Saturday, October 29, 2016

Politicians and Promises

I don’t trust politicians.  They tend to over-promise and sometimes just plain lie, telling you what you want to hear and then doing the opposite.

I’m not talking about Clinton and Trump.  I mean right here in Connecticut where our State Representatives and State Senators are all up for election next month.  They’re all talking about “fixing transportation”, but I don’t trust them.

Case in point:  the upcoming fare hike which, amazingly, will take effect after the election.  Metro-North fares will jump 6% and CTtransit bus fares by 17%.  Nice timing, eh?  If they needed the money so bad, why not raise the fares before we go to the polls?

As I’ve been explaining for months, that fare hike was not created by the Governor, the CDOT or Metro-North, but necessitated by the majority Democrats’ budget passed last spring in the legislature.  They didn’t fully fund mass transit and left the Governor to raise the fares.

But what really galls me is to hear those same budget-writers come out in their campaigns and say they opposed the fare hike.  They created it, and now oppose it?  I think that’s called hypocrisy.

Or do you remember when Dannel Malloy was running for Governor in 2010 and he promised he would never, ever raid the Special Transportation Fund to balance the budget?  I do, and I admired him for that pledge.  So imagine how I felt when he did what every predecessor, Republican or Democrat, had done… turn the Special Transportation Fund into a petty cash box, raidable at will to fix his budget.  Was that a lie, a broken promise or a necessity?

Governor Malloy redeemed himself in his second term when he embraced transportation as his keynote agenda.  He didn’t just embrace it, he mated with it and produced an amorphous, amoeba-like off-spring:  a 30-year, $100 billion “plan” to rebuild transportation state-wide.

Well, it really wasn’t a “plan” as much as a laundry list, maybe a wish-list, with something for everyone… trains, planes, roads, rails, you name it.  It wasn’t just  ambitious, it was unaffordable.  So he did what any good politician would do who had an unfunded dream:  he appointed a task force to figure out how to pay for it.

He wanted the credit for this amazing, Robert Moses-like plan.  But he didn’t want his fingerprints on the stone tablets detailing how to pay for it.  I understand that.  “Love my vision but don’t blame me for the painful taxes required to build it.”

His task force came up with a lot of great funding ideas, all of them practical, none of them popular.  But what did legislators in both parties do?  They rejected them all, out of hand.
Even the Governor’s BFF Senator Bob Duff, the Senate Majority leader, said the Task Force’s idea of a vehicle miles tax was dead on arrival and would never be considered. And you can imagine the glee of Republicans in attacking the idea, a concept which nobody ever had a chance to explain let alone study before it was snuffed out.

To a man (and woman) every candidate will say they support transportation, but they will reject all of the necessary means of paying for it.   Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.

So be an informed voter.  Ask for specifics, not generalities.  Ask exactly how your candidates will pay for their plans.  And compare those promises against past votes on things like the CDOT budget.

PS:  Lest you should think I have ambitions for higher office, I can reassure you I don’t want any job in Hartford.  The only thing I’m running for is the train.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Staying Safe on the Train

“I’m afraid to get back on the train,” said the trembling woman, obviously shaken and possibly injured in the Hoboken terminal train crash of a NJ Transit train last month.

The shock of what she had seen was slowly sinking in and she was wondering how she was going to resume her life and its daily train commute after this horrific experience.

Whether it’s a derailment, collision or act of terrorism, riding the train is proving potentially perilous.

The Fairfield – Bridgeport collision and derailment in May of 2013 left 65 of the 250 passengers injured,  Months later. the Spuyten Duyvil derailment was even worse, killing four and injuring 61.  The recent Hoboken crash killed one and injured more than a hundred.
Physical injuries can heal, but emotional trauma may not.  And if you have to get from home to work each day, for many of us that means we must take the train.

Like those afraid of flying, at a certain point you have to relinquish control of your life to others… the engineer, the track workers, the control center… and hope they are all alert and doing their jobs.  But there are still a few things you can do to protect yourself.

It’s usually the front of the train that takes the most violent impact in a crash or derailment. So however anxious you are to get off the train and on to your destination, give yourself a little margin of safety and sit farther back on the train.  Derailments are nine times more likely than crashes, so safety experts say the middle of the train is probably safest.
Aisle seats are better than window seats. And rear-facing seats are safer still.

Airlines constantly remind us to stay in our seats even as jetliners are taxiing at slow speed.  Yet most railroads say nothing to passengers standing or walking between cars as their train approaches a station.

Most of the injuries in the Fairfield and Hoboken crashes were suffered by standees.  On impact, they were tossed around in the train like rag dolls.  In their haste to make a speedy exit when their train arrived, they left themselves vulnerable to broken bones when it stopped short, far too fast.

I hope that when the NTSB finishes its investigation of the Hoboken crash they finally issue some recommendations against the standing room only (SRO) conditions we see on far too many trains.  Every passenger on a plane must have a seat. Why not the passengers on trains going 80 mph?

It’s not just passengers that get tossed in a crash.  Heavy luggage on the overhead racks goes flying too.  When you pick a seat, don’t sit under anything you wouldn’t want hitting you on the head.

You can’t assume doors will open if there’s a crash.  Neither will the windows, some of which are so strong that even rescue workers can’t break them.  So read the safety placards and know which windows open and how.  When you take your seat, glance around and decide what your options are before you need them.
The airlines make a safety announcement before every flight.  But I can’t ever remember hearing a safety reminder on Metro-North.  Wouldn’t it help to keep commuters and novice riders aware of safety?

My sincere hope is that the NTSB and FRA will not only solve why these train accidents occur and how to prevent them, but also suggest ways to make them more survivable. That should make all of us feel, and be, safer.

 Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Ferry boats are not the answer

You’re crawling along I-95 or cruising on Metro-North and you look out your window to the south.  There’s Long Island Sound, glistening in the sunlight.  “Wow,” you think, “I sure wish I was commuting out there on the water.”

So why is it that we’ve never harnessed ferry boats for our commutation?  There are many good reasons:

SLOWER SPEED:  Fast ferries can make about 30 knots (35 mph) in open waters, half the speed of a train.  But to reach downtown areas in major cities like New Haven, Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford, they have to sail up rivers and inlets with 5 knot speed limits.  That really slows down the ride.

WHERE TO DOCK:    If we put ferry terminals closer to the Sound we’d be eating into the most expensive water-view real estate we have.  And how would you get there.  By car, parking where?  By shuttle bus, taking how long?

TIMETABLES:        At rush hour on Metro-North there’s a train every 20 minutes to Grand Central. There isn’t a ferry service in the US that can offer that frequency.  Would you be willing to wait an hour if you miss the boat?

DEPENDABILITY:   On a beautiful day a ferry ride to work sounds like fun?  But how about in a winter storm?  You’d be back on the dependable ol’ train in a heartbeat.

COST:          Even the ferry operators who’ve considered service in Connecticut say it would come with fares at least twice that of Metro-North.  Aren’t people complaining already about the trains being too expensive?

FUEL:           Fast ferry boats are gas guzzlers, the aquatic equivalent to the Concorde.  Even when the Pequot Indians built high-speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino to lose money it cost them a fortune.  Those ferries are still dry-docked, too expensive to operate.

COMPETITION:      When a private ferry operator offered service from Glen Cove Long Island to midtown, it lasted only a few months.  Same thing when ferry service was offered on the Hudson River from Yonkers.  Why?  Because both routes paralleled existing train service and the ferries couldn’t compete.  Neither would it work here in Connecticut where Metro-North operates.

SUBSIDIES:            Every private ferry boat operator who’s even considered service from Connecticut to Manhattan has demanded subsidies for land, parking and operations.  Given the dismal track record of ferries vs trains, shouldn’t we subsidize what we know already works… trains?

Now, lest you think I’m an aquaphobe, let me say that ferries do work, in certain cases.  Especially when they go from point A to point B when you can’t do that on land.  Like the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson or New London to Orient Point (LI) cross-Sound ferries.  Or consider Seattle, where ferries connect downtown with island suburbs.

A ferry from Connecticut to LaGuardia Airport might make sense. But in the late 80’s when Pan Am tried to compete with Easter Airlines in the lucrative air-shuttle market, they introduced the Pan Am Water Shuttle connecting LaGuardia to midtown.  I rode it once, on a bright summer’s day, and it was sweet.  But even funneling passengers to its planes, Pan Am couldn’t afford the aquatic connection.  And since Amtrak’s Acela came along, who flies the shuttles anyway?

One final reason why I don’t think ferries would work:  nobody else does so either.  I’m sure that operators have looked at Connecticut’s gold coast, crunched the numbers and backed away.  It’s a free market, folks.  If ferries made sense (and dollars), they’d be running by now.  But they aren’t, and probably won’t be, for the common sense reasons I have sited.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Billion Dollar Bridge

Could it really cost $1 billion to replace the 562 foot  Walk railroad bridge in South Norwalk?  Or is there a cheaper alternative that CDOT is hiding from us.

We all know the woes of this 120 year old swing bridge that sometimes refuses to close, stranding thousands of Metro-North and Amtrak riders.  But the plan to replace it (using $161 million in Federal Sandy relief money) has ballooned from $600 million to $1 billion thanks to added rail yards and such.

Many in Norwalk are opposed because of the cost, others because they will lose their land by eminent domain.  And everyone’s concerned about the years of construction and mess.  The Norwalk Hour’s ace reporter Robert Koch even discovered that the Maritime Aquarium IMAX Theater may have to be demolished!

The CDOT has considered all sorts of new bridge designs… truss, lift, bascule, counter-weight and even an elevated fly-over.  But I think I’ve found one design conspicuously missing that might be cheaper.


First, the good news.  The CDOT is doing a great job of making this project open and inclusive.  They have a website, they Tweet updates (@WalkBridgeCT), and host public meetings galore.  They even have translated all their plans into Haitian Creole.

Unlike the horrendous Stamford rail station garage project, mired for three years in secrecy and rumors of political payoffs, the Walk Bridge project is certainly more transparent than the murky waters that flow under its tracks.

But that doesn’t mean people are having any luck slowing this juggernaut down.  Until now.  Because now we find that CDOT has been hiding a simpler solution.


Why not just “close the river” and replace the old bridge with a new, fixed bridge?
That option is not even discussed in the voluminous Environmental Assessment Report. Why?  I think I’ve found the answer… or at least an excuse.

Blame the US Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers.  They want to keep the mighty Norwalk River, all two miles of it, open and navigable.  But do they really have that much power?  Isn’t it possible to force those Federal agencies to, in effect, close the river to boat and barge traffic by edict or a bill put through Congress?

Couldn’t the few companies still on the river… a concrete company, an idle asphalt plant and a small marina… be bought-out with money saved by building a cheaper fixed bridge that doesn’t raise or lower?

And most telling of all… why isn’t this alternative even discussed in the crucial Environmental Impact Study (still open to public comment, now extended until November). Why?


At the recent Metro-North fare increase hearings I cornered CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker and asked him.  (Spoiler alert:  critics of the bridge plan won’t like his answers.)

The Commissioner says that CDOT did ask the USG and ACE about a fixed bridge that would close the river and were told “no way”… though critics say such concessions have precedents.

More telling, Commissioner Redeker says whether fixed bridge or movable, construction will still disrupt the neighbors just as much and for just as long.  And, says the Commissioner, the cost savings for going to a smaller, simpler fixed bridge would only be 10 – 12%.  Really?  Hard to believe.

But I know Commissioner Redeker and trust his word… though many Norwalkers and environmental activists do not.  There is only one way to resolve this debate, get the bridge fixed and keep the trains rolling and that’s face-to-face talks.

‘Til then, it’s all just rumor, speculation and misinformation feeding on itself. And the old bridge just keeps getting older.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Don't Blame the Trucks for Our Traffic

When it comes to our horrendous traffic, especially on I-95, everybody wants to find blame with someone other than themselves. “Who are these people and why are they driving now, on “my” road?”, they ask.

The easiest scapegoats are trucks:  those behemoths that lumber along in the right and center lanes (because they are not allowed to drive in the left hand lane).  But I suggest that it’s not trucks that are responsible for our traffic.  It’s the rest of us in our single-occupancy vehicles (SOV’s). According to the CDOT, almost 80% of commuting motorists drive alone.

First off, realize that trucks are high occupancy vehicles.  They’re filled with the stuff that we want to buy at our grocery and big box stores.  We put them on the road by our very consumption patterns.

Should they be driving in rush hour?  Probably not, nor do they want to be.  It’s highly inefficient.  But they’re there because the stores tell them that’s when they want their goods delivered, ie in business hours.

The NY City DOT has run experiments on off-hour truck delivery times and had great success.  The 2009 trial was run in cooperation with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and had trucks move from daytime deliveries of goods to evenings and overnights. 

Manhattan averages 100,000 truck deliveries a day, so just imagine what shifting even a few of those trucks to less congested hours would do.  Merchants were happy because deliveries weren’t held up by traffic.  The truckers liked it for the same reason, plus they got fewer parking tickets and were more productive, making more deliveries per shift.

Why can’t we do the same thing here in Connecticut?  Most of our big-box stores are open extended hours, so why not require or incentivize them to have their trucks deliver overnight, outside of rush hour?

Trucks have to drive on the interstates because they are banned from most local roads.  Yet SOV drivers treat I-95 like a short-cut from one side of town to the other.  It’s an inter-state highway, folks. Yet the average distance driven on I95 is just 11 miles.  Truckers must drive hundreds of miles each day.

If we were smart enough to “value price” our highways with tolls, local traffic wouldn’t be clogging our interstates to only go a few exits and the long-distance drivers, cars and trucks, would have a fast, albeit a bit more expensive, ride.  To truckers, time is money, so they’ll end up saving both.

Do some truckers drive too fast?  Sure.  But so do a lot of SOV’s.  When traffic permits, try driving the speed limit on I95 and watch everyone passing you.  How safe is that?  And why aren’t those speed limits enforced?

We absolutely need better inspection of all trucks entering and driving through our state.  The weight and inspection stations at our borders should be open 24 x 7 and would easily pay for themselves with the fines they’d collect.

But remember:  truckers drive for a living.  They are licensed, trained professionals, held to far higher standards than the average passenger car driver.  And because of their experience, I think they are, on average, much better drivers.  When’s the last time you saw a trucker trying to juggle a smart-phone and a Frappucino like some foolish commuters do?

Folks, I am hardly a lobbyist for the trucking industry and am just as guilty as the rest of us for seeking unfettered access to “my” interstates.  But it’s just not fair for us to blame anyone but ourselves for the traffic we create.  It’s the SOV’ers, not the truckers, who make the traffic problems we endure.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.