October 8, 2015

Talking Transportation: Happy 75th Birthday to The Merritt: Queen of the Parkways

A century ago the only way to drive between New York and Boston was on Rte. 1, The Post Rd. If you think traffic is bad today, imagine that journey! So in 1936, 2,000 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.

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. 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.

At recent celebrations of the parkway’s 75th birthday, one old timer told of a friend from Yale who resented paying the dime toll in the 1940’s. So he went to the medical school and procured a cadaver arm, glued a dime on its finger and hid the arm up his sleeve. When the prankster slowed to pay his toll, the collector got the dime and the arm as the student sped off.

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.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: Sound Barriers: A Waste of Money?

One and a half million dollars a mile.  The cost of building a new lane on I-95?  Hardly! That’s more like $20 million.  No, “$1.5 million dollars a mile” would be the cost of building new sound barriers on that crowded highway, according to testimony by the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Commissioner.

This won’t win me many friends among my neighbors in Darien, but I just don’t see that they should be asking the government to subsidize their peace and quiet.  After all, most of them bought houses near the highway benefiting from speedy access to the roadway and should have known full-well that being that close would subject them to noise.

Do you have sympathy for those who buy homes near airport runways, then complain about the jets?  Neither do I.

The first sections of what became I-95 were built in Darien in 1954, long before most current residents came to town.  Sure, traffic has increased on I-95 over the years.  We are well over the planned capacity of this interstate highway.  But thinking the solution to highway noise is to create a walled concrete canyon through our coastal communities paid for by others, is just selfish and short-sighted.

I live about 1500 feet from I-95.  On a quiet summer’s night I can hear the trucks as they whiz by at 70 mph, especially when they’re “Jake braking” (illegal in many states).  And yes, there is a wooden sound barrier between me and the road which helps a bit.  I try to think of the noise as like surf at the beach.  But when shopping for my current home, I knew that highway noise was the price I would pay for being so near an on-ramp.

Some neighbors in my, and many other towns, want the state or Uncle Sam to build miles and miles of new sound barriers to cushion their karmic calm.  But why should the few benefit at the expense of so many?

Can we really argue that someone in Tolland or Torrington should pay for sound barriers in Westport or Greenwich?

Sound-barriers seem to me to be wasted money.  They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or solve congestion.  Two miles of sound-barriers would buy another new M8 rail car for Metro-North, taking 100 passengers off the road.  And sound-barriers are often just sound-reflectors, not absorbers, only bouncing the sound off to bother others.

Consider these alternatives:

  • Soundproof the homes. This has worked well for neighbors of big airports and is probably cheaper than sound-proofing entire neighborhoods.  And insulation against noise also insulates against heat loss, saving energy.
  • Explore rubberized asphalt. Reduce the road noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”.  Using this new road surface, some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise.  Rubberized asphalt also reuses 12 million junked tires each year.
  • Pay for it yourself. Let neighborhood associations affected by road noise create special taxing zones to collect funds to build sound barriers they’ll benefit from, both with reduced noise and resulting increased home valuations.

I can think of any number of better places to spend federal tax dollars to improve mass transit than erecting sound barriers.  Can’t you?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the Author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For the full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: 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 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 fundraising 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 a 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 29 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 State 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 due diligence before saying they have wasted their time.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: PT Barnum and Metro-North

P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum

What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and I have in common?  No, not just a love of circuses.  We are both “rail advocates” fighting for the interests of commuters.

This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his showmanship and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford broadcast on CT-N (every policy wonk’s favorite channel).  The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum Kathleen Maher.

She explained that Barnum was more than a showman.  He was also a railroad advocate. (He also went on to be part-owner of a cross-Sound ferryboat service that’s still running today.)

In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street, enlisting the support of local merchants such as the Brooks Brothers and, “the carpet men, W & J Sloan”.

Earlier, in 1865, Barnum went to Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican — later he became Mayor of Bridgeport.  As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House who had protected their monopoly interests in the state.

Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New Haven RR!  Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.

Then he turned his sights on helping commuters.  Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail lines (now the Hudson and Harlem divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters.  Once Vanderbilt had them hooked as passengers for their daily ride into and out of New York City, he jacked up fares by 200 to 400 percent.

Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which “The Commodore” had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad.  Barnum said his only ally in the fight was then-State Senator Ballard of Darien.

So spirited were they in their lobbying that the railroad’s “man” on the state Railroad Commission “took to his bed some ten days before the end of the session and actually remained there ‘sick’” until the legislature adjourned.” (Sound familiar?)

Fast forward to the present and we could again use Barnum’s help.

Though Connecticut hires Metro-North to run “our” trains on “our” tracks, our contract with that New York state agency gives us little say and no seat on it board.  As one lawmaker noted, the Connecticut Department of Transport defends Metro-North much as a kidnap victim fights for its captor (what he called the Stockholm syndrome).

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: Transportation News Updates

It’s time to update you on some of the hot topics we’ve discussed in recent weeks:

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.

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.

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 10 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.

On June 29, 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.

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.

When the 11:39 p.m. left Grand Central on the night of July 1, passengers settled in for a nap en route to Stamford and a 12:48 a.m. 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.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: The 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 repurposed for that … but it only pays down the Connecticut Department Of Transportation’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 taskforce 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 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.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author:
 Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: Collecting Fares Using 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 two hour’s 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.

href=”https://www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection/get-my-free-credit-report”>credit report before quoting us a fare?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: Rethinking First Class

Any regular reader of this column knows that I hate flying.  I love travel, but getting there by air is a pain … and getting worse.  Our local airports are vying for third-world status.  The security searches by the TSA make a colonoscopy look like fun.  And once on the plane, the airlines’ seats and service make The Fung Wah Bus seem like a viable alternative.

Why is it that airlines are all vying for the cheapest products instead of the best?  Why this race to the bottom where low-cost-carriers like Spirit and Southwest are the models instead of overseas service exemplars like Singapore and Emirates?

I, for one, am willing to pay more to get more.  I may not opt for first class, but I will only fly in business class on flights to California.  It’s worth it.

But the legacy carriers like American and United ask for $1600 one-way from NY to LAX, and they get it.  Their business class is full thanks to frequent flyer upgrades. But now there’s a cheaper, better alternative:  JetBlue.

When JetBlue began as a low-cost carrier in 2000, it found a loyal following by offering high frequency, friendly and comfortable flights.  Today they are an international carrier serving 87 destinations with more than 200 aircraft.  And they have one of the hottest terminals at JFK, T5.

And 10 of their newest planes, A-321’s, now offer a new product, “Mint”, with truly first class seating at lower-than-business class fares.  I finally had a chance to sample the service on a recent flight to LAX.

First, there’s the seating. There are just 16 seats with full, six foot lie-flat beds. I lucked out and got one of the four “private cabins” with 22-inch wide seats and a sliding door to the corridor.  My TV was a 15-inch flat-screen with live satellite feed, movies and SiriusXM Radio.  I had two AC outlets and a pair of USB plugs keeping all my gear fully-charged.

When I boarded, I found a welcome note, written by hand, from the flight crew thanking me for my business.  Also awaiting was a full duvet and pillow, an amenities kit and free Wi-Fi, coast to coast.

After take-off came the usual beverages and a most unusual meal … the choice of three tapas-like entrees from a menu of five on offer, prepared by Saxon+Parole.  The lobster mac-and-cheese was to die for.  But they also had Kosher, vegan and gluten-free options.  And coming soon, an on-board cappuccino machine.

The service was amazing.  This was one of the best flights ever, and I’ve logged miles for decades on five continents.  And the ticket was only $599 one-way.  I’d gladly have paid more.

The bad news is this amazing product is only available on flights from JFK to LAX (seven a day) and San Francisco (five times daily).  Rumor has it they may also add transcon flights from Boston, but you won’t by flying “Mint” on your way to Orlando anytime soon.  To the Caribbean, maybe.

So kudos to “New York’s hometown airline” for continuing to be innovative in offering more for less and making flying fun again!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: Malloy’s Transit Land Grab

Don’t look now, but Governor Malloy is trying to take your land, or at least control of the land around your local train or bus station.

When the Connecticut Department of Transportation (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 has 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 were 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.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: 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 p.m. to a full parking lot, I knew I was in trouble.  After 11 minutes in the first line titled “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 p.m. 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 p.m.

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.

You can opt for a normal license and even have it issued at AAA, if you want.  But 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.

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!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: Is Metro-North Irreplaceable?

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 New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).  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 Terminal (GCT).

There are plenty of railroads with operating rights on others’ tracks.  New Jersey 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.  The MTA’s army of lawyers took us to the cleaners, costing us millions more in payments to Metro-North each year.  Apparently the 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.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   
For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: “Getting to the Airport”

The old Cunard line used to say that “getting there is half the fun.”  But anyone who’s endured the challenges and indignities of air travel know that getting to the airport can sap your strength, if not your wallet.  Consider the alternatives.

A car service is certainly convenient.  But at $110 one way to LaGuardia,  $140 to JFK and $150+ to Newark, getting to the airport can often cost more than your air fare. (Mind you, these are the advertised rates, so I wouldn’t be shy about asking for promotions and discounts when you call to book.  It’s a competitive business.)

But car services aren’t just expensive, they’re also wasteful.  Couldn’t solo travelers share a car with others in a “limo-pool”?  Is one passenger in a Lincoln Town Car an efficient use of limited space on I-95?

How about Connecticut Limousine? Now there’s a misnomer!  Since when is a cramped van a limo?  And try explaining that name on the receipt on your expenses to your company’s accountant.  “Really, boss … it was just a van!”

Being thrifty, on a few occasions I’ve actually rented a car at the airport, driven home and then dropped the car the next day in Stamford.  A day’s car rental is about half the cost of a car service.

Some regular fliers hire neighborhood teens to drive their own car to the airport, drop them off and drive the car home, repeating the process on their return.  That’s less expensive than a car service, but puts double the miles on your car.

My preferred airport transfer is in my own car. Airport parking is $39 a day. Not cheap, but certainly convenient. And nobody complains about my cigar smoking en route to the airport.

Another alternative, believe it or not, is Metro-North. Get off at 125th Street and catch a cab or livery and you’re at LaGuardia in about 15 minutes.  There’s also a new Express Bus, the M60, that whisks you from 125th St to LGA in about 20 minutes.

If you’re heading to Newark, definitely consider Amtrak.  Many Northeast corridor trains stop at Newark Airport where a convenient connection to the airport monorail has you at the terminals in just minutes.  The train sure beats the Cross-Bronx and GWB any day. And fares are as low as $28 one way.

Mind you, New York’s three airports aren’t the only choices. Westchester County’s White Plains airport offers non-stop jet service to many cities on a variety of major carriers including JetBlue.  Hartford’s Bradley Airport offers another alternative, including low-fare carriers like Southwest … if you don’t mind an hour plus drive to get to the airport, north of Hartford.  One faithful reader extols the virtues of New Haven’s Tweed Airport where US Air flies to Philly where you can connect to most anywhere.

Clearly, the trip to and from the airport can start and end a trip on a very sour, and expensive, note.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: The Myth of the Third Rail

Metro-North’s mangled and much-maligned service in Connecticut is made all the more challenging by a technological quirk of fate.  Ours is the only commuter railroad in the US that operates on three modes of power … AC, DC and diesel.

On a typical run from, say, New Haven to Grand Central, the first part of the journey is done “under the wire”, the trains being powered by 13,000 volt AC overhead wires, or catenaries.  Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the conversion is made to 660 volt DC third rail power for the rest of the trip into New York.  Even diesel trains must convert to third-rail as their smoky exhaust is banned in the Park Avenue tunnels.

And there’s the rub: Connecticut trains need both AC and DC, overhead and third-rail, power pick-ups and processors.  That means a lot more electronics, and added cost, for each car.  While the DC-only new M7 cars running in Westchester cost about $2 million each, our new dual-mode M8 car designed for Connecticut cost $2.5 million each.

So, some folks are asking, “Why not just use one power source?  Just replace the overhead wires with third-rail and we can buy cheaper cars.”  Simple, yes.  Smart, no.  And here’s why.

There’s not enough space to lay a third-rail along each of the four sets of tracks in the existing right of way.  All four existing tracks would have to be ripped out and the space between them widened.  Every bridge and tunnel would have to be widened, platforms moved and land acquired.  Cost?  Probably hundreds of millions of dollars, years of construction and service disruptions.

Even with third-rail, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) would still be required to provide overhead power lines for Amtrak.  That would mean maintaining two power systems at double the cost.  We’re currently spending billions just to upgrade the 80-year old catenary, so why then replace it with  third rail?

Third-rail AC power requires substations every few miles, meaning further construction and real estate.  The environmental lawsuits alone would kill this idea.

DC-driven third rail is less efficient.  Trains accelerate much faster using overhead AC voltage, the power source used by the fastest trains in the world … the TGV, Shinkansen, etc.  On third-rail, speeds are limited to 75 miles an hour as opposed to 90 mph under the wire.  That means, mile for mile, commute time is longer using third rail.

Third rail ices-up in bad weather and can get buried in snow causing short circuits.  Overhead wires have problems sometimes, but they are never buried in a blizzard.

Third-rail is dangerous to pedestrians and track workers.

The idea of conversion to third-rail was studied in the 1980s by consultants to the CDOT.  They concluded that, while cumbersome and costly, the current dual-power system is, in the long run, cheaper and more efficient than installing third-rail.  This time, the engineers at the CDOT got it right.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: The Toughest Job in Transportation

Who do you think has the toughest job in transportation?  Airline pilots?  Long-haul truck drivers?  Metro-North conductors?    To my thinking, the toughest job is being an airport TSA agent.

Forget the recent furor over revised Transportation Security Administration rules soon to allow small knives in carry-on luggage.  The plastic knives the flight attendants distribute in snack-packs in-flight are already sharp enough to slit a throat.  By not worrying about every pen-knife and nail clipper, TSA agents should have more time to concentrate on truly lethal weapons.

A far bigger threat to aviation security is liquid explosives and non-metal knives.  Ceramic knives are undetectable on magnetometers, which is why the TSA brought in those full-body scanners we love so much.

But I think a bigger threat to aviation safety is the public’s anger at the TSA agents who are just doing their job.  After a thorough TSA screening at an airport last month I saw an angry passenger literally curse at the agent.  That passenger wasn’t pulled aside and given a retaliatory body cavity search. To her credit the agent kept her cool and didn’t even get into a verbal fight.  Could you be so thick-skinned?

It’s been 13 years since 9/11.  Have we forgotten what can happen when determined, armed terrorists take over a plane?  The TSA screens 1.8 million passengers a day.  If just one of those fliers got an undetected weapon onto a plane and blew it up, imagine the uproar.

Remember the holy triad of service:  fast, good and cheap.  You can achieve any two of those, but not all three.  Clearly, the top priority is “good” security.  So in this era of sequestration, we’re unlikely to see quality compromised for speed or lower cost.

If you want to fly, put up and shut up:  put up with the long lines while the agents do their jobs properly to keep you safe and keep your mouth shut.

What do all these TSA inspections do, aside from create long lines and frustrated fliers?  They turn up an amazing amount of weapons.  The TSA’s weekly blog makes for fascinating reading.

In one recent week alone the TSA intercepted 32 firearms, 27 of them loaded, and 10 stun guns.  There were clips of ammo, brass knuckles and (no surprise) sheer stupidity:  a passenger flying out of San Juan told the ticket agent that her bag contained a bomb and she was going to blow up the plane.  After an inspection by the TSA, her bag didn’t have a bomb.  But as a result of her threat, the ticket counter, checkpoint and terminal were closed for nearly an hour, inconveniencing thousands.  And there were, as the TSA blog put it, “consequences” for the flier.

Holiday travel is stressful enough without compounding things by arguing with those just trying to keep you safe.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: 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 Nov. 9, 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, the Connecticut Department of Transportation chose to skip those stations to save 10 minutes’ running time between New Haven and Grand Central Station.  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 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 six minutes late).  In the morning rush hour, On Time Performance 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.

SAFETY:       After taking its lickings from the Federal Railroad Administration 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 Heights.  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 do 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 requiring them always to 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.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: Commuters Have 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.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note:
Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: Free Parking Isn’t Free

America’s obsession with automobiles is not only creating gridlock and ruining the quality of our air, but it’s eating up our land and sending real estate costs upward.  Because, once we drive our cars off the crowded highways, we assume it’s our constitutional right to find “free parking”.

For decades, city planners and zoning regulations have shared with Detroit in an unspoken conspiracy to deliver on that dream.  Consider the following:

According to the industry standard-setting Institute of Transportation Engineers, there are 266 types of businesses, which should be zoned to require a minimum amount of parking.  Quoting from the ITE “bible,” religious convents must have one parking space for every 10 nuns in residence.  Hello?  The residents aren’t going anywhere!  Why do they need parking?  Shouldn’t the convents be allowed to find better use for their land?

Or consider hotels.  Why are parking regulations based on requiring enough parking for the few nights each year when the hotel is sold out, rather than the majority of nights when occupancy is 50% or less?  Would we require a movie theater to require parking for an every-seat-filled blockbuster when its more typical offerings fill far fewer seats?

Just drive up Rte. 1 and see for yourself.  Due to zoning regulations, many shopping malls devote 60 percent of their land to parking and only 40 percent to buildings.  Imagine what that does to the cost of what they sell.

Desperate to attract folks back to their decaying downtowns, some cities are putting more land into parking than to all other land uses combined.  A Buffalo NY City Council member commented a few years ago:  “There will be lots of places to park.  There just won’t be a whole lot to do there.”

In fact, the cities that have done the best jobs of economic revitalization aren’t the ones that provided the most parking … they’re the ones that provided the least.  The vitality of towns and cities requires people … walking the streets, going into shops and interacting … not scurrying from car to shop to car to home.

In his new book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” UCLA’s Donald Shoup recounts the following tale of two cities:

Both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new concert halls in recent years.  The one in LA included a $10 million, six-story parking garage for 2,100 cars.  In San Francisco, there was no parking built … saving the developers millions.  After each concert, the LA crowd heads for their cars and drives away.  But in San Francisco, patrons leave the hall, walk the streets and spend money in local restaurants, bars and bookstores.  Guess which city has benefited most from its new arts center?

Why are we slaves to zoning rules that assume all humans come with four tires rather than two legs?  Why do we waste precious land on often-empty parking spots instead of badly needed affordable housing?

Clearly, our transportation planners need to work much more closely with economic developers to rethink what it is that we really need in our cities and towns.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years.  He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


Talking Transportation: Five Terrible 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 that 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 one small construction project, discussed since 2002, has been under construction for four or five 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.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  


Talking Transportation: No Blue Ribbons for Metro-North

The long awaited MTA “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts has issued its report on Metro-North and its sister railroads, and it isn’t pretty.

Their 50 page report confirms much of what we already knew:  that the railroad placed too much emphasis on “on time performance” instead of safety … that there were serious repair issues unattended to for months … and that there has been an enormous “brain drain” of experienced railroad employees who have opted for retirement after 30 years.

All of those problems could have been prevented if MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast had been doing his job, which he wasn’t.  That is surprising, given his almost 40 years in the industry.  Remember, he was selected as Chairman by Governor Cuomo (just a month before the Bridgeport crash) after successfully turning around the NYC subway system.  And he had also spent years at the LIRR.

But the Blue Ribbon Panel was especially critical of Prendergast for running his three railroads (MNRR, LIRR, NY Subways) as silos, not communicating with each other on best practices.  If the NYC subways had a cool parts-inventory system, MNRR never knew about it.  The “safety culture” at the LIRR may have been great, but it was never shared with MNRR.

But the Panel says the problems were far deeper than just that:


The Panel said there is a “tension” between the railroad workers, who maintain the tracks and signals, and their colleagues, who run the trains over them.  The track workers aren’t given enough time to do their job.  To paraphrase Lincoln:  “A house (or railroad) divided cannot stand”.


Compared to the LIRR and NYC subway, Metro-North is in the dark ages of technology.  Track inspection reports are still done on paper.  We don’t have state-of-the-art track inspection cars or autonomous bridge monitoring systems.  Much of the maintenance work is done manually instead of using machines.


The panel even suggests the railroad clean up all the scrap and debris along the tracks to prevent tripping hazards.


Did they have to suggest this: “Periodically have management walk with track inspectors to reinforce (the crucial nature of this work)”?


The Panel suggests MTA re-open union contracts to do track and signal maintenance work overnight when there’s lots of time and fewer trains.  (Japan’s Shinkansen high speed rail has gone 50 years without a track fatality thanks to inspections of every mile of tracks every night).


After years of denying there were any safety problems, the recent derailments and deaths have forced MNRR to face its neglect of safety.  The Panel also suggests increased “customer engagement” on this topic with town halls, media oppotunities and direct customer communications.

So, kudos to the Panel of industry experts and thank you for a year of hard work.  Now it’s up to the MTA and Metro-North to take the list of 29 recommendations to heart and make our trains on-time and safe.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com