Malloy plans commuter council change
Published 5:39 pm, Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Connecticut Commuter Rail Council members and area legislators expressed shock and opposition to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposal to disband the group and replace it with a newly constituted advocacy group for commuters.
Under the proposal, put forward as part of a bill targeted at eliminating or consolidating citizens advisory groups to improve efficiency, Malloy would also select the new group's chairman, a choice previously left to council members.
The legislation, Governor's Bill 6363, would also eliminate language giving the council power to request and receive rail performance information from Metro-North Railroad, the state Department of Transportation and other agencies.
"This is one place where the commuter has an independent voice, and the minute you put it under the governor's purview, it doesn't work," said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.
"This is like the superintendent of schools picking the head of the Board of Education ... and you can imagine how independent that person would be."
The proposal also dictates the new council include Shore line East commuters and a chief elected official from the area of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line, which is to go into service in 2016. Under the proposal, the new council members will be appointed by Aug. 1.
Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman Jim Cameron said he believes the decision to give Malloy appointment power for the chairmanship post and elimination of the power to request information would weaken the group's ability to serve as a watchdog.
Cameron said the council was successful last September in getting more Stamford commuters to turn out at a DOT hearing on proposed redevelopment of the station's parking garage and speak out against proposals to move the garage farther away from the station.
"We didn't have a lot of power to begin with. The only power we had was to request information, that boards, commissions, public authorities must cooperate with us," Cameron said. "The way they are describing, the council makes it sound more like a public relations wing for the DOT and Metro-North to say, `Look at the great things we're doing,' and not something that people who care would want to be part of."
Cameron, who has chaired the group for 11 years and pens a weekly column, "Talking Transportation," said he believes some of his more strident criticisms of Malloy and the DOT for New Haven Line service problems might have provoked a proposal to overhaul the council's composition and current membership.
"I make no apologies for what the council has done on behalf of commuters but maybe in my own column I have said some things in an impolitic manner because I tend to be rather frank," Cameron said. "I'm sorry that it looks like the powers that be think it should not just be me but the entire council that should be replaced."
DOT Commissioner Jim Redeker said he viewed the proposal as an attempt to expand the council's reach to include representation for future riders of the $880 million New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line. Redeker said it was incorrect to assume current council members would not be reappointed.
"I think what I see as the goal of a commuter council is to work as an advisory group in support of customers and I see nothing that excludes that," Redeker said. "There is a need to expand the council through a new corridor and how that gets done is less important than the outcome of it being done."
Redeker also said the decision to have the governor choose the chairman would not threaten the group's autonomy, stating he believed the Malloy-appointed heads of the state's Airport Authority and Capitol Region Development Authority addressed customer-related issues without compromise.
"I don't see that undermines at all providing strong and significant leadership," Redeker said. "I can attest the governor's appointment doesn't lead whatever organization to be less committed to strong leadership."
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said she sees no reason for the changes in Malloy's proposal beyond expanding the council's authority to represent the new line.
Lavielle has proposed legislation, House Bill 5449, that would expand the council's power to represent those riders on service issues.
"I can't see a reason for doing this or giving the governor the authority to name the chairman who was always elected by the members of the council," Lavielle said of the proposal. "You can certainly expand the mandate of the council without doing this."
Terri Cronin, vice chairperson for the commuter council, said its members and Cameron have helped bring about important improvements, including a Customer Bill of Rights for New Haven Line passengers in 2011, a customer satisfaction survey, and keeping commuters informed about policy changes and other decisions affecting their commute.
Cronin said the selection of commuters to the council is important to identify and speak about less obvious and more rarely discussed wants or needs, like maintaining the bar cars or drawing attention to crowding on trains to Yankee Stadium.
"I'm concerned that the council will not be advocating for the commuters as much," Cronin said. "I worry that this is to shut us down and push it towards more what the government wants to hear and not what the commuter wants."