Daniel Zhao

It was a sight to behold: Connecticut Department of Transportation officials in suits and ties stood quietly in line as speaker after speaker took the microphone and berated the staff about the proposed fare hikes and service reductions to the local transit system.

Elm City’s Hall of Records was bustling on Tuesday night with CTDOT officials, reporters and New Haven residents who had come to witness the state’s first public hearing on the proposed transit changes. The CTDOT announced on Jan. 30 that rail and bus fares were projected to increase by 20 percent over the next four years and 14 percent this July. Although ferry fares will also increase, off-peak and weekend rail service will be significantly reduced on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches, as well as peak-period service on Shore Line East.

“Are you joking, or are you on drugs?” said activist Wendy Hamilton, pointing at the CTDOT officials. “If you want a 10 percent increase, I want a 10 percent increase on my Social Security.”

The proposal is a result of state officials scrambling to save a floundering Special Transportation Fund that pays for construction and maintenance projects for transportation and infrastructure, as well as CTDOT operations, but is projected to become insolvent. This is because previous administrations have transferred financial liquidity from the Special Transportation Fund to the General Fund in times of need when deficits exceeded budgetary expectations.

CTDOT Public Transportation Chief Richard Andreski said the CTDOT manages operations, but has no control over the revenue side such as the Special Transportation Fund. When the budget fails to cover operation costs, Andreski said the CTDOT has a limited capacity to deal with the issue. He added that the changes in fares and service would not need to take place if the state increases the gas tax and implements highway tolls, such as those proposed by Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget.

But those aspects in Malloy’s budget may not pass since Republicans have expressed strong opposition to highway tolls. Without the revenue generation assumed in Malloy’s budget, rail fare will increase 21.28 percent over the next three years: 10 percent this July, 5 percent in July 2020 and another 5 percent in July 2021. Meanwhile, bus fares will increase by 25 cents to $2 and ferry fares will increase by $1, both of which will happen in July.

Dawn Bliesener, a New Haven resident, said she was disappointed with CTDOT, criticizing the possible changes as detrimental to poor people. She called for recognition of the “one in seven children in New Haven who go to bed hungry at night.”

Others who spoke out against the plan also emphasized that a poor transportation system could affect the livelihoods of working people.

“There have been job interviews that I’ve had to miss only because of the bus route,” New Haven resident Yaraliz Dippini said. “Honestly, waiting in the cold for hours is not fun, especially when you have to carry your daughter with you. Having to miss a job offer because the bus was late or never showed up is not fun.”

Two members of the city’s Board of Alders chimed in with their own concerns.

Ward 20 Alder Delphine Clyburn emphasized that transportation is essential in residents’ daily efforts to get to and from school or work, calling the rate increases “insane.”

“Increasing fares will make transit unaffordable for the most vulnerable population,” Ward 8 Alder Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said. “And New Haven is already one of the most economically unequal cities in the state and the country.”

Greenberg raised concerns that the fare hike will damage the state’s attractiveness to potential developers and threaten projects already underway. He further projected that commuters will be incentivized to travel by car rather than public transit, which would increase traffic on the already congested I-95. He called on the CTDOT for more creative solutions, describing its current proposal as “misguided and short sighted.”

With the CTDOT’s current plan, paratransit van services will also become more expensive with a fare increase of 15 cents. Since many of the users of this service cannot drive, one speaker said, dependence on mass transit is inevitable, making these residents particularly vulnerable to even slight policy changes.

“We get poor service, man,” said Kurtis Kearney, who is Ward 11 co-chair and sits on the New Haven Commission on Disabilities. “I invite you to pay some people to ride buses in wheelchairs or scooters. These fares will cut into money that is needed for food and medication.”

Yale-New Haven Hospital, one of the largest employers in the Elm City, would be affected by the potential changes, according to Rodney Slaughter, who manages parking and transportation for the hospital. He noted that hospital staff would be more likely to opt for cars if the number of off-peak trains goes down. As the institution is a 24-hour operation, workers need a mode of transportation that safely takes them back home late at night or early in the morning, he said.

If left as is, the Special Transportation Fund will accumulate a budget deficit of $380 million by 2022.

Nicole Ahn | sebin.ahn@yale.edu