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Survey: Lapsed LIRR commuters cite fare prices, safety concerns

Ridership on the LIRR has fallen by 50%

Ridership on the LIRR has fallen by 50% from before the pandemic and MTA officials said they are working on ways to reverse that trend. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Many lapsed LIRR commuters can return to the workplace but are staying off trains, partly over concerns about crime, cleanliness and the price of a fare, a new survey found.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s "Customers Count" survey asked 123,000 current and former commuters throughout the region about their qualms over using public transportation, including the LIRR, Metro-North, and New York City buses and subways.

According to the survey — conducted from Sept. 20 to Oct. 4 — between 50% and 75% of riders from each of the transit agencies reported they are still working from home, but 80% said their offices either never closed, have reopened, or soon will reopen.

"So that means that we have customers that are choosing not to take our services," said MTA Chief Customer Officer Sarah Meyer. "We wanted to drill down on why they’re not coming back."

What to know

  • A recent MTA survey asked 123,000 current and former commuters about qualms over taking public transportation.
  • Many lapsed commuters cited concerns over safety and cost as among the reasons they are staying off trains, including the LIRR.
  • MTA officials have said there is an increased police presence throughout the system, rail cars are cleaned daily, and new fare options are being considered.

Among the most common reasons cited for not returning to the system were concerns over "crime and harassment/personal security, cleanliness and disinfection efforts," according to Meyer.

On the LIRR — where weekday ridership remains about 50% of pre-pandemic levels — many former customers took issue with the cost of a ride.

MTA officials have said they are taking measures to address those concerns, including an increased police presence throughout the system, daily disinfecting of all rail cars, and consideration of new fare options — including a potential 20-trip discounted ticket for part-time LIRR commuters.

"Our customers are telling us their travel patterns have changed. They expect change from the MTA, too," Meyer said.

The key to winning back commuters, she added, is to get them to sample the system for discretionary trips, and showing riders how much has improved.

"Once they get into the system, they’ll recognize that and feel that," Meyer said. "But we need to get them into the system first."

MTA acting chairman and Chief Executive Officer Janno Lieber agreed that bringing back riders should be "job one, two, and three" for the authority. He said that’s why the agency, under the urging of Gov. Kathy Hochul, this week made the call to postpone a planned 2021 fare increase until next summer, at the earliest.

"This was a business decision. This was not the right time to raise fares and send that wrong message," Lieber said. "We’re an $18 billion company that lost half of its customers. And now we have to get them back."

Improving revenues — including from federal COVID-19 stimulus packages and President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan — have helped soften the $125 million blow from postponing the planned 4% fare increase. But, in unveiling the MTA’s latest four-year financial plan, Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran said the agency’s finances remain "structurally out of balance," with growing expenses far outpacing revenue.

Even with planned fare increases in 2022, 2023 and 2025, Foran said, the MTA could face a $2.3 billion deficit by 2025.

While the influx of federal funding provides "a bridge to the future," Foran said the MTA still has to "look at those hard, ugly choices of things that may have to be done." Among them, he said, were cutting operating costs, including by "aligning service to what the public needs."

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