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March 21, 2010

Ye Olde Commute

When the big storm hit last week, like many in my town, I was left in the cold and dark for several days. The Darien Library became my second home, affording me a chance finally to read historian Kenneth Reiss’s “The Story of Darien Connecticut”, an excellent new book.

What I found was that the story of this “bedroom” community’s growth was intimately linked to transportation.

As early as 1699 roads had been laid out on routes still used today. But where today those roads are lined with trees (whose felling by the storm left us without power or passage!), by the mid-1700’s most of southern Fairfield county had been cleared of all trees to allow for farming. Those mighty oaks taken out by the storm were not as old as we’d thought.

In the 1770’s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as Old Kings Highway) was the responsibility of the locals. Every able bodied man and beast could be enlisted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape. But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians.

By 1785 there was only one privately owned “pleasure” vehicle in all of Stamford, a two-wheeled chaise owned by the affluent John Davenport.

At the end of the 18th century it was clear that we needed more roads and the state authorized more than a hundred privately-funded toll roads to be built. The deal was that, after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were revert to state control. Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal.

One of the first such roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1, the Boston Post Road. Another was the Norwalk to Danbury ‘pike, now Route 7.

Four toll gates were erected: Greenwich, Stamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge and Fairfield. No tolls were collected for those going to church, militia muster or farmers going to the mills. Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier.
The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls which were nicknamed “shun-pikes”.

Regular horse-drawn coaches carried passengers from Boston to NY. And three days a week there was a coach from Darien to Stamford, connecting to a steamboat to New York.

The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York & New Haven Railroad started service. An 1850 timetable showed three trains a day from Darien to NYC, each averaging two hours and ten minutes. Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour.

The one way fare was 70 cents vs today’s $12.25 at rush hour.

By the 1870’s Darien was seeing what we today call “transit oriented development”, as full page ads lured city dwellers to newly built homes near the Noroton station which opened in the 1870’s.

In the 1890’s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade and eliminating street crossings.

In the 1890’s the trolleys arrived. The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road connecting in downtown Darien with the Norwalk Tramway (rattling along Railroad Ave., now known as Tokeneke Rd.); the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.

Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride. There were so many trolley lines in the state that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents a ride.
The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.

Fast forward to the present where we are again debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in Stamford and T.O.D. (“transit oriented development”) is all the rage. Have things really changed that much over two hundred years?

March 08, 2010

Mass Transit Faces Service Cuts, Fare Hikes

From coast to coast, mass transit is under attack. Decreased ridership due to the economy and reduced state subsidies are leading to cuts in service and fare increases.

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For us in Connecticut, New York’s MTA and its $800 million budget shortfall could affect our daily commute. The NY transit agency is holding public hearings on plans to cut bus and subway service, eliminate student discount fares and, yes, even target Metro-North service.

Starting this June, the MTA wants to shorten Metro-North trains (achieving a $2.8 million annual savings) and eliminate others (a $1.6 million savings). Targeted for cuts in Connecticut are two mid-day trains between Grand Central and New Haven, and a late night local from GCT to Stamford.

But neither of these cuts will happen, thanks to our Governor.

First, many New Haven line trains are already standing room only so it would be impossible to reduce their length. Some 6 – 7% of our trains don’t have enough cars to handle the passenger load, let alone see the number of cars get reduced.

Second, under our operating contract with Metro-North, none of these service reductions can be unilaterally dictated by MTA without agreement by the state of Connecticut. And Governor Rell has said “no way” to any service cuts in Connecticut.

Having for years sought a voting seat on the MTA or Metro-North board and been ignored, Governor Rell is quite correct in reminding those NY agencies that their current economic problems are of their creation, not Connecticut’s. Decades of over-zealous bonding for massive projects like East Side Access (a $7 billion project to bring LIRR trains into Grand Central) have left a pit of pain which New Yorkers dug, but have the chutzpah to now ask our state’s riders to fill. No way, MTA!

As I reminded the MTA Board when I testified at a recent public hearing… “Metro-North is a vendor to the state of Connecticut. We hire you to operate our trains. But we are not equal partners in the operation of this railroad.”

Governor Rell has told CDOT Commissioner Joseph Marie to block those proposed service cuts, and the dutiful transportation czar is following orders, much to the chagrin of Metro-North which, doubtless, will get their revenge at a later date.
If cuts in Metro-North service are needed, let them be in NY State, not Connecticut. New York already has more trains and lower fares than we do, so they can bear a loss of service with less pain.

While there are two trains operating each hour between Stamford and Grand Central, we have only one train an hour between New Haven and GCT. So, let them cut the Westchester trains, not Connecticut’s.

The final piece of good news is that we will not be looking at any fare increase here in Connecticut for the foreseeable future. A rumored 10% fare hike last fall to balance the state’s budget was postponed and a planned 1.25% fare hike January 1st 2010 (to help pay for the new M8 rail cars) was delayed, keeping the Governor’s promise of no fare hike until the (now delayed) rail cars go into service.

Our neighboring states have entered a death spiral of less mass transit at higher costs, discouraging ridership even further and eventually forcing more service cuts or fare hikes. But here in Connecticut, for a change, we remain a leader in maintaining fast, on-time Metro-North rail service with no price increase. And the credit all goes to our Governor, Jodi Rell, for holding firm against the MTA.