Conn. commuters expected to decry rail fare hikes
Updated 7:33 pm, Saturday, July 16, 2011
HARTFORD -- A proposed 15 percent fare increase on Metro-North Railroad is not going to sit well with commuters who make the daily trek along the New Haven Line, predicts Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council.
Commuters, he said, will surely ask why they're paying 15 percent more for a service they're dissatisfied with.
"We had a horrible winter last year and we still don't have all the new rail cars yet,'" Cameron said. "They'll just get the torches and pitchforks and start marching toward Hartford."
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy submitted a budget-balancing plan to the General Assembly on Friday that imposes the first fare increases on Metro-North riders since Jan. 2005. Fares on Shore Line East, the state's other commuter rail line, will increase 14 percent. Additionally, weekend Shore Line East service between New Haven and Old Saybrook, which began in July 2008, will end in November.
Malloy's plan, which is needed to balance the two-year, $40.1 billion budget after unionized state workers failed to ratify a labor savings and concessions agreement, also increases bus fares by 10 percent.
Benjamin Barnes, Malloy's budget secretary, said both the rail and bus systems remain heavily subsidized, despite the proposed hikes. These increases, he said, will ultimately reduce the amount of the taxpayer-funded subsidy.
"By no means are we raising fares from the users of public transportation in order to offset other expenses across government," he said.
The rail fare increases are projected to save the state nearly $15 million in the first year of the budget and $22.7 million in the second.
Barnes said Connecticut's fares are lower than New York's and that requires Connecticut to make payments to Metro-North. By increasing the fares, he said taxpayers will pay a smaller subsidy for the rail line and will no longer have to make the penalty payment. But Cameron maintains that Connecticut Metro-North riders pay a higher percentage of the cost of their rides, 75 percent, than other rail commuters. He said commuters on the Long Island Rail Road pay about 50 percent and riders of Boston's MBTA system pay about 20 percent.
"We have the lowest subsidy of fares and our fares represent more of the cost of the ride," he said.
While Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy's senior advisor, called the increases "fairly minimal," Cameron considers the 15 percent fare hike for Metro-North riders to be "attention-getting." For an average $300-a-month rail pass, that's an extra $45 a month, he said. Approximately 110,000 people ride the New Haven Line daily.
Cameron said the timing for Malloy's fare hike is bad, as well. The first of 380 new M-8 rail cars were originally supposed to be delivered in 2009, but Kawasaki, the Japanese manufacturer, was hampered by production delays. Today, Cameron said, there are 32 cars on the rails, enough for just three sets of trains.
If more of those new cars were in operation, he said more riders would likely be willing to pay higher fares because they'd be getting more for their money. Instead, Cameron said, they now face the prospect of paying more money to ride on crowded, older trains -- a captive audience that has little choice other than to take Metro-North to reach their jobs in New York City. Meanwhile, commuters are already facing a separate series of fare increase to help pay for those new cars. He said the first 1.5 percent hike has been pushed off until Jan. 1, 2012 because of the delays in getting the trains up and running.
Given the delays in past rail fare increases, Cameron questions whether Malloy's proposal will become reality. He believes the governor proposed such an unpopular fare increase to put pressure on state employee union leaders to come up with a way of ratifying a labor savings and concessions agreement. If a new deal is passed by rank-and-file unionized state employees, most of the budget cuts and layoffs to be rolled back.
"I don't think commuters should be immune from reductions or cost savings. I don't think we're special. I think we should all bear an equitable share of a painful process," he said. "But I don't think this is the final version of what that house of pain is going to look like."
Cameron said he's advising angry commuters to still contact their state legislators. The legislature's Appropriations Committee is expected to hold hearings on specific items in the budget-balancing plan on or before Aug. 15. It's unclear whether lawmakers will ultimately make any changes to the plans submitted by Malloy, the Judicial Branch and other agencies.