August 24, 2016

Talking Transportation: Summer Daytrips To Ride Connecticut’s Rail History

Either of these Valley Railroad diesel locomotives pictured above, “0900” or “0901”, is used to power the Essex Clipper Dinner Train.

Either of these Valley Railroad diesel locomotives pictured above, “0900” or “0901”, is used to power the Essex Clipper Dinner Train.

If you’re looking for family fun this summer, consider visiting one of Connecticut’s many living museums celebrating our rail heritage.

The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (www.shorelinetrolley.com) was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than 100 trolley cars in its collection.  It still runs excursion trolleys for a short run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford.  You can walk through the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restoring the old cars.  There’s also a small museum exhibit and gift shop.

The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor (www.ceraonline.org) began in 1940, making it the oldest trolley museum in the US.  It too was started on an existing right-of-way, the Rockville branch of the Hartford & Springfield Street Railway Company.  You can ride a couple of different trolleys a few miles into the woods and back, perhaps disembarking to tour their collection of streetcars, elevated and inter-urbans in the museum’s sheds and barns.

If you’re looking for a day-trip, especially for kids, I can highly recommend either museum.  But if you’re looking for trains, you’re also in luck.

The Danbury Railroad Museum (www.danbury.org/drm) is walking distance from the Metro-North station, making this a potentially full-day, all-rail adventure.  On weekends they offer train rides and for a premium you can even ride in the caboose or the engine.  They have a great collection of old rail cars and a well stocked gift shop.

For nostalgia fans, The Essex Steam Train (www.essexsteamtrain.com) offers not only daily rides on a classic steam train, but connecting riverboat rides up to the vicinity of Gillette Castle and back.  In addition to coach seating you can ride on an open-air car or in a plush First Class Coach.  There’s also a great dinner train, “The Essex Clipper” which offers a two and a half hour, four-course meal and a cash bar.

In downtown South Norwalk, you can visit what once was a busy switch tower, now the SoNo Switch Tower Museum (www.westctnrhs.org/towerinfo.htm).  Admission is free (donations welcome) weekends 12 noon to 5 p.m.

Also open only on weekends is the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic (www.cteastrrmuseum.org).  In addition to guided tours, visitors can operate a replica 1850’s-style pump car along a section of rail that once was part of the New Haven Railroad’s “Air Line”.

The Railroad Museum of New England in Thomaston (www.rmne.org) offers rail trips on Sundays and Tuesdays along the scenic Naugatuck River in addition to a large collection of restored engines and passenger cars including a last of its kind 1929 New Haven RR first class “smoker” complete with leather bucket seats.

All of these museums are run by volunteers who will appreciate your patronage and support.  They love working on the railroad and will tell you why if you express even the slightest interest in their passion.  Try ‘em.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 25 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. 

The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com 

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Talking Transportation: America’s Mass Transit Mecca

Portland, Oregon, with Mount Rainier providing a stunning backdrop.

Jim Cameron names Portland, Ore., (with Mount Rainier providing a stunning backdrop) the most mass-transit intensive city in the US.

What’s the most mass-transit intensive city in the US?  By the numbers, New York City.  But for a glimpse of the real future of mass-transit,  the winner is clearly Portland, Oregon.

Portland has only 632,000 residents but 2.3 million in its metro area.  Yet it has, per capita, what I think is the largest, most extensive and best integrated systems of light rail, streetcars and bike lanes in the nation.

LIGHT RAIL: It was 1986 when Portland opened its first light-rail line.  Today the system covers 60 miles (including the airport, 12 miles from downtown).  In 2001 a downtown streetcar system was added.  It proved so successful that Portland now manufactures streetcars for other American cities.

Like the city’s extensive bike-rack equipped bus network, all of Portland’s mass transit operates on the honor system:  you buy tickets before boarding and only show them if a inspector boards, looking for proof of payment.

To encourage ridership, fares are ridiculously cheap.  For $2.50 you can roam the system for 2 ½ hours.  An unlimited day pass is $5 or $26 a month (about the cost of a round-trip to NYC on Metro-North).  “Honored Citizens” (seniors, Medicare or disabled) get a monthly pass for $7.50!

DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT DRIVING: To further encourage use of the ubiquitous mass transit, driving in downtown is difficult and expensive.  The main transit corridors have one lane for streetcars, one lane for bikes and just one lane for cars.  Parking is really expensive, both by meter on the streets and in lots.  And yes, the freeways crawl just like in LA.

TECHNOLOGY: The bus and rail system offers free apps for trip-planning which use GPS to tell you exactly how long you’ll wait for the next trolley, directions by line to your destination and expected travel time.  And yes, you can buy and show your ticket using your smartphone.

BIKES ARE KING:     The city’s unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird”, and the residents work hard to do so.  Outside of Europe or Asia I have never seen so many people on two-wheels traversing a community.

There are so many dedicated bike lanes that when a new bridge was built crossing the Willamette River, the bridge was built for everything except cars and trucks:  a mass transit-only bridge!

When a new Medical Center was planned on a downtown hill, designers realized it would be foolish to waste land on parking, so they built an aerial tram from unused industrial land on the waterfront.  Hospital employees and patients alike take light rail or bike to the base station (where a free 400-space bike-lot is usually full) and are skyward in minutes.

So if you are ever disillusioned by the sorry state of mass-transit in our area, take heart.  The future is now in Portland!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 25 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Talking Transportation: Why Ferries Aren’t the Answer for Commuting in Connecticut

Bridgeport to Port Jefferson Ferry

Bridgeport to Port Jefferson Ferry

Recently, NYC Mayor DeBlasio announced a $325 million plan to reintroduce ferry boat service to the five boroughs charging the same fare as subways.  The mayor says these boats could carry 4.5 million passengers a year.

So why don’t we have ferries in Connecticut?  There are several reasons:

SPEED:  In open water, fast ferries on the Sound could make 30 knots (35 mph).  But if they must sail up inlets to the downtown areas of Bridgeport, Norwalk or Stamford, that speed is cut to 5 knots, extending travel time.

DOCKING: To keep to their competitive speeds, docks would have to be located close to the Sound.  That’s expensive real estate. And what about parking at those docks… and drive-time on local roads to reach them? Again, more travel time.

FREQUENCY: Metro-North offers trains to midtown New York every 20 minutes in rush hour carrying 800 – 1000 passengers per train. No ferry service anywhere in the country can compete with that frequency of service. Will travelers really be willing to wait an hour or two for the next boat?

COMFORT: In nice weather, a boat ride to work sounds idyllic. But what about in a Nor’easter?  The bumpiest ride on the train pales by comparison.

FARES:  The most optimistic of would-be ferry operators in CT estimate their fares will be at least double those charged on the train.  And people say Metro-North is too expensive?

OPERATING COSTS: Fast ferries are gas guzzlers, the aquatic equivalent to the Concorde.  When the Pequot tribe built high-speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino in Connecticut to lose money, the service proved so expensive to run that the Pequots dry-docked the ferries in New London.

ECONOMICS: The final reason I don’t think ferries make economic sense is that nobody else does either!  Ferry operators (like the near-bankrupt NY Waterways) aren’t stupid. They’ve looked at possible service from coastal Connecticut, crunched the numbers and backed off. In a free market economy, if a buck could be made running ferries, they’d be operating by now. They aren’t operating, and there are lots of reasons why, many of which I’ve listed.

The only place ferries are run successfully is where they’re heavily subsidized (everywhere), have a monopoly (for example, getting to downtown Seattle from an island suburb), don’t duplicate existing transportation routes (like from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson), or offer advantages of speed because they operate on extremely short runs (from Hoboken to midtown).  Our situation here in Connecticut passes none of those tests.

You already know I’m a train nut. (The bumper sticker on my car reads “I’d Rather Be on the Train.”)  And I do love an occasional recreational sail on the Sound.  But it’s unrealistic to think that commutation by ferries is in our future.

Jim Cameron - Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Big Brother Comes Along for the Ride

Big_BrotherHere in my car, I feel safest of all.  I can lock all my doors.  It’s the only way to live, in cars.*
* Quote from Gary Numan, “Cars”, 1979

You may feel that your car is your last private refuge in this busy world.  But there’s someone along for the ride:  Big Brother.  And you’d be surprised what he knows about you, thanks to modern technology.

Cell Phones:
Your cell phone is constantly transmitting its location, and services like Google Dashboard’s location history can show exactly where you were at any date in time.  Don’t want to be tracked?  Turn off your cellphone.

E-Z Pass:
Even when you are nowhere near a toll booth, E-ZPass detectors can monitor your location.   Want to stay anonymous? Keep your E-ZPass wrapped in aluminum foil in your glove box.

Highway Cameras: 
The extensive network of traffic cameras on our interstates and parkways is used mostly to monitor accidents.  But State Police can also watch individual vehicles. The cameras are even available to the public online.  But state law specifically forbids using these cameras to write speeding tickets.

License Plate Readers (LPRs): 
This is the newest and most powerful tracking tech, as I saw in a ride-along a few years ago with my local PD.  These cameras mounted on police cars can scan up to 1,800 license plates a minute as cars drive by at speed.

As the plate number is recognized, it is transmitted to a national crime computer and compared against a list of wanted vehicles and scofflaws.  If it gets a “hit,” a dashboard screen in the cop car flashes a red signal and beeps, detailing the plate number and infraction.  In just one hour driving through my town, we made stops for outstanding warrants, lack of insurance and stolen plates.  (Some towns also use LPR’s for parking enforcement in train station parking lots, forgoing the need for hang-tags or stickers.)

While this may lead to very efficient law enforcement, LPRs also have a potentially darker side: the data about plate number, location and time can be stored forever.

Faced with a string of unsolved burglaries, Darien police used their LPR to track every car entering the targeted neighborhood and looked for patterns of out-of-town cars driving through at the time of the burglaries and made an arrest.

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is concerned about how long cops can store this data and how it should be used.  They laud the Connecticut State Police policy of only storing data for 90 days.

In the early days of LPRs in 2012, an ACLU staffer filed an FOI request for his car’s plate number and found it had been tracked four times by 10 police departments in a database that had 3 million scan records.

So enjoy your car.  But realize that none of us have any privacy.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Infrastructure – Dangling by a Thread

The Spuyten Duyvil derailment in 2012 caused massive disruption.

The Spuyten Duyvil derailment in 2013 caused massive disruption on Metro North..

The recent fire under the Park Avenue viaduct in Harlem, which disrupted commutes of a quarter million Metro-North riders got me thinking:  our aging, crumbling and vulnerable transportation infrastructure is close to collapse, and the effects of such failure could be catastrophic.  Consider this track-record:

June 1983:  Inadequate inspections and repairs cause the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich. Three people were killed and three others injured.  For almost five months, 80,000 daily vehicles had to detour through city streets.

March 2004:  An oil tanker crashes on I-95 in Bridgeport and the ensuing fire is hot enough to melt steel supports on the Howard Avenue overpass.  Traffic was disrupted for a week.

September 2013:  Con-Ed plans to replace a crucial electric feeder cable for Metro-North in the Bronx.  The railroad decides to forgo the $1 million cost of a temporary back-up cable and the main cable fails, disrupting train service for weeks, both on Metro-North and Amtrak.

June 2014:  Twice in one week the Walk Bridge in South Norwalk (built in 1896) won’t close, cutting all rail service between New York and Boston.  Cost of replacement will be more than $450 million.

May 2016:  Illegally stored chemicals and propane tanks at a gardening center under the Park Ave. viaduct catch fire.  The flames’ heat melts steel girders, cutting all train service out of Grand Central Terminal and stranding thousands.  Limited train service in the following days leads to subway-like crowding and lengthy delays.

Mind you, this list does not include fatal accidents and disruptions caused by human error, like the Metro-North crash at Spuyten Duyvil that killed four.

Our lives, our jobs and our economy rely on safe, dependable transportation.  But when the roads we drive and the rails we ride are museum pieces or go uninspected and unrepaired, we are dangling by a thread.

A single fire, whether caused by accident or act of terrorism, can bring down our infrastructure in an instant, cutting us off from work for days and costing our economy billions.

What can be done?  Safety inspections by engineers and fire departments looking to prevent disaster are obvious.  Better enforcement of speed limits and safety are as well.  But prevention of accidents cannot make up for decades of neglect in reinvestment in our roads, rails and bridges.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ annual infrastructure report card gives the US a D+.  They estimate we will need to spend $3.6 trillion to get things back into good shape … less than the cost of the last 15 years of US fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

As the old auto-repair ad used to say, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later”.  But sooner or later, we will have to pay.

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: The ‘Lock Box’ is Log-Jammed in Hartford

locked_chestI hope you’ve been following CT-N to watch our dysfunctional legislature in recent weeks as they struggle to fill a $900 million budget gap. Not only could they not get a new budget together before adjourning (only to be summoned back mid-May for a special session), but the legislative logjam left several important measures in limbo. Among them, the long debated “lock box” for special transportation funding.

As I wrote weeks ago, none of Governor Malloy’s plans to spend $100 billion to rebuild and expand our transportation systems over the next 30 years can go anywhere without an agreement to safeguard those funds from misappropriation by putting them in an untouchable “lock box”.

Because the legislature couldn’t pass such a bill or even put it on the ballot as a potential constitutional amendment referendum, that puts the entire Malloy plan on hold. Without a lock box, nobody trusts Hartford with money raised by tolling or taxes, nor should they.

The lock box idea is not new. In fact, it was Republicans who suggested it years ago. But when Malloy appropriated the idea as his own, GOP lawmakers saw the Governor’s version as more sieve than safe, and they held up a vote.

Folks, if lawmakers can’t agree on an annual budget, let alone a way to keep transportation funding secure, how can we trust them with $100 billion in new money?

The Connecticut Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) track-record on private-public partnerships for transit-oriented development also gives one pause. For example, consider the Fairfield Metro train station where a private developer went belly-up, leaving CDOT to finish the job, sort of: the beautiful new station they built still has no waiting room.

Or consider the ongoing saga of the Stamford rail station garage. It’s been almost three years since CDOT tapped a private developer to demolish the old garage, replace it with a high-rise office / condo / hotel and build new commuter parking lots within a quarter mile from the station. In three years, nothing has been done because there is still no signed contract.

Yet, that project is wrapped in such secrecy that nobody understands the delay. Or why the CDOT is even still negotiating with this laggard “developer of choice.” It couldn’t be because the developer contributed $165,000 to the Malloy campaign that he’s being given so much time, could it? Nah, that would never happen.

So here we are, fellow Nutmeggers. Lawmakers deadlocked. A $900 million budget deficit to fill this year and another $2 billion hole in years ahead. State workers are being laid-off. State funding to towns for education is being cut (meaning local taxes rise). Billionaires are bailing (a third of our taxes are paid by the top 1 percent). And no prospects for a lock box … let alone more funding for transportation. Yup, just the same old stuff as ever.

No wonder they call us “the land of steady habits.”

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Why There’s No Wi-Fi On Metro-North

wifi-train-600x397

A few weeks ago a friend was showing me his new Chevy Volt. Not only does the hybrid-electric car get 42 mpg, it has its own Wi-Fi hotspot. That’s right. The car is a Wi-Fi device, so kids in the backseat can watch YouTube.

Days later we were on a road-trip from the Maryland shore when we caught the Lewes – Cape May ferry. Onboard the vessel they offered passengers free Wi-Fi.

Airlines have offered flyers Wi-Fi for years now. Discount bus lines like Megabus have free Wi-Fi. Even Connecticut’s new CTfastrak commuter bus system to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi.

But there is no Wi-Fi on Metro-North. And the railroad says none is planned, even though the new M8 railcars are ready for the needed gear. And therein lies a story.

Offering Wi-Fi on a moving vehicle usually involves cellular technology. That’s how the first airline Wi-Fi was offered by companies like Go-Go, though JetBlue and Southwest now rely on proprietary satellite systems, which are much faster (up to 30 mb per second.)

When Amtrak first offered Wi-Fi on its Acela trains between Washington and Boston, they immediately had bandwidth issues. So many passengers were using their cell phones and tablets, speeds dropped to 0.6 mb per second and the complaints came pouring in.

That’s part of the reason that Metro-North is reluctant to offer Wi-Fi: if an Acela train carrying 300 passengers can’t handle the online load, how could a 10-car train carrying a thousand commuters? The railroad has enough complaints as it is.

Metro-North’s experience with on-board communications has left them feeling burned. Remember years ago when the railroad installed pay-phones on the trains? Great idea, until a year later when costs came down and everyone had their own cell phone. Those pay cell phone booths went unused and were eventually removed.

Back in 2006 then-President of MNRR Peter Cannito said Wi-Fi would be built into the new M8 cars, both for passengers and to allow the railcars to “talk” to HQ by beaming diagnostic reports. The railroad issued an RFP for ideas and got a number of responses, including from Cablevision, with whom they negotiated for many months. They even initiated on-train testing of Wi-Fi gear on one railcar.

But Metro-North insisted any Wi-Fi would have to cost it nothing, that all the expense and tech risk would be borne by Cablevision or its customers. And that’s where the negotiations deadlocked.

Today the railroad sees Wi-Fi as just a convenience. Smart phones and cell-card configured laptops can access the internet just fine, they say, using cellular technology. But to their credit the railroad is trying to get cell providers to fill in the coverage gaps, for example, in the tunnels and at GCT.

So don’t look for Wi-Fi anytime soon on America’s biggest and busiest commuter railroad. It’s not seen as a necessity … except perhaps by its passengers who really have no other transportation option.

Jim CameronAbout the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Is Uber Really a Bargain?

In the almost two years since Uber rolled into Connecticut, the state’s car/taxi service business has been rocked to its core. But is Uber competing on the same level as taxis and car service companies? Of course not, which is why it’s so successful.

I spoke with Uber’s Connecticut Manager Matt Powers and Drivers Unlimited (a Darien car & limo company) owner Randy Klein to try to get an objective comparison of the services. (Full disclosure: I have been a customer of both firms.)

While Uber does offer a “black car” (premium) service, my comparisons are with their more popular Uber X service … private cars driven by non-chauffeurs, 7,000 of whom have signed up as drivers in CT, according to Powers.

VEHICLES: Car services opt for Lincoln Town Cars and SUV’s. Uber X just requires drivers have a 4-door car, less than 10 years old with a trunk big enough to carry a wheelchair.

MAINTENANCE: Klein owns and maintains his own fleet, inspecting all cars weekly. Uber relies on its X drivers to do upkeep.

DRIVER SCREENING: Klein does his own background checks on top of the DMV screening required for a CDL (commercial drivers license). Uber says it does “rigorous” screening of drivers, including terrorist watch lists, but requires only a regular driver’s license. Klein’s firm also does random drug testing of his drivers.

INSURANCE: Klein has coverage of up to $1.5 million for every driver. Uber relies on the individual driver’s personal insurance but layers a $1 million policy on top when they are driving Uber customers.

RATINGS: Uber asks drivers and passengers to rate each other after every trip. Klein asks passengers to rate drivers but says it’s unfair to allow drivers to rate customers. “We’re in a service business,” he says.

BOOKING: Klein says most of his reservations are made two to three weeks in advance. Uber doesn’t do advance bookings, though, in personal experience, I’ve never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a car.

FARES: Though not an apples-to-apples comparison, an average car service ride from Darien to LaGuardia Airport is anywhere from $130 – $180, one-way. Uber’s quote for an X car is about $75.

SURGE PRICING: When demand is highest, Uber adds a surcharge to fare quotes, sometimes doubling the fare. Klein says his rates are the same 24 x 7.

IF YOU HAVE PROBLEMS: Klein says his office can be reached anytime by phone, toll-free. Uber’s website offers a template to file complaints online.

So, is Uber really a bargain? Let me answer with a hotel analogy. Sometimes I love staying at the Ritz Carlton with its plush rooms and fabulous service. Other times, a Motel 6 or LaQuinta is fine, though there’s always the risk of a “surprise”.

I see car services the same way. With a plush Lincoln SUV and chauffeur you get what you pay for. But sometimes all you want is to get from home to the airport and an Uber X is just fine … and a lot cheaper!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Cross Country by Amtrak

An Amtrak dining car, from the Amtrak blog.

An Amtrak dining car, from the Amtrak blog.

A recent business trip took me to Dallas on a crowded, turbulent 3 ½ hour flight from LaGuardia. But the return trip was a real treat: two days and nights on Amtrak, for free.

Riding a lot of Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor, I’ve built up a ton of Amtrak Guest Rewards points, augmented by their co-branded credit card. So when I checked my calendar and the Amtrak website, I saw an opportunity to enjoy a leisurely ride home in a full bedroom, meals included, gratis.

The long distance trains I rode from Dallas to Chicago (The Texas Eagle) and Chicago to Washington, D.C. (The Capitol Ltd) were all “Superliners”, i.e., double-deck cars with a variety of accommodations, including coaches and sleeping cars.

Each train also had a diner and an observation car, though the sightseeing through Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois wasn’t exactly memorable. But the second leg of the trip through the hills and river valleys of Pennsylvania and Maryland was gorgeous. “Fly over” country sure looks different from an elevation of about 20 feet.

My bedroom was equipped with a big couch that folded down into an almost queen-sized bed, surprisingly comfortable for sleeping. The private commode doubled as a shower.

Firing up my radio scanner, pre-set to the railroads’ frequencies, I followed the action as the conductor and engineer received instructions from a dispatcher hundreds of miles away.

The food was good, all cooked to order, and included in my first class fare. Dining was communal, one of the fun parts of train travel: getting to meet real folks from across the U.S., chatting about their travels, their work – everything except politics.

In Chicago and Washington D.C., where I had time between train connections, I enjoyed Amtrak’s “Metropolitan Lounge” for first class passengers, complete with free Wifi, snacks and priority boarding. I also had time to explore those cities’ beautifully restored train stations jammed with commuters, Amtrak passengers, shops and restaurants.

To their credit, Amtrak does a great job with their money-losing long distance trains. The service is truly First Class, the ride smooth and, for the most part, on time (thanks to a heavily padded timetable). We had only two small delays… one caused by another Amtrak train colliding with a truck at a grade crossing (no injuries), the other by a boulder on the tracks that needed to be removed.

Because demand is high and the supply of sleepers is low, fares for long distance Amtrak trains are pricey and booked many weeks in advance. Roundtrip airfare from New York to Dallas is as low as $230. But one-way on Amtrak is $299 in coach and $700+ in a roomette. Of course with Amtrak it’s like getting two nights of hotel plus meals, but to me it’s well worth it.

So next time you’re planning a long distance trip, turn it into a journey. Take the train!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: The Secrets of Riding Metro-North

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.19.18 AMEach week, dozens of people ride Metro-North for the first time. This week’s column is to let both new and veteran commuters in on the secrets of a successful rail commute.

PARKING:
You can’t take the train if you can’t get to the station, so invest in your commuting future by getting your name on your town’s (and neighboring towns’) waiting lists for annual parking permits. In four or five years, when your name rises to the top of the list, you’ll thank yourself. Meantime, opt for legal day-parking, find a friend to ride to the station with or try biking. There are free bike racks at most stations.

PLATFORM POSITIONING:
There’s a science to deciding where on the platform to wait for your train. Many commuters position themselves at the front or rear of the train for a quick get-away when they arrive in Grand Central. Contrarian that I am, I tend toward the center of the train because that’s where there’s a better chance of getting a seat.

FINDING A SEAT:
Believe me, your commute will be a lot better seated than standing. Seats are in short supply, so here’s the strategy. As your train pulls in, scan the cars that pass you and see how the passenger load looks. As the doors open, move quickly inside, eye-ball your target seat and get there fast. Put your carry-ons in the overhead rack and sit down. If you hesitate, you’re toast and will be a standee.
On trains leaving Grand Central, you may be able to get onboard up to 20 minutes before departure. Take a window or aisle seat on the three seat side. The middle seat next to you will be the last to be filled.

STANDEE STRATEGY:
If you didn’t get a seat on boarding, don’t give up. A few people on most trains get off in Stamford, so look for them and position yourself to get their seat before it gets cold. Here’s the secret: intermediate passengers have seat checks with a tear down the middle or a torn corner. Look for them and just before Stamford, position yourself near their row and, bingo, you’ve got a seat!

TICKETS:
Do not make the mistake of boarding a train without a ticket, or you’ll get hit with up to $6.50 penalty for buying a ticket on the train with cash. But if you’re thrifty, don’t buy a ticket from a ticket window or ticket machine. No, the cheapest tickets are only available online at www.mta.info. Go for the ten-trip tickets for an additional discount.

ON-BOARD ETIQUETTE:
Train time is not “your own time,” but shared time. So be considerate of your fellow commuters. Don’t hog empty seats, use the overhead racks. Keep your feet off the seats. If you must use your cellphone, go to the vestibule. Be like the Boy Scouts: anything you carry onto the train (including newspapers, coffee cups, etc.) carry off the train and dispose of properly.

If you’ve got your own “secrets” for a successful commute, send them along and I’ll include them in upcoming columns. Just e-mail me at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: ‘Don’t Blame The Trucks’

Driving to Hartford the other day (no, you cannot really get there by train) I saw a beautiful sight:  hundreds of trucks!  Yet, motorists hate trucks and mistakenly blame them for traffic congestion and accidents that cause hours of delays.

Readers of this column know I’m a “rail guy” and would love to see freight trains replace trucks, but that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.  But as motorists we should not blame truckers for traffic woes of our own creation.

Check the facts and you’ll find most highway accidents are caused by motor cars, not the trucks.

Do trucks drive too fast?  Sure, but don’t we all?  Next time you’re on I-95, check who’s in the high-speed left lane and you’ll see cars, not trucks.

Should there be better safety inspections of trucks?  Absolutely!  But for every over-weight truck or over-worked truck driver, there are doubtless hundreds of unsafe cars and equally road-weary warriors behind the wheel whose reckless disregard endangers us all.

Truckers drive for a living.  They are tested and licensed to far more rigorous standards than anyone else.  And because they drive hundreds of miles each day, overall I think they are far better drivers.  When’s the last time you saw a trucker juggling a cellphone and a latte like some soccer moms?

And remember … they’re not out there driving their big-rigs up and down the highway just to annoy us.  We put those trucks on the road by our voracious consumption patterns.  Every product we buy at stores large and small, including the very newspaper or iPad you hold in your hand, was delivered by trucks.  Want fewer trucks on the road?  Just stop buying stuff.

By definition, trucks are high-occupancy vehicles.  Compare the energy efficiency of a loaded truck delivering its cargo to you in your “SOV” (single occupancy vehicle), even if it is a hybrid.  Only rail offers better fuel efficiency.

Why are trucks jamming our highways at rush hour?  Because merchants require them to drive at those times to meet the stores’ delivery timetable.  If big-box stores and supermarkets only took truck deliveries in the overnight hours, our highways would flow much better at rush hour. 

Truckers must use the interstates while passenger cars can chose among many alternate routes.  Why is the average distance driven on I-95 in Connecticut just 11 miles?  Because most of us drive the ‘pike for local, not interstate trips.

If we were smart enough to “value price” our highways (i.e., return tolling), we’d see fewer vehicles of all kinds on I-95, and those that were willing to pay for the privilege of motoring there would get real value in a faster ride.

I’m hardly an apologist for the trucking lobby.  But neither is it fair for us to blame anyone but ourselves for highway safety and congestion.  It’s the SOV crowd, not the truckers, who are to blame. 

Let’s be honest about this mess of our own making and stop trying to blame truckers as our scapegoat.  As the great philosopher Pogo once put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Speed Limits, Safety and Fuel Efficiency

65-mph-speed-limit-sign

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. I 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 New York border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”? Why does the eastern half of the state get a break?

Blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT. 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 ban altogether in 1995 (followed by a 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 support 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!

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 for maximum fuel efficiency in the 55 – 60 mph range. Speed up to 65 mph and your engine runs 8 percent less efficiently. At 70 mph, the loss is 17 percent. That adds up to more money spent on gasoline and more environmental pollution, all to save a few minutes of driving time.

But even bigger than the loss of fuel efficiency is aerodynamic drag, which can eat up to 40 percent of total fuel consumption. Lugging bulky roof-top cargo boxes worsens fuel economy by 25 percent at interstate speeds. So does carrying junk in your trunk (or passengers!): a 1 percent penalty for every 100 pounds.

Even with cheaper gasoline, it all adds up!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Predictions for 2016

Everybody writes “Year in Review” stories.  But rather than dwell on the past, I’ve got the guts to predict the future!  Here’s what will happen in 2016 in the transportation world.

METRO-NORTH: Slowly but surely, the railroad will drag itself out of the quagmire it’s been in since the Bridgeport, Spuyten Duyvil and Valhalla crashes.  On time performance will hold strong even through the winter, thanks to the dependable new M8 cars and mild weather.  Ridership will continue to climb, causing further crowding and standing room only conditions on some trains.

STAMFORD GARAGE: After waiting for its chosen developer (and Malloy campaign contributor) JHN Group to sign a contract two and a half years after being tapped for the massive transit oriented development project, Connecticut Department of  Transport will plug the plug on its deal and replace the old garage on its own (taxpayers’) dime.

TOLLS & TAXES: Governor Malloy’s quest for $100 billion to pay for his 20-year transportation plan will prove universally unpopular when his Transportation Funding Task Force finally issues its recommendations (originally due after Labor Day) in January. The panel will call for higher gasoline and sales taxes, tolls, motor vehicle fees and a slew of other unpopular ideas.  The legislature will react by slashing the Governor’s unrealistic plans, reluctant to have its fingerprints on anything the Task Force suggests.

EMINENT DOMAIN: Governor Malloy will try again to impose state control over transit oriented development, reintroducing his stealth bill to create a Transit Corridor Development Agency (all of whose members he would appoint) with the power to seize any land within a quarter mile of a rail station. 

FLYING: Returning to profitability, airlines will continue to squeeze more seats onto fewer flights, making flying an ordeal.  Frequent flyer rewards will be harder to get as desperate passengers will pay to ride in business or first class, leaving fewer seats for upgrades.

AMTRAK: Acela will become increasingly popular, allowing the railroad to raise business fares.  Last minute seats will be harder to get, but the railroad will still refuse to expand service by buying new railcars.  Traditional “Northeast Corridor” trains will still be jammed as the railroad tries to compete with discount bus carriers.

HIGHWAYS: With an improving economy and inadequate rail station parking, people will jam I-95 and the Merritt Parkway in even larger numbers, increasing commuting times further.  Gasoline prices will continue to decline thanks to cheap oil, sending even more people to the roads.

UBER WAFFLES:   State and city authorities will come down hard on car services like Uber and Lyft, imposing on them the same regulations and taxes now born by taxis and limos.  After “leveling the playing ground”, Uber-type services will raise fares, passing those costs on to passengers.

Will all of my predictions come true?  Check back in a year and we’ll see … meantime, happy traveling in 2016!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Saving Money on Metro North

MTA logoWith the holidays upon us, let’s review some money-saving tips for riding Metro-North into the city for commuters and day-trippers alike:

TRANSITCHEK: See if your employer subscribes to this great service, which allows workers to buy up to $130 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 percent of all New York City companies offer TransitChek, which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries. 

GO OFF-PEAK: If you can arrive at Grand Central weekdays after 10 a.m. and can avoid the 4 to 8 p.m. peak return hours, you can save 25 percent.  Off-peak’s also in effect on weekends and holidays.  These tickets are good for 60 days after purchase.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE: If you buy your ticket on the train 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 cheapest tickets are those bought online.  And go for the ten-trip tickets (Peak or Off-Peak) to save an additional 15 percent.  They can be shared among passengers and are good for six months.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES:   Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50 percent 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 percent off the one-way peak fare.  But you must have proper ID and you can’t go in the morning rush hours.

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

METROCARDS: Forget about the old subway tokens.  These nifty cards can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some good 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, or vice versa.  You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a week ($31) or a month ($116.50). 

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 to 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 www.bestparking.com to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination.   Or drive to Shea Stadium and take the # 7 subway from there.

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.  Happy Holidays!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Traveling by Tube

Cutaway graphic of "The Loop."

Cutaway graphic of “The Loop.”

Will the train of the future be a high-speed tube, not a railroad?  That’s inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s and others’ vision.  And Musk, the man who brought us the Tesla (all-electric car) and SpaceX (for-profit space rocket company) is putting his own money behind a proof-of-concept project for what he calls Hyperloop.

The concept sound simple:  move passengers in a sealed tube through a series of giant pipes propelled by air pressure at speeds up to 700+ mph.  That would mean a trip from New York to DC would take 20 minutes.

Diagram of the "Beach" pneumatic transit system.

Alfred Beach’s “Pneumatic Transit” system.

But this is not a new concept.  In fact, the first experimental “subway” in New York City, Alfred Beach’s “Pneumatic Transit” proved back in 1870 that it would work.  Despite political opposition, Beach secretly built a 300-foot-long subway under Broadway near City Hall, offering daring passengers a round-trip ride in the system’s only railcar, pushed and pulled by air.  The system ran for almost three years and carried over 400,000 riders, 11,000 alone in the first two weeks.  The fare was 25 cents (equivalent to $18 today). Competing elevated railroad owners eventually won the City’s franchise and Beach’s system was abandoned.

Even Beach’s idea wasn’t new, as vast underground pneumatic tube systems in Paris and London were already delivering telegrams and mail by the 1850’s.  As recently as the 1960s, office buildings in major cities were designed with pneumatic tube systems for inter-office mail.  Some older department stores still use the tubes to record sales and make change from a centralized money room.

Hurtling through a tube may be fine for mail, but what about humans?  As a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, the psychological factor of being enclosed in a sealed tube, traveling 700+ mph, is not that much different than flying in a jet … maybe just a bit more claustrophobic.

Whether by train or plane, I always like to look out the window.  Seeing where we’re going is half the fun, even on a familiar route.  But wrapped in a metal tube inside a giant pipe affords no views at all.  Riding 31 miles in the Chunnel under the English Channel takes 20 minutes at today’s speeds, and that’s more than enough time for me, thank you very much.

Of greater concern are the propulsion methods and the sheer physics of accelerating and braking from near-supersonic speeds.  But the biggest challenge of all would be where to locate the “pipes” and how to acquire necessary land.

A station inside the"Pneumatic Transit" system.

A station inside the “Pneumatic Transit” system.

Like high-speed rail, it would make no sense to follow the median on Interstate 95 or the Metro-North / Amtrak rights of way with all their twists and turns.  And anyone crazy enough to invest in any project along the coastline with the inevitability of rising sea levels should probably think pontoons, not pipes.

It will be interesting to see if Musk’s and others’ Hyperloop concepts get off the ground (pun intended) … but I don’t expect to ride such a system any distance in my lifetime.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Good News — and Bad — for Metro-North

It’s been a rough few years for Metro-North what with derailments, crashes and commuter deaths.  But it finally seems like service and safety are coming back.

The best metric of that is the recent surge in ridership, up 1.7 percent compared to last year.  That works out to more than 3,000 additional riders every day.

Certainly this ridership gain is a sign of more people finding jobs. But with gasoline prices near a record low, there’s a reason these folks are training instead of driving:  they like what they see.

  • The trains are on time.  Yes, running slower than in years past, but what’s a few minutes if it means better safety?  What matters most is that the 7:37 shows up at 7:37, plus a minute or so, and arrives in NY pretty close to on-time.  It’s much more dependable now than last winter.
  • There have been no fare increases (at least in Connecticut), even though our fares are still the highest in the nation.
  • There’s more service too:  at least two trains per hour, even in off-peak.  That means more options.
  • And we have the spiffy new M8 railcars, at last.  Riders seem to like the clean, modern interiors and amenities, such a power plugs at each seat.

So for all of these reasons, a lot more people are taking the train.  Good news, right?  Yeah, but in the long run, not so good news because “supply” is not keeping up with “demand”.

More riders without additional capacity means crowding, and we’re already hearing more reports about that, especially at rush hour when some trains are SRO.  And that’s only going to get worse.

The problem is, we didn’t order enough new M8 cars back in 2005 when we placed our order:  just 300 cars for $762 million.  That worked out to $2.54 million per car.

By the time those cars finally went into service in 2011, CDOT and Metro-North realized they should order more. This time, just single un-powered cars, so trains could run with 7 or 9 cars, not just 6, 8 or 10 using the “married pairs” in the original order.

But by then, Kawasaki whacked us $3.3 million per car … and those newest single cars don’t even have motors.   Were we to try ordering more M8 cars today, who knows the price … or delivery time?

From the legislature’s approval of the M8s in 2005 through design, testing and construction, the first M8s took six years to get into service.  The latest single-car order took 4 years.  So even if we were to call Kawasaki today, we couldn’t get new cars until probably 2020 even if we could find the money.

Meanwhile, the Malloy administration is pushing an almost $10 billion, multi-year plan to widen I-95 and I-84.  By the time it’s done, crowding could be so bad on our trains that getting on a four-lane wide interstate might just be better alternative.  Ironic, no?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Happy 75th Birthday to The Merritt: Queen of the Parkways

A century ago the only way to drive between New York and Boston was on Rte. 1, The Post Rd. If you think traffic is bad today, imagine that journey! So in 1936, 2,000 men began work on the state’s largest public works project, the $21 million four-lane- parkway starting in Greenwich and running to the Housatonic River in Stratford. The adjoining Wilbur Cross Parkway didn’t open until years later when the Sikorsky Bridge across the Housatonic was completed.

The Merritt, named after Stamford resident, Congressman Schuyler Merritt, is best known for its natural beauty, though most of it was planted: 22,000 trees and 40,000 shrubs. And then there are the bridges, since 1991 protected on the National Register of Historic Places.

Architect George Dunkleberger designed 69 bridges in a variety of architectural styles, from Art Moderne to Deco to Rustic. No two bridges are exactly alike. In short order the Merritt was being hailed as “The Queen of Parkways”.

The parkway at first had tolls, a dime (later 35 cents) at each of three barriers, not to pay for the parkway’s upkeep but to finance its extension to Hartford via the Wilbur Cross Parkway, named after Wilbur Lucius Cross who was Governor in the 1930’s. Tolls were dropped in 1988.

The old toll booths themselves were as unique as the Parkway, constructed of wooden beams and covered in shingles. One of the original booths is now preserved in Stratford at the Boothe Memorial Park.

At recent celebrations of the parkway’s 75th birthday, one old timer told of a friend from Yale who resented paying the dime toll in the 1940’s. So he went to the medical school and procured a cadaver arm, glued a dime on its finger and hid the arm up his sleeve. When the prankster slowed to pay his toll, the collector got the dime and the arm as the student sped off.

The Merritt’s right of way is a half-mile wide, the vistas more obvious now since massive tree clearing after the two storms in 2011 and 2012 where downed trees pretty much closed the highway.

Since its design and opening in 1938 the Merritt Parkway has been off-limits to commercial vehicles and trucks. But as traffic worsens on I-95, debates rage from time to time about allowing trucks on the Merritt and possibly widening the road. Either move would probably mean demolition of the Parkway’s historic bridges, so don’t expect such expansion anytime soon.

The best watchdog of the Parkway is the Merritt Parkway Conservancy which has fought to preserve the road’s unique character. Their latest battle is against plans for a multi-use trail along the south side of the roadway. Costing an estimated $6.6 million per mile, the Conservancy worries that the trees and foliage that would be clear-cut to allow bike and pedestrian users would despoil the eco-system.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Sound Barriers: A Waste of Money?

One and a half million dollars a mile.  The cost of building a new lane on I-95?  Hardly! That’s more like $20 million.  No, “$1.5 million dollars a mile” would be the cost of building new sound barriers on that crowded highway, according to testimony by the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Commissioner.

This won’t win me many friends among my neighbors in Darien, but I just don’t see that they should be asking the government to subsidize their peace and quiet.  After all, most of them bought houses near the highway benefiting from speedy access to the roadway and should have known full-well that being that close would subject them to noise.

Do you have sympathy for those who buy homes near airport runways, then complain about the jets?  Neither do I.

The first sections of what became I-95 were built in Darien in 1954, long before most current residents came to town.  Sure, traffic has increased on I-95 over the years.  We are well over the planned capacity of this interstate highway.  But thinking the solution to highway noise is to create a walled concrete canyon through our coastal communities paid for by others, is just selfish and short-sighted.

I live about 1500 feet from I-95.  On a quiet summer’s night I can hear the trucks as they whiz by at 70 mph, especially when they’re “Jake braking” (illegal in many states).  And yes, there is a wooden sound barrier between me and the road which helps a bit.  I try to think of the noise as like surf at the beach.  But when shopping for my current home, I knew that highway noise was the price I would pay for being so near an on-ramp.

Some neighbors in my, and many other towns, want the state or Uncle Sam to build miles and miles of new sound barriers to cushion their karmic calm.  But why should the few benefit at the expense of so many?

Can we really argue that someone in Tolland or Torrington should pay for sound barriers in Westport or Greenwich?

Sound-barriers seem to me to be wasted money.  They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or solve congestion.  Two miles of sound-barriers would buy another new M8 rail car for Metro-North, taking 100 passengers off the road.  And sound-barriers are often just sound-reflectors, not absorbers, only bouncing the sound off to bother others.

Consider these alternatives:

  • Soundproof the homes. This has worked well for neighbors of big airports and is probably cheaper than sound-proofing entire neighborhoods.  And insulation against noise also insulates against heat loss, saving energy.
  • Explore rubberized asphalt. Reduce the road noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”.  Using this new road surface, some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise.  Rubberized asphalt also reuses 12 million junked tires each year.
  • Pay for it yourself. Let neighborhood associations affected by road noise create special taxing zones to collect funds to build sound barriers they’ll benefit from, both with reduced noise and resulting increased home valuations.

I can think of any number of better places to spend federal tax dollars to improve mass transit than erecting sound barriers.  Can’t you?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the Author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For the full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: The Fairest (and Least Popular) Way To Pay for Roads

Back in April, I wrote about the challenge we face to pay for Gov. Malloy’s $100 billion transportation plan.  And I expressed sympathy for his bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel tasked with coming up with funding alternatives, the Transportation Finance Panel.

To be honest, I think that panel may be on a fool’s errand.  They’re trying to pay for a wish list of projects not of their making and many of which may not be necessary let alone affordable.  Maybe we only need $50 billion.  But it’s not their mandate to question our “transportation Governor.”  Someone else will have to do the “vetting.”

But even as the Finance Panel does its work, exploring all manner of funding options, they are being second-guessed by politicians and public alike.

How about tolls?  Too expensive … they’ll slow traffic … and don’t forget those flaming truck crashes at toll barriers!  (Not true … no they won’t … and there won’t be toll barriers).

Gas tax?  Unfair … out-of-state motorists won’t pay … improved gas mileage means dwindling revenue.  (Totally fair … maybe so … and absolutely correct).

Which brings us to what would seem to be the fairest, most equitable fundraising mechanism for paying for our roads, but which brought a bipartisan crap-storm of response when suggested:  a mileage tax, or VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax.

The concept is simple:  have each motorist pay a tax for the number of miles he/she drives each year.  The data could be collected electronically by a GPS or with an odometer check when you get your annual emissions inspection.  You drive more, you pay more … whether you drive on I-95 or back-country roads.  Take mass transit, you’d drive less and pay less.

The VMT idea was discussed at the Finance Panel’s July 29 meeting, and the public and political reaction was immediate and universally negative.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) called it “unproven,” despite successful trials in the Netherlands and Oregon and VMT’s endorsement by the US Government Accountability Office.

Republican State Senator Toni Boucher calls VMT nonsensical and an invasion of privacy, though testimony proved both claims wrong.

Face it:  nobody likes a tax that they have to pay.  Tax the other guy … the trucker, the out-of-state driver, the real estate transferor … but don’t tax me!

Driving a car is not free.  Paying for gasoline is only part of the cost and even Connecticut’s relatively high gas tax comes nowhere near to paying for upkeep of our roads.  Our deteriorating roads are a hidden toll as we pay for car repairs.

The Transportation Finance Panel will find there is no easy or popular solution to paying for the Governor’s $100 billion untested and unattainable wish list of projects.  Whatever they recommend, citizens will scream bloody murder and their lawmakers will vote it down.

But shame on reactionaries in Hartford for calling the VMT, or any funding alternative, “dead on arrival.”  Let’s at least let the Finance Panel do its due diligence before saying they have wasted their time.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: PT Barnum and Metro-North

P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum

What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and I have in common?  No, not just a love of circuses.  We are both “rail advocates” fighting for the interests of commuters.

This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his showmanship and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford broadcast on CT-N (every policy wonk’s favorite channel).  The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum Kathleen Maher.

She explained that Barnum was more than a showman.  He was also a railroad advocate. (He also went on to be part-owner of a cross-Sound ferryboat service that’s still running today.)

In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street, enlisting the support of local merchants such as the Brooks Brothers and, “the carpet men, W & J Sloan”.

Earlier, in 1865, Barnum went to Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican — later he became Mayor of Bridgeport.  As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House who had protected their monopoly interests in the state.

Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New Haven RR!  Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.

Then he turned his sights on helping commuters.  Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail lines (now the Hudson and Harlem divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters.  Once Vanderbilt had them hooked as passengers for their daily ride into and out of New York City, he jacked up fares by 200 to 400 percent.

Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which “The Commodore” had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad.  Barnum said his only ally in the fight was then-State Senator Ballard of Darien.

So spirited were they in their lobbying that the railroad’s “man” on the state Railroad Commission “took to his bed some ten days before the end of the session and actually remained there ‘sick’” until the legislature adjourned.” (Sound familiar?)

Fast forward to the present and we could again use Barnum’s help.

Though Connecticut hires Metro-North to run “our” trains on “our” tracks, our contract with that New York state agency gives us little say and no seat on it board.  As one lawmaker noted, the Connecticut Department of Transport defends Metro-North much as a kidnap victim fights for its captor (what he called the Stockholm syndrome).

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Editor’s Note:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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