Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Why Can't They...

Every week I bump into someone on the train or at a store who says… “Hey… You’re that train guy!”  Who knew that this job would come with such notoriety? 

How did I come to this “commuter advocacy” job?  First, from a passion for trains but more importantly from a belief that even one person can provoke change.  Your voice matters, especially when you direct it to your State Rep and State Senators in an election year.
Everybody’s affected by our transportation problems and everybody has a question.

Here are a few of my favorites, by category:

Why can’t they get disabled cars and trucks off the road quicker, avoiding back-ups?
Why don’t the raise the speed limit on the interstates to reflect the real speeds that people drive?
Why are the overhead lights on our interstates and parkways always burned out instead of illuminating the road for better nighttime safety?
Why can’t they keep truck inspection / weigh stations open 24 x 7?
Why are gasoline prices on the interstates’ service areas always higher than on local roads?
Why do we have “zone pricing” for gasoline in Connecticut instead of letting competition determine the lowest price?

Why are airlines allowed to squeeze more people on planes, in tighter seats with no knee room?  Is that really safe?
Why do the airlines always lie to us about delays?
Why can’t families with screaming kids be seated in their own section, away from me?
Why does the car service to the airport cost more than my flight?

Why can’t they collect all the tickets on the trains?
Why do the train conductors hide in their compartments?
Why doesn’t somebody enforce the Quiet Car rules?
Why has CDOT waited so long to bring back the bar cars?
Why do I have to stand all the way to New York at rush hour because CDOT waited so long to order new cars, meaning there aren’t enough seats?
Why don’t they have carts selling coffee and donuts in the morning, run by Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks?
Why isn’t there a choice of first or business class seating on Metro-North?
Why don’t we have Wi-Fi?  Amtrak does!
Why can’t we get a rebate on our ticket price when trains are late or service is cancelled?
Why are fares on Metro-North the highest commuter rail fares in the US?
Why is there an eight year waiting list for parking permits at my train station?  Why don’t they just build more parking?
Why do they charge a fee to get a refund on unused train tickets?  And why do tickets even expire?
Why isn’t there a map at each station showing how to get to local businesses and landmarks without taking a cab?
Why can’t lawmakers in Hartford be required to commute on Metro-North at rush hour before they vote on the CDOT budget or fare increases?
Why has CDOT taken more than three years to negotiate a contract to rebuild the Stamford parking garage, let alone start construction?
Why are station waiting rooms kept locked on nights and weekends in the winter?

Over the years I’ve found that even these simple questions all have complex answers.  If the issues were so easily addressed, they’d have been solved long ago.

But what are your pet peeves?  What are the questions that you have about “getting there”?  Send them along and let’s see if we can’t help find the answers:

Friday, September 23, 2016

CDOT Fare Hearings Are Just Political Theater

The CDOT is holding the last in a series of public hearings on proposed 5% fare hikes this week (Wednesday 9/14 in Stamford and Thursday 9/15 in New Haven).  This will be your last chance to be heard if you support or oppose the plan.

Not that these hearings will really matter. It’s pretty much a done deal and the way past hearings have been conducted mean they won’t make much difference.  I think of them as so much “political theater”:  lots of drama with a sad outcome.

If you chose to attend, here’s what to expect:  

The CDOT will make a brief presentation on the need for the fare hikes, then members of the public will be allowed to speak in the order that they signed up.  Each will be given about three minutes.

People will rant and rave about how expensive our trains and buses are, about how service has again been deteriorating.  They’ll threaten to abandon mass transit and start driving again.  They’ll call this the final straw and promise to move out of state.

The CDOT folks will listen and take notes.  But after all is said and done, the fares will go up.  Their only alternative is to save money by cutting service, and nobody wants that.

I’d expect a lot of State Representatives and Senators to also speak in opposition to the proposals. It is an election year, after all.  But that’s kind of ironic, as their budget votes made this hike necessary.  This is their fare hike, not Governor Malloy’s.

The legislature left a $192 million hole in the state’s budget and said to Governor Malloy “you fix it”.  And he did, with budget cuts and layoffs in many departments.  Now it’s the CDOT’s turn to share the pain.  Or commuters’.

Fares on Metro-North are the highest for any commuter railroad in the US because theirs is a captive audience.  People going to jobs in New York City from their leafy suburban homes really have no alternative to taking the train.

Yet, those fares only cover 69% of the costs of each ride.  On Shore Line East the fares cover only 7% and on CT Transit buses 21%.  The balance is made up by state (taxpayers’) subsidy.  By comparison, fares on the Long Island Railroad cover only 51% of operating costs, meaning that NY state is offering a much higher subsidy for LIRR riders than CT does.

Why?  Because NY State, like most others in the nation, wants to keep fares low to encourage people to use mass transit.  While lawmakers in Hartford pay lip-service to the same theory, their actions (and votes) prove otherwise.

And yet, every time there is a fare hike, ridership goes up.  Go figure.  Even in a time of cheap gasoline prices, Metro-North has seen an almost 2% ridership increase in the past year. That means trains are, once again, crowded. 

But wait.  Didn’t we just order new rail cars increasing the size of our fleet?  Yes, but we didn’t increase it enough.  The M8 cars we ordered (at $2.5 million apiece) were insufficient to handle the increase in passengers.  We should have ordered more.

Now is the time for CDOT to order more railcars, either M8’s or to start designing the M10’s.  It takes about five years from such a decision ‘til new cars are delivered, so now is the time to say “go”.  We know ridership will increase, so what is being done to plan for the future?

But in the short term, fare hikes on our railroads and buses are pretty much a done deal.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Monday, September 19, 2016

What are your gripes about commuting?

Our second weekly column:

Joon the conversation on Facebook by searching for #GettingThereCT

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Testimony to CDOT Fare Hearings - Stamford CT 9-14-16

This is NOT one of my Op-Ed columns, but I'm posting it because it might be of interest...

It is my testimony at a CDOT Public Hearing on proposed fare hikes on Metro-North:

My name is Jim Cameron and I am a resident of Darien and have ridden Metro-North for 25 years.  I served 19 years on the CT MN Rail Commuter Council, 4 as its Chairman.  I am also the founder of The Commuter Action Group, a rail advocacy organization.

First, I would like to commend Gov Malloy and CDOT for yesterday’s announcement of the purchase of 60 additional M8 rail cars to handle our rapidly expanding ridership.  This is very good news, if long overdue.

But commuters should know that this car order has nothing to do with the proposed fare increase.  Fares only pay a part of operating costs, not capital spending.

This proposed fare increase is really the responsibility of the one-party Legislature, which completed its budget process with a $192 million deficit and told the Governor, “you fix it”.  Every state agency has suffered cuts and layoffs because the majority-controlled Legislature didn’t do its job.  Now it’s transportation’s turn to feel the pain.

You will hear today from angry commuters, lawmakers who have gathered petitions and some who offer creative accounting solutions to fill your budget gap.  But all of these are just band-aids on a dying patient and none address the real, long-term problem.

If our trains and buses rely on the Special Transportation Fund as it exists and is funded today, we will be back for more hearings like this for years to come.  What we need is systemic change in how we fund transit. Yet I know of nobody in Hartford with the guts to be honest with commuters and taxpayers about what is coming.

In January, the Governor’s Transportation Finance Panel identified potential solutions, none of which will be popular but all, or many of which, will be necessary:
Tolls on our highways.  A vehicle miles tax.  Re-directed or increased sales taxes. Raising the gasoline tax. Higher DMV fees. Land value appreciation recapture at transit oriented development sites.  Advertising wraps on our trains.  And yes, annual fare increases.  This is CT’s future and lawmakers, the Governor and CDOT know it.

So let’s be honest with commuters.  Yes, our fares are already the highest in the US, but they will go higher, much higher, unless we adopt other funding mechanisms to keep mass transit running, expanding, improving… and affordable.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Welcome to "Getting There"

This blog will be the archival home for my newspaper column "Getting There" which appears weekly in the Hearst CT Newspaper chain.

It follows on the ten year legacy of "Talking Transportation", my earlier column and blog, which remains archived here:

Due to contractual reasons, "Getting There" will be posted two weeks after publication in the papers... another good reason to subscribe.

But I will post links each week to the electronic editions.

9-12-16  "The Fare Hearings"