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A treasure hunt for Metro-North

The headline a few days ago was encouraging:  “CT gets $400K grant to study improvements to Metro-North lines.”   But what’s $400,000 going to tell us that we don’t already know?

Jim Cameron

Any rider of Metro-North knows the infrastructure is crumbling, the station parking and seating on trains (until COVID) are inadequate and, on the branch lines, the service is terrible.  So why another study?

Turns out, this federal grant is different, as Francis Pickering, the Executive Director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WCOG) explains:  “We know what needs to be fixed.  We just don’t know how to pay for it.”   That’s what this study is going to focus on.  This federal grant is for a treasure hunt.

Remember in 2015 when Gov. Dannel Malloy rolled out his 30-year, $100 billion “Let’s Go CT” transportation wish list?  Typical of a politician, he wanted credit for the vision but not the blame for paying for it.  So he created yet another “blue ribbon panel” to brainstorm on funding, and their report was filled with unpopular ideas:  raise the sales tax, raise the gasoline tax, raise DMV fees and yes, add highway tolls.

I don’t notice anyone campaigning for the legislature this year on those unpopular ideas, so are there alternatives?

Focusing specifically on the Danbury and New Canaan branch lines of Metro-North, this new study is looking to other areas’ transit improvements and how they were paid for…  like the expansion of the DC Metro’s Silver Line out to Dulles Airport.  Sure, half of its cost is being paid by tolls on the adjacent highway, but much of the rest is coming from what’s called “Value Capture.”

The thinking is, if you expand transit services, then the area around stations will grow (remember TOD, transit oriented development?) as new offices and apartments are built.  That means increased property values and more taxes for the town or city.  The “value capture” idea is to get a share of that increased future tax revenue stream and use it to pay for the transit improvements.

That seems fair, right?  Only the people who benefit from the improvements (residents, land owners, developers and the towns) help to pay for them.  Layer on top of that the ideas of regional sales taxes or payroll taxes and you’re talking real money.  Of course, none of these funding options are legal in Connecticut… yet.

And to make those kinds of changes in Hartford you’ll need to get everybody on board, including the dozens of cities and towns served by those trains.  To sweeten the pot, the WCOG folks are looking to expand the Danbury line, adding new stations at Wall Street in downtown Norwalk, Georgetown and points north from Danbury to New Milford.  But that assumes Metro-North is literally on board with the idea.

It will take 18 to 24 months to do this new study so there will be lots of opportunity for public input… the hope being if a funding solution works here it might be applied elsewhere in the state.

Nothing happens fast in the world of transportation in this state.

I remember watching the diminutive Speaker of the Connecticut House Moira Lyons in 2001, standing next to a stack of studies and reports as tall as she was, saying “enough with the studies… let’s DO something.”

Has much really changed in 20 years?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

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