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November 13, 2007

"No January Fare Surcharge, But..."

There’s good news and bad for Connecticut riders of Metro-North. The good news is there will not be a $1 per ticket fare surcharge effective January 1st 2008. The bad news is… instead there will be a 1% fare hike for each of seven years, starting in 2010.

Why are we even talking about fare increases on Metro-North when service often rivals that of a third world nation? Because 300+ expensive new rail-cars are coming and lawmakers want riders, for the first time, to bear some of their cost in their fares.

Previously, all capital cost improvements to the roads and rails were borne by taxpayers. But in 2005, to appease up-state legislators resentful of all us “Gold Coast fat-cats” getting billions of dollars in long-overdue investment in new rail cars, our local lawmakers gave a bi-partisan thumbs up to a $1 per ticket surcharge for Metro-North riders. To her credit, Governor Rell promised nobody would pay more until new cars were in service.

But the first few new cars won’t be here until 2009, and in any sizable numbers not until 2010. So that made a January ’08 fare surcharge problematic to the pols who want to keep their promises.

In addition, a flat $1 per ticket surcharge is grossly unfair, penalizing those we most want to attract to the rails, the intra-state rider. If it now costs $2.25 to go from Fairfield to Stamford, with the surcharge it would’ve cost $3.25, a 44% fare hike! But a rider from New Haven to Grand Central now paying $18.50 would only have had a 5% fare jump with a buck surcharge.

To lawmakers, the $1 surcharge seemed like such a simple solution. But when they heard from angry commuters, they back-tracked faster than a Danbury-bound locomotive on a slippery-track. The Governor asked Senators McDonald and Nickerson to crunch the numbers and come up with a better plan.

Their solution, the 1% fare hike for each of seven years, but not starting until 2010 seemed a done-deal, or so they told the Commuter Council this summer. Then came the bonding-bill impasse in Hartford with Democrats and Republicans both blaming each other for holding up a variety of necessary spending packages. Finally, last month, an agreement was reached and the plan was approved. But at what cost?

This latest $2.8 billion bond package is now added to our state’s existing $13.9 billion indebtedness. That gives our affluent state the third highest per capita debt load in the nation.

Each year, 11.5% of the state’s budget pays interest on those loans. In the Department of Transportation, 40% of their budget goes to debt service on bonds issued to fix our bridges after the Mianus River Bridge 20 years ago.

Why are we asking our grandchildren to pay for railcars that we’ll ride, but which may be worn out before they’re paid for?

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