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November 10, 2016

"Getting There": CDOT Fare Hearings are just political theater

This commentary was originally posted in September 2016 in our "GettingThereCT" blog:

The CDOT is holding the last in a series of public hearings on proposed 5% fare hikes this week (Wednesday 9/14 in Stamford and Thursday 9/15 in New Haven).  This will be your last chance to be heard if you support or oppose the plan.

Not that these hearings will really matter. It’s pretty much a done deal and the way past hearings have been conducted mean they won’t make much difference.  I think of them as so much “political theater”:  lots of drama with a sad outcome.

If you chose to attend, here’s what to expect:  

The CDOT will make a brief presentation on the need for the fare hikes, then members of the public will be allowed to speak in the order that they signed up.  Each will be given about three minutes.

People will rant and rave about how expensive our trains and buses are, about how service has again been deteriorating.  They’ll threaten to abandon mass transit and start driving again.  They’ll call this the final straw and promise to move out of state.

The CDOT folks will listen and take notes.  But after all is said and done, the fares will go up.  Their only alternative is to save money by cutting service, and nobody wants that.

I’d expect a lot of State Representatives and Senators to also speak in opposition to the proposals. It is an election year, after all.  But that’s kind of ironic, as their budget votes made this hike necessary.  This is their fare hike, not Governor Malloy’s.

The legislature left a $192 million hole in the state’s budget and said to Governor Malloy “you fix it”.  And he did, with budget cuts and layoffs in many departments.  Now it’s the CDOT’s turn to share the pain.  Or commuters’.

Fares on Metro-North are the highest for any commuter railroad in the US because theirs is a captive audience.  People going to jobs in New York City from their leafy suburban homes really have no alternative to taking the train.

Yet, those fares only cover 69% of the costs of each ride.  On Shore Line East the fares cover only 7% and on CT Transit buses 21%.  The balance is made up by state (taxpayers’) subsidy.  By comparison, fares on the Long Island Railroad cover only 51% of operating costs, meaning that NY state is offering a much higher subsidy for LIRR riders than CT does.

Why?  Because NY State, like most others in the nation, wants to keep fares low to encourage people to use mass transit.  While lawmakers in Hartford pay lip-service to the same theory, their actions (and votes) prove otherwise.

And yet, every time there is a fare hike, ridership goes up.  Go figure.  Even in a time of cheap gasoline prices, Metro-North has seen an almost 2% ridership increase in the past year. That means trains are, once again, crowded.  

But wait.  Didn’t we just order new rail cars increasing the size of our fleet?  Yes, but we didn’t increase it enough.  The M8 cars we ordered (at $2.5 million apiece) were insufficient to handle the increase in passengers.  We should have ordered more.

Now is the time for CDOT to order more railcars, either M8’s or to start designing the M10’s.  It takes about five years from such a decision ‘til new cars are delivered, so now is the time to say “go”.  We know ridership will increase, so what is being done to plan for the future?

But in the short term, fare hikes on our railroads and buses are pretty much a done deal.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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