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Interview: Commuting Guru Jim Cameron Discusses Conn.'s Transportation Woes

John Minchillo

Being a commuter in Connecticut can be a challenge. Trains get delayed, moveable bridges get stuck, roads are riddled with potholes, and don’t get us started on the traffic.  

Darien resident Jim Cameron is on top of these issues. For almost 20 years, Cameron served on the Metro-North Commuter Council. He’s now a commuter advocate and blogger, and he recently sat down with All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner to talk about the transportation issues affecting the state.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Hi, Jim.

Hi, how are you?

Good, thank you. Last week you held an information forum on Connecticut’s transportation crisis. You called it "Tolls, Taxes and Trains." What would you say is the most pressing transportation concern that Connecticut is facing right now?

Well, since back in—I guess it was December when the Governor announced the Special Transportation Fund which helps pay for roads and rails and bridge repairs and things like that, was moving into projected deficit—we have been facing a crisis in transportation in this state.

The Special Transportation Fund, if it goes into the red, will mean the state cannot issue any bonds. It cannot go to Wall Street looking for financing. We have a lousy credit rating as it is.

The problem was that the Department of Transportation can only cut their expenditures and raise fares while we’re waiting for the legislature to do something proactive to find other funding sources. So depending on what comes out of the legislature in these final days of the session, we’re still looking at a threat of July 1 for a 10 percent fare increase on the trains, on the buses, and a reduction in service on the branch lines, the New Canaan, Danbury, Waterbury, Shore Line and East Lines, cutting those back to just rush hour service. [Since this interview aired, the legislature voted to transfer money to the Special Transportation Fund to avoid fare hikes.]

Do you expect to see lawmakers push back on this fare increase on the trains?

Ironically, every time there’s a fare increase on Metro-North, ridership goes up. Half the riders on Metro-North make more than $150,000 a year. It’s the bus riders I’m worried about. A quarter of all bus riders make less than $10,000 a year. And to do anything to increase the cost of their transportation has huge implications. 

But it’s the service cuts that really concern me. If you take away midday train service from communities, even like New Canaan, we know that that’s going to make it difficult for people to get to their jobs if they are shop workers. The Roger Sherman Inn, a famous inn in New Canaan, said they may have to shut down because they can’t get their employees there on the off-peak trains. And it’s certainly going to decrease the value of real estate in those communities as well, too.  

A vote on a bill to create an electronic toll plan was cancelled last week by House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz because he said the bill didn’t have enough votes to pass. Have you found that commuters you speak with are in support of tolls?

I think commuters on Metro-North are certainly in support of tolls because they realize that they’re paying more than their fair share for transportation in this state. It’s motorists who, I think, are most opposed to tolls, obviously, because then they would be then asked to pay a little bit more for their commute to work. One motorist tweeted to me last week after the tolls vote was postponed, he said, “Just because you guys who take the train have an expensive commute doesn’t mean that mine should be expensive by driving.” I think he misses the point. The point isn’t that we’re asking motorists to subsidize mass transit, but we’re asking them to pay for the roads and the bridges and the damage they do driving to and from work.

In November, Connecticut residents will have the opportunity to vote to change the state’s constitution and allow for the creation of a transportation lockbox. That means funds that are earmarked for transportation projects can only be used for those projects and not allocated to other parts of the budget. Governor Malloy has been pushing on this issue for a while. Is this an issue that commuters care about?

I don’t think that there’s an appetite for rail or road commuters to spend a penny more without a lockbox. The Transportation Fund has been regularly raided—it’s more of a sieve than a fund—and until voters, motorists, rail commuters know that any additional money they spend is only allowed to be spent on transportation, there is absolutely no appetite for any funding increase.

Jim, thanks for coming on with us today.

Always a pleasure Bill, thanks.  

Jim Cameron is the founder of the Commuter Action Group. He also writes a weekly column about transportation called Getting There for the Hearst papers in Connecticut and maintains a blog called Talking Transportation.