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August 24, 2009

New Rail Cars Delayed, Fare Hike Promise Broken

I have bad news and worse news. The bad news is our new M8 rail cars are late in delivery. The worse news is that we’ll still be hit with a fare increase to pay for them despite promises to the contrary.

Back in February of 2005, Governor Rell told the legislature she wanted to invest in 300 new rail cars for Metro-North. To help pay for the cars she proposed a $1 per ticket fare surcharge -- to take effect after the cars were in service. Her promise was that (commuters) “should not be asked to pay for improvements until they actually see them, sit in them or park in them.” Those are her actual words. Remember that.

While the surcharge seemed fair, it wasn’t. A $1 surcharge on a $2 ticket would cost much more than on an $18.50 ticket. So the surcharge proposed was replaced with a series of fare hikes to take effect starting January 1st 2010… 1.25% that date and an additional 1% each January first until 2015.

The fare hike schedule assumed that the new cars would be in service by January 2010. But they won’t be.

While CDOT turned over the design and engineering of the new M8 cars to Metro-North, builder Kawasaki continued on its time-line. The first six “pilot cars” were supposed to be delivered August 2009. And a few M8’s were to be in service carrying passengers by December.

Now we hear that those prototype cars won’t arrive until November. Testing for the new cars will take four to six months, with the cars being put through their paces (mostly at night so anxious commuters won’t see them and wonder why they’re not on board).

Assuming the testing goes well (and that’s a big assumption with a new design such as this) it will not be until March, April or May of 2010 that the cars will be officially accepted by CDOT and Metro-North.

Then and only then will production cars be put into service. That’s three to five months after the fare hike has gone into effect. And while the new cars will arrive at the rate of 10 per month, it won’t be until August 2012 that the last of them arrive… again, assuming no production or engineering problems.

But what about the Governor’s promise that fares would not go up until commuters could “see or sit” in the new cars? There’s the rub.

Does seeing the test train running on our tracks fulfill the promise? Not to commuters who are riding in old unreliable cars often older than they are.

It may have seemed reasonable for the Governor to make such a promise in 2005 when the new cars were thought to be achievable by 2008. But that was an impossible dream given that Metro-North’s M7 cars for Westchester service took five and a half years to place in service. (In February 2005 I predicted this is exactly what would happen.)

Governor Rell didn’t break her promise. The legislature did. When they replaced her $1 per ticket surcharge with a fare increase, it became a matter of law, written into the 2007 budget. But now they seem unwilling to bear any responsibility for the Governor or CDOT’s over-optimism.

I asked one lawmaker who worked on the fare compromise if he could rescind the fare hike and keep the Governor’s promise. He laughed and said “no way”, blaming an over-zealous CDOT for being unable to deliver the project on time. “We have a $9 billion deficit to deal with,” he said. “This is the least of our problems!”

There will be public hearings this fall on the January fare hike, moot as they may be given the hikes are already written into law. And I’d expect that more than a few commuters will turn out to vent about politicians long on transportation promises but short on keeping them.

It should be good political drama and fodder for a few editorials, but nothing will change. The fares will go up and if we’re very lucky we might be riding in the new M8 cars by next summer. Maybe.

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