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LIRR changes likely here to stay as ridership projected to continue to drop

Newsday transportation reporter Alfonso Castillo explores how the Long Island Rail Road is addressing the decline in ridership brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

Third in an occasional series on the future of transportation in the region

Having just posted its highest annual ridership and on-time performance figures in years, the Long Island Rail Road was predicting another strong year in 2020 — until the pandemic hit, leading to unprecedented drops in ridership and revenue.

A year later, the LIRR remains vastly changed by COVID-19, and there’s evidence that some of those changes are here to stay. Even as the railroad tries to lure back riders with technological innovations, intensified cleaning efforts and new ticket options, many lapsed commuters remain leery about returning, deterred by ticket prices, the thought of crowded trains and reduced service.

"Ultimately, the question is not whether ridership returns. It’s whether there is as much travel as there was before, and whether travel that used to be considered inelastic is now considered discretionary," said Danny Pearlstein, policy director for the Riders Alliance, a nonprofit commuter advocacy group.

Even as businesses continue to reopen, and vaccination rates rise, as many as 20% of former LIRR riders won’t be back even by 2025, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s projections. Other agencies, including credit rating firm Moody’s, has predicted a permanent 20% loss in MTA ridership.

After bottoming out at around 3% of pre-pandemic levels, LIRR ridership remains at around 25%, and railroad officials have acknowledged that some percentage of their former customers are likely gone for good. To address the decline in demand, the railroad has reduced service levels by around 20%.

More changes are likely on the way, as transportation officials seize the opportunity presented by the pandemic — and by a transit-friendly White House and Congress — to reconsider the role of trains in moving people, and goods, on and off Long Island.

"This is an especially important moment," Pearlstein said. "The stars have never been better aligned for transit … than they are right now. And we have to take full advantage of that."

The LIRR carried 91.1 million passengers in 2019, beating a modern ridership record that had been set the previous year. While the booming ridership translated into booming fare revenue — $771 million in ticket sales in 2019, $31 million more than in 2018 — it also translated into cramped conditions for commuters on trains and at stations.

By the end of 2020, ridership had fallen by 68%.

Revenue plummeted even more dramatically, as the elimination of peak fares and a huge decline in monthly pass sales resulted in a 77% drop in fares.

"I was a regular on the 3:55 or 3:14 [out of Penn Station], depending on the day. Definitely standing-room-only by or before Jamaica," Ronkonkoma commuter Gregory Koz said. "Now, I take a peak rush-hour train home, where there are five other people in my car waiting to get off in Ronkonkoma. You can absolutely see the difference. Night and day."

Although three separate federal bailouts for the MTA, totaling about $14.5 billion, are expected to offset revenue losses for the LIRR the next couple of years, the railroad’s long-term future remains uncertain.

The LIRR’s bounce-back has lagged behind most other transportation modes in the region, including bus systems on Long Island and in New York City, and subways. It’s a reflection, transportation experts said, of the LIRR’s customer base consisting largely of white-collar professionals who will continue working remotely some or most of the time going forward.

"In the world of transportation planning and service planning, nobody has a crystal ball. The $10,000 question out there is: What part of the conditions that are present because of the pandemic will remain? And, to what extent did the pandemic accelerate trends that were in the works ahead of time?" said Jon Carnegie, executive director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.

"I think that there’s a growing consensus among folks that … the relationship we all have with work in the office is going to change, and probably will change, at some level, permanently," Carnegie said.

LIRR officials have said the ridership changes they’ve seen during the pandemic have been in keeping with trends they’ve observed for years, including an increase in midday and weekend travel — the latter of which already has rebounded to about 50% of pre-pandemic levels.

They expect that the growth in so-called "non-commutation" riders eventually will offset the loss of traditional commuters heading into Manhattan in the morning and back to Long Island in the evening.

Railroad considering new, multi-ride tickets

To address the changing demand, the LIRR is looking to offer more options beyond the high-priced, unlimited-ride monthly passes that long have been the foundation of its farebox. The railroad is considering new, multi-ride tickets — similar to the existing Ten-Trip Ticket — that could include up to 20 rides at a discounted cost.

Although the railroad’s remaining riders may welcome the discounts, and the extra breathing room on trains, LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann said he fears, in the long term, the changes may do more harm than good.

"If we wind up losing 20-25% of the ridership, it’s going to be too much of a revenue drop. … There’s only two things you can do: You can raise fares, you can cut service, or a little of both," Bringmann said. "And I honestly think that down the line — in a year or so — we’re looking at that."

After already paring back service to around 80% of pre-pandemic levels, the LIRR attempted in March to trim it further. After being criticized by riders and elected officials for creating crowds on trains during the pandemic, the LIRR restored service levels and has vowed that no further cuts are on the way.

But the MTA’s chief financial officer, Robert Foran, has suggested that "right-sizing" service levels to correspond with reduced demand is inevitable.

"We do have to address our service levels to make sure we’re meeting the needs of the customers," Foran said. "And if the new normal is something less than pre-pandemic levels, it’s a question of when do we start to address it and adjust?"

Despite the depressed ridership, some transportation experts have warned against further service cuts. Rachel Weinberger, senior transportation fellow at the Regional Plan Association, said trimming transit service levels to match demand will only lead to a "vicious cycle" of more lost riders, and more cuts.

"Service can’t follow demand, because the demand can’t materialize if the capacity is not there," said Weinberger, who believes appropriate service levels should not be dictated by available funding.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, people in my field were wringing their hands about how we need to bring transit ridership back. And I was like, ‘Low ridership is what we want right now,’ " Weinberger said. "The problem that transit has had this whole past year is a money problem, not a ridership problem. I think we sometimes lose sight of that."

Ronkonkoma commuter Thomas Breen, who has been riding the LIRR for more than 30 years, agreed the railroad should embrace its modest ridership, which has allowed riders to keep a safe distance from one another, and resist the temptation to cut deeper, and push away potential customers.

"The train they used to take, they can’t take anymore, because they don’t exist. It’s such a hassle," said Breen, who is an attorney. "They’re thinking, ‘Well, maybe I can start going back to work.’ And they see three trains over three hours and they say, ‘Oh, my God. Until my boss tells me I have to return to work, I’m going to continue working from home.’ "

Given the increasing rate of vaccinations, and of businesses reopening, LIRR president Phillip Eng expressed confidence in riders returning.

"I expect that ridership will continue to grow. At what level, at what pace, we don't know," Eng said. "So, if there’s any right-sizing, I expect that it will be in the positive direction — adding trains back."

Foye: Low ridership to cost $1B a year

MTA chairman Patrick Foye said the reduced ridership will cost the authority about $1 billion a year in lost revenue. Federal bailouts have allowed the agency to put off drastic measures to fill the gap, including a fare increase that was originally set to be approved in January. But Foye said a long-term, sustainable funding solution is still needed.

"We do think there should be a higher level of funding support for transit across the country," Foye said. "But the burden is going to fall on the MTA and our agencies, including the Long Island Rail Road, to take costs out of the system."

That includes labor costs, which account for about 60% of the MTA’s $18.4 billion annual operating budget. Foye said he expects any reduction in the workforce would be mostly addressed though attrition. "There may be Long Island Rail Road positions, both in management and on the operating side, that don’t get filled," he said.

Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR’s largest union, doesn’t think cutting the workforce, or service levels, is wise — especially given that the railroad was bursting at the seams with riders before the pandemic, and could attract new riders through several expansion projects in the works, including the completion of East Side Access in 2023 and the opening of a new station serving an arena at Belmont Park later this year.

"Before the pandemic, we were at record highs. And we were struggling. If we go back to 80% [ridership], we would be at a comfortable place," said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. "There may be a change, but I’ve seen the uptick in traffic. I don’t think people want to stay in their cars and ride in their cars for two hours."

Some, including Bringmann, have suggested that the railroad’s reduced ridership also lessens the urgency for several capacity-expanding megaprojects, including the East Side Access. But MTA officials said the projects remain as important as ever, both because they expect demand will rebound, and because the railroad’s existing infrastructure — much of it more than a century old — remains antiquated. "This is long-lived transportation infrastructure," Foye said. "It wasn’t built for 2021."

The pandemic may increase the utility of some megaprojects, including the Third Track, said Kevin Law, the Suffolk County representative on the MTA Board and former president of the Long Island Association. He said changes undergone by businesses during the pandemic will make it more possible for the LIRR to have enough capacity to serve intra-island travelers and "reverse commuters" traveling to and from jobs on Long Island.

Those changes include Manhattan firms looking to downsize to smaller, suburban offices, and "more and more Long Island businesses tapping into New York City’s labor pool to fill their employment needs."

Other changes brought on by the pandemic have been almost universally welcome by riders, and are also likely here to stay, MTA officials have said. They include intensified cleaning efforts on trains and stations, new air filtration systems now being tested that could kill 99.9% of airborne viruses in trains, and technological innovations that allow LIRR riders — and service planners — to monitor ridership levels on every car in real time through weight sensors built into trains’ suspension systems.

LIRR officials said they are looking at making other improvements on their TrainTime mobile app, including adding notifications that could alert riders when their train is about to arrive, and potentially wake them up if they’re about to miss their stop.

Some transportation planners have looked at the changes brought on by the pandemic, combined with newfound support in Washington, D.C., as an opportunity to advance even more ambitious, and even audacious, ideas.

John Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, sees the reduced demand on the rails as an opening to operate more freight trains on and off Long Island — relieving pressure on Nassau and Suffolk roadways.

"Let me tell you the advantage of freight. It does not need to travel at peak hours. Commuters need to travel at peak hours. Freight can go almost any time. You’re utilizing that dead space, and making it more profitable," said Cameron, who noted that deliveries, through companies like Amazon, have skyrocketed during the pandemic. "We can’t just keep choking off our highways with trucks."

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