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Analysis: State money goes to rail stations, not safety

Connecticut has poured billions into the Metro-North Railroad system over the last 30 years, but most of that spending purchased sleek new train stations and parking garages instead of critical safety improvements.

Since 1985, Connecticut spent $442 million on train station improvements, more than twice as much as the $206 million spent to upgrade vital power and signal systems, according to a Hearst Connecticut Media analysis of data provided by the state.

The state spent $344 million repairing railroad tracks -- $100 million less than what was spent on train stations -- numbers from the Office of Fiscal Analysis show.

"This shows a dramatic shortchanging of the rail line," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield and a candidate for governor. "The state has lacked a long-term vision, and that's why we are in the position we are in. Legislators fight for parochial concerns. I don't think the state has invested enough in infrastructure."

An earlier Hearst review of voting patterns revealed that state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle consistently cut funding for key transportation projects even as they blamed Metro-North Railroad for performance failures and other problems.

Metro-North over the last year has been beset by a blizzard of problems, including a train jumping broken tracks and colliding with an oncoming engine in Bridgeport, and massive disruptions in the electrical system that powers trains.

Riders were recently left shivering in the cold when power went out and during an earlier incident most of the system was shut down for nearly two weeks when a Con Edison power station failed.

State Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker took issue with the spending figures in the state OFA's recent report, saying Connecticut spent far more on infrastructure than the analysis portrays.

Redeker said train platforms, like those replaced in Stamford, are considered infrastructure and said work was also done on the tracks of improved stations.

"My definition of infrastructure is different," he said. "In building a new West Haven station, $11 million in infrastructure was included. It's all about basic infrastructure and safety related issues."

McKinney disagreed with Redeker's definition of infrastructure.

"You could call it all infrastructures. There are rail lines and safety improvements and new stations and parking garages. They are all part of the rail line. Rather than argue over the category, what's the vision for the whole rail line?" McKinney asked.

Billions

Since 1985, the state spent $1.9 billion on a variety of capital improvements to the Metro-North system in Connecticut, according to the OFA. Read Full Article 

Another $2 billion in spending is planned through 2017.

Between 1985 and 2013, the state's spending included $442 million on train stations, $344 million on track repairs, $310 million buying new trains, $297 million on shop and yard needs, $206 million on signal and power systems, $194 million on moveable bridges, $82 million on bridge replacements and $54 million on bridge repairs.

Spending on train stations included $140 million for Stamford station island platforms, $120 million for a new West Haven station, $68 million toward a joint development of the Fairfield train station and $30 million for a new parking garage in Stamford.

The OFA report also shows a shift in spending priorities in the coming years.

Most funding for Metro-North or other transportation projects, such has highway and bridge repairs, comes from the state's Special Transportation Fund, a dedicated account primarily funded by gas and oil taxes. The state can also sell bonds for specific projects, and federal transportation money is generally diverted to the STF.

For years, state lawmakers have raided the STF to pay for routine obligations but the General Assembly last year adopted new rules to prevent those raids after the 2015 fiscal year.

More money is now earmarked for train cars and improving signal and power systems than cosmetic work like improving train stations.

Planned spending through 2017 now includes $767 million for new train cars, $506 million for signal and power improvements, $421 million for shop and yard work, $125 million for station improvements, $72 million for track rehabilitation, $34 million for bridge rehabilitation and $28 million for moveable bridges.

Redeker, the DOT commissioner, said there is never enough money to do everything.

He noted that infrastructure enhancements, unlike station improvements, have to be phased in over time because the state can't shut down the entire system to undertake extensive repairs.

"We are ramping up in the right direction," Redeker said. "A $2 billion program is a significant increase in expenditures. From 1985 to 2013, we spent $1.9 billion. My budget has been going up every year. There has been a historical lack of infrastructure work.

"My priorities are infrastructure. Everything is about replacing things that are aging out at different places. It's all about infrastructure and safety-related issues," he said.

Pet projects

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton and an outspoken critic of Metro-North, who recently asked for federal oversight of the railroad, said the state's past Metro-North funding decisions were often guided by legislators eager to show voters something for their tax dollars, like new train stations and parking garages.

"It's not as politically attractive to talk about the guts of it," Boucher said, referring to repairing tracks and power systems.

But Boucher, a ranking member on the Transportation Committee, said lawmakers are not the only ones to blame for how the state spent its money on Metro-North. She said the state DOT must set priorities for lawmakers to follow.

"The department and the governor's office have to be an advocate for infrastructure," Boucher said.

James Cameron, a longtime commuter advocate who last year founded the Commuter Action Group, said he's not surprised at the state's spending priorities portrayed by the OFA.

"This is what I've been saying for years," Cameron said. "When the Legislature finally came around under (former Gov. M. Jodi Rell) and decided to spend money, they prioritized the sexy projects, new rail cars, big stations ... This is the Legislature, not DOT. I'm sure the engineers said, `spend more money on unsexy stuff like tracks and wires.' They went with the stuff passengers see. But the new rail cars are no better than the old tracks and wires."

Metro-North projects can also linger for years. An example is a $10 million upgrade to power systems at the Cos Cob plant in Greenwich that was recently announced, with considerable fanfare, by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

The project to replace aging transformers was actually begun under Rell and continued to wait for funding through three years of the Malloy administration. It's now listed by the OFA as a future project.

Malloy didn't mention the history of the project during a Feb. 2 news conference that followed a major electric failure that virtually shut down Metro-North for more than a week.

"We want to ensure riders have as safe and reliable a commute as possible and prevent the major system interruptions that we experienced in September," Malloy said at the time.

"That was long ago approved," Cameron said of the Cos Cob project. "He made it look like he just came up with $10 million. That was designed to take the wind out of the commuter speak-out events."

A spokesman for Malloy referred questions to the state DOT.

House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, D-Norwalk, said the state's spending priorities, whether for economic development or rail safety, have been wrong for years.

"We celebrate a new train station in Fairfield when it's unsafe to ride to Manhattan -- what good does a new station do?" Cafero said.

State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said a prime example of misplaced priorities is the $500 million busway the state is now building between Waterbury and Hartford.

"It's a lot of money and a lost opportunity," he said. "It's being built on an old commuter line from Waterbury to Hartford. You could have opened a new line for half that cost and increased capacity from Waterbury to Bridgeport."

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