December 13, 2018

Talking Transportation: Why Hartford Hates the Gold Coast

I was watching CT-N the other night (my favorite reality TV channel) as the members of the CPTC (Citizens Public Transportation Commission) were meeting for an incredibly boring discussion the state’s transit woes.  But toward the end of the meeting, my ears perked up as one of the 80+ year old members started on a rant.

“Our next Governor is going to be ‘gold plated,’” he said.  “He’ll come from Fairfield County, the Gold Coast, so heaven help us!”

Not even the lone member of the Commission from Fairfield County dared challenge this crazy assumption that a Governor from the ultra-affluent downstate region would do anything but spend to help Fairfield County while ignoring the rest of the state.

Which got me thinking:  Why does everyone upstate mistrust us, we who live on the Gold Coast?

Years ago, when I used to journey to Hartford for my annual appeal to the legislature’s Transportation Committee to invest in new rail cars for Metro-North, I could feel and hear the resentment.  Then-Committee Chairman, Senator Billy Ciotto ( D – Wethersfield) would excoriated my testimony, once saying “You people on the Gold Coast can buy your own damn trains!”

Even the CT Rail Commuter Council’s long-time member from Guilford (Shore Line East territory), an otherwise learned and reasonable man, says that Fairfield County isn’t the “real Connecticut.”  Oh, really?
Consider the facts:

WE PAY THE TAXES: Forty-plus percent of all the taxes collected in this state come from Fairfield County.  Something like 15% of the state’s total collections come from Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien alone.
Without Fairfield County taxes, upstate residents’ tax rates would soar.

BUT WE DON’T GET THE BENEFITS:      Though we pay most of the taxes, we get almost nothing back in return.  Towns like Darien get back 1 cent for every dollar sent to Hartford.  One cent!  Who’s gold plating the roads in Wethersfield?  We are.

WE’RE NOT ALL MILLIONAIRES: Sure, there are some affluent families living along the Gold Coast?  But our state’s most populous and poorest city, Bridgeport, is here too.   I’d guess there are far more people living in poverty in Norwalk, Stamford and Greenwich than in West Hartford or Farmington.

WE’RE THE VICTIMS OF TRANSIT NEGLECT: Who suffers more from traffic congestion than those who drive I-95 through Fairfield County?  And who pays the highest commuter rail fares in the US, but Metro-North riders?  Our rail cars are older than most passengers and our highways show the scars of decades of neglect.

So for those people who live north of the Merritt Parkway (the Mason – Dixon line of state politics), get over yourselves and stop portraying us as free-spending fat cats living not in Connecticut but some annex of New York City.

Connecticut’s next Governor will come from Fairfield County.  And that’s a good thing.  Who knows more about what happens when you don’t invest in your highways and trains?

Maybe the shiny new commuter rail from New Haven to Springfield (which we’ll all be heavily subsidizing) can learn from Metro-North’s mistakes.  Maybe a new Governor can extend Shore Line East from Old Saybrook beyond New London to Mystic, Stonington and even Rhode Island, turning local rail critics into passengers.

To her credit, Brookfield’s Jodi Rell has served our entire state’s interests as Governor, especially in funding improved mass transit state-wide, not just in her own home town.  And I have every confidence that Dan Malloy or Tom Foley will be Governor of all of Connecticut, upstate and down, from the Quiet Corner to, yes, even the Gold Coast.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  Read his column on LymeLine every other Monday.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .

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Talking Transportation: The Lessons from Katrina

We were all awe-struck five years ago watching the coverage of the rescue efforts in the Gulf following hurricane Katrina.  But did we learn anything from that tragedy.

Remember:  our annual hurricane season is well underway and storm activity peaks around this time each year.  And we ready for “the big one”?

Consider the following:

1)  Transportation Means Survival: The difference between those who lived and died in New Orleans was based on access to transportation.  When told to evacuate, those with cars did.  Those without couldn’t and were stranded.  The lack of public transportation along the Gulf Coast left the “disadvantaged” as just that… dis-advantaged, and maybe dead.

How would those living along the Connecticut coast be evacuated if a category four hurricane were threatening us?  Join the crawl on I-95?  Take Metro-North?  Or hunker down at a local mall.  How many of our towns have adequate shelter or emergency supplies?

Is Amtrak ready, along with Metro-North, to deploy its fleet to evacuate the hundreds of thousands threatened by a hurricane?  Doubtful.

2)  Our Classless Society Isn’t:   The victims of Katrina weren’t characterized as much by race as by economic class.  Being able to afford to live away from the flood plain and have access to private transportation both cost money.  This isn’t about race:  you don’t have to be Black to be poor.

But after Katrina, then-President Bush’s mother, Barbara, was touring the Katrina refugee camps in Houston.  She commented that, given the squalor of their former New Orleans homes, these victims of Katrina were actually better off than before.  Then she added “it’s kind of scary that they might all want to stay in Texas.”

Where would Connecticut’s refugees flee after an evacuation?  And how long would they be gone pending recovery and rebuilding?   Gold Coasters perhaps could drive their SUV’s up to familiar ski country in New England. But where would the Hispanic, Haitian and Black populations of Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport go… and would they also be made to feel like so many dust bowl Oakies when they arrived at refugee camps?

3)  Our Government Is Incompetent: Katrina and 9/11 showed us that our government can’t do a damn thing to protect its citizens.  One might excuse a surprise terrorist attack, but a long anticipated, well-scenarioed hurricane?  Not a chance.

At the time of Katrina, 75 percent of FEMA’s budget was being spent on anti-terrorism efforts, even though acts of nature present the real danger to most Americans. Gobbled up into the Homeland Security Agency, FEMA had lost all clout, competence and most of its budget.  “Brownie” may have been doing a “helluva job”, but would his successor do any better five years on?

Ask any old-timer about the Hurricane of 1938 which devastated New England that September.  It still ranks as the worst natural disaster to ever hit our state.  True, the human toll was compounded because we had no notice of the coming storm.  But even with sufficient time to evacuate, a storm of that size would devastate this state, especially our most expensive homes built along the coast.  Santayana said: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Have we really learned the lessons of Katrina?

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  Read his column on LymeLine every other Monday.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation – The AC-DC Railroad

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  Read his column on LymeLine every other Monday.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, seewww.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

The AC-DC Railroad

A few weekends ago, service on Metro-North and Amtrak was thrown into chaos when two trains ripped down portions of the overhead caternary (power line).  Trains were cancelled, weekend riders stranded. Metro-North’s service in Connecticut is made all the more challenging by a technological quirk of fate.  Ours is the only commuter railroad in the U.S. that operates on three modes of power… AC, DC and diesel.

On a typical run from, say, New Haven to Grand Central, the first part of the journey is done “under the wire”, the trains being powered by 13,000 volt AC overhead wires, or catenaries.  Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the pantographs are lowered and the conversion is made to 660 volt DC third-rail power for the rest of the trip into New York.  Even diesel engines must convert to third-rail, as their smoky exhaust is banned in the Park Avenue tunnels. 

And there’s the rub:  Connecticut trains need both AC and DC, overhead and third-rail, power pick-ups and processors.  That means a lot more electronics, and added cost, for each car.  While the DC-only new M7 cars running in Westchester cost about $2 million each, the dual-mode M8 car designed for Connecticut will cost considerably more. 

So, some folks are asking… “Why not just use one power source? Just replace the overhead wires with third-rail and we can buy cheaper cars.”  Simple, yes.  Smart, no.  And here’s why. 

  • There’s not enough space to lay a third-rail along each of the four sets of tracks in the existing right of way. All four existing tracks would have to be ripped out and the space between them widened. Every bridge and tunnel would have to be widened, platforms moved and land acquired. Cost?  Probably hundreds of millions of dollars, years of construction and service disruptions.
  • Even with third-rail, the CDOT would still be required to provide overhead power lines for Amtrak.  That would mean maintaining two power systems at double the cost.  We’re currently spending billions just to upgrade the 80-year old catenary, so why then replace it with third-rail?
  • Third-rail AC power requires power substations every few miles, meaning further construction and real estate. The environmental lawsuits alone would kill this idea.
  • DC-powered third rail is less efficient.  Trains accelerate much faster using overhead AC voltage, the power source used by the fastest trains in the world… the TGV, Shinkansen, etc.  On third-rail speeds are limited to 75 miles an hour vs. 90 mph under the wire.  That means, mile for mile, commute time is longer using third rail.
  • Third-rail ices up in bad weather and can get buried in snow, causing short circuits.  Overhead wires have problems sometimes, but they are never buried in a blizzard.
  • Third-rail is dangerous to pedestrians and track workers.

The idea of conversion to third-rail was studied in the 1980’s by consultants to CDOT.  They concluded that, while cumbersome and costly, the current dual-power system is, in the long run, cheaper and more efficient than installing third-rail. This time, the engineers at CDOT got it right. 

Not satisfied, some of the third-rail fans tried pushing bills through the Legislature in 2005 to study the replacement scheme yet again. More studies would have meant years of delay in ordering already overdue car replacements. Fortunately, the Legislature dispensed with these nuisance proposals quickly. 

Doubtless, we’ll have further “wires down” problems in the years to come.  Ironically, Metro-North’s 97% on-time record has made us come to expect stellar service, despite our ancient infrastructure.  But in the long run, service will be faster and even more reliable by sticking with our dual-mode system.

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