WATERBURY — If you build it, riders will come.
That was the conclusion U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) said he came to Monday after he rode the Metro-North branch train line from Waterbury to Bridgeport and chatted with riders about how improvements along the railway would benefit them.
“I heard over and over again, from riders on this line today, that they don’t (often) use it because of its infrequency,” he said. “And people told me that if there was more regular service, if trains were leaving on the hour or on the half-an-hour, they would be riding twice as much and their neighbors and their co-workers would be riding, as well.”
Connecticut officials, prompted by disgruntled riders, have lobbied the state and federal governments for years to improve the branch line. Passengers say that the train is not reliable — frequently it shuts down and riders are put on buses — and that it’s too infrequent. State Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker has called it “insane” that only one track line can go on the Waterbury branch at a time.
The inconvenience causes people like Bryan Lobaka of Waterbury to take the train sparingly. Lobaka is a physical therapist who practices in New York. He tries to take the train as much as possible, but because he has to wait hours for a train back at night, he often finds other transportation, such as driving on oft-congested Route 8 and Interstate 95.
Such stories have caused the state DOT to allocate money to the design and installation of a signalization system — like a traffic light — for the line. They would allow north- and southbound trains to safely pass each other, and would permit the DOT to add rush-hour and off-peak trains to the line, which has long been neglected.
Once the signalization is complete, the DOT would add passing siding, or sections of track parallel to a through line and connected to both ends. They allow trains traveling in opposite directions to pass and are particularly important on single-track lines.
While the DOT remains committed to the project, it will not be enough to offset the full cost. The department has pledged up to $7 million to design the signalization system, and the project could cost up to $70 million, according to previous estimates.
Murphy said the federal government needs to provide more funding.
Currently, he said, Connecticut’s rail system receives about $200 million from the federal government per year, which he called a “pittance” when compared to the demands of infrastructure repairs and expansion costs, which he said is in the billions annually.
Murphy, a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, said he and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are demanding that the next transportation funding bill “dramatically increase money for mass transit” or they won’t support it.
Murphy said the upgrades are necessary and noted that he spoke to people Monday who are losing money and valuable time with their families as they have to work around an inconvenient train schedule.
Jim Gildea, a train rider and vice chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, said commuters on the branch want two things: reliable daily service where passengers do not have to suffer double-digit days per year with busing substitutions, and reliable, commuter-friendly commute times that are not spread out every two-and-a-half hours, as they are currently.
“The governor’s transportation plan does call for signalized passing sidings and a new fleet of locomotives and coaches,” he said. “It is important that we are diligent in assuring that this work not only happens — happens quickly and on time — but more importantly that the state commits the resources to ensure that the additional service does, in fact, happen when that work is completed.”
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary said Metro-North has stepped up and provided better, cleaner service in recent months.
That is welcome news for communities like Waterbury and those in the Naugatuck Valley that are looking to attract people with moderate incomes from Fairfield County to live in communities that are more affordable.
O’Leary said someone can get a house in Waterbury for $150,000 that would cost $400,000 in neighboring Middlebury.
“If you can get to a job in Fairfield County in a reasonable time, why not live in Waterbury or Naugatuck?” he asked rhetorically.
He and Naugatuck Mayor Robert Mezzo said the trains have potential to help revitalize downtown districts along the Route 8 corridor.
Murphy agreed and said that will be a key selling point in getting what he admits will be hard-to-secure federal dollars for rail improvement.
“Improved rail lines will help communities by boosting economic development, which will bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars along the Route 8 corridor,” he said. “And we need to start demanding in Washington that the federal government be a true partner in these new state investments to make that a reality.”