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March 14, 2015

Malloy's Transit Land-Grab

Don’t look now, but Governor Malloy’s trying to take your land, or at least control of the land around your local train or bus station.
Proposed Stamford TOD Project
When the CDOT recently tried to shove a private development down the throats of Stamford under the guise of “transit oriented development” in replacing the garage at the train station, city fathers were justifiably upset.  They voted through a zoning change giving them some say on the project, as well they should.
As revenge Governor Malloy is now proposing a statewide “Transit Corridor Development Authority” (TCDA) that would bigfoot the towns and cities, giving the state control over land, buildings and development within a half-mile of all transit stations. 
Your favorite coffee shop across from your Metro-North stop could be torn down and replaced with offices.  Parking lots could be enlarged with fees set by the CDOT, not the towns where the lots reside.  If the state wants to erect a building taller than local zoning laws allow, too bad… they can and will. As one critic described it, this is “eminent domain on steroids”.
The TCDA would be run by political appointees, a majority controlled by the Governor and not answerable to the local residents whose land would be affected.  The agency could issue its own bonds financed by rents and taxes on the very structures they want built. And the agency would continue with this power forever, under “perpetual succession”.
The TCDA would have the power to condemn property that it alone claims it needs to further its goals.  Town and regional planning and zoning boards can just go pound sand, powerless to stop them.
Because train and stations are usually in the downtown of cities and towns, those municipalities would lose control of the development destiny of their very core.  The Governor’s bill would have us believe that Hartford, or this new agency of political hacks, knows what’s best for us, not our elected mayors and first selectmen.
It’s been proven that the private developer chosen for the Stamford garage project just happened to have donated $165,000 to the State Democrats  before and after his selection.  Yet, there’s nothing in the Governor’s TCDA bill (HB 6851) to prevent such “pay for play” activities.
Were Dannel Malloy still mayor of Stamford he would scream bloody murder if a bill like this was introduced in Hartford.  But as Governor he seems to have no qualms at telling 169 towns and cities in this state that he knows best… that Hartford will determine if skyscrapers built by private developers should be plopped down in your town and mine.
“Transit oriented development” makes sense and should be encouraged.  We all need to promote housing and commercial growth focusing on our train and bus stations.  But this is a local issue, not a state right.
If we are to preserve the local identity and feel of our communities, we must stop the Governor’s land grab and keep control of our destiny.  Tell your State Representative and State Senator you oppose HB 6851 and Malloy’s land-grab.

March 02, 2015

Why We Love to Hate the DMV

What three letters strike fear in the hearts of every Connecticut motorist?  DWI?  NSA?  No, the DMV, our beloved Department of Motor Vehicles.
I had the pleasure of getting my new “verified” drivers license at their Norwalk office recently, girding myself for what the DMV’s own website promised would be a two and a quarter hour ordeal.
Arriving at 1 pm to a full parking lot, I knew I was in trouble.  After eleven minutes in the first
line, “Information”, I received my number, A104, and was told to wait.  At that point the automated system was calling A70 along with D759 and a few B numbers.  As numbers were called, people would scurry to the assigned window, but as time wore on, people moved from griping to just bailing out, leaving some numbers called but nobody appearing. That helped move things along.
My number was finally called at 2:15 pm for a transaction that lasted all of four minutes.  The clerk was pleasant and efficient.  I paid my $72 fee (set by the legislature) on a credit card, waited another six minutes for my picture, and was out the door at 2:37 pm.
There are 2.6 million active drivers licenses in Connecticut and 430,000 are renewed each year, most of them by mail.  But every six years your renewal requires a new photo and more recently, an in-person visit, thanks to Homeland Security’s “Real ID” program.
As of October 2020, only “verified” drivers’ licenses (or a passport) will get you past the TSA and onto a plane.  “Verified” means your license has been issued after you show the DMV a slew of documents… passport, W2, birth certificate, bank statement, pilot’s license… proving both legal residency and identity.
And as that 2020 deadline draws closer and people realize their driver’s license is really an ID card giving you permission to fly, the lines will get even longer.

My approval for a new license took just minutes because I had more than enough documentation.  But anyone ahead of me in line lacking even one crucial certificate slowed up the process. ( After my ordeal I found that, as a AAA member, I could have got my license at one of their offices for a small convenience fee.)
Add to the mix the thousands of undocumented aliens seeking drivers’ licenses now allowed under a new law, and you get the sense that the DMV is getting very busy.
The agency has added staff, but the offices are still jammed.  The DMV says that Wednesday and Friday mornings have the shortest waits, but who’s got a job that lets them take off that much time for a paper chase?
All told my experience at the DMV wasn’t too bad.  The clerks were as speedy as their cumbersome process allowed and they even had a nice little coffee and snack stand in the waiting area.  I just am grateful this is only necessary once every six years.  Seeya in 2021!

February 15, 2015

Is Metro-North Irreplacable?

What is Connecticut’s relationship with Metro-North?  Client – vendor?  Shared partnership?  Stockholm syndrome?  Or is the railroad a “fanged sloth” hanging around our neck?
All of those analogies has been made to the state’s 30+ year relationship with Metro-North, part of NY’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  But given their dismal safety record and deteriorating service in recent years, many have asked “is it time to fire Metro-North and find someone else to run our trains?”
I posed that very question almost four years ago and people were shocked, not knowing that such a thing was even possible.  Now there are even laws being considered in Hartford to rid us of the railroad.
But even though Metro-North works for us, CDOT’s Commissioner Jim Redeker says they should not… in fact, cannot… be replaced.
Redeker recently testified that Metro-North is uniquely qualified and staffed to run a commuter rail operation of its size and that there are no other potential competitors he’d consider as operator, let alone try to build our own agency from scratch.  On this point he’s probably right.
Where he’s wrong is in arguing that replacing Metro-North would mean we wouldn’t be allowed to run “our trains” into “their station”, Grand Central. 
There are plenty of railroads with operating rights on others’ tracks.  NJ Transit has no trouble getting into Penn Station. Virginia Railway Express runs into downtown DC.   Does Commissioner Redeker really think that our Congressional delegation couldn’t force the MTA to give us access to GCT?  It wouldn’t be an easy fight, but this is certainly no deal-breaker to replacing Metro-North.
Alternative #3 is to renegotiate our contract with the railroad. This opportunity only presents itself every five years, and 2015 is one of those windows.   Maybe we should get them to commit to service standards, as their current contract has no metrics to measure their performance.  But again, Commissioner Redeker seems reticent to fight for our state or its commuters.
He reminded lawmakers that the last time Connecticut arbitrated the contract we were out-smarted and ending up with a worse deal than we’d had before, going from 60% cost-sharing to 65%.  The MTA’s army of lawyers took us to the cleaners, costing us millions more in payments to Metro-North each year.  Apparently Commissioner thinks we’re not smart enough to negotiate a better deal, so why even try.
So, just to recap… our Commissioner of Transportation says we have no real options, that we have to work with Metro-North, but we’re probably not savvy enough to get any better deal than we have now.  So let’s just wave the white flag before the battle begins and keep paying $70+ million a year for lousy train service.
Now there is inspired leadership!  Declare defeat and just walk away.  Let the “fanged sloth” continue to hang around our necks.  We really have no choice. Suck it up because Metro-North, our vendor, is running the show.

January 31, 2015

Trains' Name Game

When a recent fast-moving winter storm coming our way was referred to as a “Clipper”, it got me thinking of the old names that used to be given to specific trains, like The Yankee Clipper.  Of course, that name originally derived from the fast sailing ships, but trains have personalities too!
The Europeans do a great job “branding” their trains.  There is, of course, “Eurostar”, the popular train between London and Paris via “the Chunnel”.  There’s also “Thalys” from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam, and “Lyria”, a super-fast service from Paris to Switzerland using French TGV’s.
All of these trains sound a lot more exciting than “Acela”, Amtrak’s best effort at high speed rail.  As one-time Amtrak President David Gunn once said, “Everyone knows what Acela is… it’s your basement.”
Amtrak still has some named trains though they are pale shadows of their historic namesakes:  the Silver Meteor and Silver Star to Florida, The Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, The Adirondack to Montreal.
The old New Haven Railroad used to name its trains:  The Merchants Ltd., The Owl, The Patriot and Senator.  When Amtrak inherited The Owl, a night train from Boston to Washington, they renamed it “The Night Owl”.  But it was so slow and made so many stops, it was better known to staff and passengers as “The Night Crawler”.  It’s long gone.
Even stations’ names can evoke grandeur:  Grand Central Terminal (not station!) says it all… big, NY Central and a dead-end.  South Station and North Station in Boston give you a sense of location, like Paris’ Gare de Nord and Gare de L’Est. And Gare de Lyon tells you one of the big cities where the trains are coming from.

On Metro-North most of the station names align with the towns where they are located.  But Westport residents still insist on calling their station “Saugatuck” in honor of the adjacent river. And Green’s Farms memorializes John Green’s nearby 1699 farm.  But why is the Harlem line station “Southeast” actually far north of NY near I-84?
Though it no longer names its trains, some Metro-North Bombardier-built cars carry names tied to Connecticut lore:  The Danbury Hatter (alluding to the city’s old industry),
 The Ella Grasso (named after our former Governor) and my favorite, The Coast Watcher.
Even before Amtrak, America’s railroads similarly named many cars, especially sleepers, parlor cars and diners.  Today’s long-distance, double-deck Superliners carry the names of the states and such historic figures as A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Pullman porters union.
So the next time you’re on some generic Metro-North train known only by a number, think of how much more glamorous your commute could be on a train with a name like “The Silver Streak” or “The Weary Commuter”.

January 18, 2015

Malloy's Plan to Widen I-95

Be careful what you wish for.  After years of pleading, we finally have Governor Malloy’s full attention on the problems of transportation.  But his recently announced plan for the state sound like he’s been reading from the book of Moses… Robert Moses, the NYC planner who never met a highway he didn’t like. 
Governor Malloy has announced that he wants to widen our interstate highways. All of them, everywhere!  “Look at New Jersey,” he said recently. “They were smart enough to build parallel highways to existing highways,” evoking images of the six-lane wide New Jersey Turnpike where cars and trucks run in their own lanes.

Great, perhaps, for the swamps of Secaucus, but Governor Malloy says he wants to replicate that on all of I-95 from Rhode Island to New York, adding lanes that would eat into some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
Imagine the decades of construction and the billions of dollars in cost.  The exit 14 widening on I-95 in Norwalk alone cost $41 million and it’s still not done.
And once built, would adding an extra lane or two really solve congestion or would it just encourage more traffic?  Wouldn’t a six lane I-95 actually potentially reduce ridership on Metro-North?  Sorry Governor, super-sizing I-95 is not the answer.
Widening our highways is not viable environmentally or economically.  It’s a non-starter that will see years of lawsuits while a better long-range solution sits right in front of us.
What we need to do is better utilize Metro-North, the railroad line that parallels I-95 for its entire length.  We need to turn it into a suburban “subway” line.
If we increased train service from twice-an-hour off-peak to trains running every 10 to 15 minutes, you wouldn’t need to worry about a timetable.  Just show up and catch the next train.
Why not take the billions you could waste on highway widening and instead add more trains and build more parking at the stations, giving riders better access to the truly rapid-transit? We have already invested billions into Metro-North, so why not finish the job?
Instead we are going to hear the Governor’s grandiose dreams of paving the state as the construction companies and unions see dollar signs in their eyes.  The projected costs will be staggering.  Many will love the ideas, but nobody will like the few painful alternatives to pay for them.
There will be the inevitable debate about tolls and where they should be placed… at our borders or state-wide. Some will suggest we raise the gas tax.  Maybe even offer privatized toll roads (or “Lexus lanes”).
Those are the wrong discussions.  Instead of widening I-95 we should be widening use of an existing resource… our rails.  Let’s build the Fairfield County Subway.