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April 18, 2011

Commuting By The Numbers

Spring cleaning of my office last week turned up an interesting 2011 report card issued by the Connecticut DOT: a two-page summary of statistics that says a lot about the state of railroading in the “land of steady habits.”
RIDERSHIP:           Passengers are slowly coming back to Metro-North: 36.67 million a year on the New Haven line in 2010, down slightly from 37.13 million in 2009.  A similar trend was seen on Shore Line East (the state-owned, Amtrak-operated line from New Haven to New London), which saw 557,000 riders in 2010, a sizable dip from the 593,000 riders in 2009.  The explanation for the declines after so many years of growth… the economy.  But with jobs returning and gas prices soaring, 2011 promises to be another record for both lines.
BENEFITS:             Each rail passenger is estimated to remove 0.83 vehicles from our roads, so more folks on the train means less pollution in the air.  By CDOT’s estimates, almost 50 million gallons of fuel were saved by rail passengers in 2008 (the latest stats available).  And those trips saved a billion miles of auto travel, almost a half million tons of greenhouse gases thanks to reduced emissions and added up to a dollar savings of $500 million for rail commuters.
WHO / WHERE?:        Folks can’t take advantage of the train if they don’t live nearby.  But using the national standard for accessibility of 2.5 miles from a boarding station, 31% of the state’s population lives “near” a station.  That’s a potential ridership pool of 1.1 million people.  As for their destinations, 30% of residents have jobs located within 2.5 miles of rail stations.
Developers’ new push for T.O.D. (transit oriented development) will improve these numbers, building condos and offices closer to mass transit.  Stamford is a great example.
FIX FIRST:             Most commuters pay no attention to the millions of dollars spent annually to keep our railroads in a state of good repair.  Sure, they appreciate the handful of new M8 cars in service, but what about the tracks, bridges and overhead wires that make it possible for them to run?
CDOT is replacing 178 miles of catenary, replacing or rehabilitating 21 bridges, thousands of concrete ties and miles of welded rail.  In addition, millions in Federal stimulus funds have been spent to fix up our stations.
COMMUTING  COST:       Though we have some of the highest commuter rail fares in the US, Metro-North tickets still cover only 69.5% of the cost of each ride.  (The difference is made up in subsidies, including money raised through the gasoline tax.)  But that’s nothing compared to Shore Line East where fares cover only 8.9% of the cost of each ride.  Metro-North subsidies (except on the branch lines to New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury) are borne two-thirds by Connecticut and one-third by New York.  On Shore Line East the 81% fare subsidy is paid 100% by the state of Connecticut.
To close that gap we need to increase ridership (almost a certainty), lower costs (not likely) or raise fares (already planned).  Metro-North fares will increase 1.5% on January 1st 2012 and an additional 1% each New Year’s day for the following six years.

So there you have them:  the facts (and a few opinions) about where we stand on the future of commuter rail in Connecticut.

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