No fare hikes, rail cuts in state budget

WATERBURY — The $20.8 billion budget Gov. Dannel Malloy signed last week eliminates the need for cuts to train service and public transit fare hikes scheduled to begin July 1, the governor announced.

“I am relieved that we were able to avoid drastic fare increases and disruptive service reductions,” Malloy said in a press release. “This is welcome news to the thousands of Connecticut commuters who utilize our buses and trains every day.”

Due to an expected shortfall in the Special Transportation Fund, the state Department of Transportation planned to increase rail fares by 10 percent and bus fares by 14 percent. The proposal also would have cut off-peak weekend train service on Metro-North Railroad’s three branches, including the Waterbury Line, which runs through Naugatuck and Beacon Falls.

Local legislators, riders and transit advocates ardently fought the proposal. They said reducing service at the same time as the state has invested millions of dollars to improve the Waterbury Line’s infrastructure is counterintuitive.

The plan would have disproportionately affect transit-dependent residents, while creating disincentives for new users, advocates said.

“Those with fewer mode choices and less ability to adjust to service changes and high fares would be forced to accept poorer service and higher transportation costs, while those who drive would not be required to pay more for their travels,” said Mark Nielsen, assistant director of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments.

Perhaps the biggest concern, Nielsen said, was the possibility of running fewer buses and trains, making the services even less convenient than they are now.

Also, reducing service would run counter to the goals of a $70 million signalization upgrade to the Waterbury Line that is underway. The project involves building passing sidings that will allow bidirectional train travel on the single-track railroad, allowing more frequent service.

The approved 2019 budget restores funding to the Special Transportation Fund by accelerating a plan to divert sales taxes from automobile purchases. That means an additional $29 million in 2019 and $120 million in 2020.

But it’s only a short-term fix to a long-term need for more public transit funding, said Jim Gildea, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council.

“While I believe they have addressed the fund for the short-term, I continue to believe that a long-term commitment to funding needs to occur, which includes protecting these investments via the lockbox, which will go to the polls this November,” Gildea said.