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.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Smartest Guy In Transportation

Jim Redeker has the best job in transportation.  And the toughest. 

As Commissioner of Transportation for CT for the past six years, he’s guided the agency through hundreds of millions of dollars in spending while managing three competing taskmasters:  his boss, Governor Malloy… the legislature, which controls his budget… and commuters / drivers who depend on his product.

Redeker has successfully managed all three.

I’ve known the Commissioner for all his years in Connecticut and always considered him the smartest guy in the room. But last Monday I watched him in action in a venue he told me he actually enjoys: a commuter forum sponsored by Danbury line politicians.

Organized by St Rep Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton), the single best commuter advocate in the State House, it was held on the first night of Passover in a week of school vacations, so the crowds were thin.  The 780 seat Clune auditorium at Wilton HS was empty aside from the 30 or so commuters spread across the room.  On the dais, a long table filled with area State Representatives and Senators looked like The Last Supper with Commissioner Redeker as the main course.

“Why was there no publicity for this event on the trains or at the stations?,” asked one commuter.  No answer.  “Why was I stuck three times this winter on diesel trains with no explanation from conductors?”  No answer.  “Why do we pay all the taxes but get nothing back from Hartford?”  No answer, even from the pols.

Redeker was pacing himself, giving each complainer a chance to vent, then cherry-picking which issue to address.  When he didn’t have an answer (which was rare), he said so.  But when he did have a response (most often), he nailed it.

“Why does the New Canaan branch have more trains at lower fares?”   Easy one:  the New Canaan branch is electrified and has twice the ridership.  “The Danbury branch only has 1400 daily passengers,” said Redeker.  “That works out to a per-trip subsidy of $17.  Now if we had better service we’d probably have more riders.  I just don’t have the money.”

Surprisingly, only a few of the 11 Hartford lawmakers on the dais said anything all evening.  Given their budget-juggling skills, they offered no explanation or optimism for improved funding of mass transit.

But to the downtrodden Dashing Dans and Danielle’s, the Commissioner offered some hope:  new rail cars for the branch lines are coming (in about 4 years) and old diesel locomotives are being rebuilt.

Less satisfied were residents of semi-rural Georgetown and Redding who complained about the trains’ noise pollution:  constant horn-blowing and bell-ringing at crossing gates.  Three folks from Metro-North sitting in the auditorium were mute as neighbors said they were afraid to complain ‘lest train engineers retaliate by leaning on the horn.

“We want express trains,” said several commuters.  “We want you to re-open the Wall Street station in downtown Norwalk,” said others.  Well which do you want, asked Redeker… more stations or fewer stops?  “Both,” seemed the reply.

The highlight of the evening for me was when a woman from Norwalk said she actually supported highway tolls.  The table of lawmakers looked like they’d found a turd in the punchbowl while Redeker suppressed a grin.

I’ve had my fights with Commissioner Redeker over the years, but I’ve never envied his job.  We are lucky to have him with us as CDOT Commissioner.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Greatest Railroad Never Built

What happens when a great transportation idea gets ahead of itself?  Consider the story of the greatest American railroad that never got built.

We are all familiar with The Twentieth Century Limited and The Broadway Limited, the crack trains of the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads that ran for decades between New York and Chicago.

Those daily trains defined deluxe, pampering passengers with plush Pullman cars, fine dining and even an on-train barber shop.  But they each took 16 hours to make the run because they took different circuitous routes.  The NY Central followed the “water level route” north to Albany, then across upstate New York and down the coast of Lake Erie.  The Pennsylvania RR journeyed south to Philadelphia, then west to Pittsburgh and beyond.

Today on Amtrak the NYC to Chicago run takes 19 hours following the route of the Twentieth Century.  Compare that to modern Chinese high speed trains that run from Beijing to Shanghai (about the same distance as NY to Chicago) in just five hours.

But way back in 1905, inventor Alexander Miller had a better idea:  build a brand new, flat and straight interurban railroad that would run directly between the two cities, The Chicago – New York Electric Air Line Railroad.

The train would be “faster than the limited” and make the run in 10 hours for $10 a ticket.  Powered by the new marvel of electricity, the train could operate at a third the cost of steam engines.  And by running in a straight line the 743 mile route would be 168 to 237 miles shorter than its competitors.  In principal, it was brilliant.  And the timing was perfect.

Mind you, its interurban cars (think trolley cars on steroids) might not be as plush, but they would average 70+ mph thanks to the almost flat grade of one percent and no pesky grade crossings.  There would also be few stops as the route would bypass all major cities.  And this train would be fast… 100 mph on the straight-aways!

Five million dollars worth of stock was issued with shareholders promised first priority for thousands of potential jobs.  Railroads were the dot-coms of the era, and people rushed to invest.

With no bonded debt, the company’s prospectus promised stock dividends of 14% on top of the shares’ appreciation. You just couldn’t lose!

Construction began from west to east, as the railroad opened in stages to help pay for itself and further building toward New York.  A mighty four track railroad, akin to Metro-North, was envisioned and it was hoped that the project would be completed in just ten years.  Spur lines would be constructed to serve the cities by-passed by the “air line”.

Then, reality set in with the depression of 1907 – 1908.  Construction got as far as Gary Indiana, about 25 miles from Chicago, when the money started to run out.  The engineering of this mighty railroad was just too expensive.

Shareholders revolted when news came that the railroad’s officers were getting fat paychecks as the coffers were drained.  A hoped-for bailout by British banks never happened.

Shareholders lost everything.  And the impending arrival of automobiles might have doomed the line anyway.  Even The Twentieth Century and Broadway Ltd eventually succumbed to the competition of true “air lines”.

But for a brief moment, a century ago, a dream almost became a reality in the greatest railroad that never was.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, April 10, 2017

It's Time for Tolls

Nobody likes the idea of paying tolls.  But tolls are coming back to Connecticut and I just wish that lawmakers in Hartford would honest with us about why.

We are running out of money for the Special Transportation Fund, that’s why.  And none of the re-funding alternatives are attractive:  vehicle miles tax, sales tax, gas tax and yes, tolls.  But tolls on our highways would not be a tax.

Tolls are a user fee.  You only pay a toll if you drive. If you use mass transit or ride a bike, you pay no tolls.  Doesn’t that seem fairer than taxing everyone, even those who don’t drive?

Let me dispel a few other myths about highway tolling being spread by dishonest pols:

TOLLS ARE NOT SAFE:  When is the media going to stop telling us that tolls were eliminated in Connecticut because of the “fiery truck crash” at a toll barrier in Stratford in 1983?  Tolls are collected thousands of times a minute in NY and NJ without a single toll booth or fiery truck crash.  EZ-Pass toll collection is fast and safe.

WASHINGTON WON’T LET US TOLL:    Not so.  The Federal Highway Administration has told Hartford that we can toll I-95 and I-84 if tolling is used to manage traffic as opposed to just raise money.

TOLLS SLOW TRAFFIC:  In fact, the opposite is true.  With barrier free tolls, cars don’t slow down.  And by making people pay for the privilege of driving on a major highway (especially at rush hour), those that don’t want to pay won’t drive then, making for less traffic and a faster ride for those who are willing to pay.

LET’S JUST TOLL OUT-OF-STATERS:                     Sorry, that’s against the law.  These are our highways so we all should pay for them.  And PS:  we all pay tolls when we drive in NY and NJ, so why are we now giving those states’ residents a free ride in Connecticut?

TOLLS WILL DIVERT TRAFFIC TO LOCAL ROADS:          Maybe so for the first week or two.  If people would rather drive on Route 1 instead of paying a 50 cent tolls on I-95 they obviously don’t value their time, so let ‘em:  it will just mean a faster ride (and less traffic) on the toll road for us who do.

TOLL MONEY WILL BE MIS-USED:     I share this concern and think nobody will support tolls or taxes until we have a “lock box” on transportation funds to be certain they are not mis-appropriated.  But the absence of a lock-box is not an excuse to deny the need for funding.

THE ROADS SHOULD BE FREE:          Every time we hit a pothole on a highway or bridge that should have been repaired, we’re paying a toll.  Maintaining our interstates is expensive and paying a toll for road repairs seems cheaper than paying for blown tires, alignments and bent rims.  A recent study says those car repairs average $864 a year for every Connecticut motorist.

But why am I the only one talking about the value of tolls?   Where’s the Governor, our transportation advocate?  Where’s the Commissioner of the DOT?  Why aren’t they explaining the why’s and how’s of modern tolling?

Even the Democrats who voted tolling bills out of committee for broader debate are reluctant to make the case that it’s time for tolls.  And nay-saying opponents of tolls, pandering to the public, are offering no alternatives.

Shame on all of them.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, April 1, 2017

"How & Where To Complain About Metro-North"

You may start your day with a cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast.  I start my day by reading complaints about Metro-North: e-mails, tweets and social media posts by fellow commuters who don’t know where to turn for help.  Such is the life of a “commuter advocate”.

The problem is that every ride on Metro-North is controlled by many different agencies and there’s no way for commuters to know who’s responsible.  For years I offered a simple solution:  a sign at every station explaining who was in charge of parking, the station, the conditions on the trains, etc…. and names and phone numbers of whom to contact. 

Lacking this simple signage, I suggest the following:

HOW TO COMPLAIN:            You must be specific:  date, time, location and names.  Simply saying “my train is always late” gives nobody any actionable information.  But saying “train #634, the 7:31 out of Westport has a standing-room-only condition on dates X and Y because it is operating with six cars and used to have seven” gives folks a chance to analyze a problem and maybe find a solution.

WHERE TO COMPLAIN:       Here’s where it gets tricky.  You must direct your complaint to the proper agency with operating authority.

STATION PARKING:             In most cases, station parking is run by the Town where the station is located, so call Town Hall.  (Stamford and Bridgeport are notable exceptions as the CDOT manages both the stations and the adjacent parking.)

THE TRAIN STATIONS:       Though owned by the CDOT, the stations are operated by the Towns.  If your station waiting-room is locked, leaving you standing on a freezing platform, call City Hall.

TIMETABLES:           The trains operate on a schedule jointly agree to by CDOT and Metro-North.  But don’t waste your time appealing to either because you don’t like the service.  Instead, got to the folks who control their budgets:  your state elected officials.  You’ll find a search engine for those pols on our Commuter Action Group website (see below).

CONDITIONS ON THE TRAIN:         In this case, Metro-North is responsible.  Buried on their website you’ll find an e-complaint template (there’s also a direct link to it on our website.  Fill it out with specific information every time you see a problem and ask for a follow-up.  Sadly, once acknowledged, we have no way of knowing if the railroad ever does anything to address the issues.

TRAIN PERSONNEL:            Unhappy with a conductor or train engineer?  Complain to Metro-North with specific information, including names or descriptions.  Get the names and contact info for other witnesses.  If a complaint actually escalates to disciplinary action, be prepared to attend a hearing.

GRAND CENTRAL:               Don’t like the fact that your train always arrives on the lower level?  Unhappy that the bar carts are still missing after three months.  Complain to Metro-North and cc your elected officials.

FARES:           Fares in Connecticut are set by CDOT, not Metro-North.  There’s always a public hearing process before new fares go into effect, but it’s all just “political theater”:  cathartic but ineffective.  The people who really control fares are your elected officials in the legislature.

It shouldn’t be so confusing as to where to complain.  Nor should we be so cynical about the lack of response.  But we are dealing here with local and state agencies running a monopoly, not a competitive, for-profit, customer-oriented business.

Still, as Edmund Burke once said:  “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.  So do something:  complain!

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Is Uber Playing Fair ?

It looks like the fate of Uber (and Lyft, the other popular ride sharing service in CT) will be decided in Hartford in a lobbying war, not in the competitive marketplace.

In the 3 years since Uber launched in Connecticut it’s enjoyed strong growth, now using 9000 drivers who carry hundreds of thousands of passengers annually.  Full disclosure:  I am one of those customers and am very happy with their service.

I tried Uber after getting sticker-shock for the “black car” limo fees to go to NY airports: over $180 one way from my home to JFK vs $80 by Uber.  Mind you, the rides are different:  the limo is a real limo, but the Uber X is some guy’s personal car.

The limo driver has a commercial driver’s license and has undergone extensive screening and drug testing.  Uber screens its drivers but now will consider non-violent felons to join their fleet (and I’m OK with that… everyone deserves a second chance).

The limo driver has tons of insurance.  The Uber X driver is covered by Uber’s policy when he’s carrying a passenger.  CT law says that taxis and limo’s must undergo extensive safety inspections each year.  The Uber X driver doesn’t.

But if you have a problem in a taxi or limo, who do you complain to?  All cars for hire in Connecticut are regulated by the state DOT and we know how responsive they are to public complaints.  But if you have a bad Uber ride you can complain immediately using their app.  I have done that, on rare occasion, and got an immediate response… and a small refund.

There’s a big difference between a shiny limo and a beat-up taxi.  Local taxis tend to be older and in pretty bad shape.  Their drivers are rarely the owners, so what do they care about the condition of the vehicle?

Uber takes heat for their “dynamic pricing” model where rates go up with demand.  Need an Uber during a bad storm?  You’ll pay more to incentivize drivers to stay out on the road.  But taxi meters know no “surge pricing”.

Neither driver is making a lot of money.  One study pegged Uber-X drivers to an average $15.68 an hour.  And Uber prides itself on its no-tipping model, though I always tip for good service. These folks are just trying to make a living.

But if you believe recent testimony in Hartford, the taxi industry in this state is on the verge of collapse. They say they can’t compete with Uber and Lyft if they can’t have a level playing field of regulations.  And I think they make a good point.

Is it fair that Uber and Lyft pay no state sales tax?  Is it fair that out-of-state Uber drivers can pick up Connecticut passengers, but CT drivers have to return empty from NYC runs?  Is it fair that CT taxi and limo drivers are held to a much higher safety, licensing and screening standard than the college kid driving his Toyota for Uber on weekends?

Uber tells me all these issues are up for grabs as they negotiate with lawmakers in Hartford.  For three years Uber has been able to kill bills that would have regulated their industry, once hiring a lobbyist for $20,000 for a single day to thwart an unpopular bill.  I guess even lobbyists have “surge pricing”.

I like Uber (and Lyft) and hope they survive.  But I also like reliable and affordable taxis and black cars and think they are over-regulated.  Let’s level the regulatory playing field and allow competition to see who serves customers best.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, March 20, 2017

"The Secrets of the George Washington Bridge"

It’s the bridge we love to hate.  Congested, expensive ($15 toll) and nowhere near as modern as the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the George Washington Bridge is best to be avoided, but often you can’t.

The “GW” was not the first New York City bridge designed to cross the Hudson River.  Back in 1885 there were discussions about building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at 23rd Street.  Tunnels proved a better idea in 1904.

By the 1920’s it was automobile traffic that needed access and designers conceived of a double deck, 16 lane wide roadway (with an additional 12 tracks for railroads on the lower level), crossing at 57th Street.

But it was in 1927 and farther uptown that construction finally began on the George Washington Bridge, crossing from the NJ palisades to 179th Street.  The $75 million single-level bridge opened in 1931 with six lanes of traffic, widened by another two lanes in 1946.

Initially the span was to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise, but a naming campaign by school kids ended up honoring our first President.

Fortunately, the bridge’s designers had planned for future growth and in 1962 the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” section of the bridge was opened, increasing capacity by 75%.

If you’ve ever wondered why trucks are only allowed on the upper level, think post 9/11 terrorism fears.

Unless you see the bridge from the Hudson River, it’s hard to take it all in.  Highway approaches from the east and west don’t give you much perspective.  And it’s hard to play sightseer when you’re coping with all that traffic. 

Original plans called for the bridge to be clad in concrete and granite, but the open criss-cross girders and bracing are much more elegant.  Though we take it for granted, the GW is recognized by architects as one of the most beautiful bridges in the word.

In its first year of operations the bridge carried 5.5 million vehicles.  In recent years the counts exceed 100 million per year.  While vehicles pay tolls, there’s one way to cross the bridge for free:  by walking.

While offering great views, the bridge’s pedestrian walkways have a dark side.  In 2012 they were the scene of 43 attempted suicides, 18 of them successful.

Though motorists never see it, the bridge also has its own bus terminal on the New York side, sitting astride the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx) serving 1000 buses and some 20,000 passengers each day.  Officially known as The George Washington Bridge Bus Station, the terminal is undergoing a $180 million renovation.

The bridge itself is also getting a facelift.  In 2011 the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace 529 vertical suspender wires holding up the roadways.  At the same time lanes on the upper level will be closed on the overnights to allow replacement of steel plates on the surface.

A great time to cross the bridge is on important civic holidays, including President’s Day, when the world’s largest free-flying American flag is displayed on the New Jersey tower.  Measuring 90 feet in length and 60 feet wide, the flag weighs 450 pounds.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Free Parking Isn't Really Free

Our love affair with the automobile depends on one thing:  free parking.  After driving on our “free” highways, we have to park someplace, and we all hate to pay for the privilege.  It’s as if there’s some constitutional right to free parking.

But free parking is actually expensive and paid in more than just dollars.

The industry standards setting group known as the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) has defined 266 different types of businesses and has determined the amount of nearby parking they require.  So when your local Planning & Zoning Commission is looking at proposals for, say, a new restaurant, they consult the ITE manuals on what parking would be needed.

Mind you, a fast food joint like a McDonalds will require less parking than, say, a fancy steakhouse, given the number of patrons and how long they stay there.  But when it comes to the rules of parking, we’re talking about more than restaurants.

Consider convents. For whatever reason the ITE’s “bible” says religious convents must have one parking space for every ten nuns or monks in residence.  Hello?  They’re in a religious retreat!  They’re not going anywhere!  Wouldn’t it be smarter for the convent to be able to use its land for better purposes than an empty parking lot, like growing its own food?

Or how about hotels?  Their parking regulations are based on the assumption that they are sold out, something that may not happen very much.  Wouldn’t it be easier for the hotel to make special arrangements on those sold-out nights than have acres of asphalt baking in the sun most of the year?

Drive up the Boston Post Rd and see the bitter fruits of this short-sighted planning.  Thanks to zoning regulations a lot of big-box stores devote 60% of their land to parking and 40% to the stores themselves.  Just think of what that means to how they price things.  Isn’t it any wonder that Amazon can compete on price?

Awhile back I drove through New Britain where I once lived.  I hardly recognized the downtown with its empty stores and sidewalks next to a ten storey parking structure.  They “built it”, but nobody came.

If you look at the communities with the liveliest downtowns you’ll see people, not cars.  People attract people as they go into shops, walk along and window-shop.  It’s pedestrians we want, not parking lots.

UCLA’s Donald Stroup wrote a great book, “The High Cost of Free Parking”, and made his point with a tale of two cities:

A decade back both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new downtown concert halls.  LA’s included a $10 million, six storey parking structure for 2100 cars.  But in San Francisco, they built no additional parking, saving developers millions. 

In LA after a concert the music-lovers scurry to their steel cocoons and drive away.  But after a show in San Francisco, patrons leave the concert and stroll the streets, spending tens of thousands of dollars in nearby bars, restaurants and bookstores.  Guess which city’s economy has benefited most from its investment in the arts.

The buzzword these days in Harford is TOD, Transit Oriented Development.  By putting stores, mixed use office buildings, housing and amenities near train and bus stops, people will use mass transit to get there instead of their cars.  That doesn’t mean we don’t need parking at train stations.  But even a parking structure can have stores at street level.

City planners need to remember that human beings come with two legs, not just four tires.  

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Friday, March 10, 2017

Finally... Some Good News on Transportation

Does reading this column depress you?  That’s what I’ve heard from a few faithful readers. 
But in opining on transportation issues my goal is not to bum you out but to get you thinking. So this week, just to cheer us all up a bit, I’m only going to comment on good news.  (Trust me, it’s taken awhile to accumulate these cheerier dispatches, but here goes.)

FAST(ER) TIMES AT THE DMV:   A friend of mine who runs a limousine company reports he recently went to the DMV fully expecting to waste a day on paperwork but got out of there in record time.  Given the horror stories last summer of long lines and never-ending computer problems, that is good news.

FOOD TRUCKS AT THE STATION:      When the Fairfield Metro station was built on the Metro-North line it was supposed to be part of a P3 (public-private-partnership) complete with offices, a hotel and full passenger amenities.  But the private company lost its financing, leaving CDOT to build the station which ended up with no waiting room or bathrooms, not even porta-potties.  As consolation the CDOT is now looking to bring food trucks into the parking lot to serve commuters.  Care for an empanada with your morning coffee?

WALL STREET NORWALK:        As “the train guy” I thought I knew everything about the New Haven Railroad.  But until a reader in Norwalk told me, I never knew there used to be a train station in the old downtown at Wall Street.  Efforts are underway to rejuvenate that station, situated as it is next to 2000 new housing units, the bus station and the under-utilized Yankee Doodle garage.  The project won’t be an easy sell as CDOT says it’s not interested because the Wall Street station is only a mile from the South Norwalk station.  Funny… they didn’t offer that as an excuse when Gov Malloy promised Bridgeport a new $300 million Barnum train station just a mile from its downtown station.

DONALD TRUMP LIKES TRAINS:         Recently our new President met with a group of airline CEO’s, regaling them with promises to rehab old airports and streamline air traffic control.  But he also used the occasion to lament the lack of high speed trains in America. “You go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place,” Trump said.  It remains to be seen if Trump will keep his campaign pledge to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure or how much of it will go to rail vs roads, but it seems our new President is pro-trains.

HIGH SPEED TRAINS IN CT:      Much has been written about the Federal Railroad Administration’s plans to build a high-speed rail line along the Connecticut coast.  But fuzzy drawings of potential routes along (or atop) I-95 have given local mayors and selectmen a lot of concern.  Last week I was invited to attend an FRA briefing in Darien where many of those fears were lessened.  The FRA says it doesn’t know where it will build these tracks.  And it may all be moot, given opposition by our Governor, the Commissioner of CDOT and most of our Congressional delegation to the plan which would require state approval and funding to move forward.

So, there you go.  Good news, or at least hopeful signs of improvement on the transportation front.  What do you see in your daily commute?  Any rays of sunshine? 
Send your comments by e-mail or post on social media and let’s keep the conversation going with news both good and bad. Just follow the hashtag #GettingThereCT

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media