Legislators demand feds help fast-track Metro-North upgrades [Fairfield Citizen]

February 4, 2014

Fairfield Citizen February 3, 2014

As state Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, stood in the overhead walkway above the tracks running through the Fairfield Metro station Monday afternoon, his remarks were interrupted by an announcement from Metro-North Railroad — the 2:29 p.m. train to New Haven was running 5 to 10 minutes late, according to the public-address notice.

Kelly was at the train station with other Republican state legislators from southwestern Connecticut to underscore their support for constituents’ growing outcry for infrastructure upgrades and improved service on one of the nation’s busiest commuter rail lines. The timing of the delayed-train announcement, while the politicians were decrying Metro North’s slew of recent problems, prompted laughs from the group and a grimace from Kelly. After all, he’d taken the train from Stratford for the Republicans’ press conference.

“Look at all the cars out there,” said state Rep. Tony Hwang, R-134, gesturing to the parking lot, which was full despite the snowy weather. It underscores how important the commuter railroad is, Hwang said. “It gets people to work.”

Hwang and the others said commuters have lost confidence in Metro-North just about across the board, including safety and reliability.

Metro-North has suffered a series of major disruptions over the last nine months, including a collision between two trains just east of the Fairfield Metro depot at the Bridgeport-Fairfield line last May. Several prolonged power failures played havoc with regular service. New cars have had to be taken out of service more often than promised, leading to overcrowding. And a Metro-North employee was arrested at Fairfield’s downtown station last week after he was charged with a lewd incident involving a female passenger on board a train.

On Sunday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced a $10 million power upgrade for the New Haven line that was scheduled to get underway Monday. The project involves replacing old transformers in Cos Cob.

The General Assembly’s Transportation Committee has sent a letter to the federal transportation secretary and other key federal agencies asking for help in improving Metro-North’s infrastructure.

But the GOP contingent said more funding needs to be dedicated to improving the rail line’s infrastructure, rather than building projects like a new, dedicated “bus way” in the Hartford region.

“I think we are coming together to demand some action,” state Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132, said. “Our voices need to be heard in the legislature.”

State Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-133, was not invited to the GOP press conference, but the Fairfield legislator is the chairwoman on the Transportation Bonding Subcommittee.

Fawcett said the state needs to put together a long-term plan for investment and improvements to Metro-North, including replacing three rail bridges that are more that a century old — such as the 1896-era bridge in South Norwalk — replacing catenary structures for power lines and tracks.

“That’s a $3 to $4 billion investment,” she said, but the state Department of Transportation needs to put together a plan that shows which projects should be done first “and in what order to get more bang for our buck.”

“If we could get our act together and make systematic improvements, at the end, we would have a world-class system,” Fawcett said.

It’s not just infrastructure issues, said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26, that need to be addressed. “It’s gross mismanagement,” she said, pointing out the state’s contract with Metro-North is up for renewal in 2015. “We need to act like customers and demand a quality response” when that pact is up for review, she said.

Boucher is a ranking member of the Transportation Committee. Another committee member, state Rep. Debra Lee Hovey, R-112, was also at the Fairfield press conference.
Boucher said the state’s current Metro-North contract does not give the state much leverage with the railroad management.

“Clearly, the actions of Metro-North have been deplorable,” said state Sen. John McKinney, R-28, the state Senate minority leader. “We need the state to hold up its end.