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February 14, 2005

“Governor Rell’s Promise to Commuters”

There was so much good news for commuters, both rail and road, in Governor Rell’s budget address: new rail cars, promises of more station parking and even improvements to our highways.

But there was also some bad news: a proposed six cents per gallon increase in the gas tax (which we discussed in last week’s column), and a planned $1 per ride surcharge for Metro-North. However, the Governor promised that “(commuters) should not be asked to pay for improvements until they actually see them, sit in them or park in them.”

Her plan is to implement this “surcharge” in 2008 when she said the first fifty of 340 or more new rail cars will be delivered. I’m not really sure that commuters would mind paying a buck more a ride… if they could actually enjoy new cars. But the truth is, there’s no way new cars can be delivered that fast.

Last spring the Legislature scraped together enough money to buy us some time. They told CDOT to add 2000 seats in capacity to the New Haven line by the end of 2004. Today, ten months later, they haven’t even been able to do that after scrounging up hand-me-down rail cars from Virginia and used locomotives from Amtrak. And now the Governor thinks we can add new cars in less than three years?

Here’s what’s involved, and here’s why we’ll never be able to do it in just three years.
First, these proposed new M8 cars must be designed. There isn’t even engineering work underway yet on them. They’re just a concept. The M8’s must be powered using overhead AC power, yet they’re designed after the third-rail powered M7 cars in use in Westchester. As a result, these two car models are apples and oranges.

Next, the new cars would have to be put out to bids. And while the State of Connecticut is mandated to get three independents bids for even paper clips these days, the M8 cars can actually be built by only one company… Bombardier, builder of the M7’s on which the M8’s will be designed. A one-bid contract for a billion dollars?

Then the cars have to be built, hopefully first with a prototype to be thoroughly tested. After full production finally starts, the first new cars will be delivered and enter an extensive assessment and break-in period. Only then can they enter service.

When the MTA ordered the M7 cars now used in Westchester, it took five and a half years from design to delivery. Even CDOT, in its report to Governor Rowland last year, suggested a five or six year delivery cycle for the M8’s. That means, even with Legislative approval tomorrow (and don’t hold your breath for that !), we won’t be seeing new cars until 2010.

C’mon, Governor! You’re the one who preached for honesty and candor with Connecticut’s citizens… “straight talk” as you put it. I’m all for that! But an unrealistic promise of new cars by 2008 doesn’t meet that test.

I want these new cars more than anyone. I’ve been fighting for them on the Commuter Council for almost a decade. But please don’t make us commuters even more cynical by making pledges you can’t keep.

Still, Governor, you did make one promise you can keep: no ticket surcharge on trains until we can “see them or sit in them”, and I’ll hold you to your word. If the cars aren’t here by 2008, there will be no surcharge. Right?


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jim:
Couldn't help adding my 'two cents' on this one...
Your 'value pricing' is essentially a good concept, but you -- along with Milton Friedman -- over-simplify.
As you are well aware, there are certain necessities (e.g., food, shelter, clothing,...) and services (e.g., sanitation, electric power, highways,...) that are non-discretionary -- i.e., whose demand is mostly inelastic to changes in price.
I have no problem with judicious use of 'carrots' and 'sticks' to not-so-gently influence private actions for the public good (e.g., a prohibitively high surcharge on the purchase of gas-guzzling SUVs). However, in your rosy scenario, the wealthy will just pay the difference without thinking twice (I've seen this phenomenon over and over) while the needy who may have no choice (for instance, in getting to work) will be unduly squeezed.
Sharpen your pencil!

Paul Weinberger
Technology Management
P. O. Box 270119
West Hartford CT 06127-0119
(860) 674-1161
tech_mgt@comcast.net