When Gov. Dannel Malloy was forced by the then-recalcitrant state unions to produce a Plan B budget to cover a $1.6 billion deficit, most of the cuts he proposed were, while painful, at least plausible. That is, they didn't contradict good public policy. I too would hate to lose the Connecticut River ferries, but we could live without them if we had to.
The cuts that didn't make sense were the fare increases on Metro-North, Shore Line East and transit buses. The budget called for a 15 percent hike on the Metro-North fares from New Haven to New York, a 14 percent increase in the Shoreline East fare from New Haven to New London, and a 10 percent increase in bus fares. In addition, weekend service on Shoreline East would be ended, and some bus service would be cut.
As I write, there is a strong chance that state unions will vote again on a reasonable facsimile of Plan A, the concession package the unions rejected a couple of weeks ago, and make these cuts unnecessary. Let us hope.
In announcing the fare increase, a spokesman said there hasn't been a fare increase on Metro-North since the (5.5 percent) increase in 2005. That's true. But as Jim Cameron of the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council correctly points out, the service has been lousy. "The railroad knew it didn't deserve a hike, so didn't ask for one."
"Service on Metro-North is dreadful," he said. " Last winter train service was cut when 40 percent of our old rail cars broke down. The new M8 cars are more than a year late in delivery. And for this you are asking for a fare increase? "
The new M8 cars are finally being delivered, but there is already a fare increase of 7.5 percent over the next seven years coming to pay for them. Fifteen percent on top of that would be indefensible. Cameron said state Metro-North riders already pay the highest rail fares of any commuter rail passengers in the country.
So why stick them with a rate increase? Perhaps it is motivated by the myth that every commuter in Fairfield County is a wealthy hedge fund dealer. That of course is untrue; it's like assuming that everyone in Los Angeles is a movie star. In my experience, passengers reflect every age, gender, race and rung of the economic ladder.
Let's go to Shore Line East. On summer weekends in years past, I-95 in eastern Connecticut would be a fuming swath of bumper-to-bumper traffic, while the rail line, which can carry many more passengers per lane than the highway, was empty (except for the occasional Amtrak train). This made no sense. It took years of effort, but weekend train service was finally created. It would be crazy to kill it. Shoreline East is helping revive downtown New Haven and other towns along the line. That's a good thing.
Public policy should encourage people to use transit. Did you notice how hot it was last week? The planet is warning, and about 98 percent of climate scientists believe it is due to human activity — such as burning fossil fuels in cars. And where does much of that fossil fuel come from? Places that are either politically tumultuous or geologically challenging.
I was in Europe this spring, where gas was over $9 a gallon. Not surprisingly, people mostly drive small cars and use trains, trams and buses. Good policy here would dictate that we raise the gas tax, reintroduce tolls or otherwise require drivers to pay the real cost of driving (which includes everything from leaking storage tanks at gas stations to wars in the Middle East).
Malloy, to his credit, asked for a modest 3 percent increase in the gas tax, but this went nowhere in the legislature, where it is always 1957, there's peace and prosperity, and everything is fine.
The idea of raising the bus fare and not the gas tax is about as far from good policy as it is possible to get. You want people to take buses, for crying out loud. Don't make it harder to take the bus, make it harder to drive. People make economic decisions. Tilt the field toward transit, while encouraging development where there is transit.
Malloy knows all of this. As mayor of Stamford he artfully exploited rail service to create an enviably vibrant downtown. That would suggest that the rate hike proposals were aimed at kicking the beehive, getting groups such as the commuter rail council to put pressure on the unions and legislature to get Plan A back on the table.
Let us hope the unions vote to accept what is a generous concession package, so we then can have a rational discussion about who should pay what for how we get around.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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