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July 19, 2015

The Secrets of E-ZPass

As a college student in the early 1970’s I had a summer job as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge.  Boring job but great pay.  But it was clear, even then, that toll collection would become automated, at first with special lanes with those baskets you’d throw your change into (assuming you had the correct change).
By the early 80’s, NY and Pennsylvania toll authorities (which between them make up two-thirds of the US’s $3 billion a year tolling industry) began experimenting with electronic toll tags, as much to reduce congestion at booths as to replace human collectors. But it was Oklahoma that introduced the first electronic toll system, The Pikepass in 1991.
Today you can travel toll roads from Maine to Illinois to Virginia and use the same E-ZPass. 
And Connecticut drivers… get ready, as everyone admits that tolls are in our future.
The E-ZPass technology is simple.  Each “pass” contains an RFID chip which, when “pinged” by an outside reader, transmits a unique code identifying you as the pass holder.  Your ID is recorded and the toll deducted from your account.
As an incentive, most systems offer E-ZPass users a discount.  For example, the cash toll for cars on the Tappan Zee Bridge is $5.00 but E-ZPass holders only pay $4.75.  The Tappan Zee even offers high-speed (35 mph) lanes that read your E-ZPass without stopping.
But gateless toll lanes are taken advantage of by some.  The Port Authority estimates that two percent of all vehicles drive through E-ZPass lanes without paying, costing the agency about $7 million a year in lost revenue.
On the Henry Hudson Bridge linking Manhattan and the Bronx, all lanes are E-ZPass as there have been no human collectors since 2014.  If you don’t have a toll-tag for the $2.54
fee, they snap a picture of your license and send you a bill for $5.00.  But the MTA says it has been unable to collect $4 million in tolls from those who were billed.
Even law-abiding E-ZPass holders should know that Big Brother may be watching them,  miles from any toll lane. The NYC Dept of Transportation uses hundreds of E-ZPass readers in Manhattan, it says, to monitor the flow of traffic.  But the NY Civil Liberties Union calls that an invasion of privacy.
E-ZPass Locations in New York City monitoring traffic flow

Combined with the millions of data points collected by NYPD license plate readers, it’s pretty hard to keep your whereabouts a secret. (Never mind that your cell phone is constantly broadcasting your location.  And have you checked your Google Location History lately to see everywhere you’ve been and when?)
Your E-ZPass could even let authorities determine if you were speeding as you pass between readers, though the NY Thruway insists that’s not in the plans and wouldn’t stand up in court.
The choice is yours:  pay cash, wait in long lines and remain anonymous… or get an E-ZPass, enjoy the discounts and speedy trips but leave a record of your travels.

July 04, 2015

Updates on Transportation News

It’s time to update you on some of the hot topics we’ve discussed in recent weeks:
MALLOY’S TRANSIT LAND GRAB:      Remember the Governor’s stealth proposal for a “Transit Corridor Development Authority”, described by some as “eminent domain on steroids”?  Well, the initial idea to allow the state to acquire any land within a half-mile of train stations was modified, then killed in the legislature.  I predict it will be back.

BRIDGE WOES:     Just as planning begins to replace Norwalk’s 118 year old railroad bridge, which opens but doesn’t close, another ancient bridge is suffering the same engineering arthritis.  On July 1st the Devon Bridge in Stratford was raised but wouldn’t close, delaying every train that ran across it for days.  Estimated replacement cost, $750 million.

STAMFORD GARAGE:     It has been two years since the CDOT tapped Darien developer John McClutchy as their choice to demolish the old rail station garage.  (That announcement came ten days after, just coincidentally, McClutchy’s wife donated $10,000 to the state Democrats.)  But a final deal has yet to be signed for reasons unknown, so any work is still many months away.  Meanwhile in April of this year the old garage was crumbling so badly that the CDOT closed it for safety inspections.  Those inspections were completed, but the garage is still closed, displacing 700+ daily commuters.

THIS IS “SAFETY FIRST”?:       On June 29th, Metro-North allowed two trains to run toward each other on a single track just south of New Canaan.  Fortunately they stopped before a collision and one of the trains backed up and out of the way.  When reporters first
asked Metro-North what happened, they insisted nothing was wrong.  Later, they described the incident as “undesirable train routing”, an amazing euphemism for a near collision.

TAKEN TO COURT IN HANDCUFFS:    Is it reassuring to passengers to see MTA conductors and engineers on a “perp walk” for the news media?  Thirteen current and
former employees of the MTA were taken to court last week, indicted on charges of cheating on safety exams that were testing their knowledge of signals, speed limits and safe operation of trains.  The cheating ring ran for more than two years in a period just before Metro-North was hit with a series of derailments and collisions.  Eight different exam cycles were compromised before the MTA’s internal investigators started their probe.

HOW LATE WAS YOUR TRAIN:           When the 11:39 pm left Grand Central on the night of July 1st, passengers settled in for a nap enroute to Stamford and a 12:48 am  arrival.  But instead of taking one hour, their journey took three.  Near Woodlawn, the train entered a section with inoperative third-rail and coasted to a halt.  The train sat there for 90 minutes before a rescue train arrived, taking 40 minutes to pull them to a station where passengers got on another train.  To their credit, the crew did pass out water to the stranded passengers… never a good sign when you’re on a stranded train.

June 23, 2015

The Merritt: Queen of All Parkways

Cruising along on the Merritt Parkway awhile back I was struck by its natural beauty, unique bridges and amazing landscaping.  But until I did some research, I didn’t appreciate its history.
A hundred years ago the only way to drive between New York and Boston was on Route 1, The Post Road.  If you think traffic is bad today, imagine that journey!  So in 1936, two thousand 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.
As the Merritt was being planned, a major real estate scandal caught Darien real estate agent G Leroy Kemp in cahoots with two brokers as they paid inflated prices for land for the parkway and split the proceeds.
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.  Their adornments were better appreciated when cars were
poking along at half of today’s speeds, but they are still beautiful. 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.
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.

June 07, 2015

The Budget's End Did Not Justify the Means

As someone who has battled two decades for more spending on transportation, you’d think I would be happy with the state’s new biennial budget.  But when you drill down into the details, there’s reason for concern.
Governor Malloy promised a down-payment on his $100 billion transportation dreams.  And he did get one-half of one percent of the state sales tax re-purposed for that… but it only pays down the CDOT’s enormous debt service.
That must have come as a surprise to his recently appointed Transportation Funding Task Force which is just getting started.  Why have a task force when you’re playing a shell game with transportation funds?
Not kept was the Governor’s promise for a “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund.  Nor did he keep his promise to not raise taxes, having the chutzpah to blame the legislature for that when it was very clear that the budget’s new taxes were negotiated by his team with his blessing.  As the Governor signs the new budget into law, he owns those hikes and broken promises.
There will be tax hikes on the middle class, sin taxes (cigarettes and Keno – a tax on ignorance) and corporations.  You know it’s bad when GE, Aetna and Travelers all scream in pain, though they’ll doubtless be paid off to stay put just as UBS was paid $20 million years ago.
Any budget that narrowly passes the House 73-70 and the Senate 19-17 in an “emergency vote” without debate bears closer scrutiny, especially in a state with one party so clearly in control.
CT-N’s coverage of the marathon two-day final session showed lawmakers who were deliberately sleep deprived, kept at their desks all night
debating measure after measure until they were exhausted.   Sleep deprivation is a great interrogation technique for terrorists but no way to pass new laws.
I am told that Democrats who did not toe the party line on this budget and threatened to vote “no”, were told to “go home” rather than cast a negative ballot.  Indeed, in the final House tally eight lawmakers did not vote, some because they were said to be “sick”, others because they were “absent on other business”.  What legislator misses the final ballot on a two year, $40 billion budget that passes by a single vote?
So divisive was the final debate, the Governor didn’t even have the guts to speak to lawmakers after the budget session ended, a long-standing tradition.
I have respect for the office of Governor, but also believe strongly in open, transparent government “of the people, by the people”.  Beware the tyranny of any one party when majority power is so brazenly wielded and the public is ignored.  Governor Malloy did deliver on his promise to start funding long-neglected transportation projects.  I just disagree with the way he did it.
Keep your eyes on the prize but embrace the process.  Whatever good came out of this year’s budget process, those ends did not justify the means.

May 26, 2015

Summer Getaways Without the Traffic

Watching the Friday afternoon traffic crawling up I-95, I was struck with a thought:  there has got to be a better way to get to the Cape and Islands than playing Mad Max on the bumper-to-bumper interstate for endless hours.  
Six million people visit the Cape each year, four million of them in the summer and fall.  And on most summer weekends they all seem to be directly in front of you on the roads, right?  There’s got to be a better way.
There used to be a direct Amtrak train from Washington DC to Hyannis, stopping at major stations in Connecticut. “The Cape Codder” ran from 1985 to 1996 but only carried 1200 passengers in its final season due to its 5+ hour running time from Stamford.  And once you detrained in downtown Hyannis you were still miles from the beach.
There’s still express bus service running from New Haven to Hyannis but it’s no faster (though a lot cheaper at $42 one way). (All fares quoted are based on a June Friday departure)
The newest option is high speed ferry.  The Seastreak runs from East 35th Street in
Manhattan to Martha’s Vineyard ($165 one way) and Nantucket ($175 one way) in five and six hours respectively.  Nice boat, but still a long ride even with the flat screen TV’s, full bar and comfy seats.  .
Seastreak also operates high speed from New York to Port Jefferson LI where you can connect with the Hampton Jitney (bus) to that tony beach community in 3 ½ hours.  Or you can chug across to PJ from Bridgeport on the traditional ferry, and then hop the bus.
If money is no object, you could always fly.  JetBlue flies non-stop in an hour from JFK to Hyannis or the Vineyard for as little as $179 one way.
Or there’s Cape Air whose Cessnas will whisk you from White Plains to the islands in just over an hour for $565 one way.  Faster and more exclusive are charters from firms like Trade Winds whose fleet includes private jets.
Really?  Are we this desperate to decamp to the sun and surf when we have perfectly lovely beaches right here in Connecticut?
State-run Sherwood Island is right off I-95 in Westport and bikeable from the Greens Farms stop on Metro-North.  And Bridgeport’s city-owned Pleasure Beach reopens in June after a two decade absence.  The free water taxi runs seven days a week.  
Another alternative is the Jersey shore.  Catch Amtrak to Newark (or Metro-North to Grand Central and switch to Penn Station) and NJ Transit’s “Coast Line” will easily get you to all the shore communities from Long Branch to Bay Head. 
So wherever you’re heading for fun and sun this summer, don’t be a slave to bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Try transit!

May 11, 2015

Personalized Airfares

Last time we were talking about mass transit systems collecting fares on the honor system.  This time, something completely different.  But to understand it, consider this analogy:
Let’s say you’re in a store shopping for a commodity.  You and another shopper each select one of the same items at the same time and head for the cashier.  But before you can pay, the cashier asks for your name and some identification.
You’re from Darien or New Canaan and a new customer.  The other shopper is from Hartford, but a regular at the store.  The cashier plugs in that info and you’re told that your purchase will cost 10% more than the other shopper’s.
What?  Well, welcome to the world of “personalized prices”.
You may not realize it, but this happens all the time when you’re buying gasoline, thanks to “zone pricing” where gas stations charge higher prices in more affluent communities, not just in Connecticut but nationwide.
And giving discounts to “best customers” is also quite common.  Monthly pass holders on Metro-North pay only half of what their peak fares would cost purchased separately.
But never before have these concepts been combined in some secret algorithm to apply to purchasing airline tickets… until now.
IATA, the International Air Transport Authority, has petitioned the US to allow its 250 members to capture and use new kinds of personal information about would-be flyers before quoting them a fare.
Most frightening of these could be some sort of “means test”.  In other words, as in a bazaar when the salesman sizes you up and asks “how much do you want to pay?” the airline would figure out that answer itself based on your zip code and flying patterns. 
So if you live in a rich town, they’ll assume you can pay more and quote you higher fares while folks in poorer communities are offered discounts.
To his credit, our US Senator Richard Blumenthal along with others in Washington are questioning the fairness, if not the legality, of all this.  They’ve written to the US Transportation Department asking if this plan isn’t hurting more consumers than its helping.
Airline flights have never been fuller.  Because they’ve shrunk their fleets and customer demand has come back, almost 80% of all seats are full on domestic and international flights.
Gone are the glory days of my mis-spent youth when students could fly “stand-by” hoping
for an empty seat just before departure in return for a 50% discount. That only worked because planes were empty.
Today the incentive to get a cheap seat is to book early, weeks in advance, not to show up at the last minute hoping to find an empty seat.  There are none.
But to price the same seat bought at the same time at two different prices simply because of shoppers’ demographics seems unethical if not illegal. 
Airlines are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, national origin.  So why would we allow them to, in effect, look at our credit report before quoting us a fare?

April 27, 2015

Collecting Fares on the Honor System

Connecticut’s newest mass transit system, CTfastrak, is off to a great start.  The bus rapid transit system running from New Britain to Hartford is carrying up to 10,000 passengers daily.  Mind you, that’s coming off of its debut week when all rides were free.

In fact, it’s the fare collection process on CTfastrak that makes it innovative:  it’s on the honor system.
Unlike most buses, CTfastrak passengers pay before getting onboard, purchasing tickets ($1.50 for 2 hours’ use) at the stations or online.  This reduces the “dwell time” at each stop as passengers can board through any door. A similar system is running in NYC on certain “Select Bus” routes and seems popular.
But without paying a fare to the bus driver as you board, how do they know you have a ticket?  Ah, there’s the rub.  The “honor system” relies on “Fare Inspectors” making random checks.  Getting caught without a valid ticket means a $75 fine, though in these early days they’re mostly giving warnings.
Only a handful of US transit systems have adopted the honor system for fare collection, including the San Diego Trolley and the MUNI subway in San Francisco. In Minneapolis getting caught on a bus without a ticket is a $180 lesson in “doing the right thing”.
In Los Angeles the Metro had so many problems with free-loaders they converted to turnstiles. Even a $250 ticket for fare evaders didn’t encourage payment, resulting in a $9 million loss in ticket sales. And the fare there is only $1.50.
On Metro-North fare evasion doesn’t seem to be a problem.  If you don’t have a ticket they’ll just throw you off the train (at the next station, of course).  Or get an MTA cop to issue a fine.
Until a few years ago you could buy a ticket on the train for the same fare as on the platform.  That meant wasted time for conductors and a “money room” at Grand Central processing a million in cash each week.  Now if you don’t have a ticket and buy one on the train, there’s a $5.75 - $6.50 penalty… even on a $2 ticket.  Senior citizens get a break as do those boarding at stations that don’t have ticket machines.
The bigger problem on Metro-North is uncollected fares. The railroad admits it loses money by not collecting all tickets… but less money than it would cost to properly staff trains with enough conductors to collect them all.
Most infuriating is when trains from Grand Central leave Stamford.  Everyone can see that dozens of commuters got off there and scores more got on.  But the new arrivals’ tickets are seldom collected unless conductors have issued seat checks to the original NY passengers.
Watching someone traveling from Stamford to, say, Bridgeport get a “free ride” is like watching someone shoplift in a store.  You just know you’ll be paying more to subsidize their larceny, with neglectful conductors as their willing accomplices.

April 11, 2015

Paying for Malloy's $100 Billion Wish List

There is no question that Governor Malloy’s proposed $100 Billion transportation plan for our state is, as he puts it, “bold”.  The question is, is it achievable?  When asked which projects are important and should be prioritized, he insists it’s “all of them”.
Really?  Is turning little Oxford Airport into an international terminal, just 58 miles from Bradley, as important as fixing Metro-North?  Can we really spend $780 million on bike and
The 118 yr old Walk Bridge
pedestrian thoroughfares when we don’t have money to repair crucial bridges on the New Haven line?  And is spending $1.6 billion to widen I-95 from Stamford to the NY state line even necessary?
The problem is, the Governor’s plan isn’t a plan.  It’s a wish list, with something for everyone in the state.  His “plan” is of unknown origin.  Nobody has vetted these projects to say what makes sense and what doesn’t.  Nor has the Governor offered any ideas on how to pay for them. Instead he’s created a panel of experts tasked with coming up with those answers by the end of this summer, an unenviable job indeed.
As my Daddy taught me, “there is no free lunch”.  And there is no way to pay for any of these projects without significant pain.  A $100 billion plan would cost each man, woman and child in this state $27,800 to pay for it.  Even spread over 50 years, that’s $556 per person per year.  Are you in?
Even the Governor admits that highway tolls wouldn’t be enough, covering only one-third of the total cost.  And we know how popular tolling is.  So where else do we get the money?
Among the alternatives… a sales tax increase, higher gas taxes and real estate transfer fees.  Anything on that list to your liking so far?
How about “privatization”, in effect selling off state-owned roads and bridges to private companies, allowing them to charge whatever they’d like to use them?
Is it just by chance that this alternative is being floated by former Malloy campaign manager
Occhiogrosso & The Governor
and top aide Roy Occhiogrosso 
who just happens to now be working for a firm, HNTB Corp,  that specializes in such deals?  What does Mr. Occhiogrosso know about the Governor’s plans that we don’t, but should?
Privatization has been tried before.  In 2006 cash-strapped Indiana sold its 50-year-old East West Toll Road (“The Main Street of the Midwest”) to an Australian–Spanish conglomerate, netting the state $3.8 billion in return for the right to operate the crucial highway for 75 years. (PS:  Goldman Sachs earned a reported $200 million just for brokering the deal.)   In the first year of operations, tolls almost doubled. Surprised?

Let’s face it:  Governor Malloy is very shrewd.  He gets to look like Santa Claus, dolling out transportation goodies across the state while being able to blame his financing strategy team for assigning the costs.  This entire debate warrants very close scrutiny because, whatever its outcome, we will all be paying for it for many years.