Lawmakers seek to block rail subsidy cuts
A coalition of state legislators is backing a bill to block Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposal to fold $12.2 million raised from new bus and rail fare revenue into the state's Special Transportation Fund, a move they say would use fare revenue to help balance the state budget.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, and 26 other state representatives introduced House Bill 5067, which would require the state Department of Transportation to set aside revenue expected from three consecutive 4 percent fare increases through 2014 to boost the state's rail and bus service subsidies.
Lavielle said the diversion of the funds acts as a backdoor tax on commuters, especially for New Haven Line riders who endured serious service problems over the last decade due to a worn-out rail fleet and aging infrastructure.
"When mass transit riders are forced to pay higher prices, the least they should expect is better, faster, or safer service," Lavielle said. "It is tantamount to charging them a tax for riding trains and buses. It's not fair and it's not honest."
As part of mid-term adjustments to balance the budget, Malloy has proposed shifting $9.8 million in rail and $2.2 million in bus subsidies to the Special Transportation Fund, which the DOT can use for any type of transportation project needs.
The amounts are roughly equivalent to the fare revenue generated by a 4 percent fare hike instituted last month.
An additional $90,000 would be shaved from the state's subsidy for para-transit services and placed in the Special Transportation Fund.
Connecticut DOT Commissioner James Redeker said the decision to transfer the revenue produced by the fare increases should be understood in the context that the Special Transportation Fund is the state's source for the state's rail and bus subsidies and payments on ongoing projects to maintain and modernize the mass transit network.
The $9.8 million annual boost to rail fare revenue is about half of the $18.4 million increase Malloy's budget makes in 2012 and 2013 to the state's rail subsidy, with the other half coming from other revenue sources to the fund, Redeker said.
Over the past seven years, the Special Transportation Fund has increased its commitment to transit by $57.5 million a year, an increased share paying for projects such as the $866 million for the state's new 380 fleet of M-8 railcars, not including a $93 million order for 25 additional cars Malloy ordered, Redeker said.
"The Special Transportation Fund is paying for many of the improvements we are making on the rail system at the same time it is supporting the rail operating subsidy," Redeker said. "You need to look at this over more than a couple of years and certainly in more than a one-year view."
Redeker said if inflation cost increases running rail and bus systems were not offset by subsidies, fares would need to be increased at twice the amount of inflation annually to maintain current levels of service.
"If the logic is that a fare increase means that you increase service, what happens when you have inflation or don't have an increased subsidy?" Redeker said. "The corollary would mean without increased funding you would have to eliminate service."
Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman Jim Cameron said reducing the subsidy undercuts arguments made last summer by Redeker and Malloy's administration that the fare increases were justified to bring riders' contributions toward the cost of the services in line.
Cameron said he is also concerned that money in the Special Transportation Fund could be appropriated to cover other general governmental expenses.
"The Special Transportation Fund is not a lockbox; it is more like a sieve," Cameron said. "The legislature has dipped into that fund repeatedly, and if we are going to raise money through user fees it should be used on the service that generated them."
Though the overall rail subsidy would increase in 2012 and 2013, Lavielle said it is inequitable to riders for Malloy's budget to mix the rail and bus fare revenue with the larger transportation related fund, even if it is eventually spent on transportation-related bridge or road projects.
"Whatever they gained from the fare increase should be applied to support the service over and above what was approved last spring," Lavielle said. "This could pull the money out to be used on something else."