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May 21, 2012

Hartford Lawmakers Put New Taxes on Commuters


Usually, I have a lot of respect for our elected officials in Hartford. But what happened in the final hours of the legislative session in recent weeks is just shocking.  You probably didn’t hear about it because there are no reporters left covering the state house for what passes for newspapers and TV news in our state, but that’s another story.
Lawmakers know they aren’t being watched and are, therefore, not accountable.  (I do commend veteran reporter Ken Dixon’s blog for the gory details of what they pulled off.)
Working late into the night, in their final hours in session, our elected officials wheeled and dealed on hundreds of bills, painstakingly crafted and considered in recent months.  By 3 am they were voting on bundles of bills they had not read, some introduced at the last minute, acting like bleary-eyed college students pulling an all-nighter.  This is the government we deserve?
Amidst this annual frenzy, the Malloy administration was also trying to plug a $200 million gap in the current budget.  Unwilling to raise taxes any further, they turned to rail commuters and motorists and picked our pockets instead.  But the session had started on a better note.
Thanks to State Rep Kim Fawcett (D-Fairfield), a previously announced 4% rail fare hike to take effect 1/1/13 had gone away during the writing of the new budget.  But at the 11th hour, Malloy’s budget team put it back… not to raise money to fix our trains, but to raise funds to close the deficit.  This was less a fare increase than a tax on commuters.  And it was Governor Malloy’s idea, rubber stamped by the Democratic majority.
But worse yet, lawmakers stole $70 million from the Special Transportation Fund, also to plug that deficit hole.  That takes money raised by gasoline taxes, which was supposed to be used to fix highways and bridges, and uses it to pay for everything but those efforts.
As I have written before, the Special Transportation Fund (STF) is less a “lock box” than a slush-fund, dipped into regularly by Democrats and Republicans looking for money but reticent to raise taxes.
When he was running for office, candidate Dannel Malloy decried such moves.  He said he would call for a constitutional amendment to safeguard the STF from such pilfering.  Not only did he not introduce such an amendment, he did the same as past governors, raiding the STP and making commuters pay for his budgeting mistakes.  In my book, that makes him a hypocrite.
Months earlier, we discovered that this past January’s 4% fare increase wasn’t going to be spent on the trains, but was going into the STF.  When State Rep Gal Lavielle (R – Wilton) tried, along with 20+ lawmakers, to get introduce a bill requiring fare hikes to be spent on mass transit, she couldn’t even get it out of committee.
Commuters:  the fix is in.  Your fares (the highest of any commuter railroad in the US) are going higher.  But the money won’t be spent on improving rail service.  Those millions will just go into the STF slush-fund.  And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
Of course, this is an election year.  So you might ask those running for State Representative and State Senator who want to represent you, why they allow rail fares to be used as yet another tax on commuters. 

May 06, 2012

Support the Busway !


You think rush hour traffic is bad in Fairfield County on I-95 and the Merritt?  Try driving on I-84 or I-91 into Hartford!  That’s why the planned Busway from New Britain to downtown makes such sense.
Yet, the project has been widely scorned and almost scuttled by rail advocates and lawmakers who would rather see rail service than buses.  Even though I’m all about trains, this Busway project makes sense.
But first, what is a “busway”, you ask?  Let me explain.
A busway is a dedicated highway just for buses.  In this case, it would run 9.4 miles from downtown Hartford to New Britain on an old railroad right-of-way.  There would be 11 stations, each with plenty of parking like at a Metro-North station.  So rather than be stuck in rush hour traffic on the interstates, you’d drive to a Busway station and hop aboard for a high-speed ride to downtown.
For more distant commuters, at the end of the dedicate bus-only Busway, the bus would enter the road system and head off into other towns and neighborhoods… something that rail cannot do… giving you a one-seat ride from home to work.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has had great success in other cities like Ottawa, Bogota and Jakarta.  In the Canadian capital, ridership grew so strong on one line that the buses were replaced with trolleys.  But in all the BRT cities, bus traffic drew riders because it was removed from the congestion of car and truck-jammed highways and given its own roadway.
So why the opposition to the New Britain to Hartford project?  Two reasons… money and prejudice.
First, the Busway has gone from $325 million to $600 million in cost.  That’s typical for CDOT accounting, so nothing new here.  But I think it’s worth $600 million, and better to build it now, in this economy, than to wait until it’s unaffordable. And $460 million of the project is Federal money.
Pull the plug now on the project and a) the Fed’s will never trust the state with a new funding application and b) we’ll be missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
This project is visionary.  It’s planning for the future, not fixing the neglect of the past (as we’ve been trying to do for a decade on Metro-North).  It’s an investment in the Hartford area’s growth and, as I say, can easily be converted to or supplemented with light rail when traffic warrants.
Why not build a railroad and skip the bus step?  Too expensive and not as flexible.  And remember, this is coming from a huge rail fan.  If a Busway would cost $600 million, light rail would be easily twice that.
Which brings us to the second, and more serious, cause of opposition:  prejudice.  Nobody likes buses.  Trains are cool. Buses are for losers.  People take Metro-North by choice, preferring it to driving their cars.  But most people think of bus riders as indigents who don’t have cars, and who wants to sit next to one of “them”?
Designers have tried to make BRT systems look like trains, but the bus-hater prejudice is hard to overcome.  I just wish that the opponents of this plan would be realistic about the true goals:  moving people in large numbers, fast and safely.
The Busway achieves those goals.  And I predict it will be a big success and prove its detractors wrong over time.