The Connecticut Department of Transportation held a public hearing at Union Station Tuesday night, but it appeared that someone forgot to tell the public about it.
Only four community members spoke at the hearing, which was intended to allow Metro-North riders to voice their opinions on a proposed 15 percent fare increase. No federal, state or local officials expressed their views on the proposal.
“So far we have more media than people,” said Harry Harris, chief of CDOT’s Bureau of Public Transportation.
Two additional public hearings are scheduled for April 23 in Fairfield and April 24 in Stamford. But Harris said he did not expect much higher attendance at those hearings.
“By and large, I think commuters are pretty satisfied with the service they receive,” Harris said.
But Jim Cameron, vice chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, said the lack of community members present should not have been construed as apathy. He noted that a commuter would have to be on a train out of New York City by 5 p.m. to make it on time to the hearing, which began slightly after 6:30 p.m.
Leonard Lapsis, CDOT’s supervising transportation planner, said there has been no increase in fares since 1998 and maintained that the higher cost was necessary to keep the service running. Lapsis noted that CDOT had increased fares moderately every year from 1992 until 1998 and said if that policy had continued, the total increase at this time would have been more than 25 percent.
The proposed higher prices would not go into effect until July 2003 at the earliest.
Cameron was the first public commentator at the hearing, and he stressed he was not speaking for the council itself. Cameron proposed a number of ways for Metro-North to decrease costs and increase revenue. He said CDOT should not fund any more marketing until they can offer better service, suggesting that limited seating and parking will drive many new customers away.
“We’re asking passengers to pay first-class fares and we’re not providing first-class service,” Cameron said.
He also called on CDOT to consider abandoning its contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, improve ticket collection, raise monthly commuter fares, increase the rates on Shore Line East and take back control of parking lots at stations. He also said CDOT should increase service by offering more trains and should charge passengers less if they have to stand.
“One train an hour off-peak is not enough,” Cameron said. “We could be running two or three trains an hour.”
He said another major concern is Metro-North’s aging fleet of trains, which he said is 30 years into a planned 25-year run.
Metro-North rider Markanthony Izzo said he thought a better approach would be to decrease fares and increase the number of trains. He also said CDOT should do a better job of advertising the hearings.
“You really need input from people who use the system,” Izzo said.
Regular commuters Gene Peck and Gustavo Rodriguez also raised concerns. Peck said he appreciated being able to take a train and do work on the way to the city, instead of having to drive. But he called for better connections between the trains and buses and said the hearings were poorly timed. Rodriguez said higher fares would only encourage commuters to seek stations closer to New York to try to save money. He also asked why the increased costs would not result in large improvements in service.
“I feel you’re creating an incentive for us to find alternative ways,” Rodriguez said.