May 22, 2013
Written by Jim Cameron
Tuesday, 26 January 2010 18:44
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 broadcast on CT-N (every policy wonk’s favorite channel). The speaker was executive director and curator of the Barnum Museum, Kathy Maher.
She explained that Barnum (whose 200th birthday is this year) was more than a showman. He also was a railroad advocate.
In 1879, Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to The New York Times, promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway, between Bleecker and 14th St., enlisting the support of local merchants such as 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 New York and New Haven Railroad. Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.
Then he turned his sights to helping commuters. Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Cornelius “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 New York City, he jacked up fares by 200% to 400%.
Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the “new” New Haven line, in which he had a financial stake, Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad. Barnum says his only ally in the fight was state Senator Charles W. Ballard of Darien.
So spirited were they in their lobbying that the railroad’s “man” on the state Railroad Commission “took to his bed some 10 days before the end of the session; and actually remained there ‘sick,’ until the legislature adjourned.”
Fast-forward to the present, and we could again use Barnum’s help.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), parent of Metro-North, again has serious financial problems. Mind you, its current $400 million shortfall is of that agency’s own creation. Yet its proposal to close the budget gap could come at the expense of Connecticut passengers.
Proposed cuts in rail service include two weekday, mid-afternoon trains and one late-night train.
The Connecticut Rail Commuter Council has cried “foul.” And to her credit, Gov. M. Jodi Rell heard that call, directing the Connecticut Department of Transportation to oppose the train cuts. The governor notes that New York’s budget problems should bring pain to that state’s riders, not our own. Because Connecticut is not part of Metro-North nor the MTA and has no input on their budget, it is hardly fair to make us pay for their mistakes.
Just as in Barnum’s day, our transportation future seems to be in the hands of powerful forces in New York. But as Barnum did in 1865, Rell is sticking up for what’s right for those of us who call Connecticut our home.
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