perhaps so, but the later indictment of some of his business partners on corruptions charges did not make for “good optics”, as they say.

While CDOT still doesn’t know what will be built on the site of the old garage, whatever is designed and whoever is chosen must be above reproach and be seen as selected on merit, not money.

The saga of the Stamford garage has gone on since 1983 when, during its initial construction, cracks were found in beams.  And it’s been since 2006 that CDOT has been hemming and hawing about its demolition and replacement.  All during that time the agency has been secretive and arrogant in its deliberations. 

Let’s hope that this time planning for the future of the garage is an inclusive, transparent process.  Commuters, taxpayers and residents deserve no less.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Is It Safe To Fly ?

I hate to fly.  It’s mostly an irrational fear of turbulence and crashing… little stuff like that.  But in recent years, the whole experience of air travel has turned from uncomfortable to unbearable.

Getting to the airport is expensive and slow.  LaGuardia Airport is just a complete mess what with reconstruction.  And arriving there 2+ hours before departure seems like such a waste of time, until you encounter the long check-in lines and TSA inspections.

No, what really bugs me about air travel is getting crammed onto a plane with little room to move and then enduring my fellow passengers’ behavior like caged animals.  Those conditions really bring out the best in us, don’t they?

Enough has been written about recent air rage incidents and airlines dragging passengers off of over-booked flights.  But the issue goes beyond discomfort to a question of real safety.

Connecticut’s own US Senator Richard Blumenthal has co-sponsored the SEAT Act, or “Seat Egress in Air Travel” Act.  The bill would force the FAA to provide minimum standards for seat width and pitch (the distance between rows).  If passed it would stop airlines from cramming more and more seats on already crowded planes.

The proposal has less of a chance of passage than I have of getting a free upgrade to First Class, but at least somebody is finally talking about “the 300 pound gorilla” sitting next to me in coach:  there are just too many people being crammed onto airplanes. 

The FAA requires aircraft manufacturers to prove they can evacuate a full flight in 90 seconds with half of the exits blocked.  Of course, these certification tests are done with company staff who know what’s going to happen (a escape drill) and what’s on the line (their jobs).

But that’s not how emergencies happen in real life, so I don’t trust those tests.  Evacuating a full A-380 with 873 passengers of all ages, some of them drunk or disabled or grabbing their laptops, is not the game I want to play.

The global airline industry is expected to make a profit of $30 billion this year on record passenger loads.  And some of the most popular airlines are the ones with the lowest fares because they cram the most possible fare-payers onto every flight.

To me this sounds like a disaster in the making.  But given the FAA’s shoddy record on aviation safety, this is not surprising.  They are more “cheerleader” for the industry they regulate than watch-dog.

As always, it will probably take an otherwise survivable crash that could not be evacuated in time to save lives to bring about a change.  We are a nation that seems to lurch from crisis to crisis, though simple preventatives are right in front of us.

Meantime, good luck this summer traveling in coach.  Better read that seat-back safety card and watch the evacuation demonstration as you curl into your seat for that 6 hour flight.

As for me, I’ll be traveling on Amtrak and stretching my legs.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Free Ride for Seniors ?

You’ve gotta keep an eye on our Hartford lawmakers because every now and then they come up with a wacky proposal that makes no sense, except perhaps for their re-election plans.  Case in point, the suggestion a few years ago by then State Senate President Don Williams that senior citizens be given free transit rides statewide.  He said that they had “earned” it.

(Full disclosure here:  I am a tad over 65 and am all-in for my senior benefits, though I’m not sure how I might have “earned” them simply by my age.)

The Senator’s theory was that by offering free rides, seniors would flock to the state’s buses and trains and form an important advocacy group for public transit.  Really?

The reason that seniors don’t ride our buses is not the fares, which already kept low.  With a senior discount a bus ride in Stamford and Bridgeport just 85 cents.  There is no cheaper form of transportation except for calling your son-in-law for a ride to the mall.

No, I don’t think it’s the fares that are keeping seniors off our buses:  it’s the service.  Our bus service doesn’t go where they need to go and doesn’t offer the frequency of service that makes it convenient.  Worst of all, I’m guessing that many seniors don’t feel safe on buses.  Reducing the fare to zero will change none of that.

What about the people that do take the bus… the working poor, immigrants without cars or drivers’ licenses and even students?  One could argue that they deserve a price break.  Does a Senior in Greenwich deserve a free ride to Stamford while a low-income Mom in Danbury or Bridgeport must pay full fare to get to her minimum wage job?

As it stands, bus fares cover only one third of the cost of each ride.  That means they enjoy a 66% subsidy from taxpayers (compared to a 24% subsidy on Metro-North).   Certainly the marginal cost of adding additional riders on a less than full bus is pennies, but giving seniors a freebie probably means that other passengers, or taxpayers, will pick up the difference.

And while we may have empty seats on some city buses, the Senator’s proposal would also have included Metro-North and Shore Line East, where we know we have crowding already.
Commuters from, say, Bridgeport to Grand Central, pay a one-way fare of $19.50 at rush hour or $14.75 off-peak.  Senior fares (only good outside of rush-hour) are $9.75, half of the usual one-way fare.  That’s quite a bargain.

Now imagine if the Senator’s bill had passed and a senior, riding free, was vying for a seat on a over-crowded train filled with paying passengers.  That could make for an interesting conversation.

Clearly, Senator William’s plan was just not thought through, which is why it was killed in committee.  Or more likely, coming from the bucolic burgh of Brooklyn CT, he’d rarely ridden Metro-North at rush hour… something I’d suggest all state lawmakers should do… and didn’t know the implications of his bill.

I’m all for doing what we can to encourage everyone to use mass transit, seniors included.  But the answers are not in offering a free ride, but in providing the kind of service they, and all of us, are willing to pay for.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Who Sets Our Speed Limits?

Crawling along I-95 the other day in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic, I snickered when I noticed the “Speed Limit 55” sign alongside the highway.  We wish!
Of course, when the highway is not jammed, speeds are more like 70 mph, with the legal limit, unfortunately, rarely being enforced.  Which got me thinking:  who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?
Why is the speed limit on I-95 in Fairfield County only 55 mph but 65 mph east of New Haven?  And why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the NY border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”?  Does the eastern half of the state get a break because nobody lives there?
Well, you can blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT for all the above.  This body regulates everything from speed limits to traffic signals, working with local traffic authorities (usually local Police Departments, mayors or Boards of Selectmen).
OSTA is also responsible for traffic rules for trucks (usually lower speed limits),  including the ban on their use of the left hand lane on I-95 in most places.
It was the Federal government (Congress) that dropped the Interstate speed limit to 55 mph in 1973 during the oil crisis, only to raise it to 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the Federal speed limit altogether in 1995 (followed by a national 21% increase in fatal crashes),  leaving it to each state to decide what’s best.
In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads permit 80 mph.  Trust me… having recently driven 1000+ miles in remote stretches of Utah, things happen very fast when you’re doing 80 – 85 mph!  Fast means dangerous.
Driving too slow can also get you in trouble as many states are now ticketing drivers hanging out in the left-hand passing lane if they’re slowing down traffic.
About half of Germany’s famed Autobahns have speed limits of 100 km/hr (62 mph), but outside of the cities the top speed is discretionary. A minimum of 130 km/hr (81 mph) is generally the rule, but top speed can often be 200 km/hr (120 mph).
Mind you, the Autobahn is a superbly maintained road system without the bone-rattling potholes and divots we enjoy on our highways.  And the German-built Mercedes and Audis on these roads are certainly engineered for such speed.
American cars are designed more for fuel efficiency than speed. Best gas mileage is achieved by driving in the 55 – 60 mph range.  Speed up to 65 mph and your engine runs 8% less efficient.  At 70 mph the loss is 17%.  That adds up to more money spent on gasoline and more environmental pollution, all to save a few minutes of driving time.
But an even bigger for the loss of fuel efficiency is aerodynamic drag, which can eat up to 40% of total fuel consumption.  Lugging bulky roof-top cargo boxes worsens fuel economy by 25% at interstate speeds.  So does carrying junk in your trunk (or a lot of passengers!):  a 1% penalty for every 100 pounds.

Even with cheaper gasoline, it all adds up… at any speed.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.