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February 11, 2019 Executive Profile

'Rail guy' Giulietti is Lamont's transportation 'game changer'

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Newly appointed Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Giulietti in the agency's control room, which monitors traffic flows on the state's highways. Finding more money to invest in highways, roads and bridges will be one of his chief challenges.
HBJ File Photo

Joe Giulietti had been planning to move full time to Coral Springs, Florida, where he owns a home and landed a plum job in the private sector to cap off a four-decade career largely in public service.

Then Gov. Ned Lamont asked him to run Connecticut's Department of Transportation.

“The hard part of the decision was the fact that my wife is a marriage-and-family therapist down in Florida,” Giulietti said in an interview. “I had finally gotten back to where the two of us were working out of the same location again.”

Instead, the recently nominated DOT commissioner (who has yet to be confirmed by the legislature) is leading a department that Lamont has signaled will be central to his agenda.

Spending winters mitigating snow-related transportation headaches is a far cry from the sunlight and golf ever-present in Coral Springs, but Giulietti believes he's up to the challenge.

And he was hired by Lamont for one reason in particular: his 40 year-plus background in rail.

Prior to being named DOT commissioner, Giulietti led the Metro-North Railroad for more than three years until he retired last August.

Signaling that transportation policy would take center stage in his administration — with rail playing a leading role — Lamont used his inaugural address to announce an ambitious “30-30-30” rail plan.

The proposal is to improve travel times on Metro-North and CTrail trains so that a passenger could make it from Hartford to New Haven in 30 minutes, from New Haven to Stamford in 30 minutes, and from Stamford to New York in 30 minutes.

Currently, it takes between 46 minutes to 52 minutes to get to and from those destinations.

It's a lofty goal, and the responsibility for Lamont's transportation aspirations largely falls on Giulietti's shoulders.

In a recent speech, Lamont said he's not satisfied with the state's “junior-partner” status with Metro-North.

There have been feelings, at times, that Metro-North makes decisions about the New Haven line — which it operates — without consulting with the state. Lamont said he hopes his new DOT commissioner, who he describes as a “game changer” for the state, can change that.

”Probably my biggest priority, and the biggest place I can make the biggest impact over the next four years is transportation,” Lamont said.

Giulietti, who worked as a consultant for T.Y. Lin International Group on a yet-to-be-released Fairfield Business Council-sponsored study of the impacts of improved rail service, said 30-30-30 is an aspirational goal that he and his agency will take seriously.

In addition, Lamont's economic policy transition team recommended advancing talks with border states about high-speed rail that connects New Haven to Boston, via Hartford, Storrs and Providence.

“[Lamont] has asked us to look at not only how do we get to 30-30-30, but what can we do along the way that will improve the timeframes for commuters,” he said

In recent weeks, DOT has pushed for short- and long-term solutions to at least one nagging rail issue: overcrowding on CTrail's Hartford Line.

Since the route between New Haven and Springfield, Mass., opened last summer, tension has mounted between Amtrak — which owns the track and runs trains along the route — and CTrail customers. Passengers with CTrail tickets or passes have complained that Amtrak officials have asked them to get off crowded, late-afternoon trains they run in order to make room for people who bought tickets in advance through Amtrak. That's despite an agreement with Amtrak that CTrail passengers would be treated equally to Amtrak ticket-holders.

A week after Lamont's inauguration, Amtrak agreed to limit advanced ticket sales to cut down on ticket-holding Amtrak customers riding during peak hours, according to DOT. The more comprehensive solution would be to add more train cars to the Hartford Line, Giulietti said. But the longtime railroad pro is tempering expectations for how fast that can happen, as the DOT also works to add cars to the Shoreline East line, which runs from New London to New Haven.

“If you know anything about (the railroad) industry, the biggest problem we always have is that when we have to go and get more cars, it's not something that's an off-the-shelf commodity that you can go and get,” Giulietti said. “When you understand that purchasing cars is a cycle that takes you anywhere up to four years … you can appreciate that you have to start working on those plans well in advance.”

More capital spending on rail is planned in the form of new train stations in North Haven, Newington, West Hartford and Enfield, Giulietti said.

However, Giulietti said he hadn't yet identified a funding source for the new cars or stations.

Transportation funding has been an issue that has plagued Connecticut for years, delaying not only investment in rail but also basic upkeep of roads, highways and bridges.

During the campaign, Lamont floated the idea of paying for repairs to Connecticut's run-down highways by tolling tractor-trailers, but not passenger vehicles. Meanwhile, his transportation transition committee (of which Giulietti was a member) went further, recommending a more expansive tolling system that charges passenger vehicles.

Despite all the prescriptions, Giulietti insists DOT hasn't taken a position.

“This is going to take a decision that we go forward to the legislature with, and I see our role (as going) and clearly (laying) out how it can be done, what are the revenues that are going to be generated from it,” Giulietti said. “Then [we] get our marching orders from the legislature and the governor.”

Truth-telling problem solver

In addition to the challenges already facing a department with an extensive to-do list and a workforce that includes dozens who are eligible for retirement in three years, Giulietti said he'll have to contend with being known strictly as a “rail guy.”

The perception makes sense. Giulietti started his career as a brakeman and assistant conductor for the Penn Central Railroad in 1971. Since then, he worked management and leadership stints at systems like Metro-North and the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

But there was a lot more to those jobs than keeping the trains running on time, he said.

“You spend 40 years in the industry and people turn around and say, 'he's the rail guy,' ” Giulietti said. “But I'm the rail guy that's also had to run buses, had to run ferry services, had to deal with appropriations in Washington.”

And part of the reason Giulietti sees himself as the right person for the job is because his experience, and being in the twilight of his career, enables him to be a truth-telling problem solver.

“I'm at that point now that people will accept the fact that I've got enough gray hair to go and … [know] what it's like to deal with a lot of complex issues at the same time,” he said.

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