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Will Commuters Come Back? Fairfield County Transport Officials Search For Solutions

empty bus
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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The COVID-19 pandemic decimated ridership on Metro-North Railroad, Connecticut’s main artery to New York City — leading to extensive service cuts. Riders still haven’t fully come back. Some experts are using the crisis to look for ways to rethink transportation in the state.

Before the pandemic, trains ran twice an hour along much of the New Haven Line during off-peak times. Now they only run once an hour. Even though there are fewer trains, they can still be crowded. A conductor at a press conference in Stamford last month remarked on how trains have been getting more crowded and wondered how they can still practice social distancing on trains when all that they have been asking for is more service.

Connecticut transportation commissioner Joseph Giulietti reassured him.

“We know what our ridership is at,” Giulietti said. “We are projecting and hoping that what you’re seeing on the highways is going to happen on the rails as well. And as that happens, we’re going to adjust. And we’ve just recently adjusted in terms of putting some additional trains on and we’ll continue to do that as we see the need for it is met by the demand.”

On WSHU's weekly talk show "The Full Story", Tom Kuser discusses solutions to getting people back on the trains and buses.

Metro-North ridership during the pandemic plummeted to less than 10% of its original levels.

But Metro-North still has a way to go before it’s rebounded from the pandemic. Jim Cameron is the founder of the Commuter Action Group, an advocacy group for riders. Cameron said before COVID hit, Metro-North was firing on all cylinders. It was standing room only on rush hour trainers. He called it a “seller’s market.”

“We were in an environment where Connecticut was a feeder to midtown Manhattan. Tens of thousands of commuters every single day got on those trains, went into their jobs in New York City, then shuffled back home at the end of the day…. The trains were jammed, and commuters had very few alternatives,” Cameron said. “COVID has taught us we don’t need to do that.”

A Metro-North train in Stamford, Connecticut.
Credit Lil Keller / WSHU Public Radio
WSHU Public Radio
A Metro-North train in Stamford, Connecticut.

As fares kept going up, so did the demand. But ridership during the pandemic plummeted to its lowest, less than 10% of its original levels.

“Those people were people who had no choice. They were first responders; they were health care workers. They absolutely needed the trains to get to their jobs. And to their credit, Metro-North was there. They kept service going,” Cameron said.

Currently, more people are riding on weekends but a lot less are riding during the week. Weekday ridership is less than half what it was before the pandemic. Cameron said reliable daily commuters have still not returned and he worries they may never return.

“Many of the commuters who have gone back to their offices are driving,” Cameron said. “Traffic is getting back to the old normal. What’s going to get them back on the train?”

Cameron said commuters also want faster trains and lower fares. The solution may be as simple as restructuring the timetables. Fewer trains mean faster trains.

“So rather than having a train run from Grand Central nonstop to Stamford and then make every local stop all the way from New Haven, have it run in zones. Maybe have the first train stop in Stamford, then the next stop will be Bridgeport. And the train that follows it might pick up the intermediate stops,” Cameron said.

Making The Most Of Regional Buses

An old counterpart in transportation, the regional bus, has been suggested to pick up the load. Doug Holcomb is the general manager of the Greater Bridgeport Transit Association.

Buses leave the Bridgeport Bus Station to run along streets throughout Bridgeport and its surrounding towns — along the coast from Norwalk to Milford, and up into Bridgeport suburbs like Trumbull. Holcomb said the bus had its rider hemorrhage in the early days of the pandemic. But the bus’s core riders, the “everyday folks,” didn’t go away.

Bus ridership in Bridgeport dropped dramatically, but some routes like Main Street in Bridgeport and the Coastal Link bus stayed popular.

“A lot of the people in the peak of the pandemic — health care, grocery stores, all of those types of jobs and careers, those folks still continued to ride,” Holcomb said. “There’s a lot of riders here who don’t have an alternative to the bus and don’t have the option of working remotely.”

Ridership dropped dramatically, but Holcomb said some routes continued to have high ridership — like Main Street in Bridgeport and the Coastal Link bus.

“So we trimmed service — some routes that were down to one or two people, the suburban commuter express — and we kept those buses queued here for overflow buses. So if a driver called and said, I’ve got 15 people on the bus, we’d send another bus out on the route,” Holcomb said.

Now, like Metro-North, the GBTA is starting to look at whether some of those route changes should be permanent. The bus is more flexible than the train. It’s a lot easier to redirect a route from one street to another than to build a new track, and it can move as population centers change.

Bridgeport Transportation Center and bus station
Credit Lil Keller / WSHU Public Radio
WSHU Public Radio
Bridgeport Transportation Center

“The important thing about the future is frequency and reliability — and bringing people to the region who can come here without their car and live and work in the region,” Holcomb said.

John Garnett has lived in a variety of cities from Greenwich to Montreal, but never got a driver’s license. He is a lifelong bus rider.

“The whole point of having a great bus system, especially here in Bridgeport, is that you can connect the local rider from just within a couple hundred feet from their home or business so they can get where they need to go as opposed to having them only rely on a train or only relying on alternate forms of transportation,” Garnett said.

But Garnett worries the current bus might not be enticing enough to bring in the transplants from other urban areas who are used to more variety and frequency in routes.

“Everything is fragmented. So, you have a greater area that you could travel, and people are more connected to other areas instead of having to come downtown to do a hub and spoke transfer, which most of Connecticut is, is a hub and spoke with a downtown. But if you want to go out of the city your options are a little limited,” Garnett said.

Buses are trying new ways to encourage people to ride. They are waiving fares on the weekends through the summer. Commuters can also join CTRides, a program that allows members to build up points for taking public transit in exchange for rewards — like restaurant coupons and tickets to live shows.

But Garnett said there’s a stigma against public transportation that’s specific to Connecticut. He said you can look at how lawmakers decide to fund transportation projects — there’s a clear preference toward cars and drivers.

Garnett said it would be better, “if our local elected officials keep up with the trends of who’s moving where and how they’re riding and why they’re riding, as opposed to arbitrarily funding this, funding that, cutting this, making highway improvements without sidewalks.”

GBTA President Doug Holcomb said riders contribute a lot, but transit services can’t exist on fares alone.

“Our riders are like your sustaining listeners. They pay for about 30% of the operation. We’re looking at a revenue loss somewhere north of $400,000,” Holcomb said.

Bridgeport received about $12 million in federal COVID-19 relief to help offset the loss. Like other state transportation officials, Holcomb said federal funding is critical to keeping public transit afloat. They are counting on President Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. But that is just for the short term.

“So, the future of the agency and the funding and the service depends on an increase in the ridership and a declining dependence on federal investment — because that’s temporary,” Holcomb said.

College students make up a lot of Bridgeport’s regular bus riders. Many don’t have driver’s licenses yet, and local colleges and universities are convenient to the city’s bus routes.

Unlike many other daily commuters, college students will likely be returning to classes this fall in person. They will need a way to get there, and Holcomb hopes they will choose the bus. He said they will know this fall if that is enough to make the bus a permanent solution to the state’s transit gaps.

This story was made with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.
Jeniece Roman is WSHU's Report for America corps member who writes about Indigenous communities in Southern New England and Long Island, New York.
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