The State Bond Commission approved a proposal to spend $300 million of special transportation funding on 60 new rail cars for Shore Line East and the Hartford Line. No bond funding was allocated to either the Waterbury or Danbury lines.
“We don’t have an endless supply of bonding money, especially in the Special Transportation Fund. We probably discussed this ad nauseam last year. Because we didn’t get new revenues in there, the Special Transportation Fund is slowly running dry. We had to set some priorities for what we spend it on,” said Governor Ned Lamont at a virtual commission meeting. “Right now, our biggest priority is maintaining a state of good repair and replacing the train cars that are running out their lease … we had to make some choices and these are the choices we made.”
The decision came as a shock to many, because the agenda distributed both last and this week included $360 million to be allocated for cars on the Shore Line East, Hartford, Waterbury and Danbury lines.
“The argument is that there is not $60 million available for Danbury and Waterbury or is it just a policy decision by OPM not to move forward with it at this time?” asked State Rep. Chris Davis of East Windsor and Ellington and member of the Bond Commission.
According to the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, the decision was purely financial.
“There is not $60 million available,” said Secretary Melissa McCaw. “In light of where we currently stand with transportation income streams … some of these rail cars were contemplated as part of our broader enhancement plan, a plan that has not yet been resolved.”
The lost revenue referenced by Lamont and McCaw would have come from reintroduced tolling and without this additional funding they indicated that the state would focus on maintenance rather than improvements to the existing lines.
For riders on the Waterbury and Danbury lines the decision is devastating.
“These train cars are vital to renewing economic activity in the Valley and to cut funding for them when they’re needed now more than ever is a punch to the gut. We’re calling on the Bond Commission to re-add them to tomorrow’s Bond Commission meeting,” tweeted the Naugatuck Valley Young Dems before the meeting.
Although the rail cars on the Waterbury and Danbury Line are in considerably worse condition than the newly refurbished cars on the Hartford line, those cars are leased from the State of Massachusetts, which has asked for their return.
“We paid $9 million for these cars to be re-serviced and now we are returning nicely refurbished cars to be used on the rail lines in Massachusetts after it was paid by us here in Connecticut,” Davis said in exasperation at the Bond Commission meeting.
That is indeed the case, but the state has little alternative.
“We will be returning them enhanced, but we are going to have a partnership with Massachusetts and we hope to keep that partnership going and utilize it as a part of our Hartford Line service and our shoreline service,” said Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giuletti.
The rail cars were leased in 2018 from Massachusetts when the Hartford line was first established because there were no other cars available for purchase. The 60 cars funded at the hearing today will not be ready for service for at least four or five years.
“I would love to say that we can use these cars for the Danbury and Waterbury lines, but right now [Massachusetts] needs the cars because they’re short on cars,” Giuletti said. “We are looking to see if anything else becomes available. We will keep you informed.”
It is not just that Waterbury and Danbury will not be receiving rail cars that has upset Davis and others, but the way the decision was made.
“On behalf of my colleagues all throughout the valley, there is a lot of disappointment about the decision that was made and especially the manner in which it was made,” said State Rep. Jason Rojas of East Hartford and Manchester. “Finding out about this last night and this morning … I hope you’ll give it serious consideration in the future.”
The State Department of Transportation informed the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council of the decision the night before the Bond Commission meeting, with no time to offer an alternative proposal.
“This is very disappointing and somewhat confusing given that the agenda that had been posted for last week’s technologically-challenged meeting and today’s both indicated 72 cars for us on all four lines,” said Jim Cameron, a former council member and founder of the Commuter Action Group.
Cameron acknowledged that the ridership on all the branch lines is low and operating costs combined with rider subsidies is a significant expense for the state. As of 2019, the per-rider subsidy on the Danbury line was $17.04, on the Waterbury line was $24.46, on Shore Line East was $49.52 and on the Hartford Line was $55.72.
“The per rider subsidy is really high, but the service on the Waterbury branch is just abysmal,” Cameron said. “One would think that if they improved the service, ridership would go up and then the cost for the state would go down.”