Fare increase proposal dies

A planned fare surcharge for all Metro-North trips has been called off after more than 400 Connecticut commuters voiced their opposition to the rate hike.

The one dollar increase in all fares, which was to go into effect next year as a way to defray the cost of new rail cars, now appears dead, the head of the state’s rail commuter advocacy group said Sunday night. The state General Assembly is now considering new options for raising the necessary capital to pay for the commuter rail system upgrade, which will include up to 380 new rail cars to replace the aging existing fleet, though students said the dollar surcharge would not make much of a difference considering the already relatively high cost for a train ticket to New York City.

Passengers travel to Grand Central Station Sunday night. The route will not see an increase in fare following commuter opposition.
Jeff White
Passengers travel to Grand Central Station Sunday night. The route will not see an increase in fare following commuter opposition.

The planned surcharge would affect every train ticket sold, regardless of whether it was an $18.50 ticket from New Haven to Grand Central Terminal or a $3.00 hop to Bridgeport, said Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. While such an increase might not dissuade commuters from taking the train to New York City, local residents who commute within the state might be tempted to use a car and forgo public transit, he said. And commuters should not have to endure a fare hike for new trains until those trains actually enter service, he said.

“It’s simplistic to say, ‘Let’s just tack a dollar-per-ticket fare surcharge on when that penalizes most the people we’re trying to attract to taking the trains, and that’s the intrastate commuter,’” he said.

For those who buy monthly rail passes, the hike could have upped the monthly cost by $40, based on a round-trip commute each weekday, Cameron said. At that price, the congestion of I-95 might be worth dealing with, especially for commuters already frustrated with limited parking at stations and unreliable trains.

In a survey commissioned by the Council, nearly 90 percent of respondents — 428 of the 486 polled as of late Sunday — said they were opposed to the dollar increase, though nearly 60 percent said they would be willing to pay some fare increase to help defray the cost of new rail cars and maintenance facilities once the new trains enter service.

Faced with public criticism, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has asked two Fairfield County legislators to look into alternatives to raising all fares $1. The state must raise $150 million to pay for the new M8 rail cars, which are expected to come into service beginning in 2009 or 2010.

“The commuters have clearly spoken out on this issue, so the ball is in [the legislators’] court to come up with some kind of a more equitable solution to keep funding coming for more rail cars but not go to the well again and ask for more money from commuters,” Cameron said. “The dollar fare surcharge is as good as dead at this point.”

Students said the fare surcharge would have little effect on them, as the peak fare from New Haven to Grand Central Terminal is already almost $20.

Considering the convenience of taking the train to New York or southwestern Connecticut compared to driving, an extra dollar each way should not be a deal-breaker, Basie Gitlin ’10 said. The state would not be cashing in on consumers with a small rate hike, he said, but merely doing what is necessary to keep the commuter rail system financially viable, he said.

But Christian Csar ’10 said Metro-North is already very pricey, and the fare surcharge would only make things worse. A 90-minute train ride from his hometown to Chicago only costs about $7, he said — compared to the $18.50 for the similar-length commute to New York on Metro-North.

“It seems very expensive compared to commuter rail where I live,” Csar said. “But I think infrastructure investment is very valuable, and a good transportation system is very valuable.”

While the General Assembly works out an alternative to the fare surcharge, additional service on Metro-North’s New Haven line is to begin April 1. Five new morning trains will add 600 seats for those commuting to New York City and 950 seats for intrastate commuters, Rell’s office announced earlier this month. The new service will also shave as much as 14 minutes off the daily commute for thousands of riders.

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