I was shocked when the New York Times exposed the abuses by Long Island Railroad employees of their disability benefits, as well as provisions of its labor contracts that no sane company would accept . Now, perhaps less surprisingly, the New York Post reveals egregious time and leave abuse, allowing some individual employees to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime for hours they didn’t work. While some of the workers were able to retire before facing disciplinary action and recoupment of the stolen funds, the taxpayers who subsidize the railroad — already victimized by the railroad’s paying the crooked employees for hours not worked — will continue to pay their crookedly inflated pensions. If the abuse can’t be stopped (I give Governor Cuomo credit for trying to stop it, albeit belatedly), a big step toward curbing it would be to disallow overtime hours to be part of pension calculations.
This recent New York Times story about the rapid decline in the value of taxi medallions, due to competition from Uber, Lyft and the like, portrayed the purchasers of the medallions in a sympathetic light. Many are immigrants struggling to enter the middle class, willing to work hard to achieve the American dream.
My reaction to the story was reflected in many of the readers’ comments (usually the best part of any Times story) who recounted taxi drivers refusing to pick them up because of their race, or refusing to take them to an outer borough. I remember coming home more than once from an exhausting business trip, laden with luggage, and being refused a ride to where I lived at the time, in Brooklyn Heights.
While I do have sympathy for those rule-abiding driver-owners who lost their investments, I have no sympathy for the all-too-many drivers who viewed the oligopoly conferred by their medallions as a license to engage in predatory behavior. Karma, as they say, can be a bitch.
The delays occasioned by traffic jams, red lights and other things that slow our automotive travel are a major source of frustration to most of us. As individuals, we can mitigate this frustration by choosing our home and work locations, and the times at which we work. We may be able to telecommute, walk or bike, or take public transit (which has its own frustrations). But in today’s automobile-dominated society, most of us have to use the private automobile for most of our travel, much of which must be done on a rigid schedule.
We deal with this frustration with fancy sound systems, luxury seating and blue tooth connections that allow us to use some of our automotive downtime productively. However, those measures do not address the tremendous waste of oil-based fuel and its concomitant pollution. Government, on behalf of us all, can do more to manage traffic and its related delays, but in our geographic area it has largely failed to act.
While I was driving down Washington Avenue in Albany recently, hitting red light after red light, my frustration triggered some early memories — from the 1960s — of driving up and down avenues in Manhattan with my father, watching each light turn green as we approached it. My dad explained to me that the lights were timed so that you would rarely have to stop, if you maintained a steady speed at or around the limit. I am aware of nowhere in our area that employs this proven (and by now, probably more affordable), technology.
Another local failure, on the part of the Thruway Authority, is its lagging behind the Mass Pike in eliminating toll plazas at exits and entries to its highways, with all tolls being tallied by gantries over the road that read E-Z Pass transponders without the need for cars to slow down (a few such gantries do exist on the Thruway, most notably near the Harriman exit, but they have not replaced the toll plazas at the entries and exits). Although the demolition of the toll plazas and barriers on the Mass Pike is not complete, travel time savings already have been noted.
While we now do have electronic signs on many of our primary roads advising of travel time to various points, these signs do not offer alternatives when delays are indicated, and in most cases no alternatives exist. While information may reduce frustration during times of congestion, expenditures aimed at reducing congestion would be a better use of taxpayer funds.
Money spent on reducing traffic congestion, as well as on things like bike paths and libraries, benefits everyone by making the area a more attractive one in which to live. Unfortunately, in New York, “everyone” is not a special interest, which may be why government under-spends in many of these areas.
I recently met some friends for a long weekend in Chicago. One of them, a big sports fan, suggested we attend a game at Wrigley Field. I thought it might be interesting, knowing that Wrigley is an older park with, presumably, lots of history.
The last time I attended a major league ball game was in the 1980s, when I lived in New York City, and I recall paying less than $5.00 for general admission to both Yankee and Shea stadiums. Though I’m not a big sports fan, my occasional visits to these venues were relaxing and enjoyable.
I know prices have gone up in the last 30 years, but the inflation attending sporting events appears to rival that attending college tuition. A reserved seat near the third base foul pole cost $75.00, and afforded only a distant view of the diamond. Three hot dogs and three bottles of water set me back $37.00.
Worse than the prices was the experience. We were seated below a speaker that blared “music” every time there was a lull in the action (which was about 80% of the time) at ear-splitting volume. After hearing “Who Let the Dogs Out” a dozen or so times, I agree with those who, in a poll, rated it one of the top 20 annoying songs, according to Wikipedia. Blaring a snippet of “What’s Up Chris” every time Kris Bryant came to bat might have been clever once, but I tired of it the fourth or fifth time. There was a little bit of the traditional organ music, but not nearly enough. The new electronic scoreboards were more geared to displaying commercials than useful information (thankfully, the original scoreboard remained and was my primary source of information). There was really nothing (except for some statues of players outside) that I could see that called attention to any of the history or traditions of the stadium. Even the ivy wall had been defaced by panels placed in it for the sole purpose, apparently, of displaying commercial messages.
Though we were unable to stay until the end of the game because of the need to catch early flights the next day, the part of the game we saw was pretty good, and we learned later that it went 13 innings, past midnight, and that the Cubs won by one run.
The urban location of Wrigley field presented an opportunity for owners of nearby properties. Many of the houses and other buildings that afforded a view of the field had been outfitted with elaborate bleachers and other amenities. Next time, I may try one of those. Or, if I want the best views, the ability to tune out the noise and the ability to use the copious down time productively, I’ll watch on television.
The rest of the trip offered many enjoyable things. An architecture tour by boat on the Chicago River was interesting and fun. The Art Institute is one of the world’s leading museums. Less famous were the Driehaus Museum, a restored Golden Age mansion (be sure to check out the exterior of the Richardson-inspired mansion housing Mr. Driehaus’s business diagonally across the street) and the nearby Bloomingdale’s Home store, which us to house a Shrine Circus and has restrooms that have been nationally recognized as among the best. The Cloud Gate (known to locals as “The Bean”) and the rest of Millenium Park are worth a visit. Though I’d been to Chicago before, there’s still a lot I haven’t seen.
Chicago earns praise from me by offering a single seat ride on its transit system from each of its commercial airports to its downtown. The transit system, which we also took to and from the ball game, was clean, efficient, not too crowded, and easy to use.
For many, many, years, the TSA treated all air travelers alike, subjecting each to the same security screening procedures. Just recently, I was pleased to see that I was selected for the new “Pre-check” program that let me, a somewhat frequent flyer who has no criminal record and never did anything to compromise travel safety, to breeze through the line without taking out my laptop and liquids, and without taking off my shoes, belt and “light” jacket. I understand that eligible travelers can either pay to enroll in the program or, like me, be selected for it on an ad-hoc basis (I was told that being selected for one flight does not guarantee selection for future flights). Either way, it makes sense, both to the traveling public and to an agency with limited resources, to deploy those resources where they are most likely to discover safety threats. While some may say that this targeting of resources is “discriminatory,” especially if it is perceived to be directed at certain ethnic groups, it simply makes no sense to apply the same procedures to different passengers who present objectively different risks. I applaud the TSA for this common-sense move that will benefit all travelers and increase safety.
Of course, implementation of the new policy is not perfect. Recently, I booked a trip with a companion. Though we were on the same reservation, only one of us was selected for pre-check, making it basically useless, since the other would have to go through the full screening. I called the airline about this, and was told to contact the TSA. I left a comment on the TSA web site, but I did not receive a meaningful individualized response. Overall, though, Pre-check is a step in the right direction.
Now that a casino is coming to the Capital District, where shall it be located? The present favorite appears to be the Saratoga racino, but I wouldn’t put it there if it were up to me. Here are the siting criteria I’d employ:
1. It should be as close as possible to major population centers of the area, but not too close, and located a little bit out of the way, so that people don’t usually pass it on their way to and from work, shopping and other regular errands. It should have plenty of on-site parking. Look to the Casino de Montreal for an appropriate location in an urban area.
2. It should be accessible by public transit, both to limit its environmental and traffic generating impact, and so that the service jobs it provides will be accessible to the urban residents who need them and who may not own their own cars.
3. It should be located in an area with as much existing infrastructure as possible, and it should not be built in an undeveloped area where it will gobble up open space.
4. It should be located in an area where it is wanted by the local population and where it will not adversely impact existing local business.
I propose the Port of Rensselaer, which meets all the above criteria. Rensselaer County, unlike Saratoga and Albany counties, voted for Proposal 1, indicating it would welcome a casino. Rensselaer is centrally located, near Amtrak and Megabus, and is served by CDTA. It can use the increased property tax revenues a casino would bring, and the Port location would impact few local residents and businesses, Its central location and existing road structure would minimize the traffic and environmental impacts caused by travel to the casino. Shuttles between the rail station and the casino could help make it an attractive destination for gamblers from the New York City area, and existing CDTA routes could be slightly modified to make casino jobs accessible to Albany, Troy and Rensselaer residents who rely on public transit. If the City or County owns a parcel in the port area that could be developed and placed back on the tax rolls, so much the better.
The existing racino in Saratoga does have the basic infrastructure in place and, as an existing gambling venue, is less likely to attract local opposition, especially given the area’s historical acceptance of all sorts of gambling. However, taking the path of least resistance would forgo a tremendous opportunity to provide jobs where the people who need them most, and where potential customers from the largest population center in the State, could actually get to them, to give a struggling city a chance to get back on its feet, and to minimize the environmental impact of a venue to which many people will travel by automobile.