By Jim Cameron
Commuters: who’s looking out for your interests as you deal with our roads and rails? Good question, eh?
Way back in 1983 when Metro-North was created, the Connecticut legislature realized that rail riders need advocate watchdogs, so they created the CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, a body on which I served for 19 years, four as Chairman.
Taking advantage of the recent heat wave, I was doing a little “spring cleaning” and came across that Council’s Annual Report from 2007. It was really discouraging to see that many of the problems with train service that we identified 16 years ago are still with us: fare increases, crowding at rush hour, lack of parking at stations, the crumbling Stamford station garage and the lack of Wi-Fi on trains.
We did have some victories: the ordering of new M8 cars, expanded service on the branch lines (especially Shore Line East) and much improved communications by Metro-North with commuters when there are delays.
Apparently the Malloy administration found our constant complaining too annoying and tried to stifle us by legislating the Council out of existence. With the help of some lawmakers we stopped that muzzling effort and the Council was reborn as the CT Commuter Rail Council, ably led by Chairman Jim Gildea.
Once again, the Council’s advocacy harped on the same themes to little effect, although the Council should be credited for a 44% increase in service on the Waterbury branch. The Council has also been a strong advocate of the soon-to-open new Stamford garage.
But despite the Council’s best efforts, lawmakers have plowed ahead with further cuts in Shore Line East and soon-to-be-announced reductions in trains even on the main line. All of the Council’s crankiness again got under the skin of the Lamont administration and the Democrats made another effort to suppress the Council’s powers, this time under the guise of expanding its mandate.
Thus has been born the new CT Public Transportation Council, now representing both rail and bus riders… a near impossible task given the state’s geography and, as in the past, a lack of any funding to do their work.
So yes, the 15 volunteer commuters who serve on the new Council do so by digging into their own pockets to pay for a website, Zoom account and their own transportation costs to and from meetings.
Will this new Council be any more effective than the old ones? Doubtful.
Advocacy Councils such as these are a great way for pols to gather all the complainers in one place, give them the illusion of power and influence and get them to prepare reports and studies which never get read or acted upon.
Just watch in September when the CDOT holds mandated Service & Fare Equity public hearings on planned fare hikes and service cuts. The CT Public Transportation Council will be there, front and center, rallying justifiably angry commuters. Good for them.
But it’s all just political theater: cathartic but ineffective. In over 25 years of attending such hearings I have never seen “public comment” change a planned change, especially one baked into the budget.
Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. His weekly column “Talking Transportation” is archived here. You can contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.