In an effort to balance its budget, the state Department of Transportation is threatening substantial cuts to transit services, including to the Waterbury branch of the Metro-North Railroad.
A proposal to mitigate the agency’s budget deficit calls for a reduction of both weekend and weekday off-peak service on the Waterbury branch, which runs through Naugatuck and Beacon Falls, and the Shore Line East, Danbury, Waterbury and New Canaan branches.
In addition to the cuts, the DOT plans to raise rail fares by 10 percent in July, followed by additional 5 percent increases in 2020 and 2021.
Meanwhile, bus fares are expected to increase 25 cents in July, and transit district subsidies will be cut at least 5 percent, the DOT said.
In Naugatuck and Beacon Falls, the plan to cut train service is a cause for concern among local officials.
“It does appear they are trying to curtail train service on the weekends, which to me demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the importance of the Waterbury branch line and the necessity of having service not only on the weekends, but more frequent service all of the time,” Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said.
Naugatuck officials are concerned how decreased service would affect the borough’s plan for a transit-oriented development project on the former General DataComm property along Old Firehouse Road, locally known as Parcel B.
“Cutting service is not acceptable. We want enhanced service. We want more service, not less,” Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Ronald Pugliese said. “If we don’t get enhanced service, the Parcel B transit-oriented development project would be that much harder.”
The project, which the borough has been working on with developer Ben Zitron since 2015, calls for a mixed-use building with commercial and retail space on the first floor and residential space on the upper floors.
Borough officials have said numerous times that the project is primarily waiting on more train service on the Waterbury line before it begins moving forward.
Pugliese said, if the service is cut, the project might not be able to move forward as both the borough and developer have envisioned it.
“I would think we would change the project. I can’t predict what the developer would do,” Pugliese said. “I really believe that project, with the enhanced service, would be very successful.”
Hess said it wouldn’t be hard for the state to add more train service on the line. He pointed out that the state has already set aside $70 million for the most needed upgrades — signalization, positive train control, and sidings that allow for two-way train service.
Hess said additional trains are the only things missing.
“With a reasonably small expenditure, by purchasing five locomotives and accompanying train cars, we can have service that more than doubles what we have now,” Hess said.
Aside from the planned train service cuts, Gov. Dannell Malloy and DOT Commissioner James Redeker last week released a list of $4.3 billion in transportation projects that are postponed indefinitely.
The move comes as the DOT’s Special Transportation Fund is poised to become insolvent, DOT Spokesman Kevin Nursick said.
Although the upgrades to the Waterbury branch line are not among the projects postponed, the purchase of any new train locomotives and train cars have been postponed, he said.
However, Nursick said there is no guarantee the funding for the upgrades along the Waterbury branch line will remain in place.
“There is certainly potential that things could get worse. It’s all about the funding,” Nursick said.
Connecticut Commuter Rail Council Chairman Jim Gildea decried the state’s plan to fund the upgrades to the line and then cut the service.
“It’s silly and short-sighted to have spent $70 million on Waterbury branch line upgrades and then not provide enough funding to continue existing service,” Gildea said.
Beacon Falls First Selectman Christopher Bielik said the cut in service would dissuade even more people from using the line.
“If people don’t have an expectation that service will be available at convenient times and easy for them to use and reliable, they look for alternatives. If we could institute more and better service, more riders will use it. If you build it they will come,” Bielik said. “Scaling back hurts the consumer confidence in that potential customers are being encouraged to look elsewhere. That is a dangerous path to go down.”
Hess said if the state moved forward with the increased service, it would be a boon to the Naugatuck Valley and the state as a whole.
“It is a very easy fix for the state to get a much more vibrant Valley that would greatly enhance central Connecticut and probably be the best thing for the entire state of Connecticut,” Hess said.
Hess pointed to Katonah, N.Y., which is along the Harlem branch line, as an example of a municipality that was improved by frequent train service.
“It is booming. And it is booming for one reason and one reason only — because they have frequent train service that allows people to go to New York City,” Hess said.
Hess said the Naugatuck Valley would benefit even more than Katonah from the increased service.
“In the Valley, it is even more critical because we need not only the ability to get to New York City, but we need the ability to get to Stamford, to Bridgeport, to Shelton, to New Haven. By having frequent train service, people can live there and work here or work here and live there,” Hess said.
Rather than looking at the roughly $4 billion in projects it can’t do, Hess encouraged the state to look to the train line as an easy win.
“They should focus on little things and get a win. They haven’t had any wins. This is a cheap way and easy way to get a huge win for the state,” Hess said.
The Republican-American contributed to this article.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Katonah, N.Y., is along the Danbury branch line of the Metro-North Railroad. The town is on the Harlem line.