Something has to give. How tough are the latest fare increases that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has put on the table?
Let's say you and your spouse live in Ronkonkoma and take the Long Island Rail Road to jobs in New York City. And when you get to Penn Station, you're among the 52 percent of LIRR commuters who complete their daily trek on the New York City subway.
The MTA plan would raise your round-trip LIRR monthly ticket from $334 to $363. Meanwhile, monthly passes on the city's bus and subway system could jump from $104 to as much as $125.
In all, for two people, total commuting costs -- including LIRR tickets, subway fares and station parking -- could rise to around $1,000 a month, or $12,000 a year.
That's a significant problem, because -- for some workers -- when commuting expenses hit levels that high, they come awfully close to being not worth the price. This does not bode well for the economies of Long Island or New York City.
If approved, the scheduled fare increase would be the MTA's fourth in five years. The MTA's board has little choice but to sign off on the fare hikes, already part of the budget, as a way to keep the system in good repair day after day. But riders must be given something of value in return, such as fundamental reforms to operations and labor contracts that ultimately will result in savings in the years to come.
Such changes would relieve the pressure on the MTA to rely so heavily on the fare box.
New York's subway riders now pay 72 percent of the system's operating costs, the highest rate in the nation. Passengers on Chicago's El pay 53 percent. PATH riders pay 35 percent. And LIRR riders pay 49 percent, which is more or less in line with the nation's other commuter rail systems.
A gigantic unknown for the MTA, its customers and its employees at the moment is the upcoming bargaining talks with the Transport Workers Union. The encouraging news is that MTA chairman Joseph Lhota knows his agency has no choice but to make its dollars go further than they're currently going.
As contract negotiations loom, Lhota has budgeted precisely $0.00 for raises that don't entail money-saving changes in work rules -- and good for him. Beyond work-rule changes, the MTA needs to streamline operations and consider selling off excess property.
The legislature enacted a partial rollback of the MTA payroll tax, but that's as far as it should go. A legal challenge to the remaining part of the tax, which was successful in a lower court, is likely to fail on appeal, as it should.
With recession-battered commuters at the breaking point, the MTA is taking a creative new approach. It's something like this: workers, managers and riders making shared sacrifices along the way -- to keep the system rolling. This week, riders learned what their part of the bill might look like. It isn't pretty. Lhota must squeeze excess from management, and the unions need to step up.
It's hard to imagine anything else working.