Frustrated by a surprise delay in replacing the Metro-North fleet, a commuters' group is pushing for more openness and tighter oversight of the $866 million purchase agreement for new trains.
The head of the Connecticut Metro-North Commuters Council complained Friday that the state transportation department was too slow to tell taxpayers about problems cropping up in the purchase of 342 high-tech train cars.
"CDOT has been less than forthcoming with this entire process since it was announced that the new M-8 cars would be a year late in delivery," Chairman James Cameron told about 700 Metro-North commuters who get the council's e-mail advisories. "Several lawmakers are similarly unhappy with CDOT's lack of candor."
Transportation Commissioner Jeffrey Parker told the commuters council this week that his agency has been up front with the public.
Malfunctions with the Kawasaki M-8 train cars have created an embarrassment for Gov. M. Jodi Rell in the final weeks of her administration. The first 24 are being tested at the New Haven rail yard, and Rell was counting on being on board when the first train of M-8s made a regular passenger service run sometime this month.
Replacing Metro-North's decrepit fleet has been among her most ambitious goals. Despite various delays, she managed to get funding for 342 cars that will be built and delivered over the next two years. This month she was hoping to sign a contract for the last installment — a 38-car order to be delivered in 2014. But that fell through, and days later it came out that a technical glitch in the test cars will keep them out of regular service until mid-January or later.
Rell had pressed the State Bond Commission on Dec. 10 to approve $81 million for the 38 cars, but couldn't get enough votes. Opponents said any large-scale spending decisions should wait for Gov.-elect Dan Malloy to take office.
During the commission's meeting, Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, repeatedly asked the DOT how the first M-8's were performing. Bureau Chief James Redeker gave no indication that a malfunction had been found.
Five days later, The Advocate newspaper of Stamford reported that the long-awaited introduction of the first M-8's wouldn't happen this month. A defect in the pilot cars has been triggering a false "stop" signal in the computerized controls, needlessly bringing trains to a complete halt. Parker said with assurance that the malfunctions are minor. The DOT has known about them since Dec. 2 or 3, he said, and engineers have already designed a fix. Parker conceded, however, that additional testing will push the public launch well into January or later.
State legislators, though, want to know why they weren't told until mid-December. This isn't the first time the DOT lagged in telling lawmakers and taxpayers about problems with the M-8 contract, which is already nearly a year behind schedule.
"We have consistently impressed upon the department the need for information, and the department has consistently failed to keep us abreast of the situation," Sen. Donald DeFronzo and Sen. Robert Duff said in a joint statement.
DeFronzo, co-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee, is one of Malloy's informal advisers on transit issues. Malloy has already said publicly that he'll be shaking up the senior management of the DOT after he takes office Jan. 5.
"We believe we have been candid. We have consistently said that everything depended on the testing," a DOT spokesman said Friday. "The safety of the commuters has to come first. This is a process than cannot and should not be rushed."
On Friday afternoon, DeFronzo said the lack of communication is more troubling than the M-8 defects.
"Nobody expects something like this to stay on schedule all the time, but we expect we'll be informed of problems and delays," DeFronzo said. "This hasn't happened."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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