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MTA outlines new plans to trim costs, services

Commuters dash off an eastbound LIRR train arriving

Commuters dash off an eastbound LIRR train arriving at Huntington, Wednesday evening. (July 28, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Long Island Rail Road riders may have to pay up to 9.4 percent more for fares, find fewer places to buy tickets, and dig deeper to buy a rush-hour beer, due to the MTA's latest effort to knock down a gargantuan budget gap.

The nation's largest public transportation provider is also planning on service cuts and layoffs that leave LIRR customers with just nine stations, out of 124, where they can buy tickets from a human being. The railroad plans to close another 18 manned ticket windows next year, according to budget documents.

A monthly LIRR commuter pass to the city could go up as much as $37. And the railroad is proposing to hike the prices of beverages sold on station platforms by 3 percent and increase parking fees at Ronkonkoma and Mineola.

The changes, part of the MTA's $12-billion spending plan for next year, were revealed in a contentious meeting of the MTA's board of directors Wednesday. Scores of commuters, public leaders and transit workers lined up outside the agency's Manhattan headquarters early Wednesday morning to decry the budget, which looks to close a $900-million deficit this year and balance its budget next year.

Some protesters chanted "Lay off Jay Walder!" - a reference to the MTA's chairman, who led the board in formally approving the axing of 210 subway station agents Wednesday. By the end of the year, the LIRR expects to have laid off about 100 union workers and also cut another 95 administrative positions.

The MTA has already disclosed that the LIRR is looking to eliminate or reduce discounts on Mail & Ride and Webticket, round up on-board transactions to the nearest dollar, charge processing fees for ticket refunds, and drastically shorten the time that LIRR tickets are valid.

The fare changes, which increase hikes on the cost of MetroCards, will be the subject of public hearings in September. The MTA board will vote on the changes in October. They would take effect Jan. 1.

During the public speakers' portion of the meeting Wednesday, William Henderson, executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said that while he appreciated the MTA's extensive efforts to tighten its belt, he warned of the "unintended consequences" of raising fares throughout the MTA by as much as 17 percent.

The fare hikes "threaten to change riders' view of transit as the first option to move around the region," he said.

Much of the anger expressed by riders and MTA board members alike was directed at Gov. David A. Paterson and the State Legislature, which last year approved a near-$3-billion rescue package for the MTA, but months later cut state aid to the struggling authority by $143 million. Some transit officials and advocates have also blamed the MTA for significantly over-estimating the revenue generated by a new payroll tax for employers in the MTA service region that was the foundation of the rescue package.

Spokesmen for the governor and for the state Senate's Democrats, who passed the package, did not respond to requests for comment.

Board member Mitchell Pally, who represents Suffolk, said the MTA's focus in looking at fares should be to re-examine how much of the financial burden of the transit system should be borne by people who use it, rather than motorists and businesses who also benefit from MTA services.

Gene Russianoff, spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign, shared a similar sentiment when he called upon the state to reconsider measures such as congestion pricing and tolls on currently free East River crossings as ways to support the MTA.

"Should transit riders pay, as I do, to go from Brooklyn to Manhattan when drivers on the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan [Bridge] and Wiiliamsburgh Bridge do it for free?" Russianoff asked.

Anthony Shorris, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, said, in contrast to its funding shortfalls of the 1970s and early '80s, when the MTA allowed service and infrastructure to deteriorate, the authority now faces pressure to keep investing in its system during down times because ridership is so high. The MTA moves about 11 million people a day and accounts for about one out of every three transit rides in the nation. "So it's in a better place," Shorris said. "But at the same time, it's suffering from its own success."

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