Anyone up for a cutback in Connecticut's bus and train service coupled with hefty fare increases?
The state Department of Transportation is pitching the idea to the public at a series of hearings later this month, and already it's catching flak from several directions. Transit advocates warn that it would drive commuters away, some Metro-North commuters complain it's a hidden tax increase, and a Republican legislator declares it's simply bad policy.
The DOT's plan would raise fares by about 10 percent on CT Transit buses and by 16.5 percent on Metro-North and Shore Line East trains. It would scrap all Shore Line East weekend service, and reduce schedules on unspecified CT Transit routes.
The proposal came forward earlier this summer as part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's "Plan B" austerity budget in case state unions rejected a concessions deal. But even if the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition approves an agreement now, Malloy is making no promises to pull the fare increases off the table.
"At this time, no decision has been made," a Malloy spokeswoman said Friday.
The DOT plans to raise ticket prices Nov. 1. Fares on local buses serving the areas around Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, Waterbury, New Britain, Meriden, Bristol and Wallingford would climb from $1.25 to $1.35, and special fares or multi-trip passes would rise an average of 10 percent, according to the DOT. Express buses to Hartford would also cost more. The DOT says 29 million passengers a year use those services.
Ticket prices on Metro-North and Shore Line East would jump by an average of 16.4 percent, but the DOT hasn't specified if that's an across-the-board formula for all trips and multi-ride passes.
DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick noted that fares didn't rise for more than six years, and questioned whether any other service or public utility rates have held steady that long. His point was backed up by Rep. Anthony Guerrera, co-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee.
"If we're going to keep these transit initiatives going with the budget cuts, the cost increases for diesel [fuel], all of that, we have to start looking for ways to offset some costs," Guerrera said.
With the national economy faltering again and the tea party-influenced Congress pressing to chop federal transportation grants, transit planners in Connecticut are concerned about keeping a flow of revenue to maintain bridges, highways and the transit system.
But Jim Cameron, chairman of the Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, said the fare increases should be withdrawn if the SEBAC deal goes through.
"The only time this came up was as part of the governor's rescission package. I don't see these increases being tied to anything else," Cameron said. "There hasn't been any service improvement."
Metro-North riders are agreeable to a long-planned 1.5 percent fare increase -- followed by years of 1 percent annual increases -- to help pay for new train cars that started going into service this year. But Cameron said he hasn't seen a case to justify the other 15 pecent.
"An increase of this magnitude will make transit prohibitively expensive for some and less attractive for all," said David Kooris, vice president of the Regional Plan Association's Connecticut office.
His group backs regular but small fare increases to keep up with expenses and protect capital budgets from being raided for operations.
Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, attacked the DOT's proposal as proof of poor planning. If it goes forward, the DOT would be reducing bus and train service while building the $569 million Hartford-to-New Britain busway, he noted.
"I can't understand how we talk about building a $60 million-a-mile busway while we're also talking about cutting service in our major cities," said Markley, an outspoken critic of the busway plan. "The DOT is having hearings in a month when people are away and paying the least attention, and it can't even tell us which routes it wants to cut."
Hearings are planned for Aug. 22 from noon to 2 p.m. at New Britain city hall; Aug. 23 from 4 to 6 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at the University of Connecticut branch in Stamford; Aug. 24 from 4 to 6 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at the Hall of Records in New Haven; Aug. 25 from noon to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Hartford Public Library; Aug. 26 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Meriden Senior Center and Aug. 30 from 2 to 4 p.m. and 5 to 6 p.m. at the Silas Bronson Library in Waterbury.
The DOT is posting details about its proposal at www.ct.gov/dot/farecomments. As of Friday evening, the proposed schedule of rail fare increases and bus service reductions hadn't been put up.
10 percent fare increase on CT Transit buses.
16.5 percent increase on Metro-North and Shoreline East trains.
Weekend service would be terminated on Shoreline East trains.
Schedules would be reduced on unspecified CT Transit routes.
Details available at www.ct.gov/dot/ farecomments.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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