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February 15, 2015

Is Metro-North Irreplacable?



What is Connecticut’s relationship with Metro-North?  Client – vendor?  Shared partnership?  Stockholm syndrome?  Or is the railroad a “fanged sloth” hanging around our neck?
All of those analogies has been made to the state’s 30+ year relationship with Metro-North, part of NY’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  But given their dismal safety record and deteriorating service in recent years, many have asked “is it time to fire Metro-North and find someone else to run our trains?”
I posed that very question almost four years ago and people were shocked, not knowing that such a thing was even possible.  Now there are even laws being considered in Hartford to rid us of the railroad.
But even though Metro-North works for us, CDOT’s Commissioner Jim Redeker says they should not… in fact, cannot… be replaced.
Redeker recently testified that Metro-North is uniquely qualified and staffed to run a commuter rail operation of its size and that there are no other potential competitors he’d consider as operator, let alone try to build our own agency from scratch.  On this point he’s probably right.
Where he’s wrong is in arguing that replacing Metro-North would mean we wouldn’t be allowed to run “our trains” into “their station”, Grand Central. 
There are plenty of railroads with operating rights on others’ tracks.  NJ Transit has no trouble getting into Penn Station. Virginia Railway Express runs into downtown DC.   Does Commissioner Redeker really think that our Congressional delegation couldn’t force the MTA to give us access to GCT?  It wouldn’t be an easy fight, but this is certainly no deal-breaker to replacing Metro-North.
Alternative #3 is to renegotiate our contract with the railroad. This opportunity only presents itself every five years, and 2015 is one of those windows.   Maybe we should get them to commit to service standards, as their current contract has no metrics to measure their performance.  But again, Commissioner Redeker seems reticent to fight for our state or its commuters.
He reminded lawmakers that the last time Connecticut arbitrated the contract we were out-smarted and ending up with a worse deal than we’d had before, going from 60% cost-sharing to 65%.  The MTA’s army of lawyers took us to the cleaners, costing us millions more in payments to Metro-North each year.  Apparently Commissioner thinks we’re not smart enough to negotiate a better deal, so why even try.
So, just to recap… our Commissioner of Transportation says we have no real options, that we have to work with Metro-North, but we’re probably not savvy enough to get any better deal than we have now.  So let’s just wave the white flag before the battle begins and keep paying $70+ million a year for lousy train service.
Now there is inspired leadership!  Declare defeat and just walk away.  Let the “fanged sloth” continue to hang around our necks.  We really have no choice. Suck it up because Metro-North, our vendor, is running the show.