No more weekend or midday trains in Branchville, and higher fares — the state budget squeeze threatens to shrink area rail service.
Rail cutbacks — fare hikes amounting to 20% over four years, elimination of all the Danbury branch line weekend rail service, and dropping the branch’s weekday trains in off-peak or non-commuter hours — have been proposed by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT).
The cutbacks by Connecticut to trains on the Danbury branch line, including Branchville station in Ridgefield, would not reduce train service at Katonah, Goldens Bridge, Purdy’s, Bedford, and other stations in New York state on the Harlem line also used by Ridgefielders.
The state’s planned cutbacks will go to public hearings — times and places to be announced next week — and could be modified if the legislature appropriates more money for transportation, said DOT spokesman Judd Everhard.
The DOT plans, according to Everhard, include:
- A 10% rail fare increase starting in July 2018, followed by additional 5% increases in 2020 and 2021.
- Reduction of weekday off-peak service on the Danbury, New Canaan, Waterbury, and Shore Line East branches and elimination of weekend services on these rail lines.
- A 25-cent bus-fare increase.
- Reductions to transit district subsidies of 5% or more.
“We have been saying that without action by the General Assembly to ensure the long-term solvency of the Special Transportation Fund, we will need to raise fares and reduce service,” Everhard said Wednesday, Jan. 10. “Because fare increases require public hearings in advance, we will be announcing a schedule of public hearings next week on proposed fare increases for all transit services.”
On weekends and holidays, the Danbury branch line runs six trains in and six trains out each day between Branchville and Grand Central Terminal in New York — all proposed for elimination.
During the work week, daily service between Branchville and Grand Central includes 12 “peak hour” trains during the morning and evening commute, which aren’t threatened with reductions, and 16 trains in “off-peak,” or non-commuter hours, that may be cut.
Jim Cameron, a longtime advocate for Fairfield County commuters, said the cutbacks in train service were the most significant of the proposals.
“The proposed fare increase is just the tip of the iceberg. Far more impactful are the proposed cuts to off-peak rail service on the New Canaan, Danbury, Waterbury, and Shore Line East rail lines,” Cameron said.
“Eliminating weekend service on those trains and reducing weekdays to only rush hour will mean less mobility, lower property values and potential real estate tax increases. And those would-be travelers will now have to drive down to the mainline stations, further crowding already maxed-out station parking lots.”
Cameron was among those skeptical of the value of the planned public hearings
“What can commuters, drivers and taxpayers do? Forget about the fare hearings. They’re just ‘political theater’ … cathartic but irrelevant,” he said. “Instead, call your state rep and state senator and demand they find new funding sources for the Special Transportation Fund.
“Tolls, taxes and higher fares will be unpopular, especially in an election year,” Cameron said. “But some combination will be necessary. And the legislature must act, as this is a problem of their own creation.”
State Sen. Toni Boucher, whose 26th District includes Ridgefield, is co-chair of the legislature’s Transportation Committee and has long been active on rail plans. She was critical of the plans. And Boucher — who has shown interest in the Republican nomination for governor — put responsibility for the changes squarely on Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration.
“I have looked at the increases commuters have had to bear sine 2012 — the increases have been huge, 18%-19% over that time already. In essence, that service hasn’t appreciably improved,” she said.
Part of the problem is that railroad lines have huge fixed costs that often take away from actual investment in improvement, she said.
Like commuter advocate Cameron, she was skeptical of the planned public hearings.
“This administration controls every department and every commissioner. In this case, it is very clear: This is what has been happening with rail fare increases. We have public hearings but then they go about what the governor tells them to do.”
A bill to require changes in rail fares to be approved by the legislature did not pass last time around, she said, but the idea isn’t dead.
“We will have similar bills this session, you can bank on it,” Boucher said. “We will have a high level of interest.”
She also lamented the proposed service reductions to the branch lines, including eliminating weekend service on the Danbury branch serving Branchville station.
“This is brought up continuously,” Boucher said. “They always go to the branch lines because they wholly own those lines. It’s disingenuous. If they improved the branch lines they could increase ridership.”
She saw it in the context of proposals by Malloy to transfer state expenses to towns and cities.
“He’s threatened the towns with massive costs when he tried to bring teacher pension payments down. Now he’s trying to bully Fairfield County with service reductions that only hurt the economy more. It is counter to anything they said that they are pro-business,” she said.
“The last thing we need to do is cut back on service. We need better management of funds.”
Eliminating all weekend trains troubled her.
“There is an assumption people only work Monday through Friday, and that’s not true,” she said. “It shows a lack of understanding how much the rail lines are used.”