Rail fare hike opponents urge state to nix discount eliminations
STAMFORD -- Connecticut needs to press the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to consider other ways to close its $900 million budget shortfall before cutting discounts to New Haven line customers and adopting other changes that will increase the cost of traveling to New York City, Dmitri Vasquez, a Stamford commuter, told state transportation officials Wednesday night.
Vasquez, an internal auditor, told Connecticut Public Transportation Bureau Chief James Redeker and other DOT officials that replacing the New York subway system's flat fare with distance based pricing, a practice common in Europe, is long overdue.
Based on his experience, Vasquez also believes the Long Island Railroad runs too many trains, some of them more than a third empty during rush hour.
"I'm a middle-class guy, not a hedge funder, and every dollar counts," Vasquez said. "New York's budget issues are New York's, so let's leave them at the border."
Vasquez was the sole commuter joining half a dozen state legislators, area regional planning and commuter rail advocates who encouraged state transportation officials to block the MTA's proposal to cut discounts for tickets purchased by mail and Internet, and fight a new $15 fee to redeem unused tickets and other policy changes that would increase commuting costs and hassles.
Redeker and Connecticut DOT Rail Supervisor Eugene Colonese said Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the DOT, which must approve any fare increases, would deny the MTA's request to eliminate discounts on tickets purchased by Internet and mail.
Another hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at Union Station, 50 Union Ave., New Haven.
The proposal would cut a 2 percent discount on monthly commutation tickets purchased by mail, and also abolish a 2 percent discount on monthly tickets purchased over the Internet, along with a 5 percent Internet discount for all other types of tickets.
In addition to the refund fee, the MTA proposal would also reduce the validity of ten-trip tickets from a year to three months, and single and round trip tickets from six months to one week.
"Connecticut DOT does not support the fare increase through the discount elimination or fare policy changes regarding refund fees or regarding ticket validity," Redeker said. "That's the position we are taking and will be taking in discussions with the MTA."
State Rep. Lile Gibbons, R-150, said if enacted, the reduction of discounts and other changes would eliminate incentives that have likely helped retain some riders who would otherwise have curtailed their use of the New Haven line service.
Reducing the validity of tickets will also deter occasional travelers from spending on multi-trip tickets which provide additional revenue for the railroad, Gibbons said.
"Discounts for monthly tickets, discounts for monthly riders who purchase their tickets by mail or on the Internet, and 10-trip tickets, all promote rail ridership," Gibbons said. "Voiding single trip tickets after a week defies the imagination. Do you want longer lines at the ticket office every day?"
Cutting rail discounts and validity periods would put off potential riders who might move from car to rail travel once a significant number of the state's new fleet of more than 300 M-8 rail cars begin to go service, Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman Jim Cameron said.
Connecticut has committed $704 million, and the MTA an additional $219 million for the cars which are expected to be serving the public by the end of the year.
"Discretionary passengers will have to arrive early before each trip to buy a ticket meaning longer lines at ticket machines and potentially missed trains," Cameron said. "If somebody presents a 10-trip ticket with remaining rides worth potentially hundreds of dollars and told it is void they will be livid."
Sue Prosi, senior planner for the Southwestern Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the group, comprised of the eight chief elected municipal leaders from Greenwich to Weston wants Metro-North conductors to improve ticket collection.
The DOT is also continuing to consider written statements and exhibits concerning the proposals, which can either be submitted by e-mail to email@example.com or mailed to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, Office of Rail Operations, Union Station, Fourth Floor West, 50 Union Avenue, New Haven, CT, 06519.