As I hope you can tell, I love writing this column. As New York Times columnist Thom Friedman once said, a commentator should be both in the heating business and the lighting business… getting people fired up while providing factual support for his arguments. Well, the “heat” runs both ways, as the comments I receive each week constantly remind me.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s tolling plan is in trouble. I knew it last weekend when I got a call from Dan Malloy. The former governor and I know each other going back to his days as mayor of Stamford, but he’s only called me once before (many years ago when he sought my endorsement in his run for a second term as governor). This time he was calling about my recent column about the Transportation Strategy Board, the panel that 18 years ago was tasked with prioritizing our state’s transportation needs and how to pay for them.
When are we finally going to do something about our transportation crisis? That question has been asked for decades… but never answered, or more importantly, acted upon.
Why can’t we run commuter ferries on Long Island Sound? I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked that question. But as with so many “simple solutions” to our transportation woes, there are logical reasons why ferry boats won’t work.
How would you like a faster ride on Metro-North? Who wouldn’t! How about a 30-minute ride from Hartford to New Haven, from New Haven to Stamford or from Stamford to Grand Central? That’s the vision announced by Gov. Ned Lamont in his inaugural address. It’s known as the 30-30-30 plan and sounds good compared to current running times (52 minutes, 55 minutes and 48 minutes respectively). But how can such vast improvements be done? Ask Joe McGee, vice president of the Fairfield Business Council who’s been pitching this idea for years.
What follows is a public apology. Not to you, dear reader, but to future generations: “To my grand children: I’m sorry we left you with this mess. We should have done more, when we still had time.”
How bad has service gotten on Metro-North? Ask Chris Golier, a 40-something family-man from Fairfield who rides the train daily from Southport to Grand Central. “Commuting is a soul-sucking exercise,” he says. What used to be a 60-minute ride to and from NYC, now takes 75 minutes. And though slower than in years past, his trains are rarely on time… not the 88 percent on-time performance claimed by the railroad, but more like 37 percent.” How does he know? He kept a log.
As if crumbling bridges and pot-holed highways weren’t enough to worry about, now America’s transportation network is facing a new crisis: a shortage of truck drivers. According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucks carry more than 70 percent of all domestic freight, bringing in $719 billion in revenue. It’s trucks, not trains, that deliver our Amazon purchases and fill the shelves of our favorite big box stores for the holidays. So while we hate to drive behind them on our highways, we love what trucks deliver.
Well, you did it. Congratulations on your election. And my condolences. The easy part of politics is over: getting elected. Now comes the hard part: being governor. I hope you and your transition team are already working on that budget that’s due in three months. There’s a lot of red ink ($4 billion) that needs to be mopped up. And don’t forget those $80 billion in unfunded pensions. But I’m sure you’ve got the solutions, right? That’s what you promised voters, anyhow. So have at it. But as you are cutting and slashing, may I be so bold as to make a few suggestions on the transportation front?
Quiz question #1: What country has the largest interstate highway system in the world? Hint: It’s not the United States.
Quiz question #2: What country has the most miles of high-speed rail? Hint: It’s not France or Japan.
The answer to both questions is… China!
How much should it cost to ride mass transit? Are our fares too high? Would lower fares increase ridership? If so. why not make the trains free? As I’ve noted any number of times, fares on Metro-North in Connecticut are among the highest commuter railroad fares in the U.S. That’s because our state’s subsidy is the lowest… about 24 percent, compared to a 50 percent fare subsidy on the Long Island Railroad. Of course, Hartford’s attitude is that everyone in Fairfield County is a millionaire and can afford to pay more.
In the “land of steady habits,” we don’t fix problems, we study them… over and over again. It’s been 10 years since then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s “blue ribbon” Critelli Commission report studying the reform of the Department of Transportation. You’ll remember that the study came after a construction scandal on I-84. And while much of the report addresses the dysfunction of the CDOT, I was pleased that the Commission’s chairman, then-Pitney Bowes Chairman Michael Critelli, also picked up on some suggestions for improving rail service.
There is possibly no more beautiful railroad station in the world than New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. As the destination of over 55,000 daily rail commuters from Connecticut, it’s a place where many of us spend a fair amount of time. I’ve been riding in and out of Grand Central for over 50 years. So to help you maneuver the station’s labyrinth of tunnels, ramps and stairs, here are some of the “secrets” of Grand Central that I find most useful.
“Why don’t we just ban all trucks from our interstate highways in rush hour?” The question was asked of me by a small town mayor in Fairfield County who’d obviously given a lot of thought to solutions to our traffic woes. He’s a smart guy and thought he’d come up with “the answer” to our transportation crisis.
He said he wasn’t in favor of tolls, but liked them as a traffic mitigation tool. By charging trucks more to drive our highways in rush hour, they’d be incentivized to instead go off-peak. He was just taking the idea a step further: ban them completely at certain hours.
Is it hot enough for ya? Even if you don’t believe it’s caused by humans, there is no doubt our planet is heating up. And as global warming increases, so will our travel problems. Meteorologists agree that thunderstorms, tornados and hurricanes are all getting stronger and causing greater damage. Hardly a summer passes without extensive flight delays caused by storm-fronts, let alone hurricanes like Harvey and Maria.