Dan Haar: Malloy’s high-risk victory ride on the rails
It’s a long ride on public transit from central Massachusetts to Manhattan for Colin Schimmelfing, a 20-something software engineer from Northampton, now living in the city. He appreciates the new upgrades along the stretch down the Connecticut Valley to New Haven.
Before that commuter line opened in June, he said, “My parents would pick me up in New Haven.”
His friend Jessye Herrell, from Northampton, now Brooklyn, nodded in agreement as she rode the Springfield-to-New Haven rail Thursday afternoon. Up the aisle, Andre Shepley, a tech employee and grad student heading from his hometown of Springfield back to, yeah, Brooklyn, was in the same boat, er, train.
Okay, great. The CTRail line — with 17 round trips a day between New Haven and Hartford, and a dozen round trips from the state capital to Springfield — makes traveling to, from and through central Connecticut cheaper and easier — compared with the old, limited Amtrak service.
But what do we make of it? At a cost of $769 million to build, and an estimated $44 million to run in its first year, is it worth the cost?
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says yes, emphatically. He rode the line from Hartford to Springfield in that same car Thursday along with the U.S. Representatives from both cities, celebrating the service as part of his victory tour, or shall we say, legacy tour before he steps down Jan. 9.
More on the money in a bit. Suffice to say, it’s a hefty per-ride subsidy. Malloy and the congressmen — both senior members of the committee that controls spending — talked effusively about links between regions and the economic future.
Schimmelfing said it best, assessing the commuter line as he passed through a state that’s been a blur for him as a college student in Pennsylvania and now a resident of the Upper East Side.
“I always thought of Connecticut as a bedroom community for New York. This feels a little bit more like it’s got something going on,” he said, passing the historic Windsor Locks Canal. “That would make me more likely to want to live there. That’s why people are moving to cities.”
Aha. What’s the value of the commuter rail line if these young, highly educated people start to want to live in Connecticut?
In Schimmelfing’s view, it’s priceless if he can live in a place where he and his future partner can both commute to good jobs, not necessarily in the same place.
“It’s really important for people who come from where I come from,” said Shepley, who said some of his friends from Springfield have jobs in Connecticut.
For Malloy, and U.S. Reps. John B. Larson, D-1st District and Richard Neal, D-Springfield, it’s a reason to spend significant public money. The CTRail service is an add-on to existing Amtrak service, with some friction between the state and the national passenger railroad.
“This just makes so much sense,” Malloy said on the Hartford platform as the 4-car train approached from New Haven. “When I got into office there were no agreements in place to get this built by Amtrak, there was insufficient amounts of money...We had to pound it out with Amtrak to get it done.”
The service combines two existing Amtrak routes, seven new Amtrak-run commuter runs and the rest on CTRail trains with equipment leased from Massachusetts. It’s on pace to exceed 600,000 passengers in the first year, a Connecticut Department of Transportation official said, up from fewer than 300,000 when Amtrak ran six round trips a day.
That means some trains run with plenty of empty seats and others turn riders away. And that has led Amtrak to honored its passengers with reservations, leaving some commuters to take buses or wait for the next train.
That’s a good problem to have, said John Bernick, assistant rail administrator for the state DOT, on the ride Thursday. It means trains are full — but it does require more cars, and a better system.
Another issue: Some trains leave New Haven for Hartford just five minutes before trains from Stamford and points west arrive in New Haven — forcing passengers to barely miss the connection. That can’t be helped, Bernick said, because the trains run in a “highly choreographed” schedule, the result of having just one track in several places.
“If that train waited five minutes, it would hold up another train,” he said.
Then there was a mechanical breakdown on a CTRail train in Meriden in the pre-Christmas rush, which, you know, happens.
The $769 million set-up cost for Connecticut included $204 million in federal money and the rest from the state. And the $43.9 million estimated operating budget for this fiscal year includes $7.2 million from tickets, $13 million from the state and $23.7 million from the Feds.
At the current ridership, that’s a $70 cost per passenger, offset by a $12.75 full-fare ticket for the whole route, less for parts of it.
That’s a hefty public subsidy by any measure. Compare it to a subsidy of less than $4 for each of Metro North’s 40 million passengers a year.
Larson called Malloy’s fight to open the rail line a “courageous decision.” He and Neal, the incoming chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said they intend to push for more rail money under a promised, $1.5 trillion infrastructure spend. Many are skeptical that massive plan will happen.
For Malloy, his first ride on the line to Springfield was a time to look at history.
“It was foolish of prior leadership to turn their back on a rail system in favor of an over-reliance on a highway system,” he said. The commuter line is helping to “correct the wrong decisions that were made 50 years ago.”