Speakers at hearing say transit cuts would impact commuters, economy

New London — Speakers at a public hearing Wednesday evening said proposed transit cuts would make it more difficult for people to commute to work and school, go grocery shopping or visit family in the hospital, and would impact the economy and add more congestion to Interstate 95.

About 45 people attended the hearing at New London City Hall on proposed service cuts and fare increases that the state Department of Transportation said will happen unless the General Assembly finds more revenue for the state's Special Transportation Fund.

The proposed 50 percent cut to Shore Line East would eliminate weekend service and off-peak weekday trains. DOT is also calling for cuts to branch lines off the New Haven line and for a 10 percent rail fare increase starting July 1, and then 5 percent increases starting July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021.

The state is proposing to cut the subsidies it gives to transit districts, such as Southeast Area Transit District, by 15 percent starting July 1 and by 50 percent starting July 1, 2020. The state would increase fares on the bus lines it directly operates.

During the hearing, more than 20 speakers expressed their concerns, including the impact of service gaps — created by cutting off-peak trains — on commuters, and the effects of fare hikes on residents who already have to pay for parking in New London. Speakers said public transit is important for the region's tourism industry, reduces congestion on the highway, and allows people to get to school or the grocery store who otherwise wouldn't be able to get there.

Some speakers also offered their ideas to generate revenue, from raising the gas tax to advertising on trains and train platforms, while another speaker said the state should lower fares and increase service so more people would take the train.

One of the speakers, Shawn Robinson, told DOT that his goal is to find a job in New Haven and take Shore Line East to and from work, but with the planned reductions, he would have to change his plans and move out of state. The elimination of weekend service also would affect him, because he takes the train to New York City on the weekend if he wants to see a concert.

The rail service enabled him to commute to college in New Haven and return for his part-time job to pay for his education.

"I actually took the Shore Line East to get into New Haven to get my college degree," he said. "I would not be able to do that if we had the amount of trains running that you are proposing."

Desmond Talento of the pediatric intensive care unit at Yale New Haven Hospital expressed concerns over the impact the cuts would have on families from New London who aren't able to just hop in a car and instead use rail service to visit their children in the hospital and again to return home for their jobs.

"It is shocking that we are in 2018 talking about cutting service and access," he said.

Samuel S. Gold, the executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments, expressed concerns over the economic impact of the cuts on communities. He also said the recently released plan to widen I-95 in strategic areas aims to reduce congestion, but cuts to Shore Line East would just add more to the congestion the proposal is trying to remedy.

Though the hearing did not specifically concern the cuts to transit districts, several speakers raised concerns that those cuts would have a major impact.

SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll said the 15 percent cut to SEAT would mean major service reductions, and if the 50 percent cut happened in fiscal year 2021, SEAT would be "a shell of its former self."

"Public transportation is an essential public service, and millions of our residents rely on transit each day to commute to work, buy groceries, get to school, visit the doctor, and attend to life's other necessities," said Jaroslaw Pizunski, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1209 and chairman of the ATU Connecticut Legislative Council. 

After the hearing, DOT Commissioner James P. Redeker spoke informally to the audience and answered questions. Redeker and State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, ranking member on the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, encouraged attendees to call their legislators to share their concerns.

k.drelich@theday.com

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