Senator Frantz: Commuter Council Bill “A Great Step Forward” For Group’s Independence [Stamford Advocate]

May 24, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Stamford Advocate on May 24, 2013

Commuter council change passes House
By Martin B. Cassidy

A proposal from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to replace a state-appointed commuter advocacy group that represents state travelers in the wake of service crises such as last Friday’s train derailment was approved by the state House of Representatives Tuesday night.

If approved by the Senate, the proposal by Malloy and state legislators would appoint new members to a Connecticut Rail Commuter Council by Aug. 1 under new rules that would, in some cases, restrict how appointing legislators may pick members. Members of the soon-to-be disbanded council with terms remaining will need to seek reappointment to the new body.

State Rep. Tony Hwang, R-134, who represents Fairfield, helped negotiate with the Malloy office restoration of long-standing legislative language empowering the 15-member group to request information and other records about railway performance and allow it to continue to select its chairperson to preside over their activities.

Hwang said, after meeting with commuter council members, he felt it was important to rally support to amend the proposal to protect the group’s investigative powers, lining up 74 other legislators who represent customers along the Metro-North Railroad New Haven Line and other railways to illustrate support for the rail council’s watchdog role.

“This achieves something very important in assuring that the new council will have the ability to carry out their mission to represent commuters on service issues,” Hwang said of the amendment. “Over the years, I’ve developed a true appreciation of the role the council has to observe the operations of the railroad and inform the public about important news.”

Under the initial proposal, Malloy would have selected the council’s leader.

“I think that (House Bill) 6363, the commuter council bill, is a very positive step in the right direction and reestablishing the current makeup of the commuter council adds a couple of people and, very importantly, allows them to pick their own chairman,” state Sen. L Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, said. “I think this is a great step forward or at least an important move back to where we need to be for the group to maintain independence of the group.”

The proposal is included as part of H.B. 6363, which is targeting, through elimination or consolidation, more than two dozen citizens advisory groups to improve efficiency and also proposes eliminating the Connecticut Public Transportation Commission.

Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman Jim Cameron and other members of the existing council said they have not objected to a statewide council, but were relieved to see appointment power for the chairmanship of the new group will be left to the body rather than Malloy and future governors.

Cameron said it was positive that Malloy’s office met with council members and Hwang to hear concerns about removing the council’s ability to ask for documents and information about current on-time performance, testing of new rail cars, and station upgrades.

Cameron said he would write Malloy and legislators who select council members to argue that reappointing some existing council members would serve the public well, leaving in place some institutional knowledge to help new members quickly grasp service issues.

“What had been proposed, I think, would have resulted in a significantly watered-down version of what the council had been,” he said. “I hope that several members of the council are reappointed to help get the council up and running quickly.

“I take my hat off to Tony Hwang for this effort and to his credit he got more than 70 co-sponsors, which I view as an endorsement of the importance of the council.”

Terri Cronin, the council’s vice chairwoman, also said giving the new group authority to pick a leader was an important safeguard for its autonomous nature.

“The unanimous vote definitely means something, because it shows we have supporters out there,” Cronin, an East Norwalk commuter, said. “I’m very happy we are going to be able to decide who is our council president, because I think that is very key for us as a council, to have someone to look up to and move the discussion forward rather than an appointee who might not understand or care what we’ve been doing for the past 26 years.”

Last year, the council successfully promoted a Stamford hearing where dozens of commuters turned out to oppose a proposed station redevelopment as well the prospect of a new commuter parking garage built farther from the railway tracks.

After a July 22, 2011, service crisis that resulted in several trains becoming disabled when heat-wilted catenary power lines sagged, the council teamed up with state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, to successfully craft a Passenger’s Bill of Rights for Metro-North. During the incident, one train broke down for 53 minutes between Greens Farms and Southport in 100-plus degree temperatures.

State Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker said creation of one unified council to represent the New Haven Line as well as the New Haven, Hartford, Springfield Line, which is to enter service in 2016, should not affect the group’s ability to effectively argue on behalf of commuters’ needs.

“I would also point to the work of the council during winter service problems and the work we’ve done to improve the stations and make them more commuter friendly,” Cameron said. “I think the council has done a really good job over the past 26 or 27 years, and I guess the lawmakers realized that too.”

John Hartwell, a council member from Westport, also hailed Hwang’s impressive effort to line up bi-partisan support for the amendment maintaining the council’s statutory power to obtain documents.

Hartwell served on a council sub-committee that worked with Hwang to craft the proposed amendment.

The language for the new statewide council also specifically identifies members as “advocates” for commuters, an important recognition of the group’s role, which was only implicit in the previous authorizing legislation, he said.

Hartwell said the council unsuccessfully sought to strike language that restricted how elected leaders with appointing authority used their selections, limiting some legislators to picking rail users from specific lines.

“I think it is a very beneficial compromise,” Hartwell said. “We wanted the current people to serve out the balance of their terms, but we didn’t get that, and we wanted to get rid of the restrictive language of who appoints whom. We didn’t necessarily think that made sense.”

“I always thought that if we had a rail council it should be for people on all railroads,” Redeker said. “The input from the council we get even before the introduction of the new line will be helpful and the new broadened scope is terrific.”