Transportation commissioner talks fare hikes, service reductions
Faced with rail fare increases and a plan to make “significant reductions” to service on the Danbury branch line, Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner James P. Redeker didn’t mince words with town leaders from western Connecticut.
“It’s devastating, and I’ll make no bones about that,” Redeker said at a meeting for the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, held at the RVNA last week. Redeker was asked about the proposed fare increases and service reductions by a member of the Norwalk Transit Authority.
The “philosophy,” he said, is to focus on making cuts to the state Department of Transportation, leaving the transit systems managed by local municipalities to fend for themselves.
The Connecticut DOT is currently facing a $60-million budget shortfall for transit and rail, the department said in a press release.
Britt Liotta, the chief operating officer for the Norwalk Transit Authority, who raised the issue with Redeker’s proposal, said those cuts would unfairly impact the elderly and limited-income riders.
“Our customers cannot afford Lyft, they cannot afford Uber,” he said. “We’re looking at taking lines off that are going to affect seniors, that are going to affect people going to their place of business.”
Redeker said the service cuts and rail reductions were just a symptom of a larger set of problems.
“My favorite hobby horse is that we have 26 bus contracts in Connecticut,” he said. The different bus companies don’t coordinate with one another, leading to a patchwork system, Redeker explained.
“Back in the 20s, the way you got the right to run a bus company was through a certificate — we don’t give out bus certificates anymore,” Redeker said. Now the process goes out to bid.
So, to simplify the process, he used eminent-domain laws to seize the certificates. That action was held up in appeal, however, he said.
Making changes to the state’s system of public buses might have to wait, Redeker said. The fare hikes proposed by the DOT also include a 25-cent fare increase for all bus service, though no route reductions have been proposed.
Service on the Danbury line, which includes Ridgefield’s Branchville station, would be cut back to only morning and afternoon peak trains heading in and out of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Off-peak train service — including weekend trains to and from New York — would be shut off completely. Those changes, if approved by the General Assembly, would go into effect beginning in July 2018.
The fare hikes would be phased in over a four-year period. The price of a rail ticket would go up by 10% on July 1, 2018, 5% on July 1, 2020, and another 5% on July 1, 2021. In total, fares are expected go up by 21.28%.
The fare hikes and service changes would affect service on Danbury line trains, which, for most residents, means Branchville station on the east side of town. Harlem line trains, including trains servicing Katonah station in New York, would be unaffected by the price increases and schedule reductions.
Kevin Moynihan, New Canaan’s first selectman, asked if light two-car trains could be used for off-peak and weekend schedules, instead of the large Metropolitan Transit Authority trains that are currently used.
But Redeker said doing so was not as easy as it sounds. A replacement for the off-peak train service would likely be in the form of buses, he said.
The state is required to hold a series of public hearings for community members to voice concerns. The service reductions and fare hikes are also contingent on the state General Assembly approving the changes proposed by the DOT.
The proposed changes will also have to go through a Service and Fare Equity Analysis (SAFE), which “evaluates the proposed changes to determine if they will cause a disparate impact on minority populations or a disproportionate burden to low income populations,” according to the DOT’s website.
For Ridgefield, the closest public hearing will be held in Stamford on Tuesday, Feb. 27, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the UConn Stamford campus auditorium (1 University Place), with a snow date of March 6.
Julia Pemberton, first selectman of Redding, noted that none of the hearings on the proposed changes will be held in towns directly affected by the changes to the Danbury line — though Stamford sits on the end of the New Canaan branch, which will also see service reductions under the proposal.
“They should have a hearing in a Branchline community,” Pemberton said.
Redeker said the proposed changes to the state transit system all come back to the state’s financial woes.
“Look, if there’s money, I build, and if there’s no money, I cut it all to pieces,” he said.