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The metamorphosis of Connecticut’s transportation network is underway

(CTMirror.org)

Don’t look now, but we’re making history.  The changing forces now at work in our society, including our transportation network, will have a profound effect on our lives for decades to come.

THE BIG QUIT:  According to federal statistics, 4 million people quit their jobs in July of this year, with almost 11 million jobs nationwide now unfilled.  As a result, our ports are jammed, the supply chain broken and holiday purchases seem in peril.  Don’t expect any bargains for Christmas.

Why the huge turnover in jobs?  I think a lot of it has been soul-searching amid the pandemic as people try to seek that illusory work-life balance. But it’s clearly a seller’s market for talent.

THE END OF COMMUTING? Transportation used to equal communications.  Now you don’t need to go to work to do your job.  As I predicted last December, I don’t think passenger levels on Metro-North will return to pre-COVID levels for many years.  Some think it may take a decade.   To date, Metro-North ridership is only back to about 50% and not increasing.

CROWDING AND COMPLAINTS: Even at these reduced ridership levels, many trains are jammed, especially at rush hour. (So much for social distancing.) That’s because full service has not been restored and may not be until next year.  Rush hour trains are not running express, lengthening commuting times and not attracting riders back to the rails. The once popular but seldom-enforced Quiet Cars are on hold.  I doubt they’ll be coming back.

Many of those who are heading back to the office are driving instead of taking the train, exacerbating our traffic.  When driving is faster and, in some cases, cheaper than taking the train, the perception of personal safety trumps slow traffic.  (Mind you, I do think riding Metro-North is safe… as long as you remain fully masked.)

As Metro-North is slow to react to commuter demands for better service, savvy entrepreneurs are jumping in to offer commuting alternatives, skimming the creamy 1% off of the top of railroad’s ridership with a one-seat ride to Wall Street.

FARES:  Off-peak fares remain in effect, all day, for now.  But even  pre-COVID with standing-room-only conditions, the railroad was still losing money.  In 2019 mainline trains subsidized every ticket by $3. Branch line trains’ subsidies were much higher… $17 per ride on the Danbury branch, $49 per ride on Shore Line East.

With ridership now only at 50%, just double those subsidy numbers and you can see how much the railroad is losing. Who will make up the difference?

UNCLE SAM: Yes, the federal government has kept mass transit rolling, but unless ridership returns those subsidies cannot last forever.  Metro-North’s parent. the MTA, has promised no service cuts, no layoffs and no fare increase… for now.

The historic federal infrastructure bill may pump more money into those subsidies.  But that money was supposed to “build back better,” repairing and renewing.  If your house has a leaky roof, you don’t take out a second mortgage to buy tarps and buckets when you should be repairing the roof.

THE BRAIN DRAIN: Before the Connecticut Department of Transportation can start spending the billions  of dollars coming our way in the infrastructure bill it has to deal with its own staffing problem.  CDOT Commissioner Joe Guilietti says his agency has 1,100 highly skilled, well-paying jobs to fill, many of them due to a long-anticipated 30 – 40% retirement rate of senior staffers cashing out for their fat state pensions.

So, this Thanksgiving we have much to be grateful for… but so much to still worry about.

Jim Cameron is Founder of the Commuter Action Group, advocates for Connecticut rail riders.  Contact Jim at [email protected]

4 comments

DrewT November 23, 2021 at 8:41 am

For someone that commutes and takes the train almost 5 days a week I really have to question where Jim is getting his information from. First: The trains are busier!! More people are commuting and come January 1st will be on a regular basis. There have been time where I had to stand! This is a fantastic sign and only going to get better. They have increased service but unfortunately not to the pre-Covid levels but it is expected to increase after January 1st. Second: Events in the City including Broadway Shows are up and running and people are taking the train in! The late night trains are even more crowded now.
Third: Grand Central has had a very large increase in foot traffic at all hours but especially back at Rush Hour! Another encouraging sign! There are also more tourists not only in GCT but throughout the City. This is all great and positive news and getting better. The Doom and Gloom that the joke media loves to report is just that a joke. We will not have anymore lockdowns and next is the Mask Mandates must be lifted! NYC and the Country are back and getting stronger! We will not stop the growth again.

Kevin Kane November 23, 2021 at 3:36 pm

I work in Stamford, it’s a 15 mile drive which I am doing consistently in 35-40 minutes from South Wilton, door-to-door, peak rush hour. A glaring issue is NOT Wilton side roads or Super7/connector or 95 – its once I get OFF of 95. From when I get off 95, it is 3 miles in a staggering 14-17 minutes. True, 95 will only get more crowded but NO ONE is talking about widening the streets of downtown Stamford…adding bike lanes…magic trolleys or carpets….ride share…buses….battery powered scooter share….…take your pick, via Build Back Broke or other program.
I tried the train on a Friday via a combo commute of home to Wilton train station on a bike then train to Stamford w/no change of train needed then bike ride to Office. It was 1 hour and 10 minutes!!! TWICE as long in my car!!! 1/8th the flexibility! It WAS nice looking out at 95 crawling but that was about it. Oh, and the MTA app was pretty cool. $7.50 round trip.

20 minutes to ride and time for buffer/wait for train, 35 on the train, 15 minutes to bike ride from Stamford to office. Train gaps of 45 minutes during rush hour home….gaps in van shuttle service….it all adds up to dreadful options for mass- or combo-commute type transit. Oh, and I had to leave the office at 3:40 PM if I didn’t want to get home at 6:30/7:00 which is comparable to a drive home arrival time. AND…the train was at BEST 10 percent capacity for a peak train in and about 20 percent peak time home. I think the capacity numbers are woefully overstated. Drive by the train station parking lots…..25?…..30% capacity?? Look around the office….MAYBE 30-40% capacity?
Jim brings up excellent and scary points. I challenge ANY politician to ride shotgun with me on the ACTUAL commute and tell me the real facts, have a discussion over a bike ride while getting real answers to what the future holds. Politrickcians stand up at press conferences announcing Philip Morris coming to Stamford but I can only imagine the side street jams with no solution even being dreamed of.

DryAsABone November 24, 2021 at 8:08 am

How are Malloy’s bus and train to nowhere doing?
That was a great “investment” and yet another drain on general funds.

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