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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.

November 22, 2014

Promises Still Not Kept

Someone once said:  “Judge me by my actions, not my words.”  So let’s do just that comparing recent rhetoric to reality when it comes to Metro-North.
EXPANDED SERVICE:     During the election campaign much was made of a promised expansion of off-peak train service, growing from one train an hour to two.  But when the new timetable came out November 9th riders found that the 14 newly added weekday trains don’t stop at five stations:  Southport, Greens Farms, East Norwalk, Rowayton and Noroton Heights.
Despite pleas from the CT Commuter Rail Council, CDOT chose to skip those stations to save ten minutes’ running time between New Haven and GCT.  There was never an expectation that the new trains would be semi-express, just a promise of expanded service.  What happened?
ADEQUATE SEATING:     Though we now have more rail cars than ever before, thanks to delivery of the new M8s, many trains still don’t have seats for every passenger.  The
Rush hour standees
railroad’s own “Passenger Pledge” promises every effort to provide adequate seating, and Metro-North’s statistics claim that 99.6% of all trains have enough cars.   So why the standees? 
ON TIME PERFORMANCE:        Yes, safety should always come first.  But October saw only 86.7% of trains arrive “on time” (defined as up to 6 minutes late).  In the morning rush hour OTP was only 82%.  And this is despite three timetable changes since the spring, lengthening scheduled running times to reflect new Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) speed restrictions.  They keep moving the ‘target’ and still can’t get a bulls-eye.
Doors open off-platform.
SAFETY:      After taking its lickings from the FRA and the National Transportation Safety Board, Metro-North has proclaimed it’s a new day at the railroad, that a new “culture of safety” is ingrained in its employees.  But in early November a collision was avoided by seconds after track crews erected bridge plates in front of an oncoming train at Noroton Hts.  And there have been at least three incidents of conductors opening train doors that were off the platform where commuters could have fallen and been injured.
RELIABLE SERVICE:       The new M8 cars are performing well.  But diesel push-pull service on the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines has been unreliable.  September saw several locomotive fires and break-downs, stranding passengers or forcing “bustitutions” (bus substitutions).
COURTEOUS EMPLOYEES:       Most Metro-North staff does a great job under often-times difficult circumstances.  But there are clearly some employees who either hate their jobs, their customers or both.  Hardly a week goes by without The Commuter Action Group hearing complaints about surly conductors snapping at passengers.  Yet it’s hard to complain because these staffers violate railroad rules to always wear their name badges.

It’s been a year since a sleepy engineer drove a train off the tracks in the Bronx, killing four and injuring 70.  As Metro-North President Joe Giulietti himself acknowledged, the railroad has lost the trust of its customers.  Rebuilding goodwill, like the infrastructure, will take years.

November 08, 2014

Commuters Have Political Clout

The recent elections have shown Hartford an important fact:  the 120,000 daily riders of Metro-North have political power. 

The Commuter Action Group, of which I am founder, endorsed only five candidates for election and they were all winners.  (Trust me, there were many others seeking our endorsement, but they didn’t have the track-records (pun intended) to warrant our support.)

Those we backed have long supported mass transit. They have fought for more funding and understand their commuting constituents’ frustrations.   All we did was remind voting commuters who were their real friends in Hartford versus those who were just paying lip-service to the issue during a campaign.

While I have disagreed with him in the past (and will probably do so again), Governor Malloy was an easy choice.  His opponent was just the latest dilettante billionaire to be chosen by the GOP (remember Linda McMahon’s two runs for office costing $97 million?), by-passing experience political veterans.  Tom Foley was just clueless, saying such things as “we spend too much on mass transit” and surrounding himself with “yes-men” advisors.  Even his fellow Republicans on the ballot couldn’t talk sense into him.

What would give Foley or McMahon, neither of whom have ever been elected to anything, the idea that their track records as CEO’s would qualify them for the job of Governor?   A CEO can snap his fingers and say “do this or you’re fired”, but a Governor has to deal with a legislature, and in Foley’s case, it would have been of the opposing party.  Good luck with that.

Trust me… I am not a fan of one-party rule.  With their huge majority and deep pockets I think the Democrats in this state have become abusive bullies. 

So why does the GOP keep choosing these kinds of candidates, aside from the fact that they can bankroll their own campaigns?  What a shame that veteran State Senator John McKinney didn’t get a chance to run against Malloy. McKinney was very strong on transportation issues. That would have been an interesting race.  Maybe in 2018?

Because we are non-partisan, the Commuter Action Group also endorsed three Republicans… State Senator Toni Boucher and State Rep’s Gail Lavielle and Tony Hwang, as well as Democrat Jonathan Steinberg.  They were all winners, not because of our endorsement but because we helped remind commuters they have been strong allies in Hartford.

What did we ask for our endorsement?  Only a single pledge:  that, if elected, they would promise to do something never done before… to caucus, Republicans and Democrats together, with fellow lawmakers from electoral districts representing commuters.

It was amazing for me to learn that doesn’t happen… that R’s and D’s from Fairfield County never get together to present a united front against up-state lawmakers’ attempts to cut funding for our trains.  Well, it will happen now!

Back in the dark days of February when the Commuter Action Group was formed, I reminded Hartford lawmakers that if they didn’t come to the rescue of our trains, that commuters would “remember in November” who their friends were.  And clearly they did. 

October 13, 2014

Five Worst Ideas for Solving Traffic Congestion

The fall campaign has brought a welcome discussion of the state’s transportation woes, especially getting mass transit back into a state of good repair.  But gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley says he thinks the real issue isn’t the trains and buses but highway congestion.  Yet, he offers no solutions, saying only “we’ll figure it out.”  Really?
Tom, if there were easy answers, they’d have been implemented by now.  Look… this is really a matter of supply and demand: too much demand (highway traffic) and not enough supply (spaces on those roads).   I think the solution is in managing the demand.  But Foley says it’s a “supply side” issue. 
So here are a few of the crazier ideas for fixing traffic I hope he does not embrace:
1)    DOUBLE-DECK I-95:        Seriously, this was once proposed.  Can you imagine the decades of construction and billions in cost, with “upper level” roads having to soar hundreds of feet over existing bridges.
2)    ALLOW TRUCKS ON THE MERRIT PARKWAY:       There are two words to explain why this can’t happen:  low bridges.
3)    BAN TRUCKS FROM I-95:          Trucks are high-occupancy vehicles delivering goods to the stores that you, in your single-occupancy vehicle, drive to so you can shop.  No trucks, no goods, no shopping.
4)    DRIVE IN THE EMERGENCY BREAK-DOWN LANE: This was Governor Rowland’s idea and he even wasted a million dollars studying it.  But if you think of that far right-hand lane instead as the “emergency rescue lane” you’ll see why this doesn’t make sense.  This plan would also require re-striping traffic lanes to a narrower width, making driving more dangerous.
5)    WIDENING I-95 TO FOUR LANES:       Again, billions in cost and decades of construction.  And if you build it, they will come.  Traffic will expand to fill available space.  Then what, a fifth lane?
I think there are better ideas for managing congestion, some of them already being implemented:
OPERATIONAL LANES:     Adding a fourth lane from on-ramps to off-ramps gives traffic a better chance of merging on and off the highway without blocking the through-lanes.
WIDENING CHOKE-POINTS:      For example, the exit 14-15 mess in Norwalk.  But this $42 million construction project, discussed since 2002, has been under construction for more than two years and it’s still not done!
MANAGE DEMAND WITH TOLLS:       Tolls are coming, as I’ve predicted before.  And with time-of-day pricing they’ll not only raise badly needed funds but also mitigate demand.  Those who absolutely must drive at peak hours will pay for the privilege and get a faster ride as those who can wait will defer their trip.  We have peak and off-peak fares on Metro-North, so why not on highways.
ADD A ZIPPER LANE:      Sure, this may require highway widening, but just one lane that’s reversible depending on demand, a system that’s long been in effect on the Tappan Zee Bridge.    

As I say, there are no simple solutions to highway congestion.  So when any candidate says he or she has one, be skeptical.  It’s easy to identify the problems.  But fixing them will always be expensive.