State legislators, transit riders turn out against train and bus fare hikes

“If I spend foolishly, I don’t get just go to someone else and say I need money.”

This was the complaint of Stamford’s Alison Tosches, who has been a bus rider since junior high school and a resident since 1963.

She stood strongly against the proposed fare hikes at a Connecticut Department of Transportation public hearing on Sept. 14. State representatives, mainly on the GOP side, from districts across the region attended as well to oppose the hikes.

The fare hikes come after a tumultuous budget season full of cuts and a massive deficit. The state DoT cuts resulted in a $37.5 million shortfall for the department, with a $18 million public transportation shortfall for the 2017 fiscal year. While many present at the hearing seemed sympathetic to the poor hand dealt to the department, many also implored the DoT to do whatever it took to avoid the proposed fare hikes.

The rate increases, announced in July, are part of the plan plan to implement the new fiscal year’s budget that began July 1, which will include both expenditure reductions across the Department’s budget and increased rail and bus fares that will collectively balance the Department of Transportation budget while preserving service, according to a press release from the state.

• Editorial: Fare increase is another one-way ticket to Hartford for Fairfield County dollars

The 5% increase would include all parts of the Metro-North New Haven  commuter line, including the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches and Shoreline east and would become effective Dec. 1 of this year. On the New Haven line, it would be combined with the 1% increase already scheduled for January, making the increase 6%.

Steven Kolenberg, a Republican member of the Stamford Board of Representatives, was the first speaker, and made it clear just how wide the impact could be.

“This badly impacts students, commuters, the elderly, and the disabled. Don’t put these people on the hook for the mistakes the governor and the legislature have made,” Kolenberg said.

Republican State Senator Tony Hwang also spoke on behalf of his constituents against the hikes.

“I’m here to represent the 100,000 people that were unable to share their frustrations and concerns,” said Hwang, continuing, “bad budgeting and bad leadership has created this environment.”

Hwang represents Connecticut’s 28th Senatorial District, which includes the towns of Easton, Fairfield, Newtown, Weston and Westport.

Like many of other representatives, Hwang pointed squarely at the majority party and the governor for the budget issues.  

“This 5% increase is the result of a poorly designed and implemented budget process,” said Hwang, who was not alone in his condemnation of the budget process while pointing to the fare hikes as a result.

Republican State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, who represents the 132nd district including Fairfield and Southport, was frank as well.

“The DOT received a cut, you’re trying to recoup that money. We all understand that,” Kupchick said, before looking at the issues on a wider scale.

”We were at a United Illuminating hearing last week to speak against a 30% increase. Everything is going up, except our salaries. Try to give the commuters a break,” said Kupchick.

Republican Laura Devlin, the state representative from the 134th district that includes Fairfield and Trumbull, spoke about the budget as well as her frustrated constituents.  

“This hike is to balance an ill thought out budget,” said Devlin. “This was said to be a no tax increase budget, and it has been anything but.  This is a tax on commuters,” Devlin continued, saying that the people in her district are “tapped out”, and that many have begun to form exit strategies for leaving the state as economic conditions worsen.

Republican State Rep. Gail Lavielle represents the 143rd district, which includes most of Wilton, and part of Norwalk and Westport, and was one of the first to make in important distinction.  “This has nothing to do with the announcement of the new cars,” said Lavielle.

Sixty new M8 train cars were purchased recently, but fares do not actually pay for capital spending.  

Along with that, “this has nothing to do with service improvements or a cost increase,” said Lavielle, who implored the DOT to try and give something back to commuters if they are going to raise fares.

Republican State Rep. Mike Bocchino of the 150th district in Greenwich took a very strong tone as he spoke.

“To raise the fare by 5% without offering any service is just plain wrong,” said Bocchino. Bocchino was, as were many others, sympathetic to the budget issues that left the DOT in this position it’s in, but saw this as an opportunity to take a stand against the budget process that brought about this situation.  

“We’re going to end up like Detroit, and we don’t want to see that happen. Have some courage. Kick this back to the governor. We are behind you,” Bocchino said to the DOT.

The final representative to speak was State Rep. John Steinberg on behalf of Westport, the lone Democrat official to speak out at the hearing.

“We are looking at today something that is contrary to the thrust of what we are trying to do as a state,” said Steinberg.

Steinberg spoke about spending years asking commuters to be patient, to trust the system, and that things are going to get better.

“Now, we’re saying perhaps we shouldn’t be trusted,” said Steinberg, “because after all those promises, you’re going to get a fare increase on top of that.”

A number of concerned riders spoke as well, all pointing to the poor service and lack of reliability as they argued against fare hikes. Some even spoke about no longer riding the rail or the bus at all, as the time and money they used to invest is simply too valuable.

Darien’s Jim Cameron, founder of the Commuter Action Group and active transportation columnist, spoke about a very grim future being possible for Connecticut.

“You’ll hear from angry commuters and lawmakers,” said Cameron, alluding to the alternatives to fare hikes put forth by some of the representatives, “but all of these are just a band aid on a dying patient. None address the real long term problem.”

Cameron and the legislators who spoke all acknowledged the need for real change to the budget process and pointed to the recent budget when they asked for systemic change.

“I know of nobody who is honest with commuters about what’s really coming,” said Cameron, “tolls on highways, higher DMV fees, mileage taxes, and more fare hikes.”

The hearing was one of two scheduled for the day. Those unable to attend were urged to submit their concerns via phone or email, and all who wished to be heard would be heard until 11:59 pm on Sept. 15.  

A summary of all public comment would be submitted to the Commissioner of the DOT along with a final proposal.  Should the fare hikes become reality, they would go into effect on December 1.