Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rell's Parting Proposal

I'm having another Homer Simpson moment today, feeling reduced to gibberish because I've been confronted with something so absurd and outrageous I can't get my words out fast enough in response.

Governor Rell, in her final days in office, has proposed shutting down the Metro-North branch lines to Waterbury, Danbury and New Canaan, reallocating the branch lines' $5 million state budget for the Low-Income Home Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This comes a year after she proudly spent $60 million (mostly federal money) to upgrade the Danbury line.

Adding to the absurdity of the proposal is the information (in today's Rep-Am), that the Department of Social Services has reported a $70 million balance in the LIHEAP fund, which suggests that it doesn't need the $5 million from the branch lines.

The bulk of the absurdity is the concept that shutting down the branch lines would be a good idea. Connecticut has close to the highest unemployment rate in the region. The Metro-North branch lines take commuters from places where there are almost no jobs (like Waterbury) to jobs in Stamford and New York City. I spent the past two years working in New York City while living in Waterbury, and my ability to retain that job was completely dependent upon the existence of the branch line. My train pass cost me approximately $350 a month. Parking in Waterbury is free (and I learned to park my car at the entrance to the station, where it can be seen from the road; cars that park near the platform are hidden from the road by an abandoned building, which the state refuses to demolish; the parking spaces hidden by the abandoned building are nearly always full of broken glass from thieves breaking into the cars parked there; Metro-North installed security cameras, after which the break-ins stopped briefly--but then the thieves apparently figured out that the video footage goes to NYC and is not available to the Waterbury police, who would actually be able to identify the thieves).

The downside to taking the train from Waterbury is the limited schedule of six trains each way per day. I tried driving to the main line, parking in Bridgeport, but this was obviously a bad idea. The difference in the fares is negligible--I'd save $19 a month in the train fare leaving from Bridgeport instead of Waterbury. But then you have to add in the cost of driving the 33 miles twice a day between Waterbury and Bridgeport (330 miles a week), plus the cost of parking in Bridgeport, which is not free (I don't know the monthly rate, but the daily rate is $6, so it's safe to estimate at least $100 per month). To sum that up, taking the train from Waterbury to NYC costs about $350 a month. Driving to Bridgeport and taking the train from there costs over $600 a month.

In addition to the cost of driving to the main line, there is also the danger and the hassle. Route 8 can be relied upon to have a massive traffic backup as you approach Ansonia/Derby, adding at least 20 minutes to the morning travel time. Shut down the Waterbury line, and there will be an increase to the number of vehicles traveling on Route 8 in the morning. At night, traffic jams are less likely on Route 8, but after a very long, exhausting day, the chances that I will be in a car accident are higher. When I take the train, I don't have to worry about getting into an accident.

Another alternative to driving is taking a bus. I looked into taking the bus, but that's even more expensive than driving to Bridgeport and taking the train from there. And the bus line is also subject to traffic delays, which the train is not.

I'm rambling a bit here, but I want to clarify that shutting down the branch line will create a severe hardship for the people who commute from Waterbury to New York or Stamford. Some of the commuters might end up losing their jobs if the branch line is closed (and might then increase the number of people who need the heating assistance!).

The Waterbury train line is also used by college students traveling to their campus in Bridgeport. It is used by patients who receive regular medical treatment in Bridgeport. It is used by workers whose jobs are in Bridgeport.

The job market in Waterbury is dead. Job placement specialists are advising those of us who have been laid off to seek jobs in Stamford, New York, New Haven and Hartford. Shutting down the branch lines removes our ability to find employment in some of the few places left where companies are hiring.

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