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."
Malloy let on as much in a statement released Friday by his office.
"I expressed my anger and frustration in a call this morning with MTA CEO Tom Prendergast, asked him for a full explanation and an action plan to prevent any recurrence, and also requested that the MTA hire a third-party, independent authority who can serve as an adviser when crucial maintenance decisions like these are made," Malloy said. "The power outage on the New Haven Line (Thursday) evening was totally avoidable and frankly, unfathomable given that it occurred due to inappropriate actions on the part of Metro-North."
Connecticut is not without a voice, the MTA insisted.
"No matter where a member of the MTA board comes from or represents, the goal of the MTA is to provide the best possible service no matter where you live," Lisberg said. "We work very closely with the state of Connecticut."
Malloy has requested an audience with Prendergast and Joseph Giulietti, the incoming Metro-North president, whom Connecticut Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said comes highly regarded.
Favoring roads over rails
If the cost of a monthly ticket from Connecticut doesn't give commuters sticker shock, this will.
Lawmakers say it will take an investment of $50 billion over the next 20 years to maintain the railroad infrastructure of the busy Northeast corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington and includes Metro-North.
"We, right now, have no means of coming up with that money at the federal level," Murphy said.
Unlike bridge and highway projects, Murphy said states and regions are challenged to come up with Metro-North financing on their own.
So Murphy is crafting legislation that he says would enable the federal government to backstop loans for railroads.
"It's difficult to attract a combination of public and private financing for big rail infrastructure projects because there is no federal government guarantee for those loans," Murphy said.
If any part of the country merits the backing of the federal government, Murphy said, it's the Northeast corridor.
"Listen, if we don't get serious in making investments in Connecticut's rail infrastructure, our economy is going to suffer greatly," Murphy said. "Our economic salvation in Connecticut is tied to our ability to get people and goods to New York and Connecticut. The only thing that is holding Bridgeport back from an economic renaissance is reducing the commuting time by 15 to 20 minutes into New York."
On a separate track, Blumenthal said he is drafting a bill to create a railroad trust fund. He also supports the concept of creating an infrastructure bank for the nation.
"The basic concept is the federal government can borrow at very low rates and provide the capital that's needed for the infrastructure projects," he said. "The nation has neglected to make the investment that is necessary to keep our railroads safe and reliable."
Railroad funding has also become election year fodder in Connecticut for Republicans, who haven't won a statewide election since 2006.
State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, said Connecticut needs to reaffirm its commitment to paying for railroad maintenance and replenish its Transportation Fund.
"That's one of the reasons why I cringe every year when Gov. Malloy sweeps money out of our special transportation fund that we could otherwise use to help this rail system," McKinney said.
Malloy's spokesman Andrew Doba disputed McKinney's characterization of the state of the special fund.
"Every year for the past three years, appropriations for transportation have increased to address critical investments in the Metro-North infrastructure," Doba said. "Investments in the maintenance and basic infrastructure are at a historic high, reflecting the governor's commitment to delivering high quality rail service for Connecticut commuters. He should stop misrepresenting the truth."
A year to forget
Last May, an eastbound Metro-North commuter train derailed on the Bridgeport-Fairfield border, and collided with an oncoming train. A faulty rail joint and support ballast were identified as the culprits. There were several injuries, but no fatalities.
That same month, railroad foreman Robert Luden was struck and killed by a Metro-North train while working on the new station in West Haven. Luden radioed for the track to be taken out of service, but a controller and a trainee cleared the path for the train, according to a lawsuit filed by Luden's estate.
The tide of bad press for Metro-North continued in September, when a backup feeder line supplying electricity to overhead catenary wires failed in Mount Vernon, N.Y, limiting service on the New Haven Line for two weeks.
The railroad's darkest day came Dec. 1, when a Hudson Line train bound for Grand Central derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx, killing four passengers and injuring 63. The train's engineer reportedly dozed off just before the derailment.
"I think we are right to beat up on MTA for a pretty bad streak, but this line has meant a lot to Connecticut over the years, and we should remember that on most days it can provide pretty good service," Murphy said.
Because the recent failures seen on Metro-North are all dissimilar in nature, there won't be an easy fix, according to Steve Ditmeyer, an adjunct professor for the railway management program at Michigan State University.
"When one looks at these incidents, you find that there are different people in different situations making mistakes," he said. "So it's hard to find a single thread that ties everything together."
A likely solution, Ditmeyer said, could involve a systemwide analysis of all of the managers and employees, and making sure that all of them are aware of their duties and responsibilities.
"People have to be reminded to pay attention to what they're doing," he said. "Railroads require a great degree of discipline -- not in the punishment sense, but rather like what you see in the military. You have to obey the rules, because if you don't, bad things happen."
Their way or the highway
No different than other modes of public transportation, Metro-North is a money-losing proposition.
Connecticut taxpayers subsidize 65 percent of the operating losses on the New Haven Line, with the MTA picking up the balance under a contract that dates back to the 1980s and renews every five years. The same cost-sharing ratio applies to new rail cars.
For infrastructure projects in Connecticut, the state pays for 100 percent of the cost, while the MTA picks up the tab for New York projects.
"Their contract is like an annuity," Cameron said. "It's self-renewing. The Connecticut DOT shouldn't have to be defending Metro-North. It should be looking at alternatives."
In Boston, for example, Cameron said Amtrak operated the MBTA commuter rail service until it was replaced by a consortium that included train manufacturer Bombardier. A similar transition occurred with the Virginia Railway Express, said Cameron, who lives in Darien and commutes by train a few times a week.
To add insult to injury for the thousands who rely upon Metro-North, Blumenthal said a federal tax credit that helped rail commuters save up to $1,000 a year lapsed at the end of 2013 because of gridlock in Congress.
A similar tax credit for those who commute by car was not affected.
"This is a major inequity. It is hugely unfair," he said. "But it's also unwise for our economy and whole environment. It discourages people from riding the railroad, which can save money, save pollution and even save lives."
Whether it's taxes or resources marshalled during a crisis, Cameron said Metro-North commuters get the short end of the stick.
"If I-95 had suffered a structural failure as bad as Metro-North did, you'd see the National Guard turned out to get that thing operating again," he said.
Staff writer John Burgeson contributed to this report.
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