New York

Speeding Up Connecticut to NYC Commute Is Key Focus on Plans

Making it easier and faster to travel to and from New York City is a big selling point for two newly proposed multi-billion-dollar plans to overhaul Connecticut's transportation system.

Democrats and Republicans contend a quick and smooth commute is in Connecticut's best economic interest.

"New York is the global capital of the world right now. We're part of that metropolitan center," said Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, who has proposed a 10-year, $21.3 billion transportation plan that invests $6.2 billion in rail improvements, including new cars and locomotives. "So, shame on us if we push us further and further away from all the jobs and the opportunity there."

There's also agreement that Connecticut and New York must cooperate to ensure the commuter experience is transformed, considering thousands of workers a day travel between the two states.

Under Lamont's plan, the governor predicts round-trip commutes on the New Haven Line could be reduced by 10 minutes each way, between New Haven and the New York border, by 2023. The commute could be faster by 2030 with "a commitment from New York State to speed their portion of track over the same period," according to the document.

Meanwhile, a 10-year, $18 billion transportation plan from Senate Republicans, released Thursday, proposes a new Connecticut/New York Railroad Strategy Board to oversee and vet rail projects. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Branford, noted that slowdowns in New York ultimately affect Connecticut's efforts to speed up the rails.

"If we get the trains faster to New York but they stop at 125th Street, we can't get them to Manhattan. We're not really doing the best job," said Fasano, referring to a station in Harlem with a large volume of train traffic because that's where three different lines stop. There's disagreement, however, about whether 125th Street is really the problem and whether such a board is necessary.

The two states' Democratic governors have already met several times and discussed transportation, among other issues. In September, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters he's willing to work with Connecticut officials as they try to tackle the state's transportation infrastructure needs.

Metro-North Railroad, which is overseen by New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority and has an annual ridership of about 40 million people, operates the New Haven Line and maintains the tracks under a contract with the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

The state of Connecticut owns the track from New Haven to the New York state line, as well as branch lines to New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury. Connecticut is responsible for covering 65% of the improvement costs while New York pays the remaining 35%.

"Metro-North is vital to New York. It is also vital to Connecticut," Cuomo said. "We're investing in Metro-North. We want to make it better. We want to do that with Connecticut and I think there's a lot of opportunity there."

Joe Giulietti, a former president of Metro-North who is now Lamont's transportation commissioner, said New York has "done more than their fair share" when it comes to investing money on the rail line, while Connecticut has been slow to make improvements over the years.

"I'd love to tell you, `yeah, New York is the bad partner.' But it's been Connecticut that's been lagging, not New York. We've got a governor that understands that," he said, noting how Lamont's plan also addresses two major highway "pinch points" affecting Connecticut-to-New York commuters. The average traffic count on I-95 in Stamford is 144,600 vehicles per day.

It's unclear when or if Connecticut lawmakers might vote on a statewide transportation package. Lamont has received pushback from both Republicans and Democrats for proposing 14 bridge tolls to help repay some of the planned borrowing.

In turn, Lamont has raised concerns about how the Senate GOP plan relies on $1.5 billion from the state's budget reserve account to help pay off borrowing in a complicated financial arrangement.

Jim Cameron, founder of Commuter Action Group, said it's admirable for state officials to say they want to speed up the trains, but it ultimately requires a lot of money from Connecticut. He added the state's General Assembly has been reticent to make the financial commitment.

"When the legislature doesn't want to make a decision, they say, `Let's study it. Let's hire a consultant. Let's create a new panel. Let's reinvent the wheel,"' Cameron said. "The big stuff, the really important stuff, it's like there's an arterial blockage in the legislature. We need a clot buster to come in and a stent to get some money flowing."

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