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Commuter groups to tout ways to avoid Metro-North's fare hike plan

A Metro-North train leaves the Rye train station,

A Metro-North train leaves the Rye train station, heading north toward Stamford. (Oct. 9, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

Metro-North commuter groups will make a pitch to the MTA to stop saddling cash-strapped riders with fare hikes and devise better ways to fund the region's transportation system at public hearings scheduled for next week across the Hudson Valley.

Metro-North is proposing a 9.3 percent jump in fares on most of its commuter routes to help close a $450 million hole in next year's $12.6 billion budget for its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

If the MTA board approves the proposal next month, it would be the fourth fare hike since 2008, adding a quarter to every dollar that commuters spend to purchase a ticket on the nation's busiest commuter rail.

Riders now pay 60 percent of Metro-North's operating costs -- the highest percentage for a commuter rail in the nation. Only New York City straphangers pay more -- about 70 percent of the city's transit costs.

If that figure keeps inching upward, riders will abandon the system, said David Buchwald, the chairman of the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council.

"Metro-North provides great service and they should be commended for getting the railroad back and running after Superstorm Sandy," Buchwald said. "The flip side is that fare increases outpacing family budgets is something that can't continue."

Buchwald, a White Plains councilman, will be stepping down from the commuter post next year when he becomes an assemblyman representing the 93rd District. The Democrat scored an upset victory in Tuesday's elections, defeating incumbent Republican Robert Castelli.

He will be joined by Randy Glucksman, the Rockland County representative on the commuter council, in speaking out against the MTA proposal at a public hearing Thursday in Yonkers. Hearings also are scheduled for Poughkeepsie on Tuesday and Newburgh on Wednesday.

Glucksman said the state and city need to face up to their responsibility to fund a transportation system that -- as Hurricane Sandy made clear -- plays a vital role in keeping the region's economy humming.

"We can't possibly keep going to the riders all the time," Glucksman said. "Over the years the state contribution has dwindled and the city doesn't give as much. A good percentage of what's going into the fare box is being used to pay off debt."

Democratic state lawmakers said debt service is one of the primary reasons why the MTA continues to turn to its riders to fund the system. Brooklyn Assemb. James Brennan, who chairs an MTA oversight committee, is pushing a $4.5 billion transportation bond that would bankroll the MTA's construction-related needs.

So far, the MTA's administration has escaped the wrath of commuter groups, largely because of publicized efforts to cut some $800 million in annual costs by freezing managers' pay and consolidating some operations.

William Henderson, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said the agency needs to end its reliance on revenue sources that fall prey to market downturns. A crash in the housing market in 2007 knocked some $1.2 billion in revenues out of the MTA's budget.

"Whenever the real estate market gets a cold, real estate tax revenues get pneumonia," Henderson said. "We need to look at other revenues."

To close that $1.2 billion hole, the MTA came up with the Payroll Mobility Tax, a tax on businesses in the MTA region that generates $1.8 billion annually. The future of the tax remains in doubt after a Long Island judge this summer declared it unconstitutional. The MTA has appealed the ruling.

Henderson said some commuter groups are pushing for tolls on the city's East River crossings -- the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. It's an idea that's surfaced before but failed to gain traction with lawmakers.

"We've seen over the last three or four years the percentage of the cost of operations paid for by ridership rise," Henderson said. "We need to figure out what's really fair here."

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