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March 18, 2013

Gov Malloy wants to kill off the Metro-North Commuter Council



Shortly after he came to office, I wrote something critical of newly elected Governor Malloy.  Nothing new there.  I’d certainly questioned Republican governors in years past, usually to little response.  But this time the reaction was different.
A Malloy confidant, a senior State Senator from Fairfield County, took me aside and threatened me.  Not physically, but legislatively.  “You know, we could eliminate the Commuter Rail Council if you keep this up,” he said in Machiavellian tones.  “Bring it on,” I said, half-shocked at this political threat.
Well, it took a couple of years (and more criticism), but the threat has come true.  The Governor has submitted a bill (HB 6363) that would wipe out the existing Metro-North Commuter Rail Council and its 15 members.  In its place, a new Council would be appointed and the Governor, not the members of the Council, would choose its Chairman.
Further, the new Commuter Council’s mandate would turn from investigation and advocacy on behalf of fellow commuters to a PR advisor to the CDOT.  While the current Council has the power to request information and is required to receive cooperation from any state or local agency, that power would be eliminated under Malloy’s bill.
The Commuter Council isn’t the only pro-transportation group affected by the bill.  The CT Public Transportation Commission would also be eliminated just as last year Malloy erased the  Transportation Strategy Board.
This obvious power-grab by the Governor has so far gone unchallenged in the legislature, buried in a 66-page Christmas tree of a bill.  If it becomes law, my 15+ years as a member of the Commuter Council (the last four as its Chairman) will be history.
But why is the Metro-North Commuter Council singled out for such harsh treatment?
It’s not that the Commuter Council has been wasting state money.  We operate on a budget of zero dollars, even dipping into our own pockets to pay for design of a logo and pay for postage.  And I don’t think it can be argued that we haven’t been doing our jobs… meeting monthly with Metro-North and the CDOT to address commuter complaints and push for ever better service.
No, I think the real problem is that we’ve done our job too well, calling out CDOT, the legislature and yes, even the Governor, when they did things that we felt screwed commuters.  That’s our mandate.
I guess Governor Malloy didn’t like it when we pointed out that as a gubernatorial candidate he promised to never raid the Special Transportation Fund to balance the state’s budget, but then did just that when he took office.  And I guess he wasn’t happy when I noted that his budget took new fare increases from Metro-North riders but didn’t spend the money on trains, in effect making the fare hike a “commuter tax”.
And I’d imagine the Commissioner of the CDOT… the fifth Commissioner in my 15+ years on the Council… would be happy to see the current Council gone, critical as we have been about their Stamford Garage project which we see as selling out the interests of commuters to private developers.
It’s sad that the Governor feels the way to answer legitimate criticism is to eviscerate those who question him.  But I can promise you that his proposed elimination of the Metro-North Commuter Council won’t silence me.  Bring it on, Governor.

March 03, 2013

Don't Trust The Media



Earlier in my career I was a journalist.  I worked for INC Magazine, was a news anchor at NBC and received a Peabody Award.  All of which is to preface some discouraging remarks about the media these days.  I know quality journalism, and we’re often not getting it when it comes to local reporting on transportation.
Case in point:  The Norwalk Hour’s coverage of recent legislative hearings in Hartford on possibly reinstating tolls on I-95.  While those proposals center on use of electronic tolls, The Hour’s sister publication, “The Wilton Villager” ran a headline proclaiming “Toll Booths Have Little Support”.  Who’s talking about toll booths?
And in every story those papers have written on this issue in recent years, there is always a reminder that tolls were eliminated in 1985 following a “fiery truck crash” that killed seven people at the Stratford toll barrier.
While that accident was unfortunate, it was as rare as Haley’s Comet.  Trucks do not crash into toll booths and those barriers have been replaced with non-stop electronic tolling (like EZPass).
Newspapers are certainly entitled to their editorial opinions on tolling, but they should also get their news coverage straight as to what is being proposed instead of always beating the drums of fear over trucks crashing into non-existent tolls booths.

Even when papers do editorialize, they don’t get the facts straight.  Consider The Waterbury Republican-American’s most recent screed against rail commuters on Metro-North in an editorial entitled “Subsidized Chutzpah”.  When rail service on the Waterbury branch was suspended for four days (with no substitute bus service) after the blizzard, commuters thought they should have their weekly and monthly tickets refunded.
But the newspaper called that “chutzpah”, saying the riders of the heavily subsidized rail service should be grateful for any service, adding “One way to demonstrate their gratitude would be to decline to take advantage of the occasional opportunity to trash their benefactor.”
Wow.  If the Republican-American couldn’t deliver papers after the storm, would they consider subscriber requests for a refund to be “chutzpah”?  I’d hope not.  So why the contemptuous attitude toward hard-working local citizens who ride the train?
Ironically, the Republican American’s offices are in the beautiful old Waterbury rail station whose iconic tower is a city landmark.  It’s a shame to waste such a great building on such a snarky rag.
Mind you, not all journalists are so sloppy or hate their readers.  The Hartford Courant, Stamford Advocate and Cablevision’s News 12 usually get it right and have gone out of their way to report on the work of the CT Rail Commuter Council, for which we are grateful.  And, of course, I owe personal thanks to this newspaper for running my column for lo these many years



So, caveat emptor!  When it comes to reporting on crucial transportation issues in our state, consider the source.  And always search out a second opinion.