Jan. 26--There's a new third rail in politics: Metro-North Railroad.
The voltage coursing through it can be felt by lawmakers in both Connecticut and New York.
Plagued by a series of mishaps in the past year -- two of them resulting in fatalities and the rest incurring the wrath of commuters -- one of the nation's busiest commuter networks finds itself in a defensive posture over its governance, safety record, funding stream and what critics say is an unchecked monopoly on rail service.
Two weeks after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced Metro-North's president was stepping down, the embattled railroad suffered its latest self-inflicted incident.
A project to replace an electrical system that powers train signals brought the entire railroad to a screeching halt during the evening rush Thursday in sub-freezing temperatures. The MTA, Metro-North's parent, blamed the outage on human error.
"Clearly, just the change of one guy at the helm of the MTA is not enough," U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Friday. "The MTA needs a bottom-up change in terms of its operational and safety culture. These recurring mistakes and failures should be a wakeup call that they need to be paying more attention to our side of the line."
The blame game
From the salt-covered train platforms of Bridgeport to the echo chamber of Grand Central Terminal, politicians from Connecticut have made a second career railing on the state of the railroad.
But the fix remains elusive, even to policy wonks.
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who represents lower Fairfield County, is a Rhodes scholar. Chapter and verse, he can recite the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Metro-North is more complicated.
"I have never really fully understood the governance structure of Metro-North," Himes said. "But I do know Connecticut is the ugly stepchild."
Front and center in the public flogging of the railroad is U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the state's consumerist former attorney general.
"These incidents can't be completely coincidental," Blumenthal said. "They reflect deeper factors including lack of investment, lapses in leadership and management, and bad practice. In effect, these incidents point to the system being badly broken and the need for systemic solutions."
The political pressure on the MTA is palpable, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office redirecting media inquiries to the agency's swamped media relations department.
"We're cognizant that we've fallen down on the job in several instances over the past year and we need to earn that trust back, plain and simple," MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said. "We want this system to be the best that it can be. We want to earn back any trust that we've lost in the last year."
Taxation without representation
Charged with operating New York City's subways and buses, as well as the Long Island Rail Road, the MTA answers to a 23-member board of directors. None are from Connecticut.
"Listen, I think we've always been underrepresented at the MTA," Murphy said. "There's always been this fight of having more Connecticut slots on the board."
But commuter advocates say there is limited recourse because the board's composition is dictated by state law -- New York State law, that is.
And therein lies a much greater problem of the bi-state arrangement and dueling bureaucracies, they say.
Both state legislatures would have to re-examine the composition of the board, for now leaving the governor of Connecticut, Dannel P. Malloy, to speak up for commuters from the Constitution State, as he did Friday when he spoke to MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast.
"The point I would make is Malloy's a busy guy," said Jim Cameron, a former longtime member of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council. "Does it take him to get on the phone and micromanage this vendor relationship between the (state Department of Transportation) and MTA? I'm sure Malloy has raked Prendergast over the coals."