July 22, 2017

Talking Transportation: Public Hearings or Political Theater?

Jim CameronI believe passionately in open, transparent government.  The public has a right to know what their elected officials are doing and comment on it before it’s done, usually by way of mandated public hearings.

So I was thrilled to see that the Government Accounting Office has issued a 56 page report sharply critical of the Port Authority of NY-NJ for raising tolls without public input.

In 2011, the Authority jacked up tolls by 50% on bridges and tunnels three days after a single public hearing, held on a weekday during rush hour.  And even at that one hearing, comments were taken without an explanation of the proposal.

It’s as if the Authority went out of its way to avoid criticism, constructive or otherwise.  And for that the GAO rightly criticized them.

We’ve seen this same thing happen many times in Connecticut:

  • The CDOT plans a rail fare increase, baked into its legislative budget, then holds public hearings.  Nothing said at the hearings can affect the decision to boost fares (except possibly to cut train service).
  • The state’s Transportation Strategy Board holds a public hearing on a million dollar study of over a dozen different possible scenarios for tolling on I-95, asking for comments but without ever explaining what the study said.
  • The state chooses to develop land under the Stamford garage in a secret negotiation with developers without ever seeking input from commuters on what’s planned.

The formula is simple, but backwards.  Lawmakers decide what they want to do and then hold a pro forma public hearing to get comments from those who will be affected.  Too often the decision has been made and, for political theater, they just go through the motions of asking for comment.

Here’s a novel idea:  why not hold a public hearing first, asking constituents, commuters and customers what they think?  Explain to them the necessity of a fare hike or development plan and then ask for their reaction.

Decisions by government-run monopolies should be made with input from all the stakeholders, not a handful of bureaucrats.  That’s how you build a consensus in a democracy.

But there is good news.  Recently in my town of Darien the pattern was broken.

A planned parking rate increase at the town’s two train stations, Darien and Noroton Heights, came up for a public hearing before the Board of Selectmen.  A final vote on the plan was on the agenda for the same evening.

But a handful of dismayed commuters who knew no details of the plan (boosting day-parking rates by 66%), turned up at the hearing and protested. They said they had not been warned about the proposal, that commuters had not been told of the public hearing and they had a slew of complaints and concerns about other aspects of the parking lots and stations.

I guess I was the one responsible for that turnout, as I’m the one who posted signs at the station and leafleted cars in the parking lot, something I told the town fathers they could and should have done.

To their credit, and my surprise, the public hearing was continued for another week and the rate-hike pushed back until more commuters could be heard.  Signs were posted at the stations informing commuters of the proposals and the chance to be heard.

The Board of Selectmen was not required to do that, but they did.  And they deserve credit and our thanks for listening first and voting second.

 JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 23 years.  He is a member of the new CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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