Transportation expert shares concerns about effects of pandemic
“We’re in the eye of a hurricane,” said Darien resident Jim Cameron, a commuter advocate and newspaper commentator on transportation issues in the state.
“The eye of the hurricane is that calm spot between torrential rain and wind that we’ve all gone through since March, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out,” he added.
While the pandemic has gotten more under control over the past few months, “this quiet spot” is going to be gone soon and “we’re going to be in for more really bad weather,” said Cameron, in regard to what’s to come.
The Darien Library hosted Cameron Wednesday in a virtual Zoom discussion on Connecticut’s transportation crisis. Cameron also answered questions. About 20 people watched the talk.
A former NBC News anchor, Cameron is the recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award for his work at the network. He has served on the Metro-North Commuter Rail Council, and writes a weekly newspaper column called, “Getting There,” which runs in the Hearst daily and weekly newspapers.
Cameron, a published author, is program director of Darien’s cable and online TV station, TV-79. He also serves on the Merritt Parkway Conservancy and on Darien’s Representative Town Meeting.
According to Cameron, the airports are in “serious trouble” since the pandemic.
He said that’s partly because Connecticut has very strict rules for quarantining for 14 days after traveling to a state that is on the COVID travel list.
Additionally, he said Bradley International Airport in Hartford has seen passenger traffic drop 80 percent. Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Bridgeport has no commercial flights.
While he did say Westchester County Airport is now offering flights to many states, the “place of choice” to fly is “going to be one of the New York City airports.”
Before COVID-19, the Metro-North Railroad had more than three million passengers a month, according to Cameron.
“One hundred percent of all the cars were available and were so crowded that they were standing room only conditions,” he said.
Since COVID, ridership is now down to 218,000 monthly riders. The same number of cars are still available, he added.
To encourage people to take the trains, Metro-North has created a mascot called Metro-Man.
“He looks like a robot and he has been passing out masks to everyone on the trains and stations and Grand Central,” he said.
Masks are now required at all times on buses, subways and on Metro-North. Also, there is free hand sanitizer at the train stations.
While Cameron said there is 90 percent compliance with masks, that is “not enough.”
“All it takes is one person on that train car not wearing a mask who coughs or sneezes, and is virus positive, and that spreads through the entire car,” he said. “The HVAC system is not sufficient enough to stop the germs from traveling.”
The effect of COVID on the local real estate market has been profound, he said.
Many people from New York City are moving to Connecticut.
“Sales are off the charts,” he said.
In New York City, the vacancy rate has climbed and rents have dropped. In July in Manhattan, 670,000 empty apartments were available, and the median price for a one-bedroom was $3,100, down 10 percent, according to Cameron.
Additionally, 10,000 New Yorkers have changed their addresses to Connecticut ZIP codes in the first three months of the pandemic, versus about 10 percent of that number in the same period in 2019, he said.
With these changing in residential, work and commuting patterns, there’s going to be a tremendous effect on transportation in Connecticut, according to Cameron.
Cameron talked about whether Metro-North can afford the frequency of service that now exists.
Currently, there are three or four trains an hour in rush hour, and at least two trains an hour to most stations outside of rush hour.
“Those trains are empty,” he said. “How can the public transit agencies absorb these huge operating losses?”
He added the MTA is projecting a $16 billion deficit by 2024, after budget cuts.
The loss projected by MTA includes loss of fares, reduced subsidies, tolls paid by motorists, and the increased cost of disinfecting trains, handing out masks, and putting sanitizer on every platform.
Alternatives, he said, include laying off staff, reducing train service and perhaps even increasing fares.
In regard to train service, “the doomsday scenarios that the MTA announced on the subway system would see an increase in wait time by eight minutes between subway trains, and 15 minutes for buses,” he said.
In regard to Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad, reducing service to once an hour or once every two hours is now being considered.
Other ways where money can be saved, he said, are putting on hold maintenance projects and upgrades, such as the city’s subway signal system.
Working from home
The large number of people working from home are saving a lot of money, Cameron said.
There is $750 million in cost savings to automobile owners on a daily basis for gasoline, car maintenance, and repairs, he said.
Additionally, by not having to commute, the average person in the United States is saving about 54 minutes a day.
Also, he said the societal benefits of people working from home are less pollution and less congestion on the highways.
“We have gone through a tsunami-like change in perspective as a result of our adoption of [work from home] technology that doesn’t bode well for the future of the mass in mass transit,” Cameron said.
To ensure bridges stay safe and trains and other forms of transportation keep operating successfully, Cameron said he encourages the public to attend candidates night events hosted by the local League of Women Voters for the November election.
“Put these people [standing for office] on record and ask them questions,” he said, such as “Are you in favor of tolls?” “What’s the alternative?” and “How are we going to pay for the transportation?”
“That’s the eye of the hurricane,” he said. “Everyone had a mellow summer, but bam — we’re back in the middle of it now. We’re coming up to an election. We’re looking at a lot of the layoffs that are coming and small businesses that are going to go under, and it’s going to get very dark — and I worry about that.”