The Heartbreak Of Gridlock: Sen. Murphy Shares Commuting Stories With U.S. DOT

By:  Daniela Altimari
Hartford Courant

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy was sitting in traffic on I-95 a few weeks ago when he put out a multimedia request for commuters to share their stories. "I was expecting a handful of really interesting stories that tugged on people's heartstrings," Murphy said Friday. "I got an avalanche of them."

"I was expecting a handful of really interesting stories that tugged on people's heartstrings," Murphy said Friday. "I got an avalanche of them."

Commuters tweeted, emailed, called and posted their responses on Facebook by the hundreds. Together, the responses form a mosaic of wasted hours, missed dinners, bad moods and frustrated motorists.

On Friday, Murphy shared 450 of those tales, without names attached, with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Among them were comments from a Fairfield woman whose husband comes home stressed and angry after commuting two hours each way to his workplace in Greenwich.

"If his commute improved the following would happen without question: My marriage would be better because he wouldn't be in a foul mood when he finally arrives home," she wrote. "My daughter would see her father more. He could eat dinner with us, watch her at football games ... help with the dog more … We pay a lot of money in taxes and love Fairfield but I can honestly say I can't wait to leave Connecticut."

The New York metro area, which includes much of southwestern Connecticut, has the fourth worst traffic congestion in the nation, according to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has made funding new transportation initiatives a cornerstone of his second-term agenda, calling for the state to invest $100 billion over 30 years to repair bridges, rebuild roads and improve the state's traffic-choked network of highways.

In recent weeks, however, some lawmakers have called for the transportation overhaul to be scaled back, citing the state's budget deficit.

One commuter from Shelton suggested the state reinstate tolls. "Why the issue is still being debated is beyond me. We need to put tolls at the state borders. That way, if all of these out-of-state drivers are going to be using our roads anyway, we're making some money off of them to be able to improve this suffering infrastructure," wrote the motorist, whose 23-mile daily drive to work in New Canaan often takes more than an hour and a half.

While Fairfield County was home to the most stress-filled commutes, motorists in other parts of the state also chimed in. A driver from Salem who works in Hartford talked of the frustrations encountered daily on Route 2, resulting in delayed dinners and lost time for homework help.

Murphy, a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, has long advocated for more federal money for roads and rails. But highlighting the emotional toll traffic takes on motorists and their families represents a new approach to the issue, he said.

As a savvy user of new media, he decided the best way to collect first-person stories is through social media. Murphy kicked off his effort by recording a drive to an event in Norwalk using Periscope, a live video-streaming platform. (He was in the passenger seat while shooting the video, he said.)

"I feel like I've been beating my head against the wall trying to make the case for more transportation spending," the Democratic senator said. "I think there's a breakthrough somewhere in these stories.

"We tend to talk about traffic in these really impersonal, data-driven terms ... traffic isn't just the amount of time you are on the road. It's the missed opportunities at work and at home and the heartbreak that comes with gridlock."

That point was underscored by a plaintive email Murphy received from a single mother in Trumbull, whose 40-plus minute commute to her job in Wilton robs her of time with her 17-month-old son.

"I need to wake him up in the morning and get him to day care by 7, be back on the road by 7:10 to get to work by 8 am which I am always late and then have to stay and make up time and then sit in traffic to get home," she wrote. "So I am missing VALUABLE time with my son… every minute counts."

Murphy said he hopes Foxx will read the anecdotes and use the experiences of Connecticut motorists to devise solutions. Like many things in Congress, Murphy observed, personal stories tend to have more weight than reports dense with statistics.

"Traffic, congestion and delays — the terms we often use to discuss infrastructure — are detached words that do not accurately reflect what transportation means to people back home," he stated in his letter. "I promised my constituents to take their stories to Washington to bring a human face to the debate over the future of transportation in America. It's my hope that you will heed the stories of my constituents and take note of their proposed solutions."