Thousands of commuters depend on Metro-North to get them to and from Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan each day. That trip, though, may be about to get a lot costlier.
Gov. Dannel Malloy has made transportation a centerpiece of his second-term agenda, but funding large-scale transportation projects requires raising money. In July, his administration released proposals for a 5 percent fare hike on Metro-North’s New Haven Line — including its branches to New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury — and on Shore Line East, running to New London.
That fare hike would be added to an already-scheduled 1 percent increase, bringing the total proposed increase for the coming year to 6 percent. If approved, the hike will take effect in December.
The figure may seem small, but for commuters, it could mean hundreds of dollars more each year. A monthly pass from Stratford to Grand Central, for instance, currently costs $420; the new fare schedule would add $25 monthly — or $300 annually — to that bill.
Malloy has defended the fare hikes as necessary for funding his vision of an updated modern transportation network in Connecticut — and as part of a plan to offset a $37 million budget deficit in cuts to the state Department of Transportation.
“We subsidize, to a very great extent, the use of transportation generally, and more so the use of mass transit than other systems,” Malloy said in New Haven earlier this week. “That’s a reality, and we need to keep current. We don’t want to substantially increase the subsidy amount, and therefore from time to time you have to make an adjustment in fares.”
Speaking in New Haven earlier this week, Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said — after a press conference to announce the purchasing of 60 new cars for the line — that his department faced a choice. To balance the budget, they could either cut service or increase fares, which provide over half of the department’s operating budget for rail. Recognizing that commuters rely on regular service to and from New York, and that service is already operating nearly at full capacity, they chose the latter.
Not all are pleased with the increases. State officials have held a series of public hearings on the hikes over the last two weeks, offering an opportunity for residents to raise their grievances about yet another increase in the price of their commute.
One such hearing was held Thursday night in New Haven’s Hall of Records, where residents expressed frustration with rising fares.
Nina Byer, a Naugatuck resident who makes the long commute to and from West Haven every day, said she would like to see the fare increase come with improved commuting conditions.
“I just would like to see a smoother commute, a smoother tradition,” Byer said. “I travel from Naugatuck, and I go to West Haven, and there’s three different trains I have to go on to get to West Haven.”
Rep. Pam Staneski, R-Milford, was also opposed to the plan, criticizing the lack of service improvements in return for the fare hike.
To offset the Department of Transportation’s budget, Staneski said, the state should eliminate tax breaks for entertainment centers passed in the last session’s budget.
“The reason for my opposition is that, rather than receive service improvements in return for the increase, commuters are being asked to pay for gaps in the state budget that was passed this spring — a budget that I did not vote for,” Staneski said.
Republican lawmakers from across the state — many of them representing commuter-heavy towns in Fairfield County — have also joined the chorus opposing the fare hikes. Sixteen lawmakers have come together to circulate a petition against the hikes.
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton and a member of the General Assembly’s transportation committee, has been one of the effort’s most prominent voices.
“I will not let this go forward without a fight,” Lavielle said in a statement released earlier this month. “Commuters are not getting any improvement in their transit service in return for this increase. Instead, they’re being forced to pay for problems created by irresponsible management of the state budget.”
Opponents of the hike can claim bipartisan support, as Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, has also come out against the proposals.
Republicans have seized on Duff’s opposition to demand the Democrats call a special session to veto the fare hikes.
“Republicans oppose the fare hikes that are wrong for Connecticut commuters,” Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said in a Monday statement. “If Democrats agree with the Republicans that these rate hikes shouldn’t happen, then why aren’t we joining today for a special session … to do something about it?”
But improvements are not totally absent — in this case, the phasing in of 60 cars, including 10 bar cars, by 2019. Though Malloy and Redeker have denied that the new cars are meant to assuage commuters’ discontent over fare hikes, they may have that effect.
Bar cars — cars equipped with a full bar — are especially popular among commuters, and have been a cherished tradition on the New Haven Line since the 1970s. That tradition was abruptly terminated in 2014, when the line updated to new cars, provoking outcry among commuters, but their reintroduction will likely raise spirits.