Monday, April 16, 2018

Grabbing The Best Seat

It was the folks at Cunard who said “Getting there is half the fun”.  And crossing the Atlantic in style on an ocean liner certainly was.  But whatever your mode of transportation, getting the right seat can make for an enjoyable or miserable trip.

On Metro-North, I usually go for a window seat.  However, on crowded trains, any seat is better than none.  But I can still get an “upgrade”, if I pay attention.

Heading into New York, I watch for people getting off the train in Stamford.  Their seat check usually has a torn corner, so I look for them when boarding.  And you’ll usually see those folks gathering their stuff just before arriving at the station.  That’s when I pounce.

Leaving GCT I try to arrive early to board my train so I get my first pick of seats.  I usually opt for the window on a three-seat side.  That way, if someone else arrives just before departure, they can take the aisle seat and the train will have to be SRO before anyone opts for the dreaded middle seat.

But it’s on airplanes that seat selection is crucial.

Never go for an emergency exit row.  There may be more legroom, but the seat dividers are rigid and the arm rests can’t be raised. 

Try to sit forward of the wing for minimal engine noise.  It’s not by chance that the cheapest seats are in the rear, next to the lavatories, where the jet noise is the loudest.

Some people prefer aisle seats so they can get up and walk around.  But a recent study showed occupants of those seats have the greatest chance of being sprayed with germs from other passengers and crew.  Consider wearing a face mask for your own protection.
Again, I prefer a window seat so I can see where we are going.  But even booking in advance these seats are hard to get, depending on the airline and your frequent flyer status.

Something like 20% of all airline revenue now comes from “add-ons” to ticket prices for things like seat assignments, checked bags, food and yes, seat assignments.

The travelers’ advocacy group Travelers United cites an example of a passenger flying from NY to Chicago on American Airlines who really wanted a window seat but was told it would cost an additional $42.  She refused, waiting until she got to the airport to check in to try again.  There the airline said her window seat would cost an extra $76… more than her one-way airfare!

That she could fly 700 miles for 10 cents a mile is ridiculous and speaks to how much airlines are “unbundling” their products. Their profit comes not from the transportation but the amenities.  You can take Greyhound on that route for $54 (if you don’t mind a 22 hour trip).  But “riding the dog” comes with two free checked bags, seat-side power plugs and free Wi-Fi.

Families flying together have it particular challenge trying to get adjacent seats. But last fall Congress tossed air travelers a bone, requiring airlines to seat families together at no additional cost.

Whatever your mode of transportation, being it cruise ship or jetliner, planning ahead is key to scoring “the best seat in the house”.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, April 9, 2018

What Happens When We Run Out of Oil

Tired of paying $3+ a gallon for gasoline?  Well, your pain has just begun.

For decades we’ve lived (and driven) in denial, somehow assuming we have the “right” to cheap gasoline, and therefore, low-cost transportation.  Now it’s time to face reality and consider what will happen when (not if) gas hits $10 a gallon, not because of taxes, but because we will use up the planet’s petroleum.
Here are some predictions:

AIR TRANSPORT:       Following the demise of a dozen airlines and the shrinking of the remaining carriers, air fares soar and service is cut.  Air travel becomes affordable to few.  Airport congestion fades as business trips are replaced with tele-conferencing.  Hotels are shuttered as business travel wanes and “leisure travel” becomes unaffordable. 

HIGHWAYS:     Rush-hour on I-95 is a breeze as half of all motorists can no longer afford to drive.  But the highways are a mess of potholes as the price of asphalt, made from petroleum, quintuples making it impossible to maintain the roads because gas tax revenues have dropped with decreased sales.  With more people working from home or on flex-time, traffic congestion is a thing of the past.

HOMES / OFFICES:   With home heating oil at $12 a gallon, people close off rooms in their “McMansions” and huddle in the few remaining spaces they can afford to heat, usually with wood stoves, which are also in short supply.  Office buildings, by law, will be allowed to heat to no more than 60 degrees in colder months. Sweaters become a fashion rage.

MASS TRANSIT:    Seats are pulled out of railcars to create standing room capacity and Metro-North offers cheaper fares to those who can’t get a seat.  As in Tokyo, “pushers” are assigned at Grand Central to squeeze passengers into trains.   Few can afford to drive and park at rail stations, so most spaces there are turned over to bike racks.  Despite fare increases, ridership soars.

AROUND TOWN:    Local traffic drops as people consolidate their few truly necessary shopping trips.  Because farmers are so dependent on oil (for fertilizers, packaging and transport), food prices soar.  Food imported out of season becomes an occasional treat.  Few can afford to eat out at now-chilly restaurants dealing with the same food shortages.  Wagons and carts, bikes with racks, mopeds and scooters replace SUVs.  Kids take the school bus daily instead of being chauffeured by Mom.  Suburban housing prices continue to fall as people flock to the walkable cities with good mass transit.  Small town taxes rise, encouraging further migration.  Schools can’t afford good teachers who must still commute from far away due to lack of local affordable housing.

THE ENVIRONMENT:         Oil drilling begins in the Alaskan wilderness, but no supply of oil will reach the lower-48 for three years.  Air pollution worsens (thanks in part to the wood burning stoves) and acid rain decimates much of the Northeast.  Increased CO2 emissions hasten global warming.  The sea level rises and coastal communities risk greater flooding as more numerous and powerful hurricanes ravage the US.

Will any of these predictions come true?  Time will tell.  What can we do to prevent this Doomsday scenario?  Not much.  So enjoy what’s left of the era of cheap oil.  We’ll all have a lot of explaining to do to our grandchildren.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Saving Money Riding Metro-North

Whether you’re a daily commuter, an occasional day-tripper or have friends visiting from out of town, everyone can save money when you go into NYC on Metro-North by following this time-tested advice:

TRANSITCHEK:     Get your employer to subscribe to this great service, which allows workers to buy up to $260 per month in transit using pre-tax dollars.  If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings on commutation.  A recent survey shows that 45% of all New York City companies offer TransitChek which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries. 

GO OFF-PEAK:      If your train arrives at Grand Central weekdays after 10 am and you can avoid the 4 pm – 8 pm peak return hours, you can save 25%.  Off-peak fares are also in effect on weekends and holidays.  Your train may be less crowded, too.  These tickets are good for 60 days after purchase.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE:      Buy your ticket on the train and you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 - $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once!  (Seniors: don’t worry, you’re exempt and can buy on-board anytime without penalty). There are ticket machines at most stations, but the most convenient  tickets are those bought online using the new e-Tix app.  And go for the ten-trip tickets (Off-Peak will save an additional 15%).  They can be shared among family members and friends and are good for six months.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES:          Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50% over adult fares.  Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours).  

Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50% off the one way peak fare.  But you must have proper ID and you don’t get the discount in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING:         Even train stations that require local parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends.  Check with your local municipality. 

CHEAPER STATION PARKING:           If you're a regular commuter, don’t waste money parking at comparatively “expensive” station garages like South Norwalk ($ 12 per day), Stamford ($11) or New Haven ($18).  Instead, park at the day-lots in nearby towns for as little as $4.  But be sure to pay at the pay station before boarding the train.

Once you’re in the city, you can save even more money.

METROCARDS:     Sorry Grandpa, subway tokens are no more.  The nifty MetroCard can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some incredible deals:  put $5.50 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 5% bonus.  Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus.  You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a week ($32) or a month ($121).  There’s now even an ExpressPay MetroCard the refills itself like an EZ-Pass.

BUT…  IS IT CHEAPER TO DRIVE?:      Despite being a mass transit advocate, I’m the first to admit that there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than take the train, especially with three or more passengers.  You can avoid bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure.  

Check out  to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination, some offering discount coupons.   Or drive to CitiField (it’s still Shea Stadium to me) where parking is cheaper and take the # 7 subway from there to GCT.

The bottom line is that it isn’t cheap going into “the city”.  But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money.  Enjoy!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Public Hearings or Political Theater?

In recent weeks I’ve been criss-crossing the state talking to folks about our transportation crisis:  the proposed fare hikes on trains and buses coupled with service cuts on the branch lines, and the multi-billion spending cuts at CDOT.

I call it the “Winter of our discontent” magical misery tour. Here's a link to a video of one of my talks: 

From Woodbridge to New Canaan, from Old Lyme to West Haven, I’ve talked to crowds large and small, explaining what’s going to happen July 1st and why.  Most folks knew something about our impending doom, but they all left unhappy about the cuts’ specific impact on their lives.

Like the First Selectwoman from Old Lyme who said taxpayers were going to have to spend $600,000 repairing a local bridge because, for the third year in a row, CDOT doesn’t have enough money to share with municipalities.

Or the manager of The Roger Sherman Inn in New Canaan who said she’d probably have to close if off-peak train service was cut on the branch, making it impossible for her cooks and waiters to get to work.

But the culmination of all these presentations was last Tuesday night’s public hearing in Stamford before an SRO crowd of 200+ angry residents.  I’d come more to listen than talk, but couldn’t resist and used my allotted three minutes to ask…

“What are we doing here?  Why are we at this hearing when nothing that you or I say tonight will do anything to change the inevitability of these fare hikes and service cuts?  This may be cathartic, but it’s just political theater.  The folks you should really be talking to are not from CDOT but your State Rep and State Senator.  The legislature created this funding problem and only they can fix it.  If they raise the gas tax and get serious about making motorists pay their fair share, none of these service cuts or fare hikes will happen”.

I was speaker number 11 of more than 80 who signed up to speak.  Some of them waited 4 hours for their few minutes in front of the mic.

But not the politicians.  As State Rep’s arrived, they were whisked by the CDOT Commissioner to the front of the speaker’s line, jumping the queue.  The Commissioner is no fool.  He knows who controls his budget and it isn’t the old guy with a walker complaining about the buses.

When the pols spoke it was the usual platitudes but no new ideas.  “Don’t raise fares, find other funding sources,” said one.  What funding sources?  To their credit, some of the pols did stay to listen, but others (including at least one gubernatorial hopeful) did their grandstanding and split.

One State Rep did have the guts to poll the crowd on their appetite for raising the gasoline tax and tolling our roads, both of which got loud support, much to his surprise.  The people have spoken so now’s the time for action.

By the way… what kind of message does it send when scores of New Canaan residents go to the Stamford hearing to oppose rail service cuts but take a chartered bus instead of the train?

People are angry.  But they need to direct their anger not at the CDOT but at the legislature, holding them accountable for their inaction.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, March 10, 2018

"A Private, For-Profit Passenger Railroad"

There is no profitable passenger railroad in the United States. 

Amtrak and commuter lines like Metro-North all operate at a loss as a public service, their deficits borne by tax dollars.  But in January all that changed as America saw the launch of “Brightline”, a privately owned, for profit passenger railroad in Florida.

Running between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, the railroad is owned by Fortress Investment Group, which has ties to Florida East Coast Railways over whose freight tracks the new passenger trains will run.

So far the $3 billion invested in the railroad has delivered only 46 miles of track but plans are to extend the line south to Miami and north to Orlando Airport by 2021.  The trip from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach takes just 34 minutes, averaging 79 mph and costs $10 one way in “Smart Coach” class, $15 in “Select Coach” (first class).  That’s hardly enough time to get settled in let alone enjoy the comfy Acela-style seats, complimentary Wi-Fi or free snacks in the pricier seats.

Trains run every 90 minutes on weekends, more frequently on weekdays.  Eventually they hope to offer four trains an hour (compared to two an hour on Metro-North). The commuter-line TriRail runs between the same stations (for $5.65 one way) in about an hour, thanks to nine intermediate stops compared to Brightline’s nonstop express.

Driving the same distance on Florida’s I-95 would take 47 minutes, assuming an average 65 mph, which is nearly impossible on that crowded interstate, in some places 16 lanes wide!

On its opening weekend, a VIP inspection-train killed a pedestrian crossing the tracks (after
the warning gate had been lowered) in Boynton Beach FL.  Since testing began of the new trains, six people have been hit by the trains, four of them killed.  Despite the fatalities, local residents are trying to force the railroad to suspend use of its horns as locomotives fly along at speed.  That’s pretty stupid, if you ask me.

Brightline’s owners aren’t counting just on passengers to make their railroad profitable.  Wisely, they are expecting real estate (which they own) adjacent to their stations to become quite desirable.  They’re building a 290-unit residential building in West Palm and another 816 units in a mixed-use, 11-acre site near the railroad’s eventual Miami hub.  Not only will they have a captive ridership but their rent money as well.

This is also Connecticut’s dream:  transit oriented development.  The only difference is that in Florida Brightline owns the land near their stations.  CDOT does not, with the exception of parking lots like Stamford station’s which have long been eyed as a revenue source to subsidize our trains.

In Hong Kong the privately-owned Mass Transit Railway (MTR) turns a profit of $2 billion a year not just by running one of the world’s best subways, but by owning the shopping malls and skyscrapers above its stations.  Turning an 85% operating profit, the MTR can invest in new trains and passenger amenities while still keeping fares at about 50 cents a ride.

We’ll see if Brightline can find its audience and turn a profit.  If they do, their success may be a model for other private investment in this crucial public service of mass transit.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Big Brother Is Along for The Ride

Don’t look now, but someone is joining your travels:  Big Brother.

You assume you’re alone, traveling in your car to and from work?  No, you are being watched.  All along I-95 TV cameras are looking for accidents and slow downs.  Though there are specific state laws prohibiting the use of those cameras to write speeding tickets, they can follow your car by model, color and license plate number.

Many local cops’ cruisers have license plate readers, scanning every plate and sending its information to a national database that can alert the officer to outstanding warrants, lack of insurance and other stoppable offences.  Some departments store their scan data for weeks, others for years.

Now, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is contracting with a private company to have access to a billion license plate records, allowing the agency to know where you were and when.

If you have an EZ-Pass, it’s being “pinged” for more than just paying tolls.  The NYC Dept of Transportation uses hundreds of E-ZPass readers in Manhattan, it says, to monitor the flow of traffic.  But the NY Civil Liberties Union calls that an invasion of privacy. 

And, of course, our cell-phones are constantly transmitting our location and speed to services like Google and Waze, though you can turn that off.  It’s even alleged that hackers can use Waze to track you.  And have you checked your Google Location History lately to see everywhere you’ve been and when?

Even outside of your car, you’re still being followed.  Metro-North just added security cameras to its trains, watching both the engineer and the passengers.  There are cameras, as well, at stations and on NYC buses.  MTA (and NYPD) can easily track every swipe of your MetroCard (tied to your credit card).  Of course, they’re only looking for bad guys, not you.  Right?

Traveling by air?  Well, in addition to a full luggage search and body pat-down by the TSA, now the airlines and US Customs agency are using facial recognition to allow you to board your flight and leave the country.

If you’re bound for Aruba on JetBlue out of Boston you won’t even need a boarding pass as your face will identify you to the airline… and who knows who else.  The whole process take two or three seconds and is billed as a “convenience”.

US Customs hopes to use facial recognition for arrivals into this country starting this summer.  Meantime your RFID chip-enabled passport will be necessary.  But do you know what information about you is encoded in that chip?  US Customs says there is no personal data on the chip, just a reference number corresponding to your personal information stored on their computers. 

Like all RFID chips, your passport’s can be “pinged” from up to 30 feet away, so some travelers are now shielding their passports with expensive wallets lined with metal.

Don’t want Big Brother to join you on your journeys?  Wear a disguise, strip yourself of all technology, and try walking or riding a bike.  Or just stay home, curled up in a paranoid-induced ball, worrying.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Drivers Don't Pay Their Fair Share

Am I the only person in the state who thinks Gov Malloy’s plan for tolls and gas taxes makes sense?  Probably.  But let me try once again to overcome the usual objections and explain why Malloy’s plan is fair and necessary.

TOLLS ARE TAXES:         No, tolls are users fees.  Train fares aren’t taxes, are they?  If you don’t want to pay a few pennies a gallon more for gasoline, don’t drive.  Join us on the train and pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  There is no free ride.

I ALREADY PAY ENOUGH TAXES:       That may be your perception.  But in 1997 when legislators cut the sky-high gas taxes by 14 cents, why didn’t they tell us that would lose us $3.7 billion in needed transportation funding?  The bill has come due.

BUT I ALSO PAY A PROPERTY TAX ON MY CAR:   Sure, but it doesn’t go to fixing the roads.  That’s a town / city tax.  If you don’t like it, tell City Hall.

WE ALREADY HAVE THE HIGHEST GASOLINE TAXES:   Not so anymore.  Connecticut’s 39 cents per gallon tax is third highest in the Northeast, trailing Pennsylvania (59 cents) and New York (44 cents) and just ahead of New Jersey (37 cents). 

THE ROADS SHOULD BE FREE:          And just where in the Constitution does it say that?  This isn’t the pioneer West:  we’re talking about I-95 and the Parkways!  Driving is not like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Think of the new paradigm as an a la carte restaurant where you pay for what you eat.

TOLLS AREN’T SAFE:      Another myth since the days of the “fiery truck crash” in Milford in 1983.  Tolls don’t require barriers or booths anymore.  They’re electronic gantries over the highway reading your EZPass or license plate without slowing down.

TOLLS WILL DIVERT TRAFFIC TO LOCAL ROADS:           Maybe, for the first week.  Then people will decide if they want to waste time in traffic or pay a few cents to get where they’re going.

IF WE RAISE THE GAS TAX WHY DO WE NEED TOLLS?:           Because raising the gasoline tax can be done in weeks.  But tolls will take 2-4 years to install and by then upwards of half of all cars will be electric, paying no gas tax.  Why should a Tesla driver get a free ride?

OK, BUT JUST TOLL SOMEONE ELSE:          Sure, something like 34% of all traffic in Connecticut is from out-of-state.  But building tolls just at our borders is unconstitutional (and unfair).  We can offer a discount to CT residents, but can’t charge those driving through our state while we pay nothing.

MALLOY STOLE MONEY FROM TRANSPORTATION:        True, money has been regularly “reapportioned” from the Special Transportation Fund for years, by Rowland and Rell as well as Malloy.  You’ll get the chance to stop that in November when there’s a referendum question on the ballot for a “lock box” on the STF.

THE REAL PROBLEM IS STATE EMPLOYEE UNION CONTRACTS:          That may be so, but the SEBAC contracts were just renegotiated and approved by the legislature, so how do we undo that before the STF goes belly-up next year?

I’VE HAD ENOUGH!  I’M LEAVING THE STATE:       Sorry to see you go.  But when you say goodbye, remember you’ll have to pay tolls to NY, MA or RI on your way out.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Get Back on the Bus, Gus...

 Though maybe not the most glamorous means of mass transit, Connecticut’s 12,000+ local and commuter buses form a vital link in our transportation network.

“We’re not just a service for the needy few,” says Greater Bridgeport Transit’s CEO Doug Holcomb, the feisty young leader of one of the state’s largest and most successful  bus systems.

In other words, single-occupancy car drivers’ perceptions notwithstanding, it’s not just poor folks and the car-less who must rely on the bus.  According to Holcomb, 90% of GBT’s ridership is either going to school or work.  Like rail commuters, some bus passengers own cars but prefer to take the bus for any number of reasons.

GBT’s 40-foot buses average 30 passengers per bus per hour, an impressive average when you consider it includes rush hour and lower-ridership off-hours.  And it’s no wonder people take the bus when 78% of Bridgeport’s population is within a half-mile of a bus stop.

It’s the frequency of service that also makes buses attractive.  Miss one bus and there’s another along in a few minutes.  The GBT’s bilingual website makes it easy to ride the bus with maps and tutorials for first time passengers.  And the bus company even offers a real-time online map that uses GPS to show you where your bus is on its route.  Not even Metro-North can do that.

If you go to you can input your departure and end points for anywhere in the state and your bus alternatives and travel times will pop up.

Fares are cheap:  $1.75 for adults and just 85 cents for seniors.  Yet, fares cover just 35% of the cost of the ride (the rest is subsidy).  But by keeping fares affordable the bus is attracting more riders and covering more of its costs.

Sure Uber and lower gasoline prices are eating into ridership.  GBTA carries 18,000 daily riders compared to 20,000 just a few years ago.  But the bus can take you places Metro-North can’t, like the “Coastal Link” route which runs from Milford to Norwalk along the Boston Post Road.  At Milford you can connect to New Haven and at Norwalk, to Stamford.
Even the buses themselves are getting better as transit agencies upgrade their decade-old vehicles.  New buses are hybrid electric, not the old smoke-spewing diesels of years ago.  And Connecticut is now engaged in a $1.4 million study of all-electric buses, seeing if they can handle the cold and operate on our hills.  One model of electric bus can even re-charge in 5-12 minutes when it reaches the end of its route while off-loading passengers. 

One of the biggest bus successes in the state is CTfastrak, the almost three year old BRT (bus rapid transit) system running from downtown Hartford west to New Britain and more recently, as far east as UConn in Storrs.  The buses operate on a 9 mile dedicated highway and carry 400,000 riders each month on clean, sleek Wi-Fi equipped buses that depart every seven minutes.

CTfastrak has proven popular with college students, so it’s now considered “cool” to take the bus.  Who knows?   With millennials being big fans of mass transit they could give our state’s bus network a new uptick. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Friday, February 9, 2018

Zone Pricing for Gasoline

Why does gasoline cost 52 cents a gallon more in Greenwich than Bridgeport?   Is it because folks in Greenwich are richer and can afford it?  Or is it because it costs gasoline station owners more to operate in that tony zip code?

While both factors are probably true, the reason gasoline costs more in some towns than in others is because of something called “zone pricing”, an industry practice that does all but set the price for the commodity that is charged by distributors and passed along to their customers.

Lawmakers have debated zone pricing many times in recent years, but it has never been killed. I wonder why, given its apparent unfairness.  But who’s to explain the mysteries of what our lawmakers do?

Let’s follow the gasoline distribution process to better understand price-setting.
An oil tanker arrives in New Haven and offloads its cargo (there are no pipelines to our state).  There are thirty gasoline distributors in Connecticut and as they truck their gasoline to gas stations, they obviously incur costs.

Big chains of gas stations can negotiate better deals than the independently owned stations.  So to compete “Mom and Pop” gas stations often sell snack foods and such.  In effect, your beef jerky is subsidizing your cheaper gasoline.

But it’s the secret zone pricing rules, set by the distributors, that breaks the state into about 50 different zones and determines how much station owners must pay for gasoline. Pricing is determined by traffic volume, nearby income levels, the competitive landscape and other factors.  And the gas station owner is making only seven cents a gallon profit.  But if the station owners must pay more for gasoline, so will you.

When he was Connecticut’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal called zone pricing “invisible and insidious”. Yet, the courts say its legal and the Federal Trade Commission says whatever costs are added in one zone are probably offset by discounts in another.  So it all averages out, right?

Gasoline distributors also say they need flexibility to offer lower prices to gas stations competing with super-discounters like Costco.  And they also remind us that other industries have their own answer to zone pricing:  like supermarkets that may charge less for the same product in Bridgeport than they do in Fairfield, right next door.

So while we may not be willing to drive five miles for a cheaper gallon of milk, we seem happy to go a few miles out of way to save ten cents per gallon of gasoline.  Fire up your “Gas Buddy” app and happy hunting. But remember, it your car only gets 20 mpg, driving ten miles for cheap gas will cost you a gallon on the roundtrip.  Some bargain!

The state also meddles with other kinds of pricing, like for liquor.  In fact, state law requires merchants to mark up prices to a minimum price per bottle, all in an effort to preserve Mom and Pop liquor stores. Why?  Because those merchants have better lobbyists.

We didn’t feel obliged to protect small town hardware stores when Home Depot and Lowes came to town.  But we do keep all sorts of prices in our state artificially higher than necessary to protect smaller merchants selling gas and liquor.

So is “zone pricing” for gasoline really unfair, or just a state sanctioned economic reality? 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Who Speaks for Commuters ?

“Commuting on Metro-North is like getting hit with a two-by-four.  Service is getting worse and now you’re hitting us with a 10% fare hike.”

Those comments came from Jeffrey Maron, Vice-Chairman of the official Connecticut Commuter Rail Council (CCCR), a usually mild mannered, two-compliments-before-any-complaint kind of guy.  (Maron and I both served on the predecessor Metro-North Commuter Council).

But Maron’s tone had changed, as he quizzed CDOT Commission Jim Redeker at the recent CCRC meeting in Stamford where the transportation czar outlined the reasons for pending service cuts and fare hikes, i.e. the Special Transportation Fund is running dry and he has no choice but to cut expenses and raise revenue.

Maron reminded the Commissioner that Council members had offered many fund-raising suggestions, but never got the courtesy of a reply. “This is what  pi—es off the rider,” said Maron, raising his voice (which I have never, ever heard him do).  “We make suggestions and hear crickets.”

Maron was right.  Commuters’ suggestions should be heard, considered and accepted or rejected which explanation.  But Jeff’s ideas would amount to chump change compared to the funding really needed… like handing you a pool float as a tsunami hits.

Why not wrap all Metro-North cars in advertising, like our buses?  “That might bring in a million dollars,” said Redeker.  “So you don’t care about a million dollars?” asked Maron.  Probably not, when the STF will be $338 million in the red by 2022.

Why not collect all tickets?  Reasonable idea, but the needed staffing would cost more than the additional revenue collected, said the Commissioner.

Rubbing salt in the wound, Maron reminded the Commissioner of how much time and money he had wasted trying to repair, then demolish and privatize, the Stamford rail parking garage, a TOD project very dear to Redeker’s heart (and reputation).

And so it went as Commuter Council members (only half of whom even bothered to show up) bickered with Redeker and representatives of Metro-North.  Maron was right.  The Council gets no respect.

Which is why I resigned in 2013, after serving on that body for 19 years, the last four as Chairman.  The monthly meetings were a waste of time because neither side was listening to the other.

Over the years I’ve found that even simple questions require complex answers.  And there is usually a logical explanation for why the railroad has screwed up something.  Despite what curmudgeon commuters may think, the folks at CDOT and Metro-North are not stupid.  They’re just dealing with a complicated operation with insufficient resources and little margin of error.

So, why was the Commuter Council blaming Redeker for fare hikes and service cuts that he never wanted to make?  Instead, why weren’t they asking legislators what they will do to fund the STF?  The Council members weren’t listening.

So who’s really looking out for rail commuters’ interests?  It sure ain’t hypocritical lawmakers who claim to be fighting the fare hike necessitated by their own legislative inaction.

And sadly, I don’t think it’s the Commuter Council.  They’ve lost any credibility by their inability to deal with these issues with anything but bickering.

Nor do I pretend to that responsibility, though I’m usually the media’s go-to-guy for a soundbite.  I’m not even a full-time commuter anymore.

At this point I think it’s every man and woman for themselves. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.