Woog's World: Money for transit upgrades doesn't grow on trees

In the past 50 years, mankind has made dramatic strides.

We have put men on the moon, and men and women into an orbiting space station. We have shrunk computers from the size of living rooms to those we put in our pockets. We have increased our life spans, decreased death rates for most cancers, and are doing our best to save whales and dolphins by banning plastic bags.

But half a century has not brought much progress in train travel, at least in the place we somewhat reflexively call “the greatest country in the world.” Our high-speed wonder, the Acela, still limps along at speeds Europeans laugh at.

Locally, it takes longer to get from Westport to New York than it did when Lyndon B. Johnson was president, bell bottoms were cool, and the Jetsons were our idea of the future.

Think about it — our grandfathers’ commuter trains were faster than ours. That should be embarrassing. It should be humiliating. It should be something we talk about every day, and demand to be fixed.

Instead, it’s “meh.” We accept as normal the fact that it takes 10 to 15 minutes longer to get to a place that has not moved anywhere since the railroad first came through in the 19th century.

We are not up in arms that breaching the magic “one-hour commute” limit negatively impacts our home values. It’s one thing for a potential homebuyer to think, “I can spend an hour productively on the train each way” or “I’d love to play cards/listen to Spotify/snooze for an hour.”

It’s another thing entirely to think, “An hour and 10 minutes every day, both ways. Aaaaaargh!”

We don’t even blink an eye when the sign at the station (which should tell the time, not the date, but that’s a different story) says “Good service,” when in fact the service is not good. We don’t think twice that buying a train ticket does not guarantee an actual train seat. We have become inured to sudden stops for no reason, for lights to go out, for the heat to be too hot, or to have no heat at all.

Occasionally, we look out the window at Interstate 95. We shake our heads at what those poor driving schlubs go through. “At least we’re not sitting in traffic,” we say.

It’s true. As bad as train travel is, it is Cathay Pacific or Emirates Airlines compared to our highways.

As long as it takes to get from Westport to Grand Central via rail, it can take just as long to get from Westport to Stamford by car (on a particularly bad day, Westport to Norwalk).

It’s not just sitting in traffic that’s bad. It’s where we sit — on old, rutted roads, crossing crumbling bridges among humongous trucks that stress our roads in ways President Dwight D. Eisenhower never imagined when he created the interstate highway system nearly seven decades ago.

The Merritt Parkway was once a pleasant alternative. Now it’s a life-threatening Hobson’s choice. As bad as I-95 is, its medians and shoulders are not crammed with concrete barriers. We will not be killed by falling trees. And there is no place like No Man’s Land between exits 42 and 44 — that five-mile stretch where, when caught in a jam, you have as much chance of getting off as Charlie on the MTA.

I’m not sure how we fix our rail system. One relatively tiny solution — renovating the Walk Bridge in Norwalk, which dates to the administration of Grover Cleveland — will throw the entire northeast into chaos. We could probably take some lessons from Europe and Asia, but this is America. We don’t listen to anybody.

Fixing our roadways may not be easier, but at least there is a way to finance it. The problem is that the solution is a four-letter word. We can barely speak it in polite company, but the word “toll” is what could pay to resurface asphalt, shore up crumbling bridges, and make our roads drivable again.

But, to mix metaphors, “tolls” are the third rail of road transportation in Connecticut.

We want it all. We want better transportation. We want less painful commutes. We want to enjoy the amenities we moved here for, without having to spend inordinate amounts of time getting to them.

Yet we recoil in horror from every plan to pay for them.

People often say that Westport is a bubble. Unless we acknowledge that we are connected to every town and city near us by roads and rails, and that the money to pay for upgrades does not grow on the trees that continually fall on the parkway, that bubble will soon burst.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.