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.
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.
This recent Times Union story shows the persistence of unrealistic, grandiose thinking in relation to our local Amtrak station. The proposal to study spending $20 – $30 million, and who knows how much time, building an aerial tramway to transport a few hundred people a day across the Hudson, in all likelihood at significant public expense, is another example of the thinking that got us the present bloated, cavernous station that leaks money and water, and whose large outdoor clocks never tell the same time. Here’s something to try first, if there’s really a need for an alternative to the existing taxicab service most railroad passengers use (there is):
Realign the two bus routes that serve the station so they both stop at the same place on East St. for trips in each direction. Coordinate bus schedules with train schedules. Have a covered walkway from the station exit to the bus stop. Sell one way or round trip bus passes at the railroad ticket windows or at nearby kiosks. Have “Amtrak connect” schedules printed up that show when busses leave the station for popular downtown destinations and when they return, with a large map on the back showing the locations of bus stops and downtown landmarks.
If the above does not work, thousands, not tens of millions, will have been wasted. Then you can say “I told you so,” and try the gondola.
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.