What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and The Commuter Action Group have in common? Both are “rail activists” fighting for the interests of commuters.
This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his circus and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford. The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum, Kathy Maher.
She explained that Barnum was more than a showman. He was also a business man (he once owned the local water company) and railroad advocate.
In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street, enlisting the support of local merchants such as the Brooks Brothers and “the carpet men, W & J Sloan”.
Back in 1865, Barnum went to Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican. (Later he became mayor of Bridgeport.) As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House who’d protect their monopoly interests in the state.
Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New Haven RR! Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.
Then he turned his sights on helping commuters. Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail lines (now the Hudson and Harlem divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters. Once Vanderbilt had them as passengers for their daily ride into and out of NYC, he jacked up fares by 200 – 400%. There’s nothing like a monopoly!
Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which Vanderbilt had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad.
Just as in Barnum’s day, our transportation future seems to be in the hands of powerful forces in New York. “Our railroad” is run for us by the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), a New York State agency answerable to that state’s Governor, not our own. Though we are Metro-North’s biggest customer and Connecticut’s rail lines boast almost as many passengers than MTA has in its home state, we have no seat on either the MTA or Metro-North boards.
True, Governor Malloy hasn’t been shy about holding the MTA and Metro-North to task when their neglect caused derailments and service cuts. But hauling the New Yorkers up to Hartford (they drove) and publicly excoriating them in front of the media didn’t win Malloy any friends.
The one area where Connecticut does maintain control is in setting fares. New York sets its fares and we set ours. But in recent years Metro-North fare hikes have become more of a “commuters’ tax” used to plug state budget gaps than spent on improvements in service.
As Barnum once said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”