Commuters slam Malloy's fare increase plans
Published 3:22 pm, Thursday, July 21, 2011
STAMFORD -- Phyllis Miller, of White Plains, N.Y., and other bus riders interviewed said they opposed a 10 percent fare increase and bus route eliminations in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget-balancing plan, arguing less service would lengthen already significant time gaps for low-income residents.
On Sunday, Miller was waiting in Veterans Park to catch the Route 33-34 combined weekend route she takes to visit her elderly mother at the Atria Assisted Living Facility off Summer Street.
Miller said reduced frequency on weekends already results in long layovers, while lamenting she could walk the relatively short distance if not for the groceries and other supplies she regularly brings.
"It would be very harmful for them to cut the buses for people who rely on public transit," Miller said. "This is the only way I can get here."
Stamford and Norwalk bus passengers this week questioned measures in Malloy's plan to raise bus fares by 10 percent, and reduce service statewide by at least 40 buses while cutting 50 bus-related jobs, saving $8 million over two years.
A single fare on a CTTransit bus now costs $1.25.
Specific bus routes to be cut have not been identified, and the state Department of Transportation will conduct an analysis to judge whether those cuts, in combination with the fare hike, pose too heavy a burden on low-income groups and specific populations, DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said.
"We want to ensure that there is no significant disparate treatment of any particular populations," Everhart said. "It's a partially quantitative analysis and partially a judgment call."
Rail commuters also said they were frustrated at a proposal to hike Metro-North New Haven Line fares by 15 percent, and 14 percent on the Shore Line East railway between New Haven and New London.
On Shore Line East, weekend service between New Haven and Old Saybrook would also be eliminated.
Christine Johnson, of Norwalk, a regular CTTransit bus rider, said Sunday she relies on bus service to shop for groceries and go to church, as well as to just get out for a change of pace.
"I don't think they should do it because the people riding the bus don't have any other way to travel," Johnson said. "Today, I needed to get out just to get away for awhile, so I went to church with a friend in Stamford instead of Norwalk."
The measures are part of a plan announced by Malloy after state workers rejected a labor savings and concession agreement meant to garner $1.6 billion in savings and help balance the state's two-year, $40.1 billion budget.
The proposed rail fare hikes are the first on New Haven Line riders since a 5.5 percent increase in 2005.
Donald Vergara, an advertising executive who has lived in Stamford since the early 1990s, said Malloy's fare proposal was an insult to New Haven Line riders who are still riding crowded, worn-out railcars that are prone to lighting and air conditioning outages.
Residents are already paying higher gasoline and other taxes in Connecticut, he said.
Vergara, who commutes daily from Stamford to Manhattan, said he was also upset that so few of the state's new $866 million order of 380 railcars had been put in service so far. Twenty-four M-8 cars are now in use.
"Among a lot of other things that are happening, I think the fare increase is a disgrace," Vergara said. "I don't know where these new rail cars are, or where all our money goes. They could build a new railroad for that kind of money, and they do it all the time in China."
Projected additional ticket revenue from the fare hike would allow the state to reduce its annual rail subsidy of about $56 million by $14.9 million in fiscal 2011-12, and by $22.7 million in 2012-13, according to Malloy's plan.
The additional revenue would raise the New Haven Line's already high farebox operating ratio -- the amount of railroad operating costs covered by fares -- from 68 percent to 75 percent, with the hikes creating an additional $26 million in revenue a year, according to Metro-North Railroad.
Additional costs are split between the state of Connecticut and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, with Connecticut contributing 65 percent of the cost and the MTA the balance.
Gian Carl Casa, an undersecretary of legislative affairs for Malloy, said budget problems had forced a push for higher rail and bus fares, which the state can no longer subsidize to the same extent.
"The administration strongly supports commuter rail ... but unfortunately, because of the dire budget situation, we're being forced to do some difficult things and the decision to increase fares is one of them."
Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, this week called on State Rep. Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, and Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams to schedule public hearings in southwestern Connecticut to give commuters an opportunity to express their anger at the fare proposals.
"The only option for a commuter who doesn't want to pay this fare increase would be to move," Cameron said. "I've long warned the Legislature that the condition of the trains is literally driving people out of the state to move to Westchester and New Jersey ... They will only put up with so much."
Cameron, a Darien commuter, said the news that state employee unions voted this week to change ratification rules in order to reconsider the rejected package of givebacks gives him hope the threatened fare hikes will be averted.
The fare proposals and layoffs of state workers proposed in Malloy's plan are similar to other maneuvers used by state leaders to spur legislators and state workers to focus on a compromise.
"We're moving under the hope that we've been through this little dance before and that this is just a way of getting the legislators' attention," Cameron said. "Regardless of that, the proposed fare increase is unfair and not tied to any improvement in service and is really a hidden tax on a portion of the population that really has no alternative but to use the train."
Casa acknowledged raising rail and bus fares significantly could be perceived as discouraging the use of transit, but the six-year period of level fares made it harder to justify not seeking additional revenue.
"We've been willing to make investments in both bus transit and railroads both for mobility and business reasons because we want to get cars off the road," he said. "We understand raising the fares make that job somewhat more difficult but it is a very difficult budget time for Connecticut and as part of the shared sacrifice we felt we had to ask a little more from riders."
Mary Tomolonius, president of the Connecticut Public Transportation Association, a coalition of transit advocacy and business groups, said economic stagnation in Connecticut and a variety of tax and other fee increases being created to balance the state budget make the bus fare hike hard for poor residents.
"I do hope we can avoid a fare increase because it does affect the people who can least afford that type of increase," Tomolonius said. "A lot of people rely on public transit to travel from their house to their job and I just feel at this particular time it is just very difficult for riders to absorb an increase."
Staff Writer Martin B. Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com or at 203-964-2264.