by Jennie Brown, hello Bethel
A transportation forum on March 5 drew a full house to Danbury City Hall but provided few answers for the many people who stepped up to the microphones with their questions and concerns. At issue was Governor Malloy’s proposed bus and rail fare increases and service cuts as means to address a $60 million transportation budget shortfall.
Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner James P. Redeker began the forum with a 15-minute overview of the current fiscal situation. He explained that a significant historical factor that has led to this moment is the gas tax reduction in 2000. Since that year, the 25 cent per gallon rate has remained flat. If indexed for inflation, Redeker explained, the gas tax would now be 39 cents per gallon. Along with that loss of potential revenue over the past 18 years is the fact that the money has been diverted away from the Special Transportation Fund to fund non-transportation projects. Redeker added that factoring in the rising cost of debt service and the significant cuts already taken by the Department of Transportation (e.g., 15% staffing reduction) will force officials to work hard to find ways to cut costs and increase revenue just to maintain the transportation system. Redeker voiced his frustration over the fact that his department’s short- and long-range plans to improve and modernize the state’s aging infrastructure are postponed indefinitely. (Refer to this 12-page list for a town-by-town summary.)
During 90 minutes of public comment, concerns ranged from train affordability for daily commuters to bus schedule limitations for local riders. One commuter talked about the “decrepit” physical state of the trains on the Danbury line. Members of the community who regularly use SweetHART buses were vocal in their opposition to the proposed schedule cuts and fare increases, pointing out deficiencies in the system that currently exist. One commenter mentioned that night buses don’t travel as far as daytime buses, forcing people to either walk home or stay home in the evening. Another SweetHART rider explained that he has to be seated in his wheelchair at rear at bus, the bumpiest part, and wondered if the bus could be scheduled more efficiently since he is often the only rider. A SweetHART bus driver spoke of the inability of her riders to get to their jobs if service cuts went into effect.
Several people in the audience proposed solutions, ranging from advertising on buses to finding a more equitable, state-wide solution to the budget problem. The legislators at the forum sympathized with the commenters but only proposed one idea for creating a revenue stream. Speaking for the panel, Fred Wilms (R-Norwalk, New Canaan) said that the Legislature is proposing to speed up the timetable for redirecting car sales tax revenue from the General Fund to the Special Transportation Fund. “In terms of how we’d pay for that,” Wilms said, “we would look at spending reductions in general budget. That’s one option we’re working on.”
When other members of the panel were asked by audience members for specific remedies to the transportation budget shortfall, they did not provide details. Stephen Harding, one of Bethel’s Representatives, said, “Outside of garnering revenue, there are other areas of the budget we can address. Priorities have to be made. One of the biggest has to be transportation throughout this community. Bethel’s downtown is built around a successful train station.”
Harding also thanked Raghib Allie-Brennan, 2nd District State Assembly candidate, for advocating against the governor’s proposal. When reached for comment, Allie-Brennan, who helped bring Commissioner Redeker to Danbury for this forum, pointed out that “Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the U.S. Without daily trains, houses in communities on the Danbury Line like Bethel, Redding, and Danbury will be less desirable and property values will decrease, affecting local taxes. In my hometown of Bethel we have been working to develop the area in and around the train station, investing over $100,000 already. Cuts to the Danbury Line service will affect this investment, our downtown economy, and our hardworking residents who commute to work everyday.”
When reached for comment, William Duff, 2nd District Representative, deferred, stating that he wanted to focus on the bipartisan efforts in the legislature. Harding did not respond to comment for this article.