Sunday, July 15, 2018

Metro-North's Quiet Car Debacle

Train time is your own time” was the old marketing slogan of Metro-North, encouraging commuters to kick back and enjoy the ride while reading, working or taking a snooze.

But in reality, train time is shared time.  They don’t call it “mass transit” for nothing as passengers much share their space with a hundred other commuters on each railcar.  

Assuming you get a seat, this means you’re squeezed in next to one or two fellow riders.
Usually commuters are respectful of each other and don’t blare their radios or carry on loud conversations, with each other or on cell-phones.  Or so we’d hope.

It was almost 20 years ago that Amtrak first introduced the concept of The Quiet Car, following suggestions of daily commuters riding to DC.  It was such a success that quiet cars were soon added to other Northeast Corridor trains and Acela.

The concept was simple, as conductors reminded passengers on every trip:  maintain a “library like atmosphere”.  That meant no cell phone calls and only quiet, subdued conversation.  You want to yuck it up over a beer, go to the CafĂ© Car.  Got an important phone call… sit in any other coach.

Other commuter railroads picked up Amtrak’s cue… but not Metro-North. While serving on the CT Metro-North Commuter Council I regularly beseeched the railroad to give us a break and dedicate just one car to peace and quiet, convinced it would attract riders.  Finally in 2011, the railroad took the hint and launched such a car, branded as a “Quiet CALMmute”.
Victory for the sonically overloaded?  Not by a long shot.  This is Metro-North and if anyone can screw up a good idea, they can.

First, they offered the worst car location on the train to their CALMmute:  the last car in-bound and the first car out-bound from GCT.  And there were no signs indicating which car was “quiet”.  Worst of all, conductors all but refused to enforce the quiet rules, leading to altercations between passengers.

Conductors have no trouble enforcing other rules:  luggage on the overhead racks, no feet on the seats, no smoking etc.  But asking people to keep down the chatter was apparently too much.  All they would do, at first, was hand “Shhh cards” to offenders.

In 2016 the quiet car program was expanded to two cars per train, peak and off-peak.  But, still no signage (until just recently) and no enforcement.

Now, a major change.  The railroad announced that effective immediately there would be only one quiet car per off-peak train.  And the PR team at MNRR spun the story so well that some local media made it sound like the program was being expanded, not cut in half.  Brilliant.

There was no explanation for the cut in quiet cars though one official told me “we have had no reports of quiet car demand exceeding availability in the off-peak”.  In other words, people who ride off-peak just prefer to yap.

That’s an amazing PR “spin” on what is really an admission of failure.  Metro-North never wanted quiet cars and clearly didn’t want to enforce the rules.  The people have literally “spoken” and the Quiet CALMmute won’t be as accessible anymore.

This is what happens when you have a monopoly, answerable to nobody, especially its customers.  I’d raise my voice in protest but… I’m in the quiet car.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Automobile - Construction Complex

How did Americans develop their love affair with driving?

Visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington and the transportation exhibit “America on the Move” will sell you on the commonly held theory that when Henry Ford made cars affordable, Americans loved them and demanded more and more highways.

Of course, that exhibit is sponsored by General Motors, which donated millions to put its name on the collection.

But University of Virginia history Professor Peter Norton, author of “Fighting Traffic:  The Dawn of the Motor Age in American cities” says that’s a myth.  Just as outgoing President Eisenhower warned us of the military industrial complex, Norton says an automotive – construction complex took over our country, paving from coast to coast. 

Sure, Americans like their cars.  But it was a conspiracy of economic interests that turned us into a car culture.  Where cities once enjoyed a network of cheap, fast streetcars, GM, Firestone and the oil companies bought and wiped them out, replacing them with buses and cars.

“This country destroyed and rebuilt its cities in the 20th century to serve automobiles,” says Norton.  And those same interest groups are alive and well today in Connecticut.

Groups like “Move CT Forward” aren’t pro-transportation as much as they are pro jobs… their jobs, in construction.  And they’ve spent a lot of money lobbying in Hartford to keep their members, the unions and contractors, busy.   While I’m happy they’re promoting transportation, their motives are hardly altruistic.

This is nothing new, says Norton.  The original interstate highways built in the 1950’s used Portland Cement because that company lobbied so hard for its product over cheaper asphalt.  And now that rusting rebar and crumbling cement is costing us a fortune.

Another myth from that era was that President Eisenhower built the interstates to move troops quickly for national defense.  That may have been the pitch to Congress, but the real reason for the highways was to evacuate civilians from the big cities in the event of nuclear war.  Lucky we never had to test that idea.

Last August when hurricane Harvey hit Houston… the most urbanized highway city in the country… authorities didn’t even try to evacuate people because they knew more would die on congested roads than in the storm.

Who pays for all this road building?  You do, in the form of income taxes and, yes, gasoline taxes.  But Norton says gas taxes are hardly a fair way to pay for all this.

Why does the motorist driving on a dirt road pay the same gas tax as one driving I-95?  The costs they place on road maintenance, the environment and our stress levels are grossly different, so why isn’t the cost?

“It would be like having Best Buy selling everything by the pound.  People would flock to the electronics (our crowded interstates) instead of the towels,” he notes (though I’m not sure Best Buy even sells towels, but I take his point).

He reminds us that before the interstates, the nation’s first “super highways” like the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the New Jersey Turnpike were built not as freeways but toll roads, and they still are today.

Driving may seem to be free, but it isn’t.  And until we ask drivers to pay for its real cost there is no incentive to do anything but drive (and pave) more.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Saturday, June 30, 2018


True confession (as if you didn’t know):  I am a railfan.  But don’t call me a “foamer”!  People who love trains come in all shapes and sizes, but “foamer” is a term they universally hate.

“Foamers” is how railroad employees refer to railfans because they think we “foam” at the mouth anytime we see a train.  To them, railroading is just a job.  To us, it’s a passion.  Not that I’d want to work for a railroad, mind you.

Some railfans are obsessed with locomotives, logging every make, model and number they see.  Others specialize in freight cars, catalogued by cargo and class.

In the UK, railfans are known as “anoraks”, named after their warm parkas worn while spending hours in the rain and cold waiting to spot trains, adding their car numbers to log books they cherish for life.

Some railroad lovers build or collect model trains, but I personally don’t consider them railfans.  Toy trains, however accurate, are just that: toys.  I’m only interested in the real thing:  actual trains.

A lot of railfans are great photographers, preserving their hobby in pictures.  They gather for meetings and “Oooh” and “Ahhh” at each others’ slides, like ornithologists admiring photos of rare birds.  Not any old photo will do.  Ideally you want a crisp, clean photo on a beautiful blue-sky day.

Some of those visualists have converted to video and there are actually videotapes and DVD’s you can buy of nothing but trains… from the sidelines as they run past, or from the engineer’s perspective from the locomotive.

But none of that is what interests me.  I’m only interested in passenger trains viewed from the inside, from the rider’s perspective.  I want to see the Club Cars with their over-stuffed, swivel chairs, occupied by cigar chomping scions of business.  Or the pictures of dressed-up passengers in the dining car eating fresh cooked meals on real railroad china.

Or my holy-grail… passengers sitting in air conditioned comfort in the dome car of a streamlined 1950’s train like “The Canadian” gliding through the Rockies.  That’s my nostalgic dream, as I was once there.

Born and raised in Toronto I rode in first-class transcontinental splendor all by myself at age 16.  I sat in that dome car and ate fresh cooked roast beef with real silverware in a dining car that smelled of fresh linen.  Maybe my love of trains is just me trying to relive the past.

Still, I find most railroad museums incredibly depressing.  Sure, the cars have been painstakingly restored, but if the trains still run, they go nowhere:  just a few miles up a track and back again.  They are memories of what once was but is no more.

But riding trains into Grand Central for over 50 years, I still get excited when we plunge into the Park Avenue tunnels.  Peering through the dim lights, I look for the signals and switches, trying to figure out where we are: upper level or lower?

And sometimes, faintly in the distance I imagine I see “The 20th Century Limited” getting ready for its daily departure en route to Chicago, its passengers boarding that iconic train from a red carpet.

No doubt about it: I’m a railfan.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, June 25, 2018

"Welcome to Connecticut"

First impressions count.  Arrive at any airport or train station, and you immediately start forming opinions of your destination.  Is it clean and modern, warm and welcoming?  How does the place make me feel?  Are the locals proud of themselves?

Well, the same “first impressions” rule is true when you are driving.

“Welcome to New Jersey,” said the perky young lady behind the Tourism Desk at the first service area in New Jersey when we pulled off Interstate 80 recently driving from Pennsylvania. I was just looking for the rest room, but this gal made we feel welcome, offering me maps and brochures and ready to answer any questions I might have about the Garden State. 

I got the same vibe arriving in Maryland, driving south on I-95 where a big, mall-sized rest area in the median offered me about a dozen restaurant choices, relatively cheap gas and room to stretch my legs.  On the far side of the building there was parking for about fifty trucks and electric hook-ups so they didn’t need to idle their refrigerator units. 

In Virginia, the Tourist Center looked like a mini-Monticello and the helpful staffers were ready to answer all of our questions about our planned tour of Civil War battlefields.  These local guys were better than TripAdvisor and the AAA Guidebook.

Contrast that with the “first impression” we give tourists arriving on I-95 in Connecticut. 
On crossing the NY state line, they will immediately hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, for no apparent reason, no matter the time of day.  No accidents, just normal conditions on our major interstate.

The large electronic sign flashes “Delays:  Exit 2 -16, next 16 miles” as visitors inch along over the Mianus River Bridge, site of the 1983 collapse of a span that killed three.  But there’s no plaque or historical marker noting the tragedy.  In fact, the bridge has been renamed after State Senator Michael J Morano, as if a name change would erase what happened.

“Are we there yet?” the kids ask from the back seat.  “Not even close,” moans Dad, wondering if they’ll ever get to The Cape.  “I just hate this traffic,” he moans.  “But Dad, I gotta go,” says Junior.  “I’ve been ‘holding it’ ever since The Cross Bronx!”

Then, like a mirage on the horizon, Dad sees hope:  not a break in the endless traffic, but the state’s first Service Area in Darien.  “Hang on Junior, we’re stopping in just a minute.”
Not to buy gasoline, of course.  You never want to buy gasoline in Connecticut.  No, these folks are in the tourist equivalent of “fly-over” mode.  They’re just stopping to “rest” and maybe pick up a map and a snack.

Arriving at the shiny new Service Area, complete with solar collectors and a Tesla charging station, they are met with such culinary options as “It’s Sugar”, “Chipotle” (hold the e coli, please) and the recently closed “Cheese Boy”.  Yummy.

But inside there is no perky tourism guide, just a few brochures strewn about. No, we don’t have the funding to guide the tourists.   Imagine the business the state’s $8 billion tourism industry loses because we can’t staff a simple information desk at a Service Area where thousand stop each day.

First impressions do count.  And the first impressions we give visitors to our state aren’t really positive, are they?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Federal Air Marshals

Do you feel safe when you fly?

Forget about exploding jet engines, cracked aircraft windows and clear-air turbulence.  What about terrorists?

We haven’t seen a domestic case of terrorists attacking jetliners in years, thanks to increased scrutiny of passengers by the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration.  From the moment you book a flight, you are being screened.  If you’re on the “No Fly List”, you’d better switch your travel plans to Amtrak or MegaBus.  And when you get to the airport, get ready for a full pat-down search.

But airlines’ last line of defense against terrorists is FAM, the Federal Air Marshal Service.  Created in 1961 after a spate of skyjackings to Cuba the air marshal program, now administered by the TSA, has grown to 3000 marshals and an $800 million budget.
But the program is now in trouble.

The Government Accounting Office last year reported that even TSA could not demonstrate that FAM is effective or even served as a deterrent to bad guys.  Since the program was accelerated (from 33 marshals before 9-11), air marshals have not made a single terrorist arrest, though the armed, undercover agents have thwarted several “disruptive passenger” incidents.

In April a deranged woman on a Delta flight from London to Salt Lake City jumped on an air marshal who had been supervising her after she overturned a drink cart.  She was cuffed (by another marshal) for the duration of the flight and faces a year in prison.

In December 2005 air marshals shot and killed a man as he ran off an American Airlines flight in Miami, claiming he had a bomb.  Ignoring calls to “stop” and “get down”, the shooting was declared “legally justified” in a 46 page follow-up report.  The man had no explosives but was found to have missed his meds for a bipolar condition.

Even with 3000 marshals, there is no way the TSA can cover the 42,000 daily flights in the US.  There were no marshals on shoe-bomber Richard Reid’s (2001) or underwear bomber Umar Farouk’s (2009) trans-Atlantic flights. 

One of the criticisms of FAM is that they waste their time policing “flights to nowhere” on regional 50 seat aircraft when it’s the longer, bigger jets that need attention.

FAM is also sullied by low morale and allegations of alcohol abuse.  Between 2002 and 2012  air marshals were arrested 148 times and were charged with 5000 cases of misconduct including 1200 cases of lost equipment, including their weapons.

If you travel for a living, imagine their job.  They can’t sleep in-flight, suffer from the same delays as the rest of us and have to be ready on seconds’ notice to discharge their weapons at 30,000 feet.

Some marshals say FAM’s problems are due to its ties with TSA.  They suggest the service would be better off as part of Customs and Border Protection or the FBI. 

But Robert MacLean, an air marshal fired in 2006 after disclosing that the service was cutting back on coverage of overnight flights, calls FAM “security theater serving absolutely no purpose other than showing they (TSA) are doing something”.  (MacLean was finally taken back into FAM after a 10 year legal fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court).

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, June 11, 2018

Amtrak vs the Freight Railroads

We are all familiar with Amtrak’s local operations in the Northeast… the sleek Acela zooming along to Boston at up to 145 mph and the slower “traditional” trains making the local stops along the CT coast.

But Amtrak is a national railroad and its long distance trains to points west face some challenges our speedy service in the east does not:  delays that can run into many hours, not just a few minutes.

The problem is that Amtrak owns and operates the trains, but not the tracks they ride on.
From Washington to Boston, the Northeast Corridor is all owned, maintained, dispatched and operated by Amtrak.  The one small exception is here in Connecticut, from Greenwich to New Haven, where the track is owned by the state but run, under contract, by Metro-North.

But in the rest of the country, Amtrak operates on what it euphemistically calls “host railroads”, all of them freight operators.  Think Norfolk Southern, CSX, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (owned by Warren Buffet) and the Canadian railroads, CN and CP.  Those railroads charge Amtrak for riding over its tracks and don’t always give the passenger trains priority over their more profitable freight traffic.

In 1979 Amtrak was ready to take Southern Pacific to court with evidence that The Sunset Limited running between Houston and New Orleans was regularly “sidetracked” in favor of freight runs.  Though there was no trial, the courts ordered SP to give Amtrak trains first dibs to improve on-time performance.

The railroads said “no way”, arguing that federal agencies had no right to tell them how to run their railroads.  And the freight operators won, twice, with courts slapping the wrists of both the Federal Railroad Authority and the Surface Transportation Board.

Environmental and advocacy groups appealed to the US Supreme Court, arguing that it was in the national interest to have an efficient, reliable, on-time national passenger railroad.  But the high court declined to hear the case.

Today Amtrak uses both a carrot and a stick to deal with its freight railroad “hosts”, offering financial incentives to keep its trains on time and public shaming if they don’t.  On the Amtrak website the best (Canadian Pacific) and worst (Norfolk Southern & Canadian National)  freight railroads are graded from A to F.

On long distance passenger runs, Amtrak trains like The Texas Eagle (Chicago to LA) now run up to five hours late, requiring Amtrak to bring in substitute buses and accommodate passengers who miss their connections.

Freight railroads say they have their own problems without being burdened by Amtrak.  In a booming economy, the freight operators can barely keep up with customer demand on a track network saturated with mile-long oil trains (“pipelines on wheels”) and double-stack container trains moving east from California.

But all of these Amtrak complaints may be moot as the days of long-distance trains seem numbered.  While fast trains like Acela can actually turn a small profit, multi-day “land cruises” on celebrated trains like the California Zephyr and The Empire Builder just hemorrhage money.  Their days are limited, so ride them while you can.

We’ll always have Acela, but the glory days of long-distance rail travel in the US are nearing an end, probably to the delight of the freight operators.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Collecting Fares on The Honor System

In mass transit there is no “free ride”.  But there are various ways of making sure everyone pays their fair share.

Take, for example, Connecticut’s innovative bus rapid-transit system CTfastrak which runs between New Britain, Hartford and Storrs.  Unlike with most buses, CTfastrak passengers pay before getting onboard, purchasing tickets ($1.75 for 2 hours’ use) at the bus stations or online.  This reduces the bus’s “dwell time” at each stop as passengers can board through any door. A similar system is running in NYC on certain “Select Bus” routes and seems popular.

But without paying a fare to the bus driver as you board, how do they know you have a ticket?  Ah, there’s the rub.  The “honor system” relies on “Fare Inspectors” making random checks.  Getting caught without a valid ticket means a $75 fine.

Though widely used in Europe, only a handful of US transit systems have adopted the honor system for fare collection, including the San Diego Trolley and the MUNI light-rail in San Francisco.  In Minneapolis getting caught on a bus without a ticket is a $180 lesson in “doing the right thing”.

In Los Angeles the Metro had so many problems with free-loaders they finally converted to turnstiles.  Even a $250 ticket for fare evaders didn’t encourage payment, resulting in a $9 million loss in ticket sales. And the fare there is only $1.75.

On Metro-North fare evasion doesn’t seem to be a problem.  If you don’t have a ticket they’ll just throw you off the train (at the next station, of course).  Or get an MTA cop to issue a fine. 

Until a few years ago you could buy a ticket on the train for the same fare as on the platform.  That meant wasted time for conductors selling tickets and making change and a “money room” at Grand Central processing a million dollars in cash each week.  Now if you don’t have a ticket and buy one on the train, there’s a $5.75 - $6.50 “Service Charge”… even on a $2 ticket.  Senior citizens get a break as do those boarding at stations that don’t have ticket machines.

The good news is that on-board purchases can now be made by credit card.

The bigger problem on Metro-North is uncollected fares. The railroad admits it loses money by not collecting all tickets… but loses less money than it would cost to properly staff trains with enough conductors to collect them all.

Most infuriating is when trains from Grand Central then depart Stamford.  Everyone can see that dozens of commuters got off there and scores more got on.  But the new arrivals’ tickets are often uncollected unless conductors have issued seat checks to the original NY passengers.

More often, the conductors just walk through the cars asking for “Stamford tickets”.  The scofflaws avoid eye-contact, are seldom challenged, and ride on for free.

Watching someone traveling from Stamford to, say, Bridgeport get a “free ride” is like watching someone shoplift in a store.  You just know you’ll be paying more to subsidize their larceny, with neglectful conductors as their willing accomplices.

Is it so much to ask that all passengers pay for their ride?  Those of us who do, don’t think so.

 Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, May 28, 2018

Connecticut: Love It Or Leave It

The recent debate over tolling our highways should remind us of just how divided our state has become.  Not red vs. blue and not even just upstate vs. downstate.  The real divide is between those who commute by car vs. those who take mass transit.

I’ve written for years about the fact that riders on Metro-North pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US, and those fares will only keep going up.  Most rail riders have little choice, especially if headed to New York City.  What are they going to do… drive?

Yet every time the fares go up… and they have increased 55% since 2002… ridership goes up as well.  Why?  Because conditions on the highways keep getting worse and worse.

But those who chose to drive, or must because there’s no viable mass transit option, seem to literally hate rail commuters.  I think its jealousy.  During the tolls debate, the venom was dripping and one Tweet in particular hit home.

“Just because your commute (by train) is so expensive doesn’t mean mine (by car) should be too (because of tolling),” read the post.

The driver had clearly missed the point.  We aren’t looking for tolls to subsidize rail fares, just to get motorists to pay for the upkeep of their roads and bridges before we have another Mianus River Bridge collapse, which we will.

But it gets worse.

The anti-toll forces now sound like Howard Beale, the deranged newsman from the movie “Network” who was “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”   Doubtless, much of this is directed at Governor Malloy who enjoys (suffers from?) the lowest popularity rating in the history of polling.  Sure, the economy of our state is in bad shape.   But Malloy didn’t create this economic mess.  He just inherited it and mishandled it.   

And it will get far worse, whoever succeeds Malloy in the fall.  The solutions will be few and all will be painful.  Forestalling tolls and gasoline taxes today won’t stop the bridges from rotting.

But this opposition to tolls or modest gasoline tax increases to pay for roads has now been taken to a maniacal pitch predicting that “everyone is leaving the state”, conditions are so bad.   That’s fine with me.

I was recently at our town dump and saw a young man unloading a bunch of items.  “My parents are moving,” he told me.  “Everyone is leaving Connecticut!” he exclaimed.  

“Really?”, I asked.

“It’s all Malloy’s fault,” he said, sounding like a Pied Piper leading a caravan down I-95 to some promised land.

I asked him one question:  “Did your parents sell their house?”   “Sure,” he said.  “And at a profit over what they paid for it.”

“Well,” I said, “I guess not everyone is leaving.  Your folks are moving out and someone else is moving in.”  Someone who wants to live here.

To those who hate it so much living in Connecticut, I extend an invitation:  please leave.  Enjoy your low-tax destination.  And don’t forget to pay those highway tolls as you drive down I-95 through NY, NJ etc.

But enough already with the “I hate Connecticut” mantra.  Some of us actually like living here.  And losing ‘the haters” will only mean fewer cars on our roadways.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

America's First Subway - Powered By Air

A secret project, defying the government, helped build America’s first subway.  It only ran for three years but carried hundreds of thousands of  passengers, even though it ran only 312 feet. And it was powered by air.

In the 1860’s New York City was in a transportation crisis.  The streets were jammed with horse-pulled trolleys and wagons, as many as 1000 an hour passing a single point on lower Broadway.  Pedestrians dodged the vehicles and mounds of horse manure.

By 1863 London had solved a similar road chaos by opening the world’s first subway, The Underground.  But New York’s Tammany Hall wasn’t interested as Boss Tweed was making massive amounts of money from investments and kickbacks from New York’s street railroads.

But Tweed did show interest another London innovation:  mail transported underground in pneumatic tubes. Seizing the moment, American inventor and Scientific American editor Alfred Beach got a city permit to construct a postal tube system on lower Broadway.  Using $350,000 of his own money ($6.4 million in 2018 dollars), Beach’s plan was far grander and his “tube” would be far larger.

Working secretly at night in the sub-basement  of Devlin’s Clothing Store near City Hall, Beach started digging his tunnel.  In 58 days it was complete, running one city block.  All he need now was a “car” and a means of propulsion.

Given that his tube was only eight feet in diameter, Beach opted for a small, round passenger car that could carry 22 people.  The interior was posh and upholstered.  And to lure riders fearful of subterranean lairs, he built a $70,000 station complete with chandeliers, plush chairs, a goldfish pond and a piano player.

To power the train he acquired a 50 ton ventilation fan used in mining, nicknamed the Western Tornado.  Sucking air from the streets above, the huge fan would blow the car down the track at 6 mph.  When the car reached the end of the tunnel, the fan was reversed, sucking it back into the station.

On March 1, 1870 the subway was opened to the public.  For 25 cents a ride ($4.50 in today’s money) thousands came to see transportation’s future. (Beach donated all of the fare revenue to charity).

Boss Tweed was enraged, especially when Beach predicted he could transport up to 20,000 passengers a day five miles north to Central Park at speeds up to “a mile a minute”.  The Boss had other plans.

He wanted to solve the street congestion by building up, not under.  Of course, his plan for elevated railroads would make him a fortune.  Coupled with the financial collapse in the Panic of 1873, Beach’s Pneumatic Transit system was doomed, The fans were shut off and
the project was shuttered.

Beach’s tunnel was later used as a shooting gallery and wine vault before being sealed up for good in 1874.  In 1912, workers digging the BMT’s Broadway line dug into the old tunnel and found the car and the old piano.  Beach’s pneumatic mail system did survive serving customers until 1953. 

Beach died in 1896 and eight years later New York City’s first true subway opened for business, running from City Hall to Harlem.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Tale of Two Trains

As the clock ticks down on the legislature’s efforts to avert service cuts and fare hikes on our trains and buses, people are confused and angry.

That was certainly the tone at last Monday’s ‘listening session” in New Canaan held by US Senator Chris Murphy, who’d come to talk about transportation.  Most of those who turned out cared little for his vision of national infrastructure.  They were more worried about losing their mid-day and weekend branch line service on Metro-North under proposed CDOT budget cuts starting July 1st.

“We’re really fed up,” said one.  “This kind of crisis has now been socialized,” said another, predicting we’d be back dealing with such ideas again in another few years. “Was this a political ploy or a real crisis?” asked a skeptic.

Senator Murphy clearly understood he was walking into a hornet’s nest.  But the audience seemed surprised when he admitted he didn’t understand the extent of the proposed service cuts.  Really?

“We need to refill the Special Transportation Fund,” said Murphy.  “But I’ll stay out of the details of how to do it.  I’m not plugged in at the state level.”

While state Senator Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) tried to reassure attendees that the looming crisis has been averted… that there will be no service cuts or fare hikes July 1st… the details are fuzzy.

Both the Democrats’ and Republicans’ proposed budgets seem to find money to staunch the hemorrhaging of the STF. But my sources tell me it’s the same old shell game.  Take a little money from the rainy-day fund, divert the new car sales tax, maybe a booze bottle deposit tax and yes, a four to seven cent increase in the gasoline tax.  Even Boucher said a gas tax hike “would be fair”. 

But no tolls?  No, in an election year that can has been kicked down the road once again. 

By the time you read this column, the proposed solutions may be different.  But they all seem like band-aids, not systemic changes in funding.  Crisis postponed, not averted.

Meanwhile, Senator Murphy was talking big picture:  infrastructure investment on a national, bi-partisan level measuring billions of dollars.  He reminded attendees that while the US spends 2% of GDP on infrastructure, Europe spends 6% and China 12%.

He said that Amtrak’s high-speed Acela turns a profit of $300 million a year which is used to subsidize slower, traditional Northeast Corridor trains.  Acela could be privatized.

He praised the European model where the government owns and maintains the tracks while private companies pay to offer competitive service with their trains.  Imagine having a choice of carriers to whisk you by rail to Washington.

What about Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?  We can’t wait that long, said Murphy.  “It’s far from being proven as a technology.”

Murphy admitted that US roads and rails are too expensive and take far too long to build under current regulations.  “The Republicans are going to have to accept new taxes and the Democrats some changes in labor and environmental rules,” he said.

It was the tale of two railroads.

Murphy was dreaming of 200+ mph high speed rail and most people in the room were just trying to save their one-track, “dink train” from New Canaan to NYC. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media