April 19, 2019

Talking Transportation: Tolls Are in Trouble

Jim Cameron

Governor Lamont’s tolling plan is in trouble.  I knew it last weekend when I got a call from Dan Malloy.

The former Governor and I know each other going back to his days as Mayor of Stamford, but he’s only called me once before (many years ago when he sought my endorsement in his run for a second term as Governor.)

This time he was calling about my recent column about the Transportation Strategy Board, the panel that 18 years ago was tasked with prioritizing our state’s transportation needs and how to pay for them.

It wasn’t my fawning over then-TSB Chairman Oz Griebel that prompted Malloy’s recent call, but instead my characterization of the “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund as having, to quote one wag, “more back doors than a hot-sheets motel on the Berlin Turnpike.”  The Wag’s words, not mine.

“That comment was not helpful, Jim,” said Malloy.  “We’re just trying to get this tolls idea across the finish line and your comments aren’t helping.”

That’s when I knew that the tolls plan is in real trouble.  (Why is he calling me, of all people?)  Not that there weren’t earlier warning signs that trouble was brewing.

The first was Governor Lamont’s somersaults on tolling from being in favor, then promising trucks-only tolling and finally settling (again) on tolling all vehicles.  Voters felt betrayed.

Then Lamont pulled millions in car sales taxes from the STF, potentially bankrupting the transportation fund by 2022.

Those moves gave grassroots No-Tolls groups new-found fertile soil, picketing and tapping into the media’s love of controversy by offering up great photo ops.

Sure, the Republicans helped fan the flames with their so-called “information sessions” in local communities, providing a forum to attack Lamont and tolls while resurrecting their “Prioritize Progress” bonding plan, asking our grandkids to pay for the roads and rails we use today.

Then there were the “no tolls votes” in local communities, non-binding of course, but a clear indication of local sentiment.  Even Stamford’s Board of Representatives voted against tolls.  Polling by Sacred Heart University, though perhaps poorly worded, showed 59 percent of respondents were against tolling.

But wait.  Where are the pro-toll voices?

Well, a coalition of Hartford lobbyists did try to organize an expensive campaign to support Lamont’s tolling vision, seeking money from construction companies and consultants who’d make a lot of money if tolls were approved.  But a reporter somehow got hold of their pitch book, detailing the campaign, and it now seems dead in the water.  Talk about “not helpful.”

Now, Governor Lamont is on a Magical Misery Tour, holding press events at every crumbling bridge, viaduct and train platform in the state.  Against those backdrops, he pitches the need for billions in funding achievable only, he says, through tolling.

In the last couple of months, Metro-North has had two major power meltdowns as circuit breakers, transformers and sub-stations have failed, slowing trains and disrupting service.  Commuters take such crises in stride knowing full well they’re riding in shiny new railcars on a century-old railroad crumbling beneath them.

But people upstate couldn’t care less.  It’s not their problem, so why should they pay tolls or support mass transit?

Cynicism abounds that toll revenues would really be spent on transportation and not get diverted.  Nobody trusts Hartford.

Tolls, my friends, are in trouble.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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: State’s Transportation Strategy Solutions Are Remarkably ‘Déjà Vu’

When are we finally going to do something about our transportation crisis?

That question has been asked for decades … but never answered, or more importantly, acted upon.

I remember back in 2001 when then-Speaker of the Connecticut House Moira Lyons held a news conference about our state’s transportation mess.  The six-term Stamford Democrat, who was long on power by short in stature, stood next to a stack of consultant studies and reports almost as tall as she was.  Enough with the studies, she said.  Let’s fix it!

One of the best things to come out of that call to action was creation of the Transportation Strategy Board (TSB.)  It had representatives from business, labor, commuters, academics and planners.  They had a one year deadline to come up with a 20-year-plan for Connecticut’s transportation future and how to pay for it.  And they did.

Chairman of the TSB was Oz Griebel.  Yes, the same Oz Griebel who ran unsuccessfully for Governor last fall.

One of the TSB’s top recommendations was ordering new railcars for Metro-North, which finally happened under Governor Rell.  But they also recommended highly unpopular funding mechanisms:  a gasoline tax increase, sales tax surcharge and, yes, tolls.

What have we done since?  More studies making consultants rich but never persuading lawmakers to do something.  When our elected officials have no political will, they just suggest another study, board or commission.

Former Governor Dannel Malloy had ideas. His $100 billion, 30-year “Let’s Go CT” plan had something for everyone in every corner of the state.  It was ambitious, but it wasn’t really a plan, just a laundry list of projects without priorities or funding.

Politicians love to take credit for the ideas but never want their fingerprints on the nasty business of paying for them.  That’s why Malloy created … you guessed it … a blue ribbon panel: the Transportation Finance Panel.  Among its members … Oz Griebel.

“It was like that movie ‘Groundhog Day’,” Griebel recently told me.  “It was the same people we saw at the TSB debating the same issues” 10 years later.

And what did Malloy’s Transportation Finance Panel recommend to pay for his $100 billion “plan”?  A gasoline tax increase, a sales tax surcharge, fare hikes and, you guessed it, highway tolls.

Of course, none of those came to pass.  It was an election year and who wants to run for a job in Hartford explaining to constituents that they have to pay more, especially when the Republicans mischaracterized such funding as “taxes” instead of user fees.

Along the way, then-Governor Malloy abolished the TSB, ‘lest it should suggest one project had priority over another.  He wanted it all, but got none, because he couldn’t sell the plan to pay for it.

But now we have the Special Transportation Fund Lockbox, right?  Any money that goes in can only be spent on transportation.  Or so we were told.  But as one sage observer of the transportation scene for decades recently told me, “The lockbox has more backdoors than a hot-sheets motel on the Berlin Turnpike”.  We’ll see.

Will the new legislature have the guts to finally raise the funding we need to fix our roads and rails?  Or will I be re-writing this column again in another decade, like “déjà vu all over again”?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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: Connecticut’s Hometown Railroad

The worldwide logo for Genesee and Wyoming Inc.

You might not realize it, but Connecticut is home to the world headquarters of a $5 billion international railroad company on whose trains you’ll never be able to ride.

In a small office building across from the Darien railroad station sits the offices of Genesee and Wyoming Inc, a “short line” railroad conglomerate.  The original railroad, founded in 1899, hauled salt on a 14-mile track in upstate NY.  Today, G&W owns 122 different railroads on three continents, serving 3000 customers with over 16,000 miles of track.

A “short line” railroad, as its name implies, only operates over short distances, sometimes thought of as rail freight’s first and last mile.  They pick up boxcars and tankers at factories and plants and carry them to junction points where they hand them off to the major railroads which carry them to their ultimate destination, a journey often completed by another short line railroad.

In the US G&W’s railroads are as short as a single mile in length and as long as 739 miles.  They operate 1300 locomotives and 30,000 railcars.  But they only carry freight, not passengers.

And because they only travel short distances, they’re not looking for speed as much as customer service.  Moving along at 15 mph saves a lot on track maintenance.

How does G&W’s sales team sell companies on shipping by rail instead of truck?  Fuel costs.  Trains are four times more energy efficient, a crucial consideration when you’re hauling tons of stone, coal, or wheat instead of Amazon boxes filled with packing peanuts.

The G&W’s most local affiliate, The Providence & Worcester, runs a train on Metro-North tracks each night, hauling crushed rock from Connecticut quarries to Queens NY.  I can hear the train from my home, usually just before midnight, as its locomotives strain under the load and rumble through town.

That’s about the only freight train left on the New Haven line.  But that’s another story for another time.

Overseas the G&W owns some much larger railroads, but still dedicated only to freight.  They run trains, container terminals and freight yards in the UK, Germany, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Down under in Australia the G&W runs a huge freight operation running north-south through the heart of the continent serving the iron ore and manganese mines hauling intermodal containers through the desert-like interior.

How does a tiny, 20-person office in Darien oversee such a massive railroad network around the planet?  It doesn’t.  Each of G&W’s nine operating regions is locally managed with capital allocated from headquarters.  Keeping the decision-making close to the customers, not being second-guessed from thousands of miles away, has been the key to G&W’s success.

But one thing that all of G&W’s railroads do share in common is the color scheme of their logos, originally designed by Milton Glaser (famous for the I Love NY logo).  Every G&W railroad’s logo is orange and black.  Not just any orange, but Princeton orange, harkening back to its former chairman’s alma mater.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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 30-30-30 Doesn’t Add Up

How would you like a faster ride on Metro-North?  Who wouldn’t?!  How about a 30-minute ride from Hartford to New Haven, from New Haven to Stamford or from Stamford to Grand Central?

That’s the vision announced by Governor Lamont in his inaugural address.  It’s known as the 30-30-30 plan and sounds good compared to current running times (52 minutes, 55 minutes and 48 minutes respectively.)  But how can such vast improvements be done?  Ask Joe McGee, VP of the Fairfield Business Council, who’s been pitching this idea for years.

So confident was McGee of this concept that his Council recently paid $400,000 to Ty Lin Consulting of San Francisco to study it.  And which railroad expert did Ty Lin hire to spearhead the study?  Joseph Giulietti, former President of Metro-North … recently named as Connecticut’s new Commissioner of Transportation.

Though the Ty Lin study has yet to be released, McGee admits that the 30-30-30 idea is more of a goal than a possibility.  Yet, for as little as $75 to $95 million, Ty Lin thinks significant improvements can be made in speeding up service by accelerating Metro-North’s return to a “state of good repair.”

When he was President of Metro-North, Giulietti said it would take five years to get the railroad back in shape after years of neglect.  Today, Metro-North says a more realistic time frame is 10 years.

By fixing rail ties and overhead power lines to improve speeds on curves, by restoring the fourth track east of Milford and by adding express trains (at a premium fare), McGee claims service will improve quickly, maybe shaving 24 minutes off of the current 103 minute running time from New Haven to Grand Central. That would make it a 79-minute run, but not 60.

But wait.  If this was Giulietti’s idea as a consultant, why didn’t he make that happen when he was running Metro-North?  Or how will he now, as Commissioner of the CDOT, get his old railroad to adopt Ty Lin’s (his) ideas?  I asked, but he isn’t saying.

What seasoned professionals at CDOT have told me is that the Ty Lin ideas will cost billions of dollars and take a decade.  In other words … there’s no quick, cheap fix.

Meantime, Metro-North is planning to add six to 10 minutes of running time to all New Haven line trains for the spring timetable to better reflect the reality of current delays due to work.  For 2018, the railroad had only 88 percent on time performance (OTP).  By extending the train schedule on paper, OTP will go up and riders will have a more dependable, albeit slower, ride.

Lengthening running times, even on paper, “is not acceptable,” says McGee who hopes to release his Ty Lin study in about two weeks, fully expecting huge pushback from the railroad and east-coast consultants beholden to the MTA.

But it’s really the FRA (the Federal Railroad Administration) that’s the biggest block to faster trains.  The slower speeds they required after the 2013 Bridgeport and Spuyten Duyvil derailments won’t be raised until they’re convinced the railroad is safe.

So let the debate begin:  is 30-30-30 possible or just a fantasy?  Did Giulietti create himself a nightmare in proposing as a consultant what he may not be able to deliver as CDOT Commissioner?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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: Global Warming vs. Northeast Travel — An Apology to Future Generations

What follows is a public apology.  Not to you, dear reader, but to future generations.

“To my grand children:  I’m sorry we left you with this mess.  We should have done more, when we still had time.”

What am I referring to?  Not the national debt.  Not even global terrorism.  No, this apology is about coastal flooding that threatens the Northeast Corridor’s rail lines.

I won’t even get into the debate about what’s causing sea-level rise.  Whether it’s man-made or natural, it is happening and we have not been planning for its inevitable effects.  Sure, when the tides are high and the winds are from the east, we already see a little flooding along the Connecticut coastline.  “Look Dad!  The beach parking lot is under water,” the kids would say.  But the tides and winds then subsided and we’d forget about it.

Aside from pretty beaches and expensive homes, what else is along Connecticut’s coast?  Our railroads:  Metro-North, Shore Line East and Amtrak.  And according to a long hidden report, those tracks, and the trains that run on them, are being threatened by sea level rise.

Just before Christmas, Bloomberg wrote about a three year study, “Amtrak NEC Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment,” that was finished in 2017 but never released to the public.  Using an FOI request, they got hold of a redacted (censored) portion of the study, and its findings are frightening.

The Northeast Corridor of Amtrak runs 457 miles from Washington to Boston and carries 12 million passengers a year on 2200 daily trains.  Those tracks not only serve Amtrak’s inter-city trains but also many commuter rail lines, like Metro-North and Shore Line East.  And the rising sea level is already lapping at its edge, where in some areas those tracks are just feet from the ocean. By 2050 the water may be two feet higher.

When it was originally built in the 19th century, the coastline made perfect sense as a location for the railroad tracks:  the coast is where the major cities were and the terrain was flat, perfect for trains.  Sure, there were storms (even hurricanes) that caused short-term flooding, but nothing that was persistent.  Until now.

So what’s to be done?

Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration have no plans to raise the tracks.  They’re already facing $40 billion in unfunded projects just to keep the darn trains running.  As for building a “wall” to keep out the sea water, even a temporary version erected before a storm would take 12 to 30 days to assemble and cost $24 million a mile.

Keeping this all in perspective, Amtrak reminds us that the cities they serve along the coast are also in danger of flooding, so what are a few damp railroad tracks when your city-center looks like Venice?

What’s most concerning is that this study was suppressed by Amtrak and the FRA because, as Bloomberg wrote, “The disclosure of that information “could possibly cause public confusion.” 

I’m not confused, are you?  Maybe enraged, but not confused.  I may not be around to see these predictions come to pass, but I do feel some sense of obligation (guilt) to future generations to whom I can offer little more than an apology.

Sorry kids.  We left you with a mess.  We should have done more.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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: Trucker Shortage Takes Its Toll

What does the future hold for the trucks on our highways? Photo by Rhys Moult on Unsplash

As if crumbling bridges and pot-holed highways weren’t enough to worry about, now America’s transportation network is facing a new crisis:  a shortage of truck drivers.

According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucks carry more than 70 percent of all domestic freight, bringing in $719 billion in revenue.  It’s trucks, not trains, that deliver our Amazon purchases and fill the shelves of our favorite big box stores for the holidays. So while we hate to drive behind them on our highways, we love what trucks deliver.

But now, of the existing half-million truck drivers in the US, demographics are taking their toll as more and more retire each year, leaving those jobs unfilled. The ATA estimates the industry needs 51,000 new truck drivers.  And new candidates are not stepping forward.

Why?  Well, the ATA says Gen Z’ers don’t like the lifestyle.  They don’t want to spend long, lonely days or weeks doing long-hauls, eating bad food and sleeping in their rigs.  Even money, like $50,000 signing bonuses, isn’t attracting them.

The average trucker makes $59,000 and drivers for private fleets can make $86,000. But lengthy, expensive training courses present a roadblock to immediate recruitment.  And newly-mandated technology tracking drivers’ time on the road is exacerbating the problem.

Drivers are only supposed to drive 11 hours of every 14 hours a day, but many used to fudge their paper log-book records because they got paid by the mile.  Since last December, electronic logging has been the law, so the safety rules are impossible to circumvent.  Of course, nobody wants tired drivers on the road, but in the cause of safety, truckers are losing efficiency.

Where will the industry find new drivers?  Well, women still only represent about 6 percent of all drivers.  And minorities have seen their numbers increase 12 percent in the past year.  And the industry is also seeking a reduction in the minimum driving age from 21 to 18.

What’s this all mean to us as consumers?  Higher costs.

Amazon saw a 38 percent increase in shipping costs in the first quarter, forcing it to raise its (unlimited free-shipping) Amazon Prime membership fee from $99 to $119 a year.  Across the industry spectrum, shipping rates are rising.

But the real solution will probably be self-driving trucks.

That’s why big companies like Waymo (owned by Google), Tesla and Uber, as well as truck-builders like Freightliner and Volvo are investing heavily in the autonomous technology.

Not that we’ll be seeing driverless trucks on Connecticut interstates anytime soon.  There’s probably too much congestion to make them practical.  But there are vast stretches of interstates in “fly over country” out west where self-driving trucks make perfect sense, delivering truckloads of products to automated warehouses where robots will unload them.

Automating trucking may be good for the industry but it certainly doesn’t help with recruitment.  Who wants to sign on for a career knowing full well they may be replaced by a robot?

Sociologist and 13-year trucker Steve Viscelli says the solution is in changing the system:  paying truckers for actual hours on the road (not just mileage), including those times when truckers must waste hours or days waiting for a new load.

Whatever the solution, it’s clear who’ll end up paying:  consumers.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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: An Open Letter to Ned Lamont

Dear Ned:

Well, you did it.  Congratulations on your election.  And my condolences.  The easy part of politics is over:  getting elected.  Now comes the hard part:  being Governor.

I hope you and your transition team are already working on that budget that’s due in three months.  There’s a lot of red ink ($4 billion) that needs to be mopped up.  And don’t forget those $80 billion in unfunded pensions.  But I’m sure you’ve got the solutions, right?  That’s what you promised voters, anyhow.  So have at it.

But as you are cutting and slashing, may I be so bold as to make a few suggestions on the transportation front?  Your campaign assured us you’d fix our roads and rails, so I’m sure you have your ideas.  But let’s see if these are of any help.

1)    KEEP YOUR COMMISSIONER:   Jim Redeker has been CDOT Commissioner since 2011 and nobody knows better what’s working and what isn’t.  He’s clearly the smartest guy in the room and you need his experience and talents.  Let’s not lose him to another state.

2)    FIX THE TRAINS FIRST:  You can’t keep high wage earners (and tax payers) living in Connecticut if Metro-North continues its downward slide.  Getting trains back up to speed and on-time is crucial to the state’s economy.

3)    THEN IMPROVE BUS SERVICE:  I hope you realize that the CTFastrak bus rapid-transit system is hugely important and not the “waste of money” your opponent claimed.  Not everyone in this state owns a car.  For the 15 million riders of that busway since it opened, those buses mean being able to get to their jobs.  That is what we want, right… people working?

4)    RIDE MASS TRANSIT:  You campaigned at train and bus stations, now why not get onboard?  Set an example by taking the train from Greenwich to Hartford and riding the bus with your constituents.  See the conditions first hand.

5)    GET GOING WITH TOLLS:  We both know they’re inevitable, despite your opponents’ “tolls are a tax” lie during the campaign.  Let’s stop losing revenue to out-of-staters and truckers and make them pay for driving on our roads.  Start with tolling trucks, though I doubt that’s legal.

6)    HONOR THE LOCKBOX:  Voters have spoken loudly!  The Special Transportation Fund is now padlocked.  Don’t you dare think about picking that lock or letting the Legislature touch those funds for anything but transportation.

7)    PLEASE BE HONEST:  You and your opponents glossed over the tough issues in the campaign, making vague, general comments about improving our lives.  You got the job, so now don’t give us any BS.  Tell us about the hard choices to come.  Embrace the FOI act.  Be open and transparent … and honest.  We’re adults.  We can take it.

8)    DON’T ABUSE THE MAJORITY:  Once again the Democrats are in full control in Hartford.  That’s a lot of power in a few hands and your party’s record on “reaching across the aisle” isn’t great.  Our problems can only be solved with bi-partisan cooperation, so please set the best example.

That’s enough for now.  Get some rest, maybe even a vacation, and we’ll talk again in the coming months.

Best wishes,

Jim Cameron
“The Train Guy”

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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: ‘Getting There’ – China’s Transportation Strategy


Quiz question #1:  
What country has the largest interstate highway system in the world?  Hint:  It’s not the United States.

Quiz question #2:  What country has the most miles of high-speed rail?  Hint:  It’s not France or Japan.

The answer to both questions is … China!

China’s superhighways, most of them built since 1984, now cover almost twice as many miles as the US interstates.  And on the rail side, China’s 15,000 miles of high speed rail represents nearly two-thirds of all such rail in the world.

China’s fast trains travel up to 217 mph, linking Beijing to Shanghai (the distance of New York City to Chicago) in a five-hour run.  Trains carrying 1000 passengers each depart at 10 to 15 minute intervals.  Compare that to Amtrak’s Acela, once an hour, carrying 300 passengers at an average of 70 mph.

Sure, China is big.  Though measured in square miles, the US is slightly larger.  But with a population of 1.34 billion, China is huge compared to the US’s 325 million residents.  That means China has a lot more people to move, and they’re investing accordingly.

China spends over $300 billion annually on transportation.  Compare that to the US Department of Transportation’s $80 billion annual spending on highways, rail and air transport.  No wonder we feel like we’re living in a third world country with crumbling roads and obsolete railroads.

But more importantly, China is also investing abroad.  Chinese money is being invested in 68 countries to build highways, ports and railroads to take its exports to market on what it sees as a 21st century Silk Road.

The country’s “Belt & Road Initiative” has pledged $8 trillion in projects for under-developed countries’ projects where it will be able to conduct trade.  These destinations account for 70 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of its GNP, and 75 percent of its energy reserves.

There is already a rail link from China to Europe with daily trains carrying electronics and manufactured goods to Europe.  After unloading, those trains return to China filled with food.  A trip that can take a month by sea now links 35 Chinese cities with a like number of European cities in just 15 days by rail.

On the high seas China is also expanding its reach, building a modern fleet of vessels and investing heavily in port operations in Europe and South America. Containers filled with cell-phones sail out from Chinese ports and much-needed oil sails back.  And where Chinese merchant vessels go, so too will its Navy.  While the US fancies itself as policeman to the world, there’s no way we can keep up.

The US merchant marine has only 175 American-owned vessels flying the US flag while 800 others are registered abroad.  The Chinese government-owned COSCO shipping conglomerate owns 1114 vessels, the fourth largest fleet in the world.  And that’s just one company.

President Trump seems headed to an all-out trade war with China, matching them tariff for tariff and Tweeting regularly about how “unfair” the Beijing government has been to us.

Meanwhile, Washington can’t even pass a domestic infrastructure spending bill to patch up our decrepit roads and rails.  To my thinking, we’re not only getting outspent by China, but clearly out-smarted.  Transportation is about trade and China is clearly planning for the future while we wallow in the past.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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: What Does ‘On Time’ Really Mean?


Last spring, Japanese railroad officials apologized for a huge mistake: one of their trains left a station 25 seconds early!  This was the second time such an egregious error had been made and I imagine that the offenders were severely disciplined.

Meanwhile back on Metro-North’s New Haven line, the railroad’s latest OTP (On Time Performance) statistics stand at about 82 percent ... a new low.

To make matters worse, what the Japanese railroads and Metro North Rail Road (MNRR) consider “on time” are two different things.  “On time” in Japan means the 7:12 a.m. train departs at 7:12, not 7:11 (as in this horrendous incident which prompted the apology) nor at 7:13.  “On time” means on time.

Metro-North, however, defines a train is being on time if it arrives or departs within five minutes and 59 seconds of the scheduled time.  So the train due in Grand Central at 8:45 a.m. is still “on time” in its record keeping if it pulls in just before 8:51 a.m.

On a train run averaging an hour from Connecticut to Grand Central Station, that’s about a 10 percent margin of error, so their 82 percent “on time” record could really be much, much lower.  What the exact “on time” stats are, they will not say.

But Metro-North is not alone in such squishy record keeping.  Most commuter railroads in the US also observe this 5:59 standard.  And on Amtrak, it’s even worse.  On a short run (less than 250 miles), a train is on time if its 10 minutes late.  Long distance trains (over 550 miles) are given a 31-minute leeway.

When trains are late, there is usually a good reason.  For Metro-North it could be switch problems, overhead power lines (catenaries), track conditions and, of course, weather.  And when one train is late, delays can cascade, just like a fender-bender on I-95 can create a huge back-up.

But all of this is OK with me.  I’d rather be safe than on-time.

We used to be able to always count on MNRR to be on time and would schedule our travel accordingly, assuming no delays.  And yes, the trains were on time something like 98 percent of all runs.  But they were also unsafe and we didn’t know it.

So if my train now is five or 10 minutes late, that’s OK.  Because I took an earlier train just to be safe, I can handle the delay and still keep to my personal schedule.

Over the years I’ve found that when service on MNRR is messed up, there’s usually a valid explanation.  While commuters’ Tweets are quick to assume it’s stupidity or incompetence on the part of the railroad, it usually isn’t.  It’s aging equipment or things beyond their control.

The men and women who work at Metro-North may not be rocket scientists, but I honestly believe most of them are trying their best.

While OTP on the railroad has been slipping, there is one area where we have seen a huge improvement: communications.

A small army of railroad people now work 24/7 to Tweet and e-mail every problem on every line.  And they update the information, keeping us posted on delays.  That’s valuable information riders can use to make decisions, find alternatives and alert colleagues they may be late.

Let’s give the railroad credit for doing this much right.

 

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

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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Talking Transportation: Secret “Hacks” of Grand Central 

Grand Central Terminal stands resplendent in the center of New York City. Photo by Rob Bye on Unsplash.com.

There is possibly no more beautiful railroad station in the world than New York City’s Grand Central Terminal (GCT).  As the destination of over 55,000 daily rail commuters from Connecticut, it’s a place where many of us spend a fair amount of time.

I’ve been riding in and out of Grand Central for over 50 years.  So to help you maneuver the station’s labyrinth of tunnels, ramps and stairs, here are some of the “secrets” of Grand Central that I find most useful.

Underground Access:

Sure, you can enter Grand Central from street level, but in bad weather you can find your way there underground from blocks away.  The north-end access entrances at Madison and 47th St., Park Ave. and 48th St. and the Helmsley Building walk-ways are dandy, though not all open on weekends.  But did you know you can also access from 43rd or 45th St., west of Vanderbilt, from inside the Chrysler Building, the Hyatt Hotel on 42nd St. or via the subway’s shuttle station, on the south side of 42nd St., just west of Park?

Fastest Way from / to the Lower Level:

If your train dumps you on the lower level, forget about the ramps or stairs for the long climb to street level, especially with luggage.  Walk to the forward end of the train and look for the elevator near Track 112.  It’ll take you to the upper level or, better yet, to within steps of Vanderbilt Avenue (see below).  Getting to the lower level platforms from street level is just as easy.  On the upper level, look for the elevators and take them down to “P” (Platform) level avoid two flights of stairs.

Washrooms with No Wait:

The new washrooms at the west end of the lower level have helped a lot, but still there’s often a line.  Take the nearby escalators up one level, turn around, and on your left is the Stationmaster’s Office complete with a small waiting room and lav’s … but for women only!  Or, go right and just before the ramp up to 42nd St. and Vanderbilt, look on your left for the sign for the Oyster Bar.  Go down the steps into the bar and you’ll find ornate bathrooms known only to a few.

Best Place To Get A Cab:          

Forget about the long line at the taxi stand on 42nd St. east of Vanderbilt.  Instead, go out the west end of the Main Concourse, up the stairs and out onto Vanderbilt Ave.  Cross the street and wait at the corner of 43rd.  Taxis flow through here, dropping off passengers every few seconds. If you’re heading west you’ll avoid the traffic on 42nd Street too.

Where to Have a Smoke:

Want to enjoy a cigar before your train?  Forget about lighting up anywhere inside the station. Instead, go to the Hyatt Hotel just east on 42nd St. From street level, go up two levels by escalator to their taxi stand and you’ll find yourself on the raised Park Avenue as it wraps around GCT.

These are a few of my favorite “hacks” of Grand Central.  Drop me an e-mail with yours and I’ll include them in a future column.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media 

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Talking Transportation: Trucks as Traffic Scapegoats

“Why don’t we just ban all trucks from our interstate highways in rush hour?”

The question was asked of me by a small town mayor in Fairfield County who’d obviously given a lot of thought to solutions to our traffic woes. He’s a smart guy and thought he’d come up with “the answer” to our transportation crisis.

He said he wasn’t in favor of tolls, but liked them as a traffic mitigation tool.  By charging trucks more to drive our highways in rush hour, they’d be incentivized to instead go off-peak.  He was just taking the idea a step further:  ban them completely at certain hours.

Well, I explained, that’s probably illegal.  This is an interstate, federal highway built to carry trucks.  Wouldn’t it be a better idea to tell the merchants where they are going to only accept deliveries at, say, 3 a.m. instead of 9 to 5, which is more convenient for the stores?

But the truck-haters are not satisfied.  Any number of candidates are calling for truck-only tolls, pointing to Rhode Island’s recent launch of such as system.  It’s been a huge success, raking in $625,000 in its first month of operation.

But it’s also attracted lawsuits, because it is illegal, just like the Mayor’s idea.  Tolling only big-rigs is a violation of the US Constitution’s “Commerce Clause”.  The truckers and big-box stores say it’s not fair to toll them and not charge drivers of cars and small trucks.  I’m no lawyer, but I think they’re right.

Trucks are not the problem.  Cars are.

But it’s so easy to blame the trucks for delays on our roads, isn’t it?  Blame them, instead of ourselves.  Toll them, not me. I’m not creating the traffic, they are.

Trucks are not allowed on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, so why are those roads so congested?  Look at I-95 in rush hour and count the number of trucks vs. single-occupancy-vehicles.  Again, it’s the volume of the traffic, not the kind of vehicles that are causing the delays. It’s the geometry of the highway … too many exits and entrances … and too few alternatives (aside from rail).

Truckers don’t want to be on the interstates in bumper-to-bumper traffic any more than you do.  They are not out there, driving on I-95 and I-84, just to annoy you.  Compared to you, driving solo in your automobile, they are high-occupancy vehicles carrying your Amazon orders and making deliveries to the big box stores.  You put those trucks on the road, and now you want to ban them at certain hours?  Then you’ll be moaning about late deliveries.

You don’t want to pay tolls?  Trucks already do, even in Connecticut.  They pay higher state gas taxes (44 cents for diesel vs. 25 cents for gasoline), even if they don’t buy that gas in Connecticut.  And they must pay to register their trucks in CT, even if they are from out of state, thanks to the International Fuel Tax Agreement, or IFTA.

Add a layer of tolls on top of those costs and guess who’s going to pay?  You!

There’s no free lunch, folks.  And the solution to our traffic is not to blame others … but to look in the mirror.

 

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

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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Talking Transportation: ‘Train Time is Your Own Time’ … True or False?


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

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

Assuming you get a seat, this means you’re squeezed in next to one or two fellow riders.

Usually commuters are respectful of each other and don’t blare their radios or carry on loud conversations, with each other or on cell-phones.  Or so we’d hope.

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

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

Other commuter railroads picked up Amtrak’s cue … but not Metro-North. While serving on the CT Metro-North Commuter Council, I regularly beseeched the railroad to give us a break and dedicate just one car to peace and quiet, convinced it would attract riders.  Finally in 2011, the railroad took the hint and launched such a car, branded as a “Quiet CALMmute”.

Victory for the sonically overloaded?  Not by a long shot.  This is Metro-North and if anyone can screw up a good idea, they can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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Talking Transportation: “The Automotive-Construction Complex”

How did Americans develop their love affair with driving?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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Talking Transportation: Federal Air Marshals? Worthwhile or Worthless?

Do you feel safe when you fly?

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

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

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

But the program is now in trouble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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Talking Transportation: Connecticut: Love It or Leave It

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it gets worse.

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

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

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

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

“Really?”, I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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: Transport Cuts Will Hurt Us All

For weeks I’ve been writing about the CDOT’s impending bus and rail service cuts and fare hikes and their profound impact on commuters, local businesses and real estate values.  But with just weeks to go, the folks who can prevent this pain… our legislature… seem to be doing nothing.

 The deadline is July 1 this year when proposed CDOT cuts will go into effect:   A 10 percent fare hike on Metro-North will be matched with elimination of off-peak trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines as well as Shore Line East.

How are local officials responding?  By complaining that the proposed cuts on them aren’t fair.  “Don’t cut my mass transit, cut someone else’s!”, seems the plaintiff cry.  “Why is my bus service being cut but Hartford and Stamford’s isn’t?,” one official asked me.

I told him he was asking the wrong question.  Instead he should be asking why any bus or train service was being cut.

It’s as if a crowd was trapped in a burning building with one narrow fire escape and everyone’s screaming “I deserve to survive. Let the others get burned” while nobody is working to douse the flames.

The answer isn’t to push away the pain onto others but to turn off the pain at its source.

Legislators can easily stop CDOT’s plans by just raising the gasoline tax four cents a gallon and diverting the car sales tax into the Special Transportation Fund.  Instead, they’re blaming everyone but themselves for the mess they got us into.

Remember:  it was the legislature that pandered to voters by lowering the gasoline tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997, a move that cost the STF $3.4 billion in lost transportation spending that could have repaired roads and fixed bridges.

Now the Republicans are so focused on the fall campaign they’re deceiving voters in a “big lie” PR move only Sean Spicer could enjoy: trying to argue that proposed highway tolls are “taxes”.

They are not.  Tolls would be a user fee, paid only by those who drive on those roads.  Train fares aren’t taxes, are they?  You only pay those fares if you take the train.

Do Republicans really think voters are that stupid?  Apparently so.

The pols are also piling on the CDOT for being late in opening the new Hartford Line, the commuter rail line between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.  Our legislature can’t even deliver a budget on time, let alone understand the complexity of a $769 million railroad construction project that’s taken over a decade.

It’s not by chance the Republicans are known as the “party of no”.  For all their complaining they have offered no new ideas nor embraced the ones that thoughtful observers think are obvious:  asking motorists to pay their fair share with gasoline taxes and tolls.

Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US, fares that have risen 53% since the year 2000 … while motorists haven’t seen a gas tax increase in 20 years. How is that fair?

If the July 1 service cuts and fare hikes go into effect, commuters should know it’s their legislature that’s to blame.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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Talking Transportation: “Getting There” – Grabbing The Best Seat

Photo by Gerrie van der Walt on Unsplash.

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 Greenwich, Conn., 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 Standing Room Only 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 percent 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 a 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, be it cruise ship or jetliner, planning ahead is key to scoring “the best seat in the house”.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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: Citizen Anger About Imminent Transport Funding Cuts Needs to be Directed at Legislature

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.

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 1 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

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 I Support Malloy’s Plan for Tolls, Gas Taxes

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 percent 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 Connecticut 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

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: “Getting There” Malloy’s Transportation Cuts

Fare hikes, rail service cuts and a freeze on transportation projects.  As he promised in December, Governor Malloy announced them all in January.  Rail commuters and highway drivers are justifiably outraged, but they should direct their anger not at the Governor or CDOT but at the legislature.

WHY NOW?
This funding crisis has been years in the making, exacerbated 20 years ago when lawmakers’ political pandering saw them lower the gasoline tax.  Coupled with better gas mileage and increased use of electric cars, the Special Transportation Fund (STF), which pays for our roads and rails has been running out of money.  By next year, it will be in deficit.

RAIDS ON THE STF:
His critics are quick to blame Malloy, correctly noting that he raided the STF for money to balance the state’s budget.  But so did Governors Rell and Rowland.  Blaming their past mistakes doesn’t answer the question of what we do now.

FARE HIKES:
Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  The proposed 10 percent hike in July, while unpopular, will be absorbed by commuters, who have no real choice in how to get to their jobs in NYC … assuming they don’t move.

PUBLIC HEARINGS:
Required by law 90 days before they go into effect, the public hearings on fare hikes will be cathartic but meaningless.  Think of them as political theater.  The CDOT will present the numbers, explain why the STF is running out of money and sit patiently as commuters yell and scream.  Then they will do what they must:  raise fares.

RAIL SERVICE CUTS:
Why is Malloy cutting off-peak weekday and all weekend service on the New Canaan, Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East lines?  Because, unlike the mainline, these lines are subsidized 100 percent by Connecticut, have lower ridership and are much more expensive to operate.

ECONOMIC IMPACT:
While higher fares are never popular, cuts in train service can be economically devastating.  Without daily trains, houses in communities like Wilton and Redding will be less desirable.  Property values will decrease, affecting local taxes.  Transit-oriented development dreams for communities in the Naugatuck Valley will be dashed.

FUTURE PROJECTS:
Not only is the Governor threatening fare hikes and service cuts, he’s freezing $4.3 billion worth of transportation projects across the state.  Forget about the new Stamford rail garage, Route 8 – I-84 “mixmaster” in Waterbury, the Barnum rail station in east Bridgeport, and hundreds of other projects.  There may even be a 15 perent staff cut at CDOT.  That means months or years of delays on these projects if and when money is ever found, making our state even less desirable for new business investment.

ROAD MAINTENANCE:
These cuts may even affect CDOT’s ability to plow our roads in the next blizzard, let alone fix the potholes and our aging bridges.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?:
It will be up the legislature to finally address STF funding.  None of the alternatives will be popular, especially in an election year.  But I’d expect tolls, taxes, and yes, fare hikes … all predicated on passage of a true STF “lock box” in November’s referendum.

If you’re as angry as I am, do something.  Call your state representative and senator and demand that they vote on new funding sources for the STF to stop these service cuts and project delays.  They created this problem.  Now they’ll have to solve it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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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