Jim Redeker has the best job in transportation.  And the toughest.

As Commissioner of Transportation for Connecticut for the past six years, he’s guided the agency through hundreds of millions of dollars in spending while managing three competing taskmasters:  his boss, Gov. Dannel Malloy… the legislature, which controls his budget… and commuters / drivers who depend on his product.

Redeker has successfully managed all three.

I’ve known the commissioner for all his years in Connecticut and always considered him the smartest guy in the room. But recently I watched him in action in a venue he told me he actually enjoys: a commuter forum sponsored by Danbury line politicians.

Organized by State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton), the single best commuter advocate in the State House, it was held on the first night of Passover in a week of school vacations, so the crowds were thin.  The 780-seat Clune auditorium at Wilton High School was empty aside from the 30 or so commuters spread across the room.  On the dais, a long table filled with area state representatives and senators looked like The Last Supper with Commissioner Redeker as the main course.

“Why was there no publicity for this event on the trains or at the stations?” asked one commuter.  No answer.  “Why was I stuck three times this winter on diesel trains with no explanation from conductors?”  No answer.  “Why do we pay all the taxes but get nothing back from Hartford?”  No answer, even from the pols.

Redeker was pacing himself, giving each complainer a chance to vent, then cherry-picking which issue to address.  When he didn’t have an answer (which was rare), he said so.  But when he did have a response (most often), he nailed it.

“Why does the New Canaan branch have more trains at lower fares?”

Easy one:  the New Canaan branch is electrified and has twice the ridership.  “The Danbury branch only has 1,400 daily passengers,” said Redeker.  “That works out to a per-trip subsidy of $17.  Now if we had better service we’d probably have more riders.  I just don’t have the money.”

Surprisingly, only a few of the 11 Hartford lawmakers on the dais said anything all evening.  Given their budget-juggling skills, they offered no explanation or optimism for improved funding of mass transit.

But to the downtrodden Dashing Dans and Danielle’s, the Commissioner offered some hope:  new rail cars for the branch lines are coming (in about four years) and old diesel locomotives are being rebuilt.

Less satisfied were residents of semi-rural Georgetown and Redding who complained about the trains’ noise pollution:  constant horn-blowing and bell-ringing at crossing gates.  Three folks from Metro-North sitting in the auditorium were mute as neighbors said they were afraid to complain ‘lest train engineers retaliate by leaning on the horn.

“We want express trains,” said several commuters.  “We want you to re-open the Wall Street station in downtown Norwalk,” said others.  Well which do you want, asked Redeker… more stations or fewer stops?  “Both,” seemed the reply.

The highlight of the evening for me was when a woman from Norwalk said she actually supported highway tolls.  The table of lawmakers looked like they’d found a turd in the punchbowl while Redeker suppressed a grin.

I’ve had my fights with Commissioner Redeker over the years, but I’ve never envied his job.  We are lucky to have him with us as CDOT Commissioner.

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.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at the Commuter Action Group.

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