Cars Versus People

Speed kills… and I don’t just mean drugs.   Speeding on our roads is linked to over 38,000 deaths each year in the US.  That’s almost 730 deaths a week… 100 a day. If a hundred people die in a plane crash, we go nuts.  (Never mind that COVID deaths average about 1400 per day).  But if they die on our roads we see it as the cost of doing business.  As one blogger put it… “it’s high time to stop sacrificing safety on the altar of speed”. Just listen to I-95 or the Merritt Parkway at night.  They sound like a raceway. Most of those

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Enjoying Vermont By Train

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there. From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas roundtrip.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive it’s not much faster and will set you back about $250. But there’s another alternative: Amtrak. There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont: THE VERMONTER:          Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT (right next to Burlington), coming through Stamford at

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Five Worst Ideas for Solving Traffic

Have you noticed how terrible our traffic is lately?Not just in comparison to the empty roads and blue skies during the pandemic lockdown, but even compared to pre-COVID times. The rush hour on I-95 starts earlier and runs later, pretty much all day long.  The increased volume is due in large part to the return to the office but by car, not mass transit (where ridership is still only 50% of the good old days). If there were easy answers to this congestion, they’d have been implemented by now.  Look… this is really a matter of supply and demand: too much

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Pedestrians Rule

Some big changes are coming for pedestrians and motorists alike starting this week:  a new set of Connecticut laws giving far more power (and, hopefully, safety) to those traveling on foot vs vehicles.  Long before we had cars (or even horses) and trains, folks took to the roads on foot to get where they were going.  But with motorized transport came the inevitable conflicts. Why the new laws now?  Because something like 1500 pedestrians and 500+ bike riders get hit by cars each year in this state.  Many towns don’t even have sidewalks and those that do still seem to

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Commuting Amid the Unmasked

Why is Metro-North shooting itself in the foot?   While adding more trains and encouraging (no, praying!) that commuters will come back to the rails, the railroad is still refusing to make those passengers feel safe by enforcing the Federal and State mask rules.  Sure, they’ve been passing out masks on trains, but what good are they if they’re not worn? I hate to keep harping on this issue, but we’re talking about a serious public health threat.  Unmasked passengers, even if they’re vaccinated, can be asymptomatic and spread the COVID virus to hundreds of fellow riders in a matter of

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Bus Ridership Crawls Back

Much has been written about Metro-North’s slow return to “normal” service as commuters ponder a return to their New York City offices.  But what matters as much, if not more, is bus ridership within the state. Pre-COVID busy systems like GBT (Greater Bridgeport Transit) served as many as 15,000 bus riders in communities from Westport to Milford.  Recent statistics show 10,000 riders per day, about a 33% drop from pre-COVID. “We reached 10,000+ boardings on some weekdays this past July.  I expect to see that gap partially close as the high schools, universities and colleges resume in-person learning,” says Doug

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Railway to the Moon

New England is home to many railroad “firsts”, but none is more impressive than the Mount Washington Cog Railway, the world’s first cog rail line.  And it’s still running, at a profit, 152 years late, using some of the original equipment. Unlike most railroads, “The Cog” doesn’t pull its coaches along a relatively flat line with flanged wheels on two parallel tracks.  A cog railroad’s locomotive directly connects its gears to a center rack of iron teeth, pushing the train up the mountain very slowly, but surely. On a normal railroad the train can handle a two percent grade (or

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Transportation Scofflaws

What do Metro-North and the Merritt Parkway have in common, I mean, aside from often crawling at a snail’s pace?  Well, both seem to be hotbeds of unenforced safety rules. Anybody who has driven the Parkway knows that its 1930’s design cannot accommodate trucks, but they are there all the time.  Tom Lombardo, a fellow Board member on the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, recently conducted an unscientific survey to quantify the problem. In a single hour one weekday morning he logged 212 trucks, buses and commercial vehicles traveling in both directions on the highway. That’s more than three per minute.  Now compare

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Amazon

These days “Getting There” doesn’t just mean moving yourself from point A to B, but the logistics of moving stuff from dozens of locations to your doorstep.  And nobody does that better than Amazon. Want a new pair of jeans? Click once and they’re delivered the next day.  Need a new printer?  Maybe a couple of days because they’re still scarce, thanks to the home-office explosion.  Your favorite ointment out of stock at CVS?  Save yourself a trip, click here and apply twice daily. In his 2013 book “The Everything Store” (yes, available on Amazon), business writer Brad Stone chronicle

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Is It Finally ‘Time For CT’?

In 1955 a New Haven Railroad commuter train could run non-stop for the 36-mile distance from Stamford to Grand Central in 48 minutes.  Today that Stamford to NYC run takes 59 minutes at best, despite Governor Lamont’s long-promised dream of a 30 minute trip time.   But now there’s a new effort to speed up the New Haven line: CDOT’s ambitious “Time for CT” $8-10 billion plan.   It promises 10-minute faster running times from New Haven to NY by next year and a 25-minute quicker run by 2035. While some dream of a new high speed rail system running from

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New Commuter Alternatives

Not with a bang, but a whimper.  That’s how commuters seem to be moving, albeit in small numbers, back to working in-person in their NYC offices. Leaving the comfort of your home office and Zoom-nasium won’t be easy, as many of us have found ways to be so much more productive without wasting hours commuting.  But when the boss says “jump” you got to ask yourself (and her), “how high?” when you really want to say “but why?” I hear anecdotes of some employers being persuaded (or forced?) to offer work-from-home alternatives two or three days a week just to

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Summer Road Trips

The summer travel season is starting with a vengeance.  After a year of quarantining, we’re all anxious to get back on the road again.  But where to go?  And what can you expect when you get there?  A recent mid-week mini-vacation to the Berkshires taught our family some important lessons. WHERE TO GO?    Like many vacationers we opted for a road trip instead of flying.  There are great destinations within two or three-hours drive.  But in deciding where to go, remember you’re not just going to see the sights or visit friends.  You’re relying on local services and the folks

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CTDOT Fare Hearings

Our state government certainly moves in mysterious ways. The Connecticut legislature seems unable to even discuss the crucial replenishing of the Special Transportation Fund to keep mass transit rolling… but they found hours to debate the merits of declaring pizza the “official state food”.  Really? Kudos to the nine lawmakers who voted “no”, not because they don’t like pizza but because they saw this issue as a waste of time. Also in the “waste of time” category were the recent series of virtual public hearings (May 18, 19, 20 & 25) by the Connecticut Department of Transportation.  The topic… service

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Do You Feel Safe Riding Metro-North?

Is it safe to get back on the train to New York?  Casey (not her real name) thought so when, a couple of weekends back, she wanted to see some millennial friends in Manhattan for brunch.  But boarding the Saturday morning train she immediately started to worry and texted me. The train was jammed, she said.  Very few empty seats.  No way to “socially distance” and many people were not wearing face masks. Looking around, she saw large groups of NY Yankees and NY Rangers fans.  Sure enough, both teams had home games that afternoon. The fans were tailgating their

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Invest in Rail Freight

How would you like a plan to remove thousands of trucks from Connecticut highways, clean up the air and create new jobs? Who wouldn’t?  It’s a win-win-win plan that you’d expect Governor Lamont to embrace, especially in this time of TCI (the Transportation Climate Initiative). The solution?  Invest in our state’s freight railroads. Yes, there are still freight trains in Connecticut, just not very many. But there could be more. In its earlier days as a profitable, private railroad the New Haven ran hundreds of freight trains each day.  But today the railroad is too crowded with (relatively faster) passenger

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Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

Hurrah!  It’s finally “infrastructure week” in Washington.  In his first 100 days as President, Joe Biden has delivered a plan that his predecessor just kept teasing us with for four years:  a complete rehabilitation and expansion of the nation’s infrastructure. Of course, Biden’s “American Jobs Act” goes way beyond just rebuilding roads, bridges and rails.  It also covers our water supply, electrical grid, internet, sea and airports, our housing stock and our very jobs. It’s too much and way too expensive ($2+ trillion) for conservatives but hardly enough for progressives.  That sounds great to me. With plenty for everyone to

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A Conversation with the Commissioner

“Getting There”  by  Jim Cameron        Joe Giulietti loves to talk, especially about trains.  As Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation when he calls me and say “Jim… let’s have a chat”, I’m all ears.  In a recent exclusive one-on-one, here’s what he said: WILL RAIL COMMUTERS COME BACK? The Commissioner says yes, but maybe not until the fall.  “Am I optimistic?  I have to be. The disappointing fact right now is we (still) only have 10% of (pre-COVID) ridership.  The trains we have now can meet (that) demand.  If ridership increases we can add more. ” ARE THE TRAINS SAFE?

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How to Save Metro-North

How are we going to get riders back on the trains and save Metro-North from ballooning deficits, potential service cuts or fare hikes?  That’s the question I crowd-sourced on social media last week and found dozens of great answers! Most respondents said they won’t be commuting as much as before because they will continue working from home. It’s not that they are shunning the rails out of fear,  just that commuting won’t be necessary. “Most of us have figured out how to work without riding a train every day”, one rider opined. A few cynics said mass transit is dead. 

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Lamont’s Budget Doesn’t Add Up

The Governor’s proposed biennial budget for transportation just doesn’t add up. Thanks to reduced rail ridership he’s projecting cost savings in the CDOT budget of $82 million over the next two years but promises no further cuts in service beyond those already taken during the pandemic.  But how does that jibe with Metro-North parent MTA’s projected $8 billion operating deficit through 2024? Even pre-pandemic when ridership was at record highs, Metro-North still lost money.  And taxpayers made up the difference.  Grumbling commuters packed in SRO rush-hour trains paying the highest commuter rail fares in the US still couldn’t cover operating

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Maybrook Madness

Anyone who follows this column knows I’m a “train guy”.  I’ve always been a supporter of mass transit and continue to be.  But sometimes I wonder just where the state’s priorities are when they chose to waste a million dollars on yet another crazy study. This time it’s a study of the Maybrook line, a 14-mile, single-track of rusting rail running west from Danbury to Brewster NY and beyond. Metro-North used to run their equipment (not passenger trains) over to their Croton shops via the line, but little else.  Now there’s going to be a study (yes, for one million

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Transportation Construction Costs

Why is transportation construction so expensive in our area?  What kind of honor was it when New York City recently surpassed Zurich (one of the most expensive cities in the world) as #1 on the most-expensive-place-to-do-underground-construction dishonor roll? The highly respected Regional Plan Association (RPA.org) has studied that question and offers some explanations and frightening examples.  Focusing on three recent MTA mega-projects in New York City… the Second Avenue Subway, the #7 subway extension to Manhattan’s west side and the LIRR’s East Side Access project (ESA), their findings make for depressing reading. Let’s focus on the ESA plan… an ambitious

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Commuters Are Not Coming Back

I have one belated prediction for the new year and you’re not going to like it:   After we all get vaccinated and things ‘return to normal’, regular weekday commuters on Metro-North will not be coming back as hoped.  Why should they?  Who wants to spend $400+ a month and waste 2+ hours each day, five days a week riding a train into New York City if you don’t have to?  If this pandemic has shown us anything it’s that going to an office isn’t necessary to doing our jobs. Sure, there are some people who have to show up

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There Is No Free Pony

Early in our parenting my wife and I taught our daughter about the difference between wanting something and needing something.  She might want a pony but did she need one?  And most importantly, what was she willing to do to get that pony.  “Ponies aren’t free,” we would remind her. The same things are true for transportation, our climate and our health. A recent poll was released, commissioned by the Transportation Climate Initiative.  The name explains their mission: saving our climate by encouraging increased use of mass transit, electric vehicles and less use of fossil fuels. We all know that

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Just in Time

Notice anything missing on your store shelves?  Maybe paper products or your favorite canned soup?  Given that the pandemic has been raging for over nine months, why aren’t the shelves full again?  Why isn’t the stuff we want “getting there”? Well one of the reasons is because a Japanese engineer visited an American supermarket in the 1950’s and noticed something he thought was wrong… and we’re still paying for his astute observations. It was Taiichi Ohno, industrial engineer at Toyota, who noticed the American stores had weeks of inventory in a back room, waiting for customers purchases to allow quick

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Conductor Writes Tell-All Book

Are you nostalgic for the “good old days” on Metro-North… the crowded trains, the inevitable delays, your often-times crazy fellow passengers?   If so, you’ll want to check out former conductor Michael Shaw’s great new book, “My Rail Life”. Shaw has just retired from a 36 year career as a conductor on the New Haven line.  His father also worked for the railroad as do 5 of his siblings.  And he clearly loved his job. He once told passengers on a standing-room only train: “OK, folks.  We are half way to Grand Central.  It’s time for everyone who’s been seated to

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Gas is Too Cheap

Gasoline is too cheap. Wait!  Don’t turn the page!  This is not another tree-hugger train-guy rant. Hear me out. President-elect Biden has made the argument for weaning us off fossil-fuels, mostly for environmental reasons.  Anybody who remotely believes in science or has witnessed the cataclysmic changes in our weather, knows we must do something to stop global warming. But I still drive a car (albeit a hybrid) and am not ready to give it up for a bicycle or skateboard like some crazed Gen-Z’er.  We need cars to get around in Connecticut despite our meager attempts at mass transit… especially

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Treasure Hunt

The headline a few days ago was encouraging:  “CT gets $400K grant to study improvements to Metro-North lines”.   But what’s $400,000 going to tell us that we don’t already know?  Any rider of Metro-North knows the infrastructure is crumbling, the station parking and seating on trains (until COVID) are inadequate and, on the branch lines, the service is terrible.  So why another study? Turns out, this Federal grant is different, as Francis Pickering, the Executive Director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WCOG) explains:  “We know what needs to be fixed.  We just don’t know how to pay for

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A WPA Project for Transportation

Here’s a possible solution to Connecticut’s transportation and infrastructure problems and the state’s current unemployment woes:  a WPA style building project. You do remember the Works Progress Administration, right?  It was FDR’s plan that put millions of unemployed Americans to work building public projects like roads, water mains, firehouses and dams.  Look around you and you’ll still see us benefiting from that investment. But fast-forward 80 years… Any reader of this column is all too familiar with the need for transportation investment in our state: our 7000 miles of roads and bridges in “poor condition”, the $4.6 billion needed for

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The Eye of the Hurricane

When it comes to COVID’s impact on transportation in our state, we are in the eye of the hurricane. That’s been the theme of my recent virtual talk to various Connecticut’s libraries and civic groups, comparing the calm eye of an intense storm to how we’ve become complacent about our transportation future.  We kid ourselves if we think the winds have passed.  The worst is yet to come. Commuters who’ve returned to the rails tell me ridership is slowly coming back but many still fear for their safety on mass transit, and with good reason. Metro-North has finally put $50

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Cameron: Why Does Red Mean Stop?

Do you ever wonder why our stoplights designate red as stop and green as go?  Me too!  In fact, it was my daughter’s question on this very matter that inspired me to do some historic research. In the 1840s the British railroads adopted a flag, lamp and semaphore signal system where red meant danger, white meant safety and green indicated proceed with caution.  They took their inspiration from early industrialization where factory machines used red to indicate the equipment was off and green when turned on. But when the red glass lens on one signal lamp dropped out of its

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