Metro North’s passengers are not happy, and with good reason. The commuter rail system, which is one of the largest and busiest in the country, has had a very bad year, and riders on the New Haven Line have been bearing some of the worst of the burdens.
New Haven Line Commuters blasted Metro-North officials at a recent “commuter speakout,” complaining of delays, unheated trains, slow response and general frustration. This all follows a year that saw a tragic derailment, massive service disruptions, and all kinds of other problems. Meanwhile, fares continue to rise; a 5 percent fare hike went into effect this January. Commuters are fed up; they feel like nobody in Hartford or New York is actually listening.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has taking over management of the MBTA’s commuter lines in Massachusetts, and suggested that something similar could happen here. After all, Connecticut owns the rails the trains ride on all the way down to the New York border.
Is this the solution — to switch operators to someone who might be more responsive? After all, there’s no telling when the MTA will get their act together, and the only real hold Connecticut has on them is the ability to renew their contract every five years. We are in no way represented on their board, which is appointed by various New York officials.
Don’t hold your breath, though. As attractive as ditching the MTA for some other railroad operator may seem, it’s probably not going to happen. The MTA has been running this line for a long time, and any change of operators would likely cause even more massive disruptions without guaranteeing any future success. It’s also complicated; what would happen to trains after they crossed into New York? Would we still have to shell out huge amounts of money to the MTA for access to their system?
Therefore, things haven’t gotten to the point where it would make sense to switch out the MTA for another quasi-public corporation. Unfortunately, that means entrusting your ride to work to a company you have next to no control over and no real alternative to — unless you think driving on I-95 during rush hour is fun.
But at some point, we need to really think about how we run public transportation in this state, and whether the patchwork transit system we have now actually makes sense. For now, the MTA runs the New Haven Line. But in a few years the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line will start running. Who’s going to operate that? The other commuter rail line in Connecticut, Shore Line East, is run by Amtrak. The state DOT’s CTTransit operates buses in most cities, but not all. New London County has its own system, as does Middletown, Bridgeport, and a bunch of other places. Heck, the town of Enfield runs its own two-line bus system.
The reason why this piecemeal system exists is partly because we like local control, but also because the state doesn’t have the money to run and maintain everything. The legislature raids the special transportation fund with regularity. This is supposed to stop in 2015, but I’ll be surprised if legislators don’t find some way around that.
New Jersey found itself in a similar position in the 1970s, and decided to create one single agency that runs pretty much everything — NJ Transit. Its board is appointed by the governor of New Jersey, and includes members of the general public.
The benefits of having a single public corporation that’s accountable to the people of the state like this include better transit planning and direction, easier access to different parts of the state, and hopefully better customer response times. New Jersey’s transportation fund, unlike Connecticut’s, is protected in the state constitution.
If we learn nothing else from Metro North’s catastrophic year, it’s that we have to plan better for the long term, and develop transportation plans that focus on the people who travel by rail and bus. It’s time to come to terms with the fact that public transportation is a big part of this state’s future, and that it can’t just be an afterthought anymore.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.