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February 25, 2007

Free Transit For Seniors?

It’s busy, busy in Hartford these days as the legislature considers hundreds of bills, many of them promising long overdue investment in mass transit. But one of the more interesting proposals, HB717, calls for free bus and rail tickets for senior citizens.

The bill’s sponsor suggests that by offering seniors free tickets they would flock to mass transit filling empty seats and forming an important advocacy group for this important service. Seniors, he argues, have “earned” a free ride.

Respectfully, I disagree.

As I testified to the legislature’s Transportation Committee studying the plan, the bill is a “feel good” measure based on a false premise. But who could argue against giving seniors a break? Me, because the numbers just don’t add up.

The problem is that it is just plain wrong to assume that fares are too high for seniors. They already get a 50% fare cut, meaning buses can cost as little as 75 cents a ride. Will making the fares free send hoards of seniors to buses? Not likely.

Seniors don’t ride the bus because it doesn’t go where they want, doesn’t offer frequency or quality of service and doesn’t make them feel safe. Free fares won’t change that. In fact, free tickets will cut operating income for buses, possibly leading to service cuts.

And what about others of lesser means… welfare moms, day-working immigrants and students? Shouldn’t they get a break? Not according to this proposal. Does a senior from Darien or New Canaan really deserve a free ride while poor folks from Norwalk or Bridgeport get none?

And as any actuary will tell you, the baby boom generation is now hitting senior citizenship. In the years to come the number of seniors will soar, further straining transit finances.

It’s also incorrect to assume that we have empty seats waiting to be filled on buses and trains. At rush hour, mass transit is already heavily patronized.

More problematic than crowded buses are the trains. As any commuter will tell you, seats on Metro-North are at a premium. Passengers pay as much as $24 one-way or $386 a month for commutation passes and often have to stand for lack of seats. And you’re going to give seniors a free ride? I could predict some ugly scenes en route as briefcase-totting commuters wrestle for seats with free-riding seniors, the former on their way to work, the latter on their way to a Wednesday matinee.

Even as new rail cars come online in 2010, we still won’t have enough seats to offer freebies to seniors. And even before those cars arrive, passengers are facing a $1 per ticket surcharge as early as next year. But no surcharge is suggested for the 65+ crowd under this bill.

I’m all for offering seniors a discount and the current 50% price reduction seems more than fair. But currently those discounts are good only on off-peak trains.

Another alternative to consider would be to make the “free tickets” good only on intra-state trains and buses… those that offer an alternative to I-95 or the Merritt Parkway. Off-peak and in-state-only trains and buses would serve seniors in Connecticut, not subsidize their jaunts to New York.

We’ll see if lawmakers have the courage and the smarts to oppose this bill. Now’s the time to call or e-mail your State Representative or State Senator and let them know where you stand… or sit.


JIM CAMERON is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the organizations on which he serves. You can reach him at or

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