A Commuter’s Lament

I began commuting to New York City in June, 1980. Back then, it was an hour’s ride from Huntington, Long Island and I was a newly-minted college graduate, following in my dad’s footsteps of taking the Long Island Railroad. These days, I commute from Connecticut to Manhattan, this time taking Metro-North, which effectively uses the same sort of cars. The biggest difference is that the CT trains draw their power from overhead centenary wires until they reach some point in New York State and then switch to a third rail-and-shoe system.

The trains on the New Haven line are over 30 years old and are therefore subject to frequent breakdowns. Over the last few harsh winters, the cars have shown their age with a high percentage of mechanical problems and breakdowns. Fully one-third of the train cars have been out of service at one time during the worst of the weather.

Now, I’m a simple guy when it comes to economics. It’s why the economy and stock market make no sense to me because people have found ways to make things overly complicated. You buy something you know will last only 30 years or so. Therefore, you have a ticking clock and know these things need to be replaced. Over 30 years, you put a little bit aside, let interest or compound interest help you along and suddenly, in 30 years, you have all or almost all of what you need to buy replacements with cash.

Apparently, government doesn’t work this way.

The state of Connecticut has been studiously avoiding allocating any moneys to replace the train cars when they know full well the cars are wearing out and need replacing. Our previous governor, the corrupt John Rowland, only gave mass transit lip service so we wasted nearly a decade. Our new governor, Jodi Rell, has been pretty terrific in cleaning up Rowland’s messes and the budget that just got passed helps in a lot of ways.

Just not for mass transit. The State Legislature seems to have decided that this is something special and needed due consideration so state transportation was one of several topics delayed until a Special Session began this week. As I understand, the Senate deals with mass transit on Monday.

The biggest problem seems to be parochial self-interested bullshit, a technical term I learned back in college from Ronald Brownstein, now with the Los Angeles Times. Of the eight counties making up the Nutmeg State, only two heavily rely on Metro North. The other six counties don’t seem to see the need for the state spending so much money when it doesn’t help them. (This is a perennial problem between the six counties and New Haven and Fairfield Counties. These two counties do contribute 46% of the state’s revenues but who’s counting?)

To quote the Hartford Courant: “The bill is likely to pass, as it cleared three key legislative committees by overwhelming margins during the regular session, but did not make it to vote in either the full Senate or House.

“The legislation was a victim of politics in the regular session, Roraback said, as Democratic leaders in the Senate demanded projects in their districts be funded before they voted on the package.

” ‘The bill got held hostage by members of the majority party and it was a ransom Gov. Rell refused to pay,’ Roraback said. ‘It was a desire on their part to see their pet projects approved’.” Pet projects = pork barrel politics. While legislators get to say they brought money back to the district, it just means we the tax payer need to reach deeper into out pockets to pay for it all, so who is really being helped?

So, rather than save a little every year for 30 years (just as I save something every week for vacation and Christmas), we now need to find $1.3 billion dollars to fund highway and mass transit needs. The current thinking is a surcharge on petroleum companies plus hitting commuters with a $1 a month surcharge. I’m paying more than enough, thank you very much.

And if the money comes through, 342 new cars will be bought to replace the cars that are rapidly falling apart. Here are some of the problems with this approach: it’ll take five years before the first cars are available since they have to be built from scratch given the energy requirements so by the time we get the cars, the current ones will be a decade past their shelf life. Also, these are 1-for-1 replacements with no anticipation of additional cars for a growth in the commuter population. On the other hand, the state is encouraging its people to use the rails for reverse commuting to work or giving up the highways for a more pleasant trip into New York. So we gain something but not what’s really needed.

And no doubt, no planning will be made for opening a savings account for the time, 30-40 years hence, when these cars will need replacing.

2 comments

  • John A. McKinnon

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  • Mike

    Your opening paragraphs about the CT train breaking down in harsh weather brings to mind the opening of Ang Lee’s THE ICE STORM, where Tobey Maguire is stuck on a stopped CT train. He passes the time reading an issue of the Fantastic Four. I forget which one.