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April 09, 2012

What's a Fair Fare?


Governor Malloy is quick to tell us that creating a state budget is like making sausage, something he has done in years past (the sausage making).  “It’s not pretty. It’s work,” he says in describing the process.  The question is, how palatable will the end result be, especially for riders of mass transit.
Last year the Connecticut Department of Transportation said it desperately needed a fare increase of 16% for riders of Metro-North.  That got whittled back to a “modest” 12%, spread over three years and riders felt victorious.
That’s like a mugger threatening to take your life but only kicking you in the groin.  For this you’re supposed to be grateful?
Then earlier this year we found that the fare increase wasn’t being spent on the trains but getting tossed into the sieve-like “Special Transportation Fund” which also pays for bridge repairs and even CDOT pensions.
To her credit, State Representative Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton) and 26 other lawmakers tried to pass a bill requiring fare hikes to be spent on transit.  The bill never got out of the Transportation Committee.
But State Representative Kim Fawcett (D-Fairfield) had better luck in her role on the Appropriations Committee.  Not only did she get a $1.9 million set-aside to be spent on station repairs and improvements, but somehow she got next year’s 4% fare hike eliminated.
Are you as confused by the workings of Hartford as I am?  Oh, I’m grateful!  Just confused.
But so too are other taxpayers, especially those who don’t ride our trains or buses.  They wonder why tax money is being spent to subsidize transit at all.  (In Westport the Board of Finance is even slashing subsidies for local bus routes, following on this populist theme.)
I’ve often noted that fares on Metro-North in Connecticut are the highest fares of any railroad in the US.  That’s because the subsidy is the lowest.
For example, a one-way ticket from Bridgeport to NYC (a distance of 55 miles and running right alongside I-95) costs $16.25. 
But ride the MBTA commuter train from Boston to Providence (51 miles, also paralleling I-95) and you’ll pay only $7.75.  Or avoid the traffic mess on the 10 lane wide I-95 in Miami by riding there on Tri-Rail from Boynton Beach (58 miles) and you’ll only pay $6.25.  Similar distances against the same competing roadway… so why the fare differences?
Are the MBTA or Tri-Rail trains any cheaper to operate?  No.  But ironically, the lowest fares are where the lowest ridership is found.
Most commuter railroads keep fares low to attract passengers out of their cars.  But in Connecticut, where trains are standing room only (and driving options are few and undesirable), the commuter gets screwed with the highest fares, not to mention over-priced parking in limited supply.
Not everyone riding Metro-North is a “1%’er”.  Sure, we have a few millionaires.  But we have far more middle-income, blue collar and minority workers and students.  By constantly raising train and bus fares, we are going to literally drive those people out of our state.  They can get to their NYC duties faster and cheaper from Long Island, Westchester or New Jersey.
Forty percent of all the taxes paid in this state are paid by residents of Fairfield County.  Lose those commuters and the entire state loses… especially those we subsidize who live up-state and who never take mass transit.
So kudos to those in the legislature who “get it”, who see the value of keeping our mass transit as affordable as possible.  As these budget proposals come to a vote, we will be watching closely who votes in support of the commuter… and who sees them just as a convenient target of taxation.

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