Long Islanders balk at payroll tax push for LIRR, chairman's comments
Long Island officials and riders are speaking out against what some called the MTA's "arrogant" notion Long Islanders should pay more to fund transit, both because of the billions invested in the LIRR in recent years, and because remote workers are the source of the agency's financial problems.
At a state budget hearing Monday, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Janno Lieber blamed much of the agency's financial woes on lapsed white collar commuters who "dial it in from East Hampton." Lieber added that Long Island should be willing to pay more to fund transit, given the billions spent on the LIRR in recent years.
The comments came as the MTA seeks support for a proposal from Gov. Kathy Hochul to increase the state’s payroll mobility tax to help fund the financially beleaguered transit agency. The MTA is also looking to raise fares by 5.5% — the highest increase in a decade.
Lieber's remarks echoed those made last week by LIRR interim president Catherine Rinaldi, who, in response to early criticism from some Long Island lawmakers to the financial plan, said, "Long Island is getting a lot of love from the MTA these days, and deservedly so." Lieber pointed to what he's called a 41% planned increase in LIRR service with the imminent launch of full service to Grand Central Madison.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Long Island officials and commuters are speaking out against what some called the MTA's "arrogant" notion Long Islanders should pay more to fund transit.
- The MTA chairman on Monday had blamed much of the agency's financial woes on lapsed white collar commuters who "dial it in from East Hampton" and noted the billions spent by the LIRR in recent years.
- One political expert said the comments may have “come across as arrogant, insensitive and counterproductive.”
But the day after the hearing, Assemb. Gina Sillitti (D-Port Washington) pointed out that the East Side Access megaproject ran more than a decade late, and will lengthen some Penn Station commuters' trips. She called Lieber's comments "dismissive and aggressive" toward Long Island.
"Raising fares while altering schedules that increase commute times is not the answer," Sillitti said. "If he is challenging Long Islanders to work from home, they just may take him up on it."
MTA external relations chief John McCarthy, responding to the criticisms over Lieber's testimony, said he believed MTA officials "had a productive dialogue during the hearing with the members from Long Island."
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said Lieber’s remarks — which included repeated reminders that the MTA has spent billions on upgrading to expand the LIRR’s capacity in recent years — may have “come across as arrogant, insensitive and counterproductive.” But, Levy said, Long Island was not Lieber’s target audience.
“The testimony was aimed, not so much at persuading Long Island, but to point out to the rest of the MTA region just how much Long Island has gotten, and perhaps they haven’t and need,” Levy said. “This may be less politically insensitive than shrewd, in terms of building support for the program over the objections of Long Island, which seems to be leading the charge against it.”
At the Lynbrook LIRR station Wednesday, daily commuter Jayla Bank said, while MTA officials may say they’ve invested a lot into Long Island, its “people have invested a lot into them” as well. The 23-year-old medical assistant from Valley Stream said she spends about $20 a day riding the LIRR, even as stations are in “horrible” and “disgusting” condition.
“It’s already expensive, especially if you’re taking a train during the rush hour,” Bank said.
As he waited for his train at Lynbrook, carpenter Johnnie Lighty, 61, said the proposed fare hike "would definitely hurt a lot."
"I think the government should take care of the people, not the people take care of the government," said Lighty, who noted that commuters are also facing potential new tolls in Manhattan from the MTA's congestion pricing plan. "They're just scrounging. They're looking under the pillow for nickels … They're trying to make some more change off the backs of the people."
Approached at Penn Station on Wednesday afternoon, several residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties who ride the railroad chafed at the notion of Long Island paying more.
“Half the time, the trains are a mess. They’re not on time. The platforms are never shoveled, you know what I mean, in the wintertime,” said Hallum Gelzer, a 48-year-old building superintendent from Freeport. “I don’t see where the money is going. I just don’t see it.”
Bill Crowley, a retired accountant who lives in Kings Park, said that MTA officials should be tightening the agency’s belt before seeking more money.
“I don’t think they do enough to control their costs. I mean, they had all these issues with overtime and people getting paid overtime that they weren’t working,” said Crowley, 69.
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, a Republican, said Lieber's remarks displayed “the arrogance to assume that we’re wealthy and to assume that you can soak” Long Islanders.
“I hope that these policies are not a result of political retribution because of last November’s election,” said Romaine, referencing Republicans’ strong showing at the ballot box in Nassau and Suffolk. Hochul is a Democrat.
Other Long Island leaders were more willing to believe that the MTA has good intentions for Long Island. Despite Lieber telling State Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James) that a proposal to electrify the tracks on the LIRR’s Port Jefferson branch could be too expensive to justify, Mattera said Tuesday he believes the MTA is serious about studying the matter. He also said he understood the MTA’s reasoning behind pushing for increased funding, even if he doesn’t support a payroll tax increase.
“The pandemic did put us into a spiral. People are staying home. They’re working from home. I want people to get back into the workforce,” Mattera said.
Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, in a statement, called Hochul’s proposed bailout of the MTA “a credible plan” that maintains service, minimizes impact on commuters, and positions the LIRR “to expand service in the future.”
But Republican Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said in a statement "an increase in the MTA commuter tax would have a deleterious effect on Nassau County residents.”