I’ll admit it. I hate to fly. It’s not just the airports, the TSA, the mobs of people and the delays. It’s the seats, the crowding and the feel of being on a cattle car. I’m not claustrophobic, just uncomfortable.
Anthony Scasino is an ambassador, not for a foreign country, but for Metro-North. He doesn’t have a consulate or embassy, just the Stamford train station as his headquarters. Scasino is one of six Customer Service Ambassadors (CSA) who work at the railroad’s busiest stations — White Plains, Harlem, 125th Street, Fordham, New Rochelle, Croton-Harmon and Stamford. After a six-month trial, the CSA program is now permanent and may be expanded. Scasino has worked for Metro-North for six and a half years, having previously been a ticket agent at Stamford.
How does this sound: Fly coast-to-coast in just 48 hours for only $5,200? That was the pitch for the first commercial, transcon air service in 1929 operated by TAT, Transcontinental Air Transport, much later to become TWA. Founded by aviation pioneer Clement Melville Keys, the firm worked with Charles Lindbergh to also secure lucrative mail contracts. But these flights were a first for passengers. TAT was mocked as “take a train” because their service combined rail and air service to make it from New York to Los Angeles.
It was the railroad trip from hell: the hottest day of the year, stuck for five hours on a sold-out Amtrak train where only half the cars had air conditioning. The ride to Washington days earlier had been uneventful, almost on time and pleasantly cool, even though I’d made the mistake of taking a Northeast Corridor train, not Acela. Its older Amfleet cars, though recently refurbished on the inside, are still 50 years old. But coming back from Washington on a torrid Sunday, by going cheap for the slower, less expensive train, I got what I paid for. Put another way, I didn’t get what I paid for.
Do you know how bad Connecticut’s air quality is? According to the American Lung Association, all of our state’s counties receive a grade of “F” when it comes to the ozone. On hot summer days, the sun’s rays combine with auto, truck and power plant exhausts to create an invisible blanket of ozone over our state. When it combines with fine particulate matter, it turns into a grayish haze, making breathing difficult.
Sure, we can blame states to our west whose pollution blows our way, including those “clean coal” meccas of West Virginia and Ohio. But before we point fingers, maybe we should consider what we are doing ourselves to worsen the problem.
Former Gov. Dannel Malloy used to joke that southwest Connecticut has two highways: “One’s a parking lot and the other’s a museum.”
He was obviously referring to Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway. I agree with his first characterization, but he’s wrong about the second. The Merritt Parkway is not a museum but a transportation gem — a unique, historic highway we should preserve and cherish. Sure, the traffic on the Merritt can be brutal, but it’s not because of its design. It’s because of the 90,000 vehicles that use it everyday.
Not all national historic sites are cited on mountains or historic battlefields. In nearby Scranton, Pennsylvania, there is a unique national park that celebrates a machine and its effect on this country’s history: Steamtown is all about steam-powered locomotives. When we think of fast trains today we think of sleek, electric-powered bullet trains. But in the early 1900s, the fast trains of the day were all pulled by giant steam engines, some of them weighing almost 150 tons and capable of speeds up to 125 mph. These mega machines were the jumbo jets of their day, pulling long trains over great distances, both freight and passengers.
It seems pretty clear that Gov. Ned Lamont’s tolling idea is dead. The Republicans say “no way, never” and his own Democrats can’t muster the guts to take an up or down vote because they’re so afraid of public reaction. Oh, everyone in Hartford is still doing the usual square dance, posturing and politicking, but I doubt a special session to vote on tolls will ever happen: tolls are dead. But ‘lest the anti-toll forces should start to rejoice, they may have won this battle but the war is far from over. Because when tolls go down to defeat, there are still plenty of secondary options, none of which you (or they) will like.
They are railroads that no longer exist, like the original New Haven and New York Central railroads. But before I start getting all misty eyed, let’s also pay homage to airlines that have flown away into history. There’s PEOPLExpress, the domestic discount airline that flew out of Newark’s grungy old North Terminal starting in 1981. Fares were dirt cheap, collected on-board during the flight and checked bags cost $3. You even had to pay for sodas and snacks.
Nobody trusts Hartford. If cynicism is a disease, we’re in the midst of an epidemic. Since last fall, I’ve been touring the state speaking to groups large and small about Connecticut’s transportation crisis, about the $5 billion we need to just get Metro-North back in a state of good repair, about the hundreds of deficient bridges and potholed highways, and and about the futility of depending mostly on the gasoline tax to fund long-needed repairs. And when I got to the part in my talk pitching what I see as the necessity of tolls, safeguarded in the recently approved Special Transportation Lockbox, most audiences turned on me. While there were a few true-believers who trust in the state’s role in keeping our transportation in a state of good repair, the vast majority in my readers don’t believe the State Transportation Fund (STF) is truly locked.
Bobby has every kid’s dream job: he’s an engineer for Metro-North. But Bobby isn’t his real name because he’s asked for anonymity so he can speak candidly about his work. “I used to love this job,” he says. “But I still take pride in it. Not just anybody can drive a train safely and smoothly.”
Bobby has worked for the railroad for more than 20 years.
Why is there so much scorn for those who ride the bus? Forty-one million trips are taken on 12,000 public buses each year in Connecticut in communities across the state (not counting school buses). Yet, those riders are regarded as losers, not by the transit operators, but by those who drive by car. When Southington was recently considering restoring bus service for the first time since 1969, one resident wrote a letter to the local paper declaring “Towns that have bus service are towns that frankly have a lesser quality of people.”
What is this fascination people have with monorails? I can’t tell you how often people suggest them as “the answer” to our state’s clogged roads and rails. “Why don’t we build a monorail down the middle of The Merritt Parkway?” asked an architect at a recent meeting. To my astonishment, such an idea was once studied. As lore has it, the state Department of Transportation in the mid-1980s asked local tech giant Sikorsky if a monorail could be built and a plan was submitted.
Hey, soccer moms, tired of feeling like an Uber driver for your kids, shuttling them from school to practice, from playdate to home? Well, I have an answer and an app for you: VANgo. Launched last year by Connecticut native Marta Jamrozik, named as one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” and daughter of a working mom, the concept is simple: A ride app for pre-teens and teens with drivers who know about child care. “All of our drivers are thoroughly vetted,” Jamrozik said. “They need to have at least three years of childcare experience, a clean DMV record, undergo a background check, fingerprinting, reference checks and even an inspection of their vehicle.”
VANgo, which provides insurance for its drivers, is operating in Fairfield County and Phoenix, Arizona, and hopes to expand to more cities this summer.