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October 05, 2009

Are Some Rail Fares Unfairly Too Low?

If you’re a regular commuter on Metro-North, you won’t like this week’s column, but please read on.

A recent editorial in the rabid, rightwing, appropriately-named “Waterbury Republican American” suggested that rail fares in Connecticut are too low, and that this is unfair to taxpayers who don’t ride but are asked to subsidize those who do.

They argued that in-state fares cost less than driving, which is true, especially on the branch lines (New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury) where fares are kept low on purpose.

For example, from Waterbury to Grand Central is 88 miles but costs less than New Haven to GCT which is 72 miles. And on the upscale New Canaan line, traveling from that town to NYC costs no more than going from Stamford to the city… making the eight mile ride from Stamford to New Canaan “free”.

On the main line our fares are based on a distance formula: 18.17 cents per mile, plus an additional $5.45 to go to 125th Street or Grand Central. Why the extra fare to go into Manhattan?

Within Connecticut the lowest one-way fare is $2.25, even to go just two miles. That hardly seems fair.

Or consider monthly fares. They are “commuted” from the regular fares by about a 50% discount of the regular peak fare. But why?

Monthly commuters travel at peak hours and place the greatest strain on the railroad. So why do they get the biggest discount? What other industry gives a price break at its busiest time, even to frequent customers?

You want to see a movie on a Saturday night, you pay top dollar. Travel by air to see your in-laws at Thanksgiving, no discounts there. Even if you are a regular ticket-buyer, higher cost is one way of managing the demand, given a limited supply of seats. So why do Metro-North and CDOT, which jointly set our fares, give such a huge price break to monthly commuters?

Sure, those commuters are the railroad’s bread and butter. And keeping transportation affordable is crucial to making Connecticut a livable jumping-off point for their journeys to work.

But increasingly it’s the “discretionary” rider who’s keeping monthly fares low… the people who go into the city on weekends, even at reduced off-peak fares. By keeping the seats full on trains, the cost of crews and electricity is amortized across the entire week, not just AM and PM rush hours.

On off-peak trains, senior citizens get a 50% discount. Why? If it’s because they’re living on a fixed income, why not discount fares for the unemployed, those on welfare or disability?

(By the way, I was not in favor of Senator Don Williams’ nutty 2007 plan to offer free mass transit to senior citizens at a time when our trains were standing-room only. That would have led to some nasty confrontations between commuters and free-riding blue hairs.)

Now don’t get me wrong: I am all for keeping fares low. What I am suggesting is that we seek equity between in-state and inter-state riders and across all day-parts. And, of course, we want to make sure conductors collect everyone’s tickets, which is still an on-going problem.

Should taxpayers who don’t ride Metro-North subsidize fares for those who do? Absolutely!

Fairfield County represents 20% of the state’s population but pays 42% of the taxes. And I don’t remember any of us complaining when we were asked to subsidize a new convention center in Hartford or football stadium for UConn.

What we need is equity, each of us contributing a fair share for the greater good.
So as the CDOT prepares for public hearings around upcoming fare increases, I hope they keep this in mind. Rather than a flat “X percent” hike across the board, let’s revisit our entire fare structure, branch lines, weekends, seniors and daily commuters. Let’s keep our fares fair.

1 comment:

GMR said...

Couple of comments:

1) The metro north riders going to NYC actually pay no income tax to CT. They pay lots of state income tax, but Albany takes it all and doesn't share with CT. The only CT income tax those commuters to Manhattan pay are taxes on dividends, interest, etc. In other words, only on things that aren't dependent on their taking the train. So why should CT subsidize rail so that high earning employees can work in the next state and thus not pay income tax to CT? Since NY state income tax is higher than CTs, CT won't see any income tax from wages those people earn.

2) The method of allocating parking is completely unfair. In New Canaan, you can't park near the station unless you are a resident of New Canaan. Yet NC residents expect all of CT to subsidize the rail, but then effectively don't want people from neighboring CT towns riding them. I live in Ridgefield, and thankfully can drive to my office. But if I wanted to take the train, NC would not be an option because of parking.