After decades of building gleaming new highways, which enabled great mobility but eventually induced serious congestion, sprawl and pollution, Connecticut rediscovered transit. The state added or upgraded bus and rail service, with innovations such as CTFastrak and the Hartford Line, and people hopped aboard.

Ridership was breaking records almost every year in the last decade – until the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now ridership has dropped precipitously, especially on Metro-North trains, where ridership is down a stunning 95%. Bus ridership is down about 50% across the state, according to Connecticut transportation officials, though in the past week it has inched up to 55-60%.

Without fare revenue, the services become more expensive to operate. Will the coronavirus pandemic set transit back in Connecticut and reverse the progress toward a more balanced transportation system?

Transit official Rich Andreski. Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent

“That’s the hot topic, the million-dollar question,” said Richard W. Andreski, the State Department of Transportation’s bureau chief for public transportation.

Metro-North carries 42 million Connecticut passengers a year, the vast majority on the New Haven Line, the 72-mile link between the Elm City and New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

Metro-North is now operating on an “essential service” plan, with trains running approximately every hour on its three lines, the New Haven as well as the Harlem and Hudson divisions, said Aaron Donovan, deputy communications director for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the quasi-public entity that oversees Metro-North as well as New York City buses and subways and the Long Island Railroad. 

Across the whole system, ridership decline is costing the MTA $142 million a week in lost fares, he said in an email. MTA officials have called the financial situation “dire,” and are hoping for major federal assistance.

The Hartford Line and Shore Line East, two smaller Connecticut rail services which are not run by the MTA, have experienced a 92% drop in ridership and are operating on reduced schedules, state officials said. 

The bus remains a lifeline

Almost as many people — 39 million — ride buses as take the train in Connecticut. That nearly half of them are still riding “points to the importance of the bus system,” said Andreski.

Many train commuters have white collar jobs and can shift to working at home. “Bus riders don’t have a lot of options,” Andreski said. They are less likely to own a car, and more likely to have a job – an essential job – that requires their presence. Many need the bus to buy groceries.

Bus riders don’t have a lot of options. It’s a lifeline.” Richard W. Andreski, DOT

“It is a lifeline,” said Andreski. He said the DOT and its various operators are thus far “doing our best” to maintain full service to lessen crowding and keep drivers safe. Driver safety measures include masks, gloves, rear-door entry only, barriers and suspension of fare collection.

Fares are now on the honor system. “We didn’t want to establish a free ride policy, because of the (pandemic-induced) revenue crisis,” Andreski said. “So we are asking people to buy a ticket, we’re just not collecting it.”

Thus far, about 100 buses have been equipped with glass barriers between driver and passengers, with a goal of installing them in all of the more than 700 transit buses in the state. In the interim, some operators in the state’s quiltwork of bus systems are using alternatives such as clear plastic shower curtains.

A quiet Union Station is seen on March 13, 2020, in Hartford. The transit hub services people traveling by buses, shuttles and commuter rail and has seen a drop in travelers since the coronavirus outbreak. Joe Amon / Connecticut Public Radio/NENC

To date, 10 drivers or mechanics for  CTtransit, the DOT subsidiary that oversees bus operations in Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury and Stamford, have tested positive for the coronavirus, as have 14 employees of the state’s transit districts, which run bus and/or paratransit service in some parts of the state.  One driver reportedly has died of COVID-19, the illness triggered by the virus. An unknown number of transit employees are in self-quarantine.

As for the money, in fiscal 2019, which ended last June, the state subsidized rail by $160,724,520 and bus (including transit districts, paratransit and dial-a-ride services) by $228,299,535. It’s not yet clear how much lost fares are costing the state, but the total from bus and rail is expected to be in the tens of millions by the end of June, Andreski said.

The state is scheduled to receive $488 million from the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus stimulus bill, to support bus and rail transit. 

Will commuters return?

One minor reason ridership has dropped on buses and trains is that officials are discouraging discretionary travel, to create more social distance for essential workers.

When will the discretionary riders come back? Will they come back?

First, perhaps a sine qua non, is that they must feel safe. Whether that will take a coronavirus vaccine remains to be seen. Secondly, many will return when the economy recovers.

The real issue is not one of regaining trust in trains’ safety, but will workers want or need to go back to NYC jobs after they’ve mastered telecommuting.” Jim Cameron, commuter activist

Transportation is a pillar of the economy. “A worker’s ability to choose among many jobs and a firm’s ability to select the most qualified workers depends on mobility,” writes Alain Bertaud, former principal urban planner for the World Bank, in his 2018 book “Order Without Design – How Markets Shape Cities.”

On the other hand, what if working at home catches on in a big way?

“The real issue is not one of regaining trust in trains’ safety, but will workers want or need to go back to NYC jobs after they’ve mastered telecommuting,“ said Jim Cameron, a veteran commuter activist and transportation commentator. If that happens, he wonders, what level of rail service will be needed? With fixed costs the same, except possibly for fewer staff, what will happen to fares?

It is far from clear whether telecommuting will be the wave of the future. It had been slowly increasing across the country before the pandemic but only to 3.4% of the full-time workforce by 2018, according to the Conference Board.

Bertaud notes that some companies such as Yahoo asked their telecommuters to return to the office, because many of the best decisions and insights come from impromptu meetings and informal discussions — the kind of interchange of ideas that on a larger scale makes city economies grow.

On the other hand, teleworking saves office space and could lessen rush hour traffic and pollution.

The future is faster

Another factor in bringing people back to transit is — better transit. New Haven may get to prove this point.  The Elm City’s bus system, vital in a city where (like Hartford) 30% of households don’t own cars, was in disarray a few years ago. The New Haven Independent called it “inefficient, inconsistent, and incoherent.”  

Ned Lamont rides the bus in New Haven during his gubernatorial campaign. Thomas Breen | New Haven Independent

Last fall, the city and state concluded an extensive study of the bus system. Among the study’s recommendations is the creation of two bus rapid transit corridors along Grand and Dixwell avenues as well as Whalley and Congress avenues. These routes, overlaid on the existing system, would have several features — bus lanes, faster boarding and ticketing and priority at intersections, among others — that would hasten movement around the city. 

The study projects an initial capital cost of $15.6 million to build the basic bus rapid transit system, with new features to be incorporated as funds become available. The money could come from a post-pandemic federal infrastructure bill under discussion in Washington, said Doug Hausladen, New Haven’s director of transportation, traffic and parking.

On the rail side, Gov. Ned Lamont has proposed steps to speed up the pokey Metro-North trip from New Haven to New York, something that, in normal times at least, would win him the undying gratitude of countless riders. 

But even if it improves, will people come back to transit? The DOT’s Andreski thinks so. He said he was working in New Jersey and saw the 9/11 attacks out his office window. He recalled dire predictions that cities would no longer build tall buildings, that companies would move to the suburbs, that city living was over.

Didn’t happen.

Tom writes about urban and regional issues for CT Mirror, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. Tom has won dozens of journalism and civic awards, and was elected to the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016. He is a native of New London, a graduate of The University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and is a Vietnam veteran.

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