Citing increased fares, clogged highways and leaky train cars, Connecticut commuters and local representatives have been demanding a remedy for the condition of transportation throughout the state for some time. Responding to the complaints, Gov. M. Jodi Rell promised significant improvements to rail and road transportation earlier this week.
At a rally Tuesday designed to draw attention to Connecticut’s transportation problem, a representative of the governor read a statement promising a major transportation proposal in Rell’s upcoming budget. Rell’s press release said she is also petitioning New York Gov. George Pataki for a voting seat on the board of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Though she revealed no details about the budget, Rell did say that a seat on the MTA would give the state more power over the Metro-North commuter rail — which is owned by the MTA.
“Over the years rail service has suffered because Connecticut does not have an equal voice before the MTA,” Rell’s statement read. “I believe it is time to assert Connecticut’s rightful place at the MTA table to assure that state needs are addressed.”
Rell’s statement came after a hard year for Metro-North riders. In addition to multiple fare increases, commuters have been faced with a crisis in maintenance, said Jim Cameron, the vice chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council — a state-mandated watchdog group. The 343 cars on the New Haven Line are five years past their expiration date, and at least 15 percent of them are out of service at any time even in good weather, Cameron said. During last year’s extremely cold winter, there were days when 140 cars were unusable, he said.
Cameron, who attended the Tuesday rally, said Rell’s proposal only served to divert attention from the true meaning of the event. He said her promises were relatively meaningless given the state of Connecticut’s transportation system. Real improvements, he said, are impossible without a major monetary commitment.
“I think it’s good that she is seeking a vote on the MTA board,” Cameron said. “But it’s deceptive to say that our aging cars and lack of maintenance are related to having a vote — The lack of leadership by [the Connecticut Department of Transportation] and the state in purchasing new cars caused this.”
But Chris Cooper, a spokesman for ConnDOT, said Rell’s actions were a step in the right direction. Cooper said Connecticut already has a seat on the MTA board, but the representative has no vote. He said ConnDOT and its commissioner applauded Rell’s petition to increase the state’s influence on Metro-North rail policy, and that his department had a good relationship with Rell.
“The Department of Transportation and its commissioner appreciate the governor’s support,” Cooper said. “Since she took office, she has made rail one of her top priorities. She has been very supportive of our initiatives.”
Adam Liegeot ’94, a spokesperson for the governor, said Rell has been working very hard to improve the New Haven Line. This December, Rell authorized a new garage in New Haven for Metro-North trains that would more than double the state’s repair capacity.
“The governor understands that while we work to build our fleet of trains, we also need to maintain it,” Liegeot said. “The new $18 million rail repair facility in the New Haven Rail Yard will be a big help in the Department of Transportation’s continuing efforts to improve service.”
Mayor John DeStefano Jr. warned against jumping to conclusions over Rell’s statement before her budget is revealed in early February.
“It’s too early to tell whether she’s doing enough,” DeStefano said. “She hasn’t even presented a budget yet. It’s fair to give her a chance to respond and see what she comes up with.”
Recently DeStefano has been vocal about New Haven’s rail needs. In addition to protesting ConnDOT’s proposed Metro-North fare increases this November, he joined officials from Hartford and Meriden this summer in calling for a new commuter rail line from Springfield, Mass. to New Haven. The mayor believes New Haven needed much more than just additional repair bays, his spokesman Derek Slap said.
“The mayor applauds the move [to build a repair facility],” Slap said, “but at the same time he doesn’t think commuters deserve the fare increase that was just forced on them or the long delays, thanks to outdated cars that break down in bad weather.”