Joe Giulietti loves to talk, especially about trains. And when the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation calls me and says, “Jim — let’s have a chat,” I’m all ears. In a recent exclusive one-on-one, here’s what he said:
Will rail come back? The commissioner says yes, but maybe not until the fall. “Am I optimistic?
Where is the common ground and common sense? From the hundreds of conversations I’ve had, 80 to 85% of us fit a “moderate middle” description: center right on state fiscal issues and center left on social issues. So why is it that the very far left in our state carries such weight in setting public policy? Where is the balance, respect for process and common sense? Where is the sense of responsibility to work together to craft good policy to benefit all in our state?
The 47,000 miles of highways that comprise America’s interstate highway system are nothing short of an engineering marvel, perhaps surpassed only in mileage and design by what China has built in the last few years. We take them for granted, but when they were designed almost 60 years ago these superhighways presented both great opportunity and vast challenges. Mind you, the U.S. wasn’t the first with superhighways. Those bragging rights go to the Germans, whose Reichsautobahn saw cars zooming along at 100+ mph in the 1930s. Most credit President Dwight Eisenhower, whose troops rode the Autobahn in World War II, for seeing the military value of an American equivalent, though engineering such a complex across the U.S. was far more difficult.
Of course by 1940 the US already had the Pennsylvania Turnpike and by 1954 the New York State Thruway, but those private toll roads were just the beginning.
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.
There’s another part of our transportation network being seriously affected by COVID-19 beyond our roads and rails: parking lots. Parking is something we take for granted, giving us access to rail stations, shopping and offices. It’s hardly glamorous, but the parking industry represents an $11 billion business nationwide, one third of it privately owned. In Connecticut most rail station parking is owned by the Connecticut DOT but administered by the local towns, each of which sets its own rates and terms. The money collected from commuters is supposed to be spent on station upkeep and amenities while the state takes its share. Pre-COVID, the demand for rail station parking was so high that some Fairfield County towns had five-year waiting lists for annual permits.
Welcome to Connecticut, the home of third world infrastructure. Tropical storm Isaias has shown, once again, that we don’t want to invest in our state’s physical plant and we don’t learn from our mistakes. But we are all so ready to blame somebody else when stuff goes wrong. Every time a Metro-North train pulls down old catenary (overhead power lines), commuters scream, “Where are the replacement buses?” as if a fleet of buses is kept on permanent standby waiting for such strandings. If we did better maintenance on the trains and wires, such accidents might not happen.
Ridership on Metro-North is still down 85% from pre-pandemic levels, but in-state bus ridership is coming back — up to 70% of normal from a March low of 40%. Why the difference? Because bus riders and rail riders are very different. Surveys by CDOT and Metro-North showed the average income of a Metro-North rider was about $150,000, given that many were living in affluent Fairfield County towns and commuting to good paying jobs in New York City. Bus riders are predominantly working class, urban dwellers who make less money and, in many cases don’t own cars.
Every commuter on Metro-North owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to one man: Oz Griebel. He is the reason we can ride the new M8 rail cars. Much has been written since Oz’s passing (at age 71) recently from an auto accident while jogging, especially about his two unsuccessful runs for governor. I remember distinctly in the debates with Bob Stefanowski and Ned Lamont how Griebel would take off his suit jacket, roll up his sleeves and jump into the fray. His energy and passion were electrifying.
Which is the number one country in the world for transportation? Certainly not the United States. Not even countries in the E.U. No, you have to look farther east, as Marco Polo did in 1271, to find the future — in China. I’m so tired of ignorant Americans chanting “We’re Number 1,” when we are not. Not in healthcare, education and clearly not when it comes to using transportation to bolster our world trade.
Where the heck has the Connecticut legislature been for the past few months? With so many pressing issues, why haven’t they met? Oh, they’ll tell you it’s because of safety that they couldn’t convene. But we know better. Plenty of state legislatures — even the U.S. House of Representatives — have carried on the people’s business virtually or well-masked while our pols went AWOL.
As New York City businesses reopens it’s expected that one million people will get back to work, some of them from Connecticut. But how they get to those jobs is the big question. While I’ve written for weeks that I expect many Nutmeggers will opt first for their personal automobiles, the resulting traffic mess will soon have them reconsidering a return to Metro-North and the city’s subways. The big issue, of course, is keeping everyone safe by maintaining social distancing and requiring face masks for all riders. More Trains and Subways
Metro-North has already expanded rush hour service by 26% over their scaled-back “essential service” levels.
Former Darien resident Douglas Joseph Shaw, passed away early Monday morning June 15, 2020 at his home in Brielle, New Jersey.He was 65. Doug was born Nov. 26, 1954 to Joseph and Mary Shaw of Long Island. His career was in commodities trading, but his life was so much more than his work. When one thinks of Doug the first thought that comes to mind is his devotion to his children.
When coronavirus hit us this spring, more than just our normal rail commuting patterns were disrupted. One young entrepreneur’s business simply imploded, but now he’s coming back, stronger than before. Joe Colangelo is founder and CEO of Boxcar, the New Jersey-based company that bills itself as the “Airbnb of parking,” matching commuters with empty parking spots near train stations in Stamford, Darien, New Canaan and Stratford. Before COVID-19, his business was red hot. But by early March he knew it was doomed as people stopped commuting and demand for parking evaporated.
Joe Connolly has been a telecommuter for 20 years. You probably know him from his award-winning business reports on WCBS Newsradio 880 or his Small Business Breakfasts held annually in Stamford. But you might not realize that Connolly lives not in New York City, but in eastern Connecticut. He’s up and working weekdays by 4:30 a.m., driving first to pick up a print copy of the Wall Street Journal before heading to his office/broadcast studio near his home, where he seldom opens the window blinds. “I’m here to work,” he says, “not for the view.”
In his broadcast booth he has a big painting of the New York City skyline to keep him connected with his radio audience.
Post-coronavirus, Gov. Ned Lamont predicts the end of daily commuting as we know it. Lamont told Bloomberg that his New York business buddies tell him they’re saving so much money by having people work from their homes they may cut office space in the city by 30 percent. “The old idea of the commuter going into New York City five days a week may be an idea that’s behind us,” Lamont said. “Maybe you have a great job that seems to be geographically located in New York City, you can do it two-thirds of the time from your home in Stamford.”
Or maybe you don’t need to ever go into the city. Twitter has told its tech workers they can work from home forever, assuming they can stand it. That means more time with the family and a lot less time and money spent on the train.
You know those big brown trucks that are keeping us well-delivered during this time of COVID-19? Well, there’s some interesting history and tech to United Parcel Service, or UPS. Founded as the American Messenger Company in Seattle in 1907, the company made most of its deliveries back then to stores, not customers, and made them on foot or by bicycle. Adding a Model T to their fleet in 1913, the company started serving neighborhoods. By 1930 the company expanded to most cities in the East and Midwest, adding delivery by airline cargo partnerships to their modes of transportation.