A proposal to boost LIRR ridership by offering new discounts geared toward New York City residents could result in fewer seats for Long Island commuters paying more for rides on the same trains.
The proposal for a "Freedom Ticket" was released Wednesday by the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee (PCAC) — a transit advocacy group that includes the LIRR Commuter Council.
It calls for an expansion of the LIRR’s Atlantic Ticket, which discounts fares to and from Atlantic Terminal for passengers traveling from certain stations in Queens and Brooklyn.
According to the PCAC, since it was launched in 2018, more than 2 million Atlantic Tickets have been sold, generating $16 million in revenue for the LIRR and filling seats on trains that otherwise would have gone empty.
The group now wants to expand the discount program to all stations within New York City, including Penn Station. Proponents said the program would shorten the commutes of city residents who have previously been priced out of the railroad, and also help the LIRR recover ridership losses caused by COVID-19.
LIRR weekday ridership remains at less than 50% of pre-pandemic levels. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has predicted that by 2025, ridership may still be down by as much as 20%.
"When we came up with the idea of a Freedom Ticket, we had heard from riders who had extremely long commutes — maybe two buses to a subway or a bus and two trains. And yet, we had this wonderful rail infrastructure right in their neighborhoods. But it was priced out of the reach of many of them," Andrew Albert, MTA Board member and chairman of the New York City Transit Riders Council, said at a Queens news conference.
"We have the option and the opportunity to put many more people on the system," Albert added. "And once they’re on the system … they are far less likely to take out their car."
In a statement, MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said that the agency’s acting chairman and chief financial officer, Janno Lieber, believes in using "innovative fare policy to bring back ridership," including by extending the railroad’s suspension of off-peak fares and pursuing new tickets that will reflect changing commuting patterns.
But Donovan said that recommendations for making transit more affordable should include plans for other funding sources, "since cutting fares does not assure increased revenue."
PCAC officials said Long Island commuters could also benefit from the "Freedom Ticket" proposal, which includes a call for increased LIRR service and, in a future phase, new discounts for all off-peak travel and for trips made within Long Island.
Under the proposal, LIRR trips within New York City would be priced somewhere between the cost of a traditional LIRR ticket and a $2.75 bus or subway ride. Customers could see savings of more than 50%, and get free transfers to buses and subways.
But Valley Stream commuter Marco Alvarez said the proposal to lure more city riders onto trains "makes absolutely no sense during a pandemic" when passengers are trying to avoid crowds, and when LIRR service levels remain below what they were before COVID-19.
Alvarez also doubted whether the plan would achieve its intended purpose.
"I’m not sure the lower pricing is really going to increase the ridership by much. I don’t think New Yorkers are going to be willing to pay more for what they will see as limited service," Alvarez said. "A cheaper subway or bus fare will almost always get them closer to their intended destination than the railroad."