Metro-North fare hikes on track, but spread over three years
Connecticut rail and bus commuters will be hit with the first of a series of increases on Jan. 1 that will hike fares by more than 10 percent over the next three years under a plan announced last week by the state Department of Transportation.
Rail commuters on Metro-North's New Haven Line and Shore Line East will see fares increase 19.25 percent over the next seven years. CTTransit bus passengers are facing a 12 percent increase over the next three years.
The fare hikes were first proposed under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's "doomsday" budget when state labor unions initially rejected more than $1 billion in concessions.
State workers eventually ratified the concessions package, but the proposed 16.4 percent fare hike remained.
Rather than pass on the entire hike at once, the DOT announced it would spread the increases over the next three years. It is also implementing a series of 1 percent hikes approved by the state legislature over the next seven years to defray the cost of 405 new M-8 rail cars that are currently being delivered.
"Governor Malloy is a very strong supporter of public transportation, but over the past seven years operating costs have risen and fares have not," Juliet Manalan, a spokeswoman for Malloy said. "We have to improve the sustainability of operations across state government, including our transportation network."
In a statement, DOT Commissioner James Redeker said he considers the revised fare package less onerous than the earlier plan set to go into effect in November.
Operating costs on Metro-North Railroad have increased 12 percent since the last fare increase in January 2005, according to the DOT.
"While operating costs continue to go up, now that the state budget issues have been resolved, we can live with something less from the farebox," Redeker said in a statement. "I am also pleased we will not have to reduce any service."
Under the plan, CTTransit bus riders will see their base fare increase from $1.25 to $1.30 per ride in January 2012, a nickel less than originally proposed, to be followed by an additional four percent fare increases in 2013 and 2014.
On Friday afternoon, New Rochelle residents Louisa Ferrara and Judith Major said a 19 percent increase over the next 7 years would be hard to swallow. Ferrara and Major use the New Haven Line to commute to their jobs in downtown Stamford.
"Is it going to something that will be worth it?" Ferrara said of the increase. "Are they going to make repairs or buy new trains?"
Major said she thought anything more than a $2 increase in January would be an unreasonable fee hike.
"That's a big jump," Major said of the increase. "You have to figure it into your budget. Maybe I'll start driving. I'll have to do the calculations with gas prices to see if it's worth it."
For most rail commuters, the fare hike will translate to a 75-cent increase on a peak ticket, but will add $13 to $21 to the cost of a monthly pass.
Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart said that the fare increase is in keeping with Gov. Malloy's tax and fee increases in other areas to put the state on solid financial ground through "shared sacrifice."
"While there are other revenue enhancements in the budget adopted this year affecting the general Connecticut population, fare increases are paid by the very people using the trains and buses," Everhart said.
Everhart said the state's expenditure of $1.1 billion for 405 new M-8 railcars, and $1 billion to overhaul the New Haven Line's weather prone overhead catenary system also justified the hikes.
Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council which represents commuters said the administration's effort to tie major fare hikes to service and equipment improvements on the New Haven Line is unconvincing.
"What isn't recognized is that people are already sacrificing through the higher taxes they are paying and the higher costs of fees and services, whether it is obtaining a driver's license or whatever," Cameron said.
Higher fares also will counteract Malloy's agenda to create jobs and add to Connecticut's reputation for high costs and regulation on businesses, Cameron said.
"It is encouraging people to look at New York or New Jersey as a more affordable place to live," Cameron said.
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, vice chairman of the state General Assembly's transportation committee said that rail commuters will forget their aggravation over the increase when they see improved service results from more new M-8 cars and the better performance from a new catenary system.
"With an increase in fares there has to be better service by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the DOT," Duff said. "When you are asking for more you have to give a little something in return, and that means better service."
Since July state legislators and rail commuter advocates challenged the size of of the proposed rail and bus fare hikes as economically harmful when viewed along with other tax increases Malloy's administration had approved.
When state workers accepted a package of $1.6 billion in wage and benefit concessions, opponents argued the administration's argument that the fare hikes were needed to maintain the state's financial health had been lessened.
The fare increases will create economic problems, and reflect Malloy's decision to pursue expensive projects that could have been passed over like the controversial $567 million Hartford-New Britain Busway and the $880 million New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line, said state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.
"The governor's budget did not correctly understand the financial needs of the transportation fund and he increased the spending well beyond the revenue coming into it," McKinney said. "It's a project that had a lot of questions and the state cannot and should not afford right now."
Everhart said that the busway and other projects in different parts of the state are geared to improving the economy over the long term.
"The Busway will serve the Hartford region and the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line serves the entire central Connecticut corridor," Everhart said. "Aside from the obvious mass transit benefits, there are many ancillary benefits -- from reduced emissions to reduced congestion to reduced stress for commuters."
Kevin Emilien, who rides the bus from Stamford to his job at Taco Bell in Greenwich every day, said a 5-cent fare increase would affect his weekly budget.
"It will affect me pretty big," he said. "It will bring my paycheck down. I'll be spending those dollars a month that I could be saving."
Staff writer Kate King contributed to this report.