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November 08, 2015

Stamford RR Garage Saga Drags On

The nearly decade-long struggle to replace the crumbling Stamford railroad station parking garage has taken another bizarre turn:  the CDOT now wants to spend $1.5 million and take six months to repair the garage before they tear it down.
How did we get into this mess?  Let’s examine the time-line:

Garage construction - 1983
MAY 1983:    Construction begins on the Stamford Transportation Center, featuring a new train station and parking garage. But construction is halted when cracks are found in beams. Repairs are made and work continues.

AUGUST 2006:       Crumbing concrete, exposed and rusting rebar convince engineers the garage is near the end of its life.   CDOT decides it will be cheaper to demolish the old 727-space parking garage than to repair it… $35 million.

AUGUST 2008:       A hoped-for public-private partnership (PPP) to replace the old garage in its current location and add private office space falls through. 

JULY 2012:   The CDOT tries a PPP again, issuing an RFP (Request for Proposals) for replacement parking within a quarter mile of the station.  Developers are promised confidentiality.  There are no public hearings on any concepts, leaving commuters in the dust. After protests, Governor Malloy appoints a panel to oversee the CDOT process of selecting a developer.  The group meets secretly, never seeking public input nor ever issuing a report on its work.

JULY 1, 2013:         Developer John McClutchy and family donate $30,000 to the CT State Central Democratic Committee.  By February 2015, the McClutchy’s have donated $165,000 to that federal account, bypassing state laws prohibiting contractor contributions to candidates.

John McClutchy
JULY 11 2013:        The CDOT announces its choice of developers for the Stamford Garage, JHM Group of Companies (headed by John McClutchy), which proposes a 600,000 sq ft office / hotel complex on the site of the old garage while parking is moved a quarter mile away.  Negotiations on a final deal get underway.

NOVEMBER 2014:            Having been completely bypassed in the state’s decision making process about the garage project, the City of Stamford Zoning Board passes a new zoning ordinance giving it final approval over any projects near the train station.

MARCH 2015:         In response, the Governor introduces HB-6851, a bill to give the state control of all development within a half mile of any transit station.  The bill would create a quasi-governmental CT Transit Corridor Development Authority, all of its members appointed by the Governor, with the power of eminent domain.  The bill is eventually killed.

APRIL 2015:           Large chunks of concrete fall from the ceiling of the Stamford Garage prompting CDOT to close the facility for safety inspection, displacing 700+ daily parkers.
Spawling concrete, rusted rebar

JULY 2015:             The second anniversary of CDOT’s selection of JHM as developer of the garage passes, but there is still no signed contract.  The old garage remains closed into a third month with no word on repairs.

OCTOBER 2015:     CDOT announces it will spend $1.5 million and six months to repair part of the old garage, eventually re-opening 270 of its 727 spaces.

Those facts speak for themselves.  My only opinion:  if CDOT can so mismanage a small project like this, what’s going to happen when Governor Malloy gives them $100 billion to spend on his 30-year transportation plan?

October 24, 2015

Traveling By Tube (And We Don't Mean In London)

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.

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
Beach Pneumatic - 1870
by air.  The system ran for almost 3 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 1960’s, office buildings in major cities were designed with pneumatic tube systems for inter-office mail.  Many banks still use pneumatic tubes at drive-up windows.

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 afford 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
Another Hyperloop Rendering
locate the “pipes” and how to acquire necessary land.
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.

October 11, 2015

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% compared to last year.  That works out to more than 3000 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 96% 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 pretty close to on-time.  It’s much more dependable than last winter.
There have been no fare increases (at least in Connecticut), even though our fares are still the highest in the nation.  And off-peak and weekends, it’s a lot cheaper.
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 we’re not keeping up with demand.
More riders without additional capacity means crowding, and we’re 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 M8’s in 2005 through design, testing and construction, the first M8’s took 6 years.  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.
Photo courtesy
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?

August 27, 2015

Railroad History is Deja Vu All Over Again

Train crashes, passenger deaths, grade-crossing accidents, derailments.  These are not just the recent history of Metro-North, but events dating back decades.
A friend of mine, Paul Zajkowsky, loves reading the microfilms of our town’s weekly newspaper and has been feeding me clippings of all the stories about the New Haven line.  The news reports sound all too familiar.
APRIL 1939:           Two lads on their way to hunt bullfrogs are almost killed crossing the railroad tracks near Noroton Heights.
JANUARY 1944:     An empty train heading to New Haven smashes into a stopped local train at Darien, creating an explosion heard two miles away.  The engineer is killed and 14 passengers are injured.
FEBRUARY 1944 (and many subsequent dates):     A delivery truck runs off the road at the Hoyt St crossing on the New Canaan branch, gets caught on the tracks and drove into an oncoming train.
JANUARY 1949:     A ten-year-old playing with a length of wire comes in contact with the 11,000-volt overhead caternary.  The resulting flash frightens but does not harm him.
DECEMBER 1954:  A Darien man exits Ernie’s Tavern and clambers up an embankment to cross the railroad tracks.  Struck by a NY-bound express, he suffers a broken leg.
JULY 1955:             Service has become so bad on the New Haven RR that Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, petitions the Interstate Commerce Commission to fine the railroad “as a hazard to public safety”. Cousins complains that trains are so crowded that a dozen passengers must ride standing in the vestibule while others ride in the washrooms.
JULY 1955:             New Haven RR President Patrick McGinnis tells the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce that local commuters will now have to pay $5 a month for station parking.  “I’m a businessman,” he tells them. “I’m not the Ford Foundation”.
OCTOBER 1955:     A flash flood washes out tracks near Noroton Heights just as a 78-car freight train passes thru at 35 mph, derailing 23 of the cars and causing $10 million in damage.  Round-the-clock repairs continue for months.
FEBRUARY 1957:   A Bridgeport man, running to catch a train, sees it pulling out of the station and chases after it.  Grabbing the door of the last car, he’s unable to board and falls to the tracks.
JANUARY 1958:     Within hours of each other, two locomotives catch fire in the Park Avenue tunnel, shutting down all train service in and out of Grand Central.
JULY 1958:             The AM commute is disrupted when 11 cars of a freight train derails near Bridgeport.

DECEMBER 1958:  Citing mounting losses, the New Haven RR threatens to eliminate commuter service unless it receives $900,000 from CT counties and gets NY to waive $1 million in taxes on Grand Central.  Railroad President George Alpert warns “I do not propose longer to peril the New Haven RR by subsidizing NYC, Westchester and Connecticut”.  (The NHRR goes into bankruptcy (for the second time) in 1961.)

August 16, 2015

“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
Hi speed toll collection... NO booths!

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 fund raising 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 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 29th 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 St 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 diligence before saying they have wasted their time.