HARTFORD, Conn. — Months after lawmakers reorganized a commuter advocacy group to broaden its oversight beyond Metro-North Railroad, the panel is still seeking members and, critics say, a clear mission.
Two top Connecticut state lawmakers say expanding the panel to oversee two other rail lines -- one of which is not yet running -- has complicated the work of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council.
Its former chairman also has blasted the panel for being too pliant in the hands of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and said it has become a watchdog without much of a bite.
The revamped panel was established last year to replace the Metro-North Rail Commuter Council and include oversight of the New Haven-Springfield passenger line, expected to operate by 2016, and Shore Line East between New Haven and New London. The advocates represent commuters' interests before Metro-North and Shoreline East, the state Department of Transportation and the Legislature.
The panel's troubles come as the railroad faces increased scrutiny over three derailments last year, including one in New York that killed four passengers. Several members of the panel say it's functioning well for a group that's been given greater responsibilities, has lacked full membership before and downplayed disagreements.
"They clearly don't want a commuter council with any voice or any teeth," Jim Cameron, who had been the group's chairman until he resigned last fall, said of the group and the Malloy administration. "I think Malloy's desire to defang the council has come to fruition."
"The only thing that matters is getting legislators to hear their constituents so they can beat on the Department of Transportation who can beat on Metro-North," he said.
David Bednarz, a spokesman for Malloy, said state law authorizes the council to elect its leadership and map its own course.
"It's independent and can have as many fangs as the membership thinks appropriate," he said.
The previous council met for the last time in June and the first meeting of the reorganized group was in September. It failed to draw enough members for a December meeting. Leadership is set to be elected this month.
Sen. Andrew Maynard, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, can't find a candidate to nominate for the panel. Maynard's southeastern Connecticut district beyond the area served by Shoreline East and his constituents do not typically use Metro-North.
Potential candidates balk at attending distant meetings about a rail line they don't use, he said.
"I've been frankly struggling somewhat," he said.
Malloy also is reviewing potential nominees to replace his initial candidate, Meriden Mayor Michael Rohde, who was defeated in a re-election bid in November.
A candidate to replace Cameron on the 15-member panel also must be found.
Council member John Hartwell said the group has lacked a full complement before. The reorganized panel's role is "bigger and better than before," but still has limited tools to improve rail transportation in Connecticut, he said.
"For us to get anything done has to be through persuasion and lobbying," Hartwell said.
The panel is also less focused with the addition of the two rail lines, said Sen. Toni Boucher, the ranking Republican on the legislature's Transportation Committee.
"I'm not certain about its mission any longer," she said.
Laura Cordes, a member of the commuter council, downplayed the group's rocky start.
"With any new group, some time is needed to readjust and re-orient," Cordes said.
The council has "some real and pressing concerns," she said, listing safety as the top issue followed by improved communications between commuters and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North.
She praised the start of regular weekend Shore Line East service last June as significant for southeastern Connecticut and the state, linking the region to New Haven and west to New York City.
For Metro-North, last year was the worst in memory. In addition to the fatal derailment in the Bronx on Dec. 1, 73 passengers were injured in a derailment in Bridgeport in May.
Less than two weeks later, track foreman Robert Luden was struck and killed by a passenger train in West Haven.
And in July, 10 freight train cars hauling trash derailed in New York City, forcing Metro-North to suspend service.