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MTA eyes service cuts to deal with surprise budget gap

Passengers board a LIRR train in Mineola. (April

Passengers board a LIRR train in Mineola. (April 20, 2009) Credit: Ed Betz

Wednesday the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board will take a vote with the potential to affect the lives and commutes of thousands of Long Islanders.

If the MTA board, which has 17 members, adopts a plan unveiled yesterday to fill a recently discovered $383-million budget gap, the Long Island Rail Road and Long Island Bus would be hit with widespread service cuts.

And Long Islanders who rely on public transportation would experience service reductions including the following:

Train passengers would see a reduction in service on the Babylon branch, where two westbound trains would be combined in the mornings and two eastbound trains in the late afternoon. One late-afternoon train to Long Beach would be canceled, as would one to Ronkonkoma.

The railroad would also reduce the frequency of off-peak and weekend trains on the Port Washington line from half-hourly to hourly, and eliminate weekend service on the West Hempstead branch, where about 360 passengers ride each weekend day.

Bus passengers would see the elimination of eight of the 53 Long Island Bus routes and reductions in several others they rely on.

Among the targeted routes are the N51, which serves the Merrick LIRR Station, Roosevelt Field and Nassau Community College; the N80, which serves the Broadway Mall in Hicksville and Sunrise Mall in Massapequa; and the N93, which takes passengers from the Farmingdale LIRR station to the nearby SUNY campus.

If approved, the service reductions would take effect in July.

The cuts are largely the same as those proposed and narrowly avoided earlier this year as part of the MTA's so-called "Doomsday" 2009 operating budget. However, unlike that budget, the newly proposed plan does not include additional fare increases.

"The situation that we have found ourselves in is overwhelming," MTA chairman Jay Walder said following the committee's vote. "I wish I could tell you that losing this amount of money in this short a time would not have painful consequences. Unfortunately, I cannot."

LIRR Commuters Council chairwoman Maureen Michaels challenged the logic of eliminating trains as a means of boosting revenue. "This is not moving effectively forward," she said.

With regards to bus cuts, Ryan Lynch, spokesman for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said "those aren't just numbers and letters. They're people's livelihoods."

"They make sure people get to and from work, to their families, and to pick up their kids from school."New York City subways and buses would also see some lines eliminated and reduced under the proposed budget.

The MTA also plans to save money by cutting salaries of nonunion employees by 10 percent; discontinuing a discount fare program for New York City students; discontinuing a toll rebate program for Rockaway residents using the Cross Bay bridge; and cutting paratransit expenses.

Some MTA board members criticized budget planners for relying on cuts rather than more innovative approaches, including using federal stimulus funds.

"We're really doing something that's totally insane," said board member Norman Seabrook, of Manhattan, who vowed to vote against the proposed budget.

The MTA initially predicted financial solvency for the next few years, thanks to a $2.3 billion rescue package adopted by the state legislature in May. But MTA officials said last week that the rescue package had begun "a significant unraveling" late in the year. A payroll tax that was the foundation of the rescue legislation fell $229 million short of projections. The MTA said Monday that it expects to recoup $129 million of that money next year, but $100 million is lost.

As well, the state recently cut its aid to the MTA by $143 million. Long Island Bus faces an additional $2.4 million in cuts by the state and by Nassau County.

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