Tran­sit bosses ride the rails

The News-Times - - FRONT PAGE - Jacqueline Smith’s col­umns ap­pear Fri­days in Hearst Con­necti­cut Media daily news­pa­pers. Email her at [email protected]­medi­act.com

Joe Gi­uli­etti donned his char­coal pin-striped suit, strapped on black boots with two buck­les early Thurs­day and rode the rail back to the early days of his ca­reer.

Con­necti­cut’s new De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sioner is a rail­road guy through and through, from his first job as a brake­man (now called as­sis­tant en­gi­neer) in New Haven to lead­ing Metro-North rail­road as its pres­i­dent for three cru­cial years.

Start­ing out while still a student at South­ern Con­necti­cut State Univer­sity in New Haven he “put air hoses to­gether, worked on pas­sen­ger trains one day, freight the next.” He was a con­duc­tor, a lo­co­mo­tive en­gi­neer and, long story short, “ev­ery­thing else is fate.”

Joe — he’s the sort of guy you want to call by his first name — caught the 9:05 out of Danbury on Thurs­day morn­ing for the 54-minute trip to South Nor­walk, just like an av­er­age of 1,100 peo­ple on that line ev­ery week­day.

The man who is in charge of ev­ery high­way, bridge, airport, sea­port and rail track in Con­necti­cut was re­spond­ing to a chal­lenge.

I had writ­ten a col­umn Dec. 30 — “To the new DOT leader: Ride the Danbury line ”— af­ter he was nom­i­nated as com­mis­sioner by thenGov.-elect Ned La­mont. Come see first-hand, I wrote, why the Danbury branch COM­MEN­TARY

line needs more at­ten­tion. What will it take to get faster, more fre­quent ser­vice?

Joe agreed to ride the line and Catherine Ri­naldi, now the pres­i­dent of MetroNorth (the first woman in that po­si­tion, by the way), wanted to join him. They gave Hearst Con­necti­cut Media exclusive time; this was not an all-op­tics media stunt.

In the Danbury sta­tion, which could be a trans­porta­tion hub, Mayor Mark Boughton greeted these rail lead­ers and made a pitch for a spur from the city to the South­east, N.Y., Har­lem Line. He knew that Joe had op­er­ated trains in Danbury early on, ad­mir­ing that he knew “ev­ery spur, ev­ery line.”

We boarded the 9:05 (Boughton stayed in the Hat City) with a hand­ful of other pas­sen­gers who were in dif­fer­ent cars. We didn’t no­tice the spring green of new leaves nor the scenic ponds nor bloom­ing mag­no­lias out the win­dows; there was much to talk about.

Cathy Ri­naldi, who is a daily com­muter her­self on the Hud­son Line into Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal, noted the importance of the New Haven Line, with its branches to Water­bury, New Canaan and Danbury.

“Half of the Metro-North rid­er­ship is on the New Haven Line,” she said. We are talk­ing about the sec­ond-busiest com­muter rail­road in the coun­try, with 86.5 mil­lion rides a year be­tween Grand Cen­tral and 123 sta­tions in Con­necti­cut and New York.

But here’s the prob­lem: Con­necti­cut hasn’t kept up with fund­ing the in­fra­struc­ture. It is 20 years be­hind New York, she said, and that slows down the trains. (Con­necti­cut owns the tracks, trains and such; Metro-North op­er­ates the ser­vice.)

While I would like to see elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the Danbury Line to im­prove the ser­vice, Joe ex­plained why it is not a pri­or­ity. Not only is it very ex­pen­sive, last es­ti­mated at about $400 mil­lion­plus, but also it wouldn’t make a big dif­fer­ence. It would not bring added value, Cathy said.

The rea­son: There isn’t room at Grand Cen­tral for more trains to ar­rive or depart. It’s a bot­tle­neck.

A$4 mil­lion rail car

As the train pauses at the down­town Bethel sta­tion, First Select­man Matt Knicker­bocker comes aboard. Wear­ing a red tie with bi­cy­cles. It’s a good con­ver­sa­tion starter.

Matt talks of Bethel de­vel­op­ing a Tran­sit-Ori­ented District around the sta­tion, a 15-year en­deavor that is about two-thirds com­plete; a pedes­trian walk bridge is needed.

But he also re­lates to com­mut­ing, which he did to Stam­ford and NYC for 43 years. He knew when the car we were rid­ing went into ser­vice — April 1, 1986. It was bet­ter than the early years when wa­ter would get be­tween the panes of glass and slosh around like an aquar­ium with­out fish. But now these trains “are get­ting old,” he con­ceded.

Joe doesn’t dis­agree, but he finds the diesel trains in use on the Danbury Line more re­li­able in bad weather than the over­head elec­tric cate­nary sys­tem on the main line.

The time is near, though, to re­place the cars. Joe wants new, lighter, cars for Danbury and the rest of the line. A min­i­mum of 60 cars and as many as 110 are needed at an es­ti­mated cost of $3.5 mil­lion to $4 mil­lion each. (It hasn’t gone out to bid yet.) To make an un­der­state­ment, this will take a serious commitment from the state.

The com­mis­sioner is neu­tral on whether Con­necti­cut should re­in­state tolls to pay for rail im­prove­ments and re­pair bridges and highways — all of which need at­ten­tion. Re­cently he went to the Leg­is­la­ture say­ing trans­porta­tion requires more fund­ing.

The re­cep­tion he gets these days is more cor­dial than in 2014 when he be­came pres­i­dent of Metro-North. A string of ac­ci­dents, from a de­rail­ment in Bridge­port that injured dozens of pas­sen­gers to sev­eral fa­tal crashes, called the safety of the rail line into ques­tion. There was “dis­trust,” Joe says.

He turned that around, even as the rail­road strug­gled to meet dead­lines for in­stalling Pos­i­tive Train Con­trol, which can stop out-of-con­trol speed­ing trains.

Joe re­tired from Metro-North in 2017, and as a con­sul­tant was the ar­chi­tect of the 30-30-30 plan touted by La­mont — to get from Hart­ford to New Haven in 30 min­utes, New Haven to Stam­ford in 30 and Stam­ford to Grand Cen­tral in 30. There’s a ways to go.

He didn’t know La­mont when he got the call to join the administra­tion as DOT com­mis­sioner. He liked La­mont’s commitment to im­prov­ing trans­porta­tion and his wife, who was work­ing in Florida where they lived, said go for it.

As­tate ‘you can wrap your arms around’

To clear up that bot­tle­neck at Grand Cen­tral, two other projects have to fin­ish — an East Side Ac­cess in­volv­ing the Bronx with com­ple­tion ex­pected in De­cem­ber of 2022, then shift­ing some Long Is­land Rail Road trips to Penn Sta­tion by 2024. That will free up tracks in Grand Cen­tral.

Catherine sees pos­si­bil­i­ties for Con­necti­cut when the East Side Ac­cess im­proves worker flow to the state, sort of a re­verse com­mute, with peo­ple com­ing from the Bronx to Con­necti­cut daily for jobs. It will boost the econ­omy, she says.

Im­prov­ing the train times and fre­quency is cru­cial to eco­nomic devel­op­ment along the Danbury Line or the Water­bury branch from Bridge­port, I still main­tain. The rail could be a great fun­nel bring­ing work­ers into Stam­ford or fur­ther into Man­hat­tan and back again.

Along with tran­sit-ori­ented dis­tricts that make it eas­ier for peo­ple to get around, the over-re­liance on in­di­vid­ual cars (chug­ging down clogged highways) can shift.

Joe’s vi­sion is big­ger. As we near the South Nor­walk sta­tion — the first time I thought the trip was too quick — he talks of link­ing the rails to other places peo­ple need to go.

“Con­necti­cut is a state you can wrap your arms around,” he says. “Why not take a rail to the airport?”

As Joe, and Cathy, walk off the train to a meet­ing about the Walk Bridge re­place­ment project, a tune hums from the dis­tant past. “I’ve been work­ing on the rail­road, all the live long day....”

And that’s how he likes it — along now with highways and bridges and sea­ports and air­ports.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Con­necti­cut Media

State De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sioner Joseph Gi­uli­etti talks with Bethel First Select­man Matt Knicker­bocker on the 9:05 a.m. train from Danbury to South Nor­walk on Thurs­day.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Con­necti­cut Media

Metro-North Rail­road Pres­i­dent Catherine Ri­naldi lis­tens to Bethel First Select­man Matt Knicker­bocker on the 9:05 a.m. train to South Nor­walk on Thurs­day.

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