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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 No. 1 on the most-expensive-place-to-do-underground-construction dishonor roll? The highly respected Regional Plan Association 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 No.
Imagine going from New York City to Washington, D.C. in one hour — not by plane, but by maglev. By comparison, today the same trip from the LaGuardia to DC’s Reagan airport takes about 90 minutes by air (not counting getting to and from the airports) and costs $276 one way. On Amtrak’s Acela, the fastest run, downtown to downtown, is three hours and costs $157. Or you could take the bus for $30, assuming you have 4½ hours to waste. A maglev is a train, of sorts, that floats on a cushion of air, suspended and propelled along a special track quite different from conventional railroads.
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-plus a month and waste two-plus 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 in person to do their work (healthcare staffers, auto mechanics etc.), but that’s never been the bulk of Metro-North’s ridership.
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’ve heard of 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 7,000 miles of roads and bridges in “poor condition”, the $4.6 billion needed for wastewater treatment not to mention our rusting railroads. And everyone in Connecticut is aware of the unemployment crisis brought on by COVID-19 — 8.2% of the state’s labor force is out of work, translating to 153,000 people without jobs, most of them now drawing benefits from our rapidly depleting Unemployment Trust Fund.
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.
When you think of the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) you probably conjure up thoughts of senior discounts, health insurance and retirement, so it might surprise you to learn that they’re also actively engaged in driver safety and promoting access to mass transit. The statistics on these issues they shared with me are quite interesting. By 2025 a quarter of all drivers in the U.S. will be over age 65. And while they are involved in more accidents per capita than younger adults, they are far safer than teens. But over age 70, traffic fatalities increase with age; by age 85, drivers have probably outlived their ability to drive safely.
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.