While Connecticut is confronted by a growing energy and transportation crisis, state policy-makers need to recognize and take advantage of the enormous opportunity for advancing the cause of mass transit. All indications suggest that the state has a rare window of opportunity to make a historic effort to alter the driving culture of the commuting public.
Hard evidence now exists that, as gasoline prices passed $3.30 a gallon, the public's driving patterns began to change. For the first time in recent memory, tax revenues from the gasoline excise tax began to decline — down by more than $16 million thus far in 2008.
At the same time, ridership on commuter express buses run by CT Transit and other providers has shown significant increases. For example, year-to-year ridership on the Bristol express route has increased 13.2 percent. Ridership is up 8 percent on the Merritt 7 commuter connection in Norwalk, up 15 percent on the Route 8 commuter route in Bridgeport and up 25 percent on the Danbury-to-Brewster commuter route. Overall, CT Transit's commuter express bus service ridership has increased 8.5 percent.
This movement to buses has taken place with little or no added inducement from state government. Although some are concerned that the rapid growth in ridership may pose a problem and overburden the system — causing a redistribution of limited transportation resources — in fact, the state Department of Transportation ought to be seizing on this opportunity by starting new commuter lines, express service to major employment centers and expanded commuter services to rail stations.
Two weeks ago, the state Office of Policy and Management transferred $6.7 million out of mass transit line items in the DOT budget for use elsewhere. This underscores the short-sighted and uncoordinated nature of transportation policy development in Connecticut. It is a bad decision.
These funds could have been used for service expansions needed to encourage even larger numbers of motorists to leave their cars and take commuter buses. A reliable, comfortable and affordable commuter system, complemented by a more effective marketing and public education campaign, could help achieve a very dramatic and perhaps permanent change in commuting patterns.
Although Connecticut's financial condition is precarious, a compelling argument can be made that an investment in mass transit bus service today could have a long-term and fundamentally important impact on the state's transportation future. This opportunity, born of crisis, is a rare one; but as gas prices continue to head toward $5 a gallon, it is one the state cannot afford to squander.
An effective and affordable mass transit bus system could offer Connecticut commuters the best chance for relief from higher fuel costs, while improving the environment and conserving energy. And all this can be accomplished while reducing the public's reliance on automobiles.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell and new Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie should undertake an immediate re-evaluation of the earlier decision to cancel millions of dollars in mass transit funding.
Instead, they should boldly and aggressively invest in the state's future by launching a new initiative to expand ridership on commuter buses within the next 90 days.
Now is the time to grasp the opportunity. Now is the time to act.
Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, represents New Britain, Berlin and Farmington in the state Senate and serves as co-chairman of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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