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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.

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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 jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

"More Money For Trains"

What a difference a decade makes. It was exactly ten years ago that then-Governor John Rowland introduced his budget calling for elimination of branch-line service on Metro-North to Danbury, Waterbury and the Shore Line East line to Old Saybrook.

Now, a decade later, Governor Rell has just submitted her third budget in a row calling for increased spending on mass transit, including plans for expanded service on Shore Line East (SLE). Not to be outdone, the Democrats in Hartford are falling over each other to out-spend even the Governor’s ambitious plans.

Following on two years of long-overdue but much appreciated legislative action that allocates billions for new rail cars and other transit initiatives, the latest Rell budget seeks…

>>Two dozen more M8 rail cars for Metro-North and SLE, in addition to the 342 already on order

>>$5 million to fix up our train stations, following the lead of the Commuter Council’s “Fix My Station Photo Campaign”

>>$35 million for expedited demolition and expanded rebuilding of the old Stamford station parking garage, adding 200 more spaces
Funding for bike racks and lockers at stations

>>$4.4 million to expand SLE service, adding two weekday trains and initiating new weekend service

Many feared that, given the largess of the legislature in the past sessions, the attitude in Hartford might be that transportation had been “fixed” in the state and it was time to move on to other issues… health, education and energy. But as any commuter can tell you, we’re far from “done” when it comes to our transit system.

Particularly heartening is the Governor’s recognition that service must be expanded on SLE. Since its opening in 1990, Shore Line East has been only half of a railroad, offering weekday-only westbound service to New Haven in the morning and eastbound in the evening. Despite the limited number of trains, SLE has seen a 7% ridership increase in each of the past few years.

And when the Q Bridge mega-construction project kicks in (costing $1.4 billion and running until 2014), ridership should soar because nobody in his right mind will want to drive I-95 through New Haven.

State Rep. Steven Mikutel (D – Griswold) is thinking bigger, calling for expanded service to New London. SLE trains used to run there, and could again… were it not for boaters.

Believe it or not, boating interests have an agreement with Amtrak (which owns the tracks east of New Haven) to limit the number of trains along the line so that bridges can remain open and boaters can sail through at will. Trains, both Amtrak’s Acela and SLE, filled with hundreds of commuters, are being capped by the selfish interests of a few sailors.

Amazing.

But assuming we can persuade the sailors to wait for bridge openings, why not think bigger still? Why not extend SLE to Mystic and beyond to Providence? This is the only section of the Northeast Corridor, from Washington to Boston, that doesn’t offer commuter rail in addition to Amtrak.

My hat’s off to Governor Rell and her ambitious budget plans. Now let’s hope the legislature sees her (vision), and raises her one.

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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 groups on which he serves. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

February 01, 2007

The TSB's Vision of Our Transportation Future

Who is looking out for our state’s transportation future? The TSB, that’s who. Created by the legislature almost six years ago, the Transportation Strategy Board has just issued its updated vision of where we’re going, and it holds a number of exciting possibilities.

RAILROAD STATIONS & PARKING: The TSB calls for additional parking at all stations with uniform policies and pricing. They also want to expedite the replacement of the Stamford garage now set for demolition. New stations should be built in West Haven and, possibly, Orange. The new stations should be sites for transit-oriented development (TOD) (i.e. shopping and housing). Platforms at all stations should be lengthened to accommodate ten car trains. Intermodal connections between trains and residential / business areas should be enhanced.

NEW SERVICE: The TSB endorses plans for new commuter rail service between New Haven and Springfield, the integration of Metro-North and Shore Line East and future service to Penn Station.

BRANCH LINES: The Danbury branch signalization should (finally) move forward and “collector” stations should be expanded where the branch lines cross the Merritt Parkway to encourage commuters to drive, then take the train.

RAIL FREIGHT: At long last the TSB has recommended use of rail freight throughout the state as an alternative to truck transport. Much of this plan will depend on plans for a cross-harbor rail tunnel in New York harbor.

BUS TRANSIT: Fund an expanded bus network using clean (i.e. non-diesel) buses. Expeditiously implement the planned New Britain to Hartford busway.

MANAGING HIGHWAY CONGESTION: Perhaps the least popular and most controversial of its suggestions, the TSB endorses a study of EZ Pass-style tolls on major highways as a means of mitigating congestion and raising funds to support mass transit. Further, the TSB recommends development of an electronic system to inform drivers of congestion, including a statewide 511 phone system.

HIGHWAYS: Recognizing that we cannot build our way out of our current traffic problems, the TSB does not endorse construction of more interstate highways except areas of I-95 between Branford and North Stonington and I-84 between Danbury and Waterbury. The board also calls for greater north-south connections between our east-west oriented major highways.

AIRPORTS: Expand Bradley for greater passenger and freight service. Consider enhancements to New Haven’s Tweed Airport to improve service.

MARITIME: Expand feeder barge service between New York and Bridgeport to include New Haven which could be expanded as a commercial deep-water port with a rail link. Dredge New Haven and Bridgeport harbors.

Though this update to the TSB’s 2005 plans is long on vision, it is short on specifics, by design. Unlike the previous recommendations by the TSB, this year’s report leaves to the CDOT and its dynamic new Commissioner, Ralph Carpenter, the implementation of its vision, and correctly so.

Critics who have attacked this TSB report do so for several reasons. The pro-highway lobby of construction interests is angry because the TSB does not call for highway expansion which would fill its coffers. And weak-willed politicians are unhappy that more specific projects are not cited, leaving them to take the political heat for CDOT-proposed projects. So be it.

I, for one, am pleased with the TSB’s report as I know it to be the results of over a year of thoughtful review. Now it’s up to our lawmakers to fund this vision of our transportation future. None of this will be cheap, but remember that it was penny-pinching neglect that got us into our current mess.



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 groups on which he serves. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

"Value Pricing Our Highways"

Tired of sitting in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic on I-95 and the Merritt? Well, esteemed economist Milton Friedman has the answer.

Almost a decade ago, Freidman realized that traffic congestion was just a matter of supply and demand: too much demand and not enough supply.

While some have suggested expanding the supply of roadways by double-decking I-95 or widening the Merritt Parkway, a simpler (and less costly) solution seems to be in managing the demand using “value pricing”.

Today, when we drive on highways at rush hour it costs us no more than if we drive off-peak. That is wrong. The value derived from being able to cruise (or crawl) on I-95 in morning rush hour is much higher, and should be priced accordingly.

Consider the other services we consume that offer off-peak pricing. Go to a movie on a Saturday night and you’ll pay more than on a weekday afternoon. Take a flight on a busy holiday weekend, when everyone else wants to fly, and you’ll pay more. Even Metro-North offers peak and off-peak (reduced) fares. So too should our highways.

Using electronic tolls (think EZPass), motorists who want or must drive at rush hour would pay a small price for the privilege. Those who don’t need to be on the roads at the busiest hours would wait, and pay less (or maybe nothing). That would mean fewer cars at rush hour and less congestion.

Those paying the tolls at rush hour would get faster trip times… real value for the price. And the money raised could pay for long overdue highway construction or, better yet, subsidies for mass transit to keep fares low and attract even more cars off the highways.

Is it worth, say, $4 to drive eleven miles at rush hour? You bet, if it means you pick up your kid at daycare on time and avoid their $1 per minute penalty for late pick-up… or if you can actually make that important 8:30 am meeting that wins you an important piece of business.

Value pricing is already underway on the George Washington Bridge. In rush hour, big-rigs pay $36 to cross. But off-peak it’s only $30 and overnight the toll drops to $21. Since its introduction, value pricing has evened out the traffic load, saving everybody time and money.

Why haven’t we put such technology to use in Connecticut? Three reasons: 1) people think tolls actually slow down traffic, 2) there are fears of another fiery truck crash into a toll booth and 3) there is a myth that if we reinstate tolls on our highways we’ll have to repay the Federal government billions of dollars. All are false.

Drive the Garden State or Jersey Turnpike using EZPass and you can sail thru the barrier at top speed. Trucks don’t collide into toll booths, and if you’re really worried about trucker safety, why not open the Greenwich inspection station 24 x 7? And even the Federal DOT acknowledges that it will approve highway tolls used as a traffic mitigation tool.

So, as you motor across the countryside, take a look around. Make note of the many state and private toll roads using new technology to collect tolls that pay for the roads you’re enjoying and ask yourself this: why aren’t we as progressive here in Connecticut?
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct