WILTON, Conn. This week and next, the state Department of Transportation is holding six public hearings regarding proposed rail and bus fare increases. For Metro-North's already beleaguered commuters, the proposed increases are significant and come at a particularly difficult time.
Currently, a New Haven Line fare increase of 1.25 percent is scheduled for Jan. 1, with subsequent 1 percent increases on Jan. 1 of each year through 2018. The proposal would raise the 2012 fare increase to about 16.4 percent and allows it to take effect as early as Nov. 1.
The fare increase hearings come on the heels of another hearing held Aug. 18 in Westport to respond to concerns about service disruptions that occurred on the New Haven Line during a heat wave July 22. I attended that hearing, and the passionate public comment reflected a high degree of distress.
On July 22, passengers were trapped in rail cars in 100-degree heat for more than an hour without water, electricity or adequate ventilation. Several were pregnant or had medical problems. When passengers stranded in Westport called 911, local responders tried to help but faulty communication from Metro-North hampered their ability to locate the train. As the passengers waited, they received no information from Metro-North, and levels of anxiety mounted. When Metro-North employees finally arrived, several passengers had left one of the trains and were walking on the tracks. The situation could hardly have been more dangerous.
To its credit, the DOT, under the leadership of Acting Commissioner James Redeker, launched an investigation immediately, ensuring that Metro-North worked with local responders to produce a full postmortem report, complete with recommendations for preventing similar communications breakdowns. Rail Commuter Council Chairman Jim Cameron and state Sen. Toni Boucher, whose district includes Westport, also asked for a full accounting.
The report makes it clear that the New Haven Line's problems go far beyond inconvenience and discomfort. Passenger safety is very much at stake. The report acknowledges that the line's age and condition make service problems likely to occur, especially in extreme weather conditions all the more reason for Metro-North to be fully prepared to deal with such problems. This time it clearly was not.
Fairfield County commuters deserve answers.
Would the new fare increase pay for improvements to New Haven Line service? The DOT's public notice for the hearings says "a portion of the revenue from the initial 16.4 percent and the entirety of the subsequent 1 percent fare increases will go toward financing the new M8 rail cars." What about the rest? Commuters would be justified in expecting those funds to remain allocated to the New Haven Line.
Even with the DOT doing its best to ensure oversight, can we trust Metro-North to communicate professionally and prevent panic in future dangerous situations? One way to allay those concerns is to reassess the state's transportation investment plans and upgrade the antiquated infrastructure now.
With 37 million passenger rides a year, the New Haven Line is the busiest railroad in the United States. Its passengers have suffered great discomfort over the years. Its importance to the economy of southwestern Connecticut, which is vital to the economy of the entire state, is unquestioned. None of this, however, has brought upgrades to the line's infrastructure to the top of the state's mass transit priority list.
New rail and bus lines being financed elsewhere in the state may ultimately attract many passengers and benefit the surrounding communities. But meanwhile, the New Haven Line is providing essential transportation to hundreds of thousands of commuters who are working every day. Their safety should be a prime consideration in setting the state's transportation infrastructure priorities. We should focus resources on making their journeys safer now. If we can't do that, it's hard to justify making them pay so much more.
Gail Lavielle is the state representative of the 143rd District, which includes parts of Wilton and Norwalk. She is a member of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee.
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