MTA approves fare hikes; blames Albany for woes

Metro-North riders will pay around eight to nine percent more.

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The MTA board on Wednesday unanimously approved a measure increasing revenue by 7.5 percent by hiking fares for Metro-North and its other bus, rail and subway systems.

This is the fourth fare hike in five years for the cash-strapped MTA, which is trying to close a $450 million gap in next year's $12.6 billion budget.

Board members warned that if the MTA doesn't do a better job of reforming how it raises revenue, these hikes will continue to place an unfair burden on riders. They said Albany lawmakers need to recognize the vital role the MTA plays in the region's economy and come up with a stable funding plan.

"We all know there's no free ride," said board member Susan Metzger, who represents Orange County.

But she added: "Our riders are paying more than their fair share and the discussion we're having here has to be brought up to Albany."

Carl Wortendyke, Rockland County's representative on the board, accused Albany lawmakers of turning their back on the MTA.

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"We keep blaming each other and going back and forth but our hands are tied as a board," Wortendyke said. "Once we lost our taxes on real estate they (Albany) never came back to help us."

James Blair, who heads Metro-North's commuter council, joined citizens irate over the hikes. He said the move puts an undue financial burden on the typical Hudson Valley commuting couple, who pay as much as $15,000 a year to get into New York City.

"That's just unacceptable," Blair said. "The system is utterly broken."

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Some speakers took shots at MTA chairman and CEO Joseph Lhota, who, after 11 months in the job, announced his resignation today. He is considering a run for New York City mayor as a Republican and says he'll make a decision in January.

While Lhota, 58, has been lauded for leading the restoration of the region's transit system after superstorm Sandy, one speaker Wednesday slammed him, accusing him of grandstanding and presiding over yet another fare hike and poor service.

"It was the transit workers who worked 14-hour shifts," speaker Tony Murphy said. "I think I saw Joseph Lhota breaking a sweat chasing the TV cameras after Hurricane Sandy."

Lhota responded later.

"What happened in Sandy, they deserve all the credit," Lhota said.

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Also, he was reluctant to pursue the hikes despite cost-cutting efforts that have saved hundreds of millions of dollars.

"We are not the fat, profligate, out-of-control agency that people have tried to make the MTA out to be," Lhota said.

In the first 10 months of this year, Metro-North tallied 70 million riders and was on pace to break the record of 83.6 million rides in 2008, before the recession settled in. Recently, the system has expanded service to accommodate surging numbers of riders who commute from cities to jobs in the suburbs, and others who take short hops through the Hudson Valley. The number of reverse commuters has jumped 150 percent, from 5,000 to 13,000 per day, according to the MTA.

Metro-North officials have fashioned the fare hikes -- which go start in March -- with those new passengers in mind, by continuing discounts for off-peak rides.

The fare plan calls for raising fares as much as 16.7 percent on a small number of routes along Metro-North's Pascack Valley and Port Jervis lines, west of the Hudson River. Other Metro North riders will face increases ranging from 25 cents to 75 cents per ride, under a distance-based plan that charges some less and others more, depending on which route they travel and when.

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For instance, a one-way ticket to Grand Central Terminal from heavily traveled routes in Scarsdale, White Plains or Hastings-on-Hudson during peak travel times would jump from $10.50 to $11.25, while off-peak rides on the same routes would increase from $7.75 to $8.50.

The plan is based on a 2009 bailout strategy crafted by Albany lawmakers who felt that a 7.5 percent hike every other year, over several years, would be less objectionable than the dramatic one-shot 30 percent hike originally considered. At the time, the MTA was trying to make up for some $1.2 billion lost when a downturn in the real estate market had a devastating effect on a vital MTA revenue stream: the mortgage recording tax.

To compensate, lawmakers came up with the Payroll Mobility Tax, which charges businesses in the MTA's operating region 34 cents for every $100 of payroll laid out. That revenue stream is now in doubt, following a Long Island judge's decision this summer declaring the tax unconstitutional.

MTA lawyers have appealed the decision to the state's Appellate Division.

A 2008 fare hike that preceded the bailout plan was followed by a 2009 hike after the plan was adopted; another increase came in 2011, followed by Wednesday's hike, to take effect in 2013.

In the meantime, MTA board members say they are frustrated with budget pressures that continue to necessitate fare increases.

Also Monday, the board approved toll hikes on its bridges and tunnels.

The Henry Hudson Bridge will increase to $2.44 from its current $2.20 for E-ZPass users. Tolls on most other MTA crossings like the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge and the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel will increase to $5.33 from the current $4.80 for E-ZPass users

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