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October 03, 2010

A Victory for Commuters

Who says you can’t fight City Hall… or Metro-North?

Back in August I wrote in this column about Metro-North’s latest proposals to gouge commuters. Today I can report they have been soundly defeated.

To close its $800 million budget deficit, the MTA (Metro-North’s parent), has in past months come forward with a series of fare hikes and service cuts, all of them soundly rejected by Governor Rell. Because, although that NY State agency has never heeded our Governor’s requests for a voting seat on its board, Connecticut does have veto power over fare hikes in our state.

I’ve got to hand it to Governor Rell. She’s kept her word since February of 2005 when, in her first budget address, she told the legislature we were long overdue in ordering new rail cars and promised no fare hikes until the cars arrived and went into service. She’s also funneled millions in stimulus funds into fixing up our rail stations.

But this time the MTA was proposing something different… what I called a “stealth” fare hike.

The rail agency proposed cutting the discount on monthly “Mail & Ride” tickets as well as rail tickets bought on the web. They also wanted to reduce the validity of ten-trip tickets from one year to 90 days. And single trip tickets, now valid for six months, would expire in a week.

What were they thinking? Short of having conductors spit at passengers, these changes were almost like yelling “screw you” to their customers?

Once again, the CT Rail Commuter Council had its work to do. First, in publicizing the proposal through the media. Then, in demanding public hearings (though none were originally planned in Connecticut). And finally, in rallying commuters to attend and speak out against these proposals.

For the record, I should note that the Council has, in the past, supported small fare hikes… when they were tied to the cost of living and matched against improvements in service. But these proposals were neither.

The MTA’s budget deficit is of its own creation, not Connecticut’s. So New York taxpayers and commuters should pay for it, not us. Connecticut has never been asked for input on the multi-billion dollar mega-projects undertaken by the MTA, like the $6 billion to build tunnels bringing the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central, so why stick us with the bill?

Isn’t reducing a discount equivalent to a fare increase? You betcha!

And what possible reason could Metro-North offer for shortening the validity of ten-trip tickets? Incredibly, they said it was to deal with the “problem of uncollected tickets.”

Amazing. For about a decade the Commuter Council has been beating on Metro-North about conductors not doing their jobs, leaving tickets uncollected on crowded trains. By its own calculations, Metro-North loses $2 million a year on uncollected tickets. And their solution is to screw customers by selling them ten-trips but letting them only use two or three rides, then declare their ticket invalid?

And the icing on the cake, the final proposal from the MTA? A $15 fee to cash in an unexpired ticket!

The Commuter Council was curious just how much money would be raised if these plans were approved, so we filed a formal written request for that data. The answer: about a half-million dollars a year in Connecticut. That’s nothing… a rounding error… bupkis! An $800 million budget deficit, and all these proposed changes will bring in $500,000?

Governor Rell heard our argument and agreed. She quickly ordered the CDOT to reject the MTA / Metro-North proposal, a directive read aloud at the public hearings in Stamford and New Haven.

Commuters have won… for now.

3 comments:

Brian said...

And just when will we be seeing the mythical new rail cars? Still not holding my breath. Only two years or so behind schedule.

On the subject of uncollected fares, which we all now happens more often than they will admit, I was at a yankee game with my family a few weeks ago. There was a long rain delay and we left early, along with most of the crowd. We caught the 10:50ish local from 125th street, and it was packed! Standing room only, the aisles were packed. The conductors legitimately could not walk thru to collect tickets. But once we made a few stops, the aisles opened up. By Harrison they could have started collecting again, but never did. Lots of lost ticket revenue.

Richard Stowe said...

Jim,

Congratulations on the campaign you led to kill the effort by MNR to degrade the value of tickets! Those of us who ride MNR much appreciate your effort.

And Governor Rell's support for New Haven Line commuters can not be overstated!

CJoyce said...

I received an email today from WageWorks stating that my Metro-North monthly ticket price was going up in December. I called the MTA and they said that the 2% discount will no longer be in effect. This past election season found just about every politician claiming victory for no fare hikes in CT. Am I missing something here?