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May 31, 2009

Unfinish Work at CDOT

Here’s a quick update on some issues I’ve written about recently, but first some breaking news!

FARE INCREASE: In desperation to find a way to balance our state’s budget, Governor Rell is playing her “trump card”, calling for a 10% fare hike on Metro-North. Her reasoning? “New York raised their fares, so should we”.

But remember… the NY fare hike came because of MTA’s budget crisis. Having spent billions for decades on rail improvements, they couldn’t get up-staters to pay the bills, so they threatened service cuts and 30% fare hikes. Bottom line: a 10% fare boost in NY looks cheap.

That is not our situation in Connecticut, where there wasn’t spending as train service deteriorated, ridership rose and fares remained steady. Yes, the long promised new M8 cars are coming, but will be paid for (in part) by long-planned annual fare hikes that begin January 1, 2010 and continue to rise 1% per year for the seven years.

Governor Rell’s call for a 10% fare hike now is a break of her promise of “no new taxes”. A fare hike now is a tax on commuters and another disincentive to live or work in Connecticut.

If the legislature approves the fare increase there will be public hearings, but they’ll be a meaningless, moot exercise. If you oppose a fare hike, call your state lawmakers now!

PARKING TASK FORCE: In January Governor Rell trumpeted a fresh new look at the issue of rail station parking, calling on CDOT to create a Parking Task Force (on which I was invited to serve). Five months later, CDOT’s Task Force has yet to meet, not even once. Blame it on foot-dragging by the regional planning agencies or lack of focus by CDOT, but nothing has been done to add parking at the stations even as the new M8 cars are scheduled to arrive, increasing capacity on our trains.

THE BRAIN DRAIN: In a call to save money, the state recently offered senior staffers at agencies like CDOT a sweet retirement deal. And many took it. So this week a former Deputy Commissioner and the Rail Bureau Chief have left the agency, taking nice pensions and a combined 50 years experience with them. (At least one is going to a consulting job where he’ll work on CDOT projects at better pay). A state hiring freeze means these men can’t be replaced. That means more work at CDOT for fewer, less experienced staffers.

You can finally get a seat at rush hour on Metro-North, as the railroad has seen ridership plummet 4% month over month thanks to the economic carnage and resulting jobs losses in NYC. Fewer riders means more pressure for fare increases.

However nasty your commute may seem, some have it worse… the riders of the Waterbury branch. At a recent CT Rail Commuter Council meeting in Naugatuck a mob of 50 angry passengers gave CDOT and Metro-North representatives an earful.

They have no stations, just bus shelters. Despite a 34% increase in ridership last year, they have only half as many trains as the Danbury branch. Cars are often filthy… in one case spewed with vomit that wasn’t cleaned up from the night before.
Automobiles parked in Waterbury are frequent targets of vandalism with local cops and the MTA Police blaming each other for lack of enforcement.

Adding insult to injury, all rail service is being halted for a month this summer to rebuild the tracks and ties (and an aging bridge) on the entire branch. That will mean busing… always a treat.

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