“They’re going to have to do something this year. They cannot avoid this issue. They’ve kicked this can so far down the road, they’ve run out of road,” said Jim Cameron.
The “can,” the state’s looming shortfall for funding a long list of transportation necessities, is in part the topic of a virtual talk by Cameron on Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. hosted by the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme.
Cameron is no doubt the most vocal advocate (and critic) of commuter rail and transportation in the state of Connecticut – a Hearst columnist and regular contributor to CT Examiner.
His talk offers the opportunity for local readers and riders of Shore Line East, to ask what will become of rail ridership and service after the pandemic. “Will service be expanded… or cut? When will Shore Line East get new equipment?”
Ahead of his talk, we asked Cameron, is commuter rail less a solution to a problem at this point, than a problem in search of a solution?
The following is an edited account of the conversation that followed.
Cameron: Well, I think commuter rail is still essential to the state’s economy. It’s essential to some people who still have to get to their jobs, but you know ridership is slowly coming back … they claim that rush hour weekday commuting is still in the 20th percentile of what it used to be. Weekend ridership is above 55 percent, why it’s up on the weekends? I do not know. I’m not sure where these people are going or what they hope to do when they get to New York City, because the restaurants are still not open, the museums are closed, Broadway’s closed, but they’re going so I think it says that people are not afraid to take transit, but they don’t have to take transit. And my real concern, what I’ve been writing about in my column in CT Examiner, is what’s going to happen after we all get our vaccinations?
Will ridership come back to the strong numbers that it was before, and I think the answer is absolutely not, because I think people now realize … they don’t have to go to work to be able to work … there are any number of pieces of anecdotal evidence that big businesses are downsizing their real estate footprint because they don’t need to have five floors in an office building, they can probably get by with one or two, and that may mean you don’t have an office to go back to, maybe you’ll go in once or twice a week.
CT Ex: What does a steep loss of ridership mean for Connecticut’s rail service?
Cameron: I’m worried about the longtime implications of this to Metro-North which even when the trains were standing room only – crowded – could not break even. Every ride on the main line of MN was subsidized by 20 percent.
CT Ex: 20 percent? Which is about how many dollars per rider? Do you have the numbers for that?
Cameron: Every ride on the mainline – these are pre-COVID numbers – every ride on the mainline was subsidized by $3.25 per trip per passenger. On the Danbury line the subsidy was $17 per trip per passenger. On the Waterbury branch $24 and on Shore Line East $49.52. So, those were pre-COVID numbers when ridership was strong. If ridership is only 20 percent of what it used to be… uh, I’m not an accountant. Do the math. It means the subsidy is going to be huge.
CT Ex: And Metro-North is running empty trains…
Cameron: So yeah, right now they are running full [length] empty trains … because they want to give people plenty of room to spread out… every single night I look at somebody’s Twitter page I see pictures of an empty car with 3 people in it, and you know the question is, why are they running full trains? Can’t they save money by running shorter trains? Not really, not a lot, because the real cost isn’t the electricity to run the engine and pull that trains, the real cost is labor.
CT Ex: That puts the Metropolitan Transit Authority in bind. What’s their response?
Cameron: So, MTA has already announced no layoffs this year and no fare increase this year. And short of finding some miraculous bailout from the feds … the only other option is some reduction in service. So, they’re still trying to run rush hour trains – two or three trains an hour — to keep that service going, even though the ridership is de minimis. Off peak, they were running two trains an hour between New Haven and Grand Central … They’re now down to one train an hour for the main stations. If they reduce that to one train every two hours, which is possible, I think that’s going to lead to what DOT calls a ‘death spiral,’ — that’s going to lead to a further reduction in ridership because I’m not going to take the train if I have to wait two hours.
I’m not getting any bouquets or valentines from Metro-North, they are pushing back strongly – Catherine Rinaldi wrote a letter to the editor to the Hearst Papers, saying that the reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated, we believe in mass transit, etc.
But they’ve got to be doing something to figure out what the longer implications are going to be for this reduction in service if it does not come back strongly.
CT Ex: And all the bills introduced in the legislature this session to expand service to Waterbury, to Danbury, to New Milford, to extend Shore Line East to Westerly, RI.
Cameron: Anybody can drop a bill in the hopper… there’s a bill to name the state food pizza. There’s a bill to name a state dog. State Sen. Will Haskell has put a bill in to fine you twenty bucks if you don’t vote.
Look… I think extending Shore Line East to Rhode Island makes sense… that’s the only section of track on the Northeast Corridor that does not have redundant commuter service.
CT Ex: So, what’s the legislature’s role in this?
Cameron: On the record, I have previously referred to legislators as gutless weasels, because the implications of all this ballooning deficit on Metro-North is they’re going to have to do something about the Special Transportation Fund, which is going to the red this year. And when the Special Transportation Fund — which is mostly supported by gasoline taxes — goes into the red, Connecticut cannot issue any more transportation bonds and it really imperils other bonding issues as well.
So, the legislature last year, which were gutless weasels because they not even debate or vote on Lamont’s tolls proposal are this year going to have to do something.
You have this extra layer of the Transportation Climate Initiative to tax the oil companies for the privilege of polluting, and it looks like that’s Lamont’s ace in the hand, but I think it’s probably going to be some kind of gasoline tax increase. They’re going to have to do something this year. They cannot avoid this issue.
40 percent of the Special Transportation Fund pays debt service on already issued bonds – 40 percent is paying for the mistakes we’ve made in the past. They were even issuing bonds to pay off other bonds, and that can’t continue.
CT Ex: Speaking to Republicans and Democrats off the record – quietly — about tolling… there really wasn’t that much opposition to it.
Cameron: Yeah, I know. It’s really just the way that politics works right now.
This guy Patrick Sasser, who started NO Tolls CT, who lives in Stamford, he’s a fireman. And I commend him for amazing grassroots organization. On a pocket full change, and small donations, he tapped into the anger and the cynicism over tolls. Now, he’s picking up the gas tax. If the guy doesn’t run for the legislature, he’s crazy, because he could get elected in a minute and a half. He put the fear of the lord into everyone in the legislature. Vote for tolls… lose at the polls… and they were just scared shitless.
CT Ex: So, are all the plans for expanded rail service just “Happy Talk?”
Cameron: Well, if you take a longer-term view, we should always be investing in transportation. But if you take the short-term view, it’s hard to argue to continue doing the limited service we have even today, given the ridership numbers.
Yes, you have to keep the buses and the trains running for people who have no other choice — especially the buses. Those people are of a different demographic. If they don’t have a bus, they don’t have a job.
CT Ex: But for the regular commuters into New York City?
Cameron: In the long term, if ridership is systemically affected, those deficits are unsustainable. Almost half of revenues, pre-COVID, were from monthly tickets. 5 days a week? No one wants to go back to that…
CT Ex: That sort of takes me back to my original point…
Cameron: Somebody said, we’ve progressed more in technology in 10 months than we expected to 10 years…
What: “Off the Rails: Connecticut’s Transportation Future post-COVID with Jim Cameron”
When: Wednesday, February 10, 6:30—7:30 p.m.
Where: A virtual talk via ZOOM sponsored by the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme
Please register in advance here