Report by Paula Antolini
April 12, 2017 8:00PM EDT
Legislators Commend DOT Commissioner, Commuters for Productive Multi-Town Community Forum on Improving the Danbury Branch Line
By Richard Joslyn / April 12, 2017
WILTON – On Monday night, train commuters had a chance to air their frustrations with the Danbury Branch Line and to offer suggestions for sensible upgrades and improvements at a forum with the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and local area state legislators. The forum was organized by a bipartisan group of legislators from the Route 7 corridor who co-introduced House Bill 6553, which would require the reallocation of previously authorized bonds to make incremental service improvements on the Danbury Line.
The legislators who co-introduced the bill are State Representatives David Arconti (D-Danbury), Bill Buckbee (R-New Milford), Will Duff (R-Bethel), Adam Dunsby (R-Easton), Michael Ferguson (R-Danbury), John Frey (R-Ridgefield), Bob Godfrey (D-Danbury), Steve Harding (R-Brookfield), Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton), Chris Perone (D-Norwalk), Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport), and Fred Wilms (R-Norwalk).
Also present were John Longobardi, Metro-North’s Deputy Chief of Field Operations, and other DOT and Metro-North staff members.
The forum was held at Wilton High School between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. to give commuters ample time to stop by after work, at a location meant to accommodate commuters all along the railroad from Norwalk to Danbury. It was also broadcast live on Facebook and posted afterwards online in its entirety for those who were unable to attend.
Rep. Lavielle, who spearheaded the effort to introduce HB 6553, was encouraged by the passion and dedication commuters showed the commissioner.
Photo: Commissioner Redeker and Rep. Lavielle.
“We all felt that if the people who regularly call and email us about Danbury Line service could share their thoughts and suggestions directly with the DOT
commissioner, it could have an impact on our attempt to focus more attention at the state level on improvements for the Danbury Line,” Rep. Lavielle said. “When people voice their views in person, they are no longer just ticket sales or numbers on a spreadsheet, but individuals with families and demanding jobs who rely on trains to make a living. We’re very grateful to everyone who came and spoke. Commissioner Redeker mentioned to me afterward how much he appreciated the opportunity to hear from commuters who use the line every day. Regardless of the outcome of our work during this session, we intend to hold further local area Danbury Line community forums with the DOT and Metro-North regularly in the future.”
HB 6553 specifically does not request new bonding. Because of the state’s precarious financial situation, the legislators felt it was unlikely that any bill requesting the $400 million or more necessary for the full electrification of the Danbury Line would be passed this year. Rather than making commuters continue to wait indefinitely for any further service improvements at all, however, they have taken the approach of trying to identify less extensive measures that could improve service in cost-effective ways and to begin making at least some progress now.
With that objective, Rep. Lavielle and her colleagues have been meeting with the DOT and the governor’s staff to explore these possibilities. The language of the bill is not specific in terms of upgrades and costs, to allow for input during the legislative session, and it may evolve to focus more precisely on identification of feasible service improvements and specifying timelines for bringing recommendations before the legislature.
“It was a successful event,” said Rep. Perone, who is also the Chair of the General Assembly’s Transportation Bonding Sub-Committee. “Public engagement on transportation issues, especially in lower Fairfield County is crucial in helping us set transportation policy. The give and take between the audience and public officials took on a ‘working group’ quality. Several specific policy points were addressed, examined and in some cases, next steps were discussed.”
“It was great to hear the questions and concerns of the Danbury rail line commuters,” said Rep. Wilms. “Kudos also to DOT Commissioner Redeker for joining us. The Danbury rail line has been ignored for far too long. Forums like these help create the momentum to finally take action.”
“The commuters who attended the forum made several strong points to the commissioner about why the Danbury Branch Line needs to be improved as soon as possible,” said Rep. Dunsby. “It is so important for Hartford lawmakers to hear from the people who must contend with this railroad for their commutes. Now that these issues have been brought to the attention of the DOT and their legislators, I think there is a much greater possibility of re-allocating the necessary funding for the improvements these people talked about.”
“One of the most important aspects of lawmaking is making sure you are always listening to the people who are affected by the policies you pass,” said Rep. Frey, who is the Ranking Member on the Transportation Bonding Sub-Committee. “It was an illuminating experience to hear how badly these improvements are needed and what commuters often have to go through because of the poor train service in their areas. Commuters in Ridgefield should not have to drive a half hour to Norwalk or Darien stations to be connected by train to their workplaces. We can do better.”
“I really want to thank Commissioner Redeker, Mr. Longobardi, and all of the commuters who took the time to come to the forum,” said Rep. Ferguson. “Many people are surprised to learn the value that their words and passion have when they voice them to government representatives. I can tell you my colleagues and I, as well as the commissioner, will remember what we heard and do everything we can to put your words into action so we can make your commutes on the Danbury Line more convenient.”
“It was great to hear from people who use the Danbury-Norwalk line often. I was very pleased Commissioner Redeker was there as well,” said Rep. Godfrey. “It was truly a dialogue on an issue I have an emotional connection to because my dad and grandad were railroad men.”
“As legislators, we need to be responsive to our constituents. I am grateful Commissioner Redeker was on hand to listen to the area Danbury Line commuters,” said Rep. Duff. “My hope is this forum will produce positive momentum in getting the concerns of the commuters addressed. Our rail commuters deserve real and immediate service improvements.”
“The status of the service commuters get on the Danbury Branch Line is of tremendous concern to residents, and this forum was a great way for them to come out and have their voices heard directly by the commissioner,” said Rep. O’Dea. “I appreciate the Commissioner dedicating so much time with us for the evening and being willing to hear all comers. We are all looking to work together to ensure that the necessary and essential improvements to the Danbury Line are made, and that the DOT has the resources they need to make that happen.”
The legislators were appreciative of the individuals who came to Wilton on Monday night and shared their concerns. While turnout was solid and discussion exceeded the allotted time, they were regretful that not everyone who wanted to come was able to attend, and stressed that April 10 was the only day that the DOT could make available, despite several weeks of efforts to secure a date. The forum needed to be held prior to the following Tuesday’s Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee meeting.
In a step forward for the legislation, the Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee voted on Tuesday to draft legislation based on HB 6553, allowing it to proceed as a committee bill. Once fully drafted, it will await consideration by the Committee on or before its April 28 bill deadline.
“Our legislative process is unpredictable, and as with any bill, I want to caution against over-confidence that legislation will pass this session,” said Rep. Lavielle. “We will continue to work together as a bipartisan team on making progress, and if we succeed in taking even a small step forward, it will be in large measure thanks to the articulate and thoughtful testimony we have received from rail passengers, both at the forum this week and at the bill’s formal public hearing in Hartford.”