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LIers sound off on MTA fare hike plan

Long Island commuters waiting at Penn Station during

Long Island commuters waiting at Penn Station during a snowstorm that disrupted service. (Nov. 7, 2012) Credit: Agaton Strom

Commuters facing fare increases proposed for the Long Island Rail Road urged MTA leaders Tuesday night to get labor costs under control to help hold the line on fares.

At a public hearing at the Melville Marriott, Woodbury resident Scott Gildea, a certified public accountant who commutes daily to Manhattan on the LIRR's Huntington branch, urged the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board to rein in labor costs.

"It's not that tough," he said. "If you can't do it, get out of the job and let someone else do it."

Gildea, 58, said he was "appalled" the MTA permitted labor costs to account for 75 percent of its overall costs.

"I beg of you, stand up to these people," Gildea said of the transit unions. "Enough is enough -- please say no."

The hearing was a chance for Long Islanders like Gildea to have a say about the MTA's plan to raise fares and tolls next year. MTA chairman Joseph Lhota, LIRR president Helena Williams and several MTA board members attended.

A decision on the plan is expected Dec. 19, MTA spokesman Sam Zambuto said.

State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick), chairman of the transportation committee, said Tuesday in a letter to the MTA board and Lhota that he's firmly against the proposed fare increases for LIRR riders.

"Long Island Rail Road commuters are already paying some of the nation's highest fares," he wrote. "The MTA's proposed fare increase would increase these costs by 8.7 percent, far above the rate of inflation."

He concluded by "strongly" urging the board "to reject these proposed fare increases because of the harmful effect they will have on your customers."

Originally scheduled for Nov. 7, the meeting was postponed because the venue for that date, Farmingdale State College, did not have electricity after superstorm Sandy.

The MTA's goal is to increase fare revenue by about 7 percent. LIRR tickets would rise anywhere from 8.2 percent to 9.3 percent under the plan. LIRR commuters could pay as much as $37 more for a monthly ticket under options unveiled in October. One-way tickets would rise by at least 75 cents.

In response to the criticism, Lhota said the MTA "is doing everything it can to reduce costs."

Before Sandy, he said, the MTA had reversed some cuts and added additional service.

But Manorville resident Craig Lattuga, 30, urged "no more freebies" -- a reference to MTA staff, transit police and NYPD officers.

"These people are getting a fair wage and we pay their wages and salaries," he said. "I don't believe they should get to ride free."

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter's Council, suggested a "fan fare" for Long Island season-ticket holders going to big-league sports venues in New York City and New Jersey.

"The increase is too large," he said, pointing out MTA riders already bore a heavy burden, paying for 55.7 percent of the MTA's operating expenditures in 2011, the highest such percentage of any large transit system in the nation.

Long Islanders, he said, get hit at each end of their commute. In 2008, the proportion of operating expenditures borne by LIRR riders was 44.3 percent -- this year it's projected at 47 percent, Epstein said.

Jeffrey Frediani, legislative analyst for AAA New York, said last year the MTA collected $1.5 billion on its major bridges and tunnels and that the proposed hikes represent a second increase in two years.

"We believe current toll rates are already excessive, are unjust and unreasonable," he said.

Driving for many was not a choice, but a necessity because of inaccessible or inconvenient mass transit, Frediani said. Yet drivers already subsidize the MTA by more than $180 million a year in license and registration fees alone, he said.

The MTA needed to work harder to develop a better long-term and sustainable financial plan, Frediani said.

The fare and toll hike, to take effect early next year, is expected to generate an extra $450 million a year for the agency. MTA officials have said the additional revenue is needed to hold down soaring costs that the agency cannot control, such as pensions, employee benefits and fuel.

Examples under one fare-hike scenario contemplated: Mineola commuters would see a monthly ticket jump from $223 to $242. For Hicksville customers, the monthly ticket would rise from $254 to $276. And for Babylon riders, the monthly fare would increase from $299 to $325. Commuters from stations farthest east, such as Montauk and Greenport, would pay an additional $37 for monthly tickets.

The cost of a subway and city bus ride also would climb, as would tolls on all the MTA's bridge and tunnel crossings.

The increases vary, depending on whether the agency decides to keep the base MetroCard fare at $2.25 or increase it to $2.50, and whether it keeps the 7 percent discount for MetroCard purchases, reduces it or eliminates it.

Under the different proposals, the price of an unlimited monthly MetroCard, which now costs $104, would go up a minimum of $5 or a maximum of $21 -- a 20 percent increase.

If approved, the increases will mark the fourth time the MTA has hiked fares and tolls since 2008. The agency has plans for another 7.5 percent fare revenue increase in 2015.

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