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January 31, 2016

Tolls, Taxes and Transportation

I hate to say “I told you so”, but…  Just as I’d predicted, Governor Malloy’s hand-picked Transportation Finance Panel has finally issued its recommendations for paying for the governor’s 30-year,  $100 billion transportation “plan”. 
First off, the Governor’s “plan” is not a plan but a wish-list of projects for all 169 towns and cities in the state.  It has been vetted by no one and has no priorities, (though CDOT
Commissioner Redeker says about two-thirds [$66 billion] would be for repairs and replacement of what we already have, not any grandiose schemes for monorails down the middle of I-95.)
Interestingly, as it began work last summer the Transportation Finance Panel wasn’t allowed to debate the merits of anything in the Governor’s “plan”, so all they could do was suggest how to fund the whole thing. 
Atop their newly issued report is a telling quote:  “If something’s worth having, it’s worth paying for.”  Duh!  But that’s a pretty soft sell on this mega-plan given the unpopularity of their funding suggestions:
  • ·       Raise the gasoline tax two cents a year for seven years
  • ·       Hike bus and rail fares 2.5% annually
  • ·       Introduce electronic tolls on highways with congestion (time of day) pricing.
  • ·       Land value capture at transit sites

That last idea is a doozey.  It suggests that if someone owns private land next to a new transit station and it appreciates in value, the increased taxes collected by the town should be shared with the state.
That is perilously close to last year’s Machiavellian bill that would have created a quasi-state agency, the Transit Corridor Development Agency (all of whose members would be appointed by the Governor) which would have the power of eminent domain on any land within a half mile of a bus or train station.  Though rejected, that idea is already being re-thought by OPM, so watch out this session.

But before you set your hair on fire… don’t worry.  All of this is moot.  Nothing is going to happen, and here’s why.
The Governor says that none of his panel’s proposals should even be discussed until there is a transportation “lock box” in place.  That won’t happen until November’s election and will depend on passage of a constitutional amendment ballot question.
Why the delay?  Because the Democrats in the legislature don’t want to have to vote on something as unpopular as tolls or taxes before the next election.
Meanwhile, even Governor Malloy seems distracted from his transportation mega-plans, as he is rumored to be lobbying for a cabinet seat in the Clinton administration come 2017. And the Presidential campaign season will doubtless see Governor Malloy on the road quite a bit on behalf of his could-be boss.


So don’t look for a widened I-95, high-speed rail or new deep-water ports anytime soon.  The legislature will be busy with more important things, like getting re-elected, before they can deal with funding the Malloy “plan”.

January 26, 2016

Don't Blame the Trucks



Driving to Hartford the other day (no, you cannot really get there by train) I saw a beautiful sight:  hundreds of trucks!  Yet, motorists hate trucks and mistakenly blame them for traffic congestion and accidents that cause hours of delays.
Readers of this column know I’m a “rail guy” and would love to see freight trains replace trucks, but that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.  But as motorists we should not blame truckers for traffic woes of our own creation.
Check the facts and you’ll find most highway accidents are caused by motor cars, not the trucks.
Do trucks drive too fast?  Sure, but don’t we all?  Next time you’re on I-95 check who’s in the high-speed left lane and you’ll see cars, not trucks.
Should there be better safety inspections of trucks?  Absolutely!  But for every over-weight truck or over-worked truck driver there are doubtless hundreds of unsafe cars and equally road-weary warriors behind the wheel whose reckless disregard endangers us all.
Truckers drive for a living.  They are tested and licensed to far more rigorous standards than anyone else.  And because they drive hundreds of miles each day, overall I think they are far better drivers.  When’s the last time you saw a trucker juggling a cellphone and a latte like some soccer moms?
And remember… they’re not out there driving their big-rigs up and down the highway just to annoy us.  We put those trucks on the road by our voracious consumption patterns.  Every product we buy at stores large and small, including the very newspaper or iPad you hold in
your hand, was delivered by trucks.  Want fewer trucks on the road?  Just stop buying stuff.
By definition, trucks are high-occupancy vehicles.  Compare the energy efficiency of a loaded truck delivering its cargo to you in your “SOV” (single occupancy vehicle), even if it is a hybrid.  Only rail offers better fuel efficiency.
Why are trucks jamming our highways at rush hour?  Because merchants require them to drive at those times to meet the stores’ delivery timetable.  If big-box stores and supermarkets only took truck deliveries in the overnight hours, our highways would flow much better at rush hour. 
Truckers must use the interstates while passenger cars can chose among many alternate routes.  Why is the average distance driven on I-95 in Connecticut just eleven miles?  Because most of us drive the ‘pike for local, not interstate trips.
If we were smart enough to “value price” our highways (ie return tolling) we’d see fewer vehicles of all kinds on I-95, and those that were willing to pay for the privilege of motoring there would get real value in a faster ride.
I’m hardly an apologist for the trucking lobby.  But neither is it fair for us to blame anyone but ourselves for highway safety and congestion.  It’s the SOV crowd, not the truckers, who are to blame. 
Let’s be honest about this mess of our own making and stop trying to blame truckers as our scapegoat.  As the great philosopher Pogo once put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

January 01, 2016

Speed Limits, Safety and Fuel Efficiency



Crawling along I-95 the other day in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic, I snickered when I noticed the “Speed Limit 55” sign alongside the highway.  I wish!
Of course, when the highway is not jammed, speeds are more like 70 mph with the legal limit, unfortunately, rarely being enforced.  Which got me thinking:  who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?
Why is the speed limit on I-95 in Fairfield County only 55 mph but 65 mph east of New Haven?  And why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the NY border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”?  Why does the eastern half of the state get a break?
Blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT.  This body regulates everything from speed limits to traffic signals, working with local traffic authorities
(usually local Police Departments, mayors or Boards of Selectmen).
OSTA is also responsible for traffic rules for trucks (usually lower speed limits) including the ban on their use of the left hand lane on I-95 in most places.
It was the Federal government (Congress) that dropped the Interstate speed limit to 55 mph in 1973 during the oil crisis, only to raise it to 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the ban altogether in 1995 (followed by a 21% increase in fatal crashes),  leaving it each state to decide what’s best.
In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads support 80 mph.  Trust me… having recently driven 1000+ miles in remote stretches of Utah, things happen very
fast when you’re doing 80 – 85 mph!
About half of Germany’s famed Autobahns have speed limits of 100 km/hr (62 mph), but outside of the cities the top speed is discretionary. A minimum of 130 km/hr (81 mph) is generally the rule, but top speed can often be 200 km/hr (120 mph).
Mind you, the Autobahn is a superbly maintained road system without the bone-rattling potholes and divots we enjoy on our highways.  And the German-built Mercedes and Audis on these roads are certainly engineered for such speed.
American cars are designed for maximum fuel efficiency in the 55 – 60 mph range.  Speed up to 65 mph and your engine runs 8% less efficient.  At 70 mph the loss is 17%.  That adds up to more money spent on gasoline and more environmental pollution, all to save a few minutes of driving time.
But an even bigger for the loss of fuel efficiency is aerodynamic drag, which can eat up to 40% of total fuel consumption.  Lugging bulky roof-top cargo boxes worsens fuel economy by 25% at interstate speeds.  So does carrying junk in your trunk (or passengers!):  a 1% penalty for every 100 pounds.
Even with cheaper gasoline, it all adds up!

December 23, 2015

Transportation Predictions for 2016

Everybody writes “year in review” stories.  But rather than dwell on the past, I’ve got the guts to predict the future!  Here’s what will happen in 2016 in the transportation world.
METRO-NORTH:    Slowly but surely, the railroad will drag itself out of the quagmire it’s been in since the Bridgeport, Spuyten Duyvil and Valhalla crashes.  On time performance will hold strong even through the winter, thanks to the dependable new M8 cars and mild weather.  Ridership will continue to climb, causing further crowding and SRO conditions on some trains.
STAMFORD GARAGE:     After waiting for its chosen developer (and Malloy campaign contributor) JHN Group to sign a contract two and a half years after being tapped for the massive TOD project, CDOT will plug the plug on its deal and replace the old garage on its own (taxpayers’) dime.
TOLLS & TAXES:   Governor Malloy’s quest for $100 billion to pay for his 20-year transportation plan will prove universally unpopular when his Transportation Funding Task Force finally issues its recommendations (originally due after Labor Day) in January. The panel will call for higher gasoline and sales taxes, tolls, motor vehicle fees and a slew of other unpopular ideas.  The legislature will react by slashing the Governor’s unrealistic plans, reluctant to have its fingerprints of anything the Task Force suggests.
EMINENT DOMAIN:          Governor Malloy will try again to impose state control over transit oriented development, reintroducing his stealth bill to create a Transit Corridor Development Agency (all of whose members he would appoint) with the power to seize any land within a quarter mile of a rail station. 
FLYING:       Returning to profitability, airlines will continue to squeeze more seats onto fewer flights, making flying an ordeal.  Frequent flyer rewards will be harder to get as desperate passengers will pay to ride in business or first class, leaving fewer seats for upgrades.
AMTRAK:     Acela will become increasingly popular, allowing the railroad to raise business fares.  Last minute seats will be harder to get, but the railroad will still refuse to expand service by buying new railcars.  Traditional “Northeast Corridor” trains will still be jammed as the railroad tries to compete with discount bus carriers.
HIGHWAYS:           With an improving economy and inadequate rail station parking, people will jam I-95 and the Merritt Parkway in even larger numbers, increasing commuting times further.  Gasoline prices will continue to decline thanks to cheap oil, sending even more people to the roads.
UBER WAFFLES:     State and city authorities will come down hard on car services like Uber and Lyft, imposing on them the same regulations and taxes now born by taxis and limos.  After “leveling the playing ground”, Uber-type services will raise fares, passing those costs on to passengers.

Will all of my predictions come true?  Check back in a year and we’ll see!  Meantime, happy traveling in 2016!

December 07, 2015

It's All About Transportation

While this column often is a rant about failing commuter rail service or an occasional rave for overdue investment in our highways, when you think about it, transportation is really an issue that affects many aspects of our lives.
JOBS:          If it wasn’t for transportation, 99% of us wouldn’t be able to get to our jobs.  It is thanks to Metro-North and yes, even I-95, that we can live in one place and work in another.  Imagine how your life would change if you could only live within walking distance of where you work.
These towns are in a "food desert"
FOOD JUSTICE:     The East-End of Bridgeport, our state’s biggest city, is a food desert.  For 35 years there has been no supermarket, forcing residents (a third of whom have no cars) to spend 45 minutes taking two buses just to go to the store.
A lack of transportation has meant fewer nutritional choices and increased risk of obesity and diabetes.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING:          Daily commuters on our clogged highways are not masochists.  The only reason they must commute is that they cannot afford to live where their jobs are.
A recent report showed that housing in lower Fairfield County is the most expensive in the nation.  You need an income of $70,000 just to afford a two bedroom apartment in the StamfordNorwalk corridor.
Take, for example, that poster-boy of affluence, Greenwich CT.  This 67 square mile city of 61,000 has 5545 town employees… teachers, cops, firefighters and the like.  However, 67% of those workers don’t live in Greenwich, but commute daily from Danbury, Bridgeport, Westchester and even Long Island.
They spend an average of 103 minutes per day just getting to and from work, paying more than $2000 a year for gas.  Combined, they add 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, just by their commuting.
In a city where the median home price is $2 million, the average Greenwich city worker makes $65,000.  And because these teachers, civil servants and such have to come so far, they have to be paid more salary.  The average teacher in Greenwich earns $12,338 a year more than their counterparts elsewhere in the state. 

The Greenwich schools spend $10,000 to $15,000 recruiting and training each new teacher.  But after five years of commuting (75% of the 912 teachers don’t live in Greenwich), they burn out, leave and find jobs elsewhere.  Between 1998 and 2007, 581 teachers left Greenwich for reasons other than retirement and 81% of them had less than eight years on the job.
EMS workers in Greenwich have it even worse, averaging 151 minutes (2 ½ hours!) commute time.  Just how fresh and ready for life-saving work do you think you’d be with a commute like that?
Our Governor is right:  investing in transportation will mean more than saving time on our daily commute.  Quality transportation means better access to jobs, to housing and food.


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.