A crowd of people gathered Thursday night at Union Station, but instead of coming to buy tickets, most were there to protest them.
At a press conference held by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., concerned citizens, activists and city officials voiced their opposition to a proposed increase in commuter train fares scheduled for March 1 of next year. Members of the public took their grievances to the Connecticut Department of Transportation informational meeting that followed, turning a discussion on fares into a forum for complaints about service on the Metro-North system.
At his press conference, DeStefano criticized what he described as rising prices amidst decreasing levels of service. DeStefano said a lack of funding of commuter trains was hurting the Connecticut economy.
“This is about more than just a fare increase on Metro-North,” DeStefano said. “Since the beginning of time, jobs have been created around transportation.”
Connecticut’s rail system is in crisis, Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Vice Chairman Jim Cameron said. Despite paying the highest fares of any commuters in North America, Connecticut residents must deal with a growing number of breakdowns in Metro-North’s 30-year-old trains.
Cameron said the proposed fare increase has touched a nerve in the public.
“I have never heard commuters as angry as they are now,” he said. “At the information session last Tuesday night, they were talking about acts of civil disobedience.”
Representatives from Metro-North were present at the forum, but mainly served to report complaints and questions to Metro-North, rather than defending the company.
DeStefano said he believed it was possible to increase funding for rail service without raising fares.
“The state will say they don’t have the money, even as they build baseball stadiums and convention centers,” DeStefano said. “If you want to know why we have budget difficulties, it’s because we’re not growing our economy.”
Citizens who attended the Department of Transportation’s informational meeting spent little time asking questions. Instead, they complained about badly-maintained cars and fares that they said were unfair.
“This is one of the sorriest railroads I’ve ever seen,” Milford resident Peter Ziegler said. “Last month, it was raining outside and inside the cars.”
Rodney Chelot of New Canaan said the proposed increase in penalties for buying tickets after boarding would make some fares absurd.
“The ticket from New Canaan to Stamford is $3,” Chelot said. “If you add a $5 penalty to that, the penalty costs more than the trip.”
Connecticut subsidizes its rail system much less than other municipalities around the country, New Haven Director of Public Information Derek Slap said. Slap offered the example of San Francisco, whose commuters pay 28% of the per-rider cost of operating the train — the rest of the tab is picked up by the city and state. Metro-North commuters, however, pay 75% of the cost of each trip.
Slap said the current lack of funding could lead to trouble this winter.
“Last winter, one third of cars were out of service,” he said. “There aren’t even enough service bays to keep the cars we have in use. They’re working 24/7 and they can’t keep up.”