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LIRR fare hikes, service cuts on hold, MTA acting chief says

The MTA will release its proposed 2022 operating

The MTA will release its proposed 2022 operating budget on Wednesday. Fare increases and service reductions are off the table for now. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Fare hikes and service cuts by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are on hold while the MTA awaits its share of President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, the agency’s acting chief said Monday.

Ahead of the MTA’s release of its proposed 2022 operating budget Wednesday, acting chairman and chief executive Janno Lieber told board members that the financial plan will include "two major changes" amid an infusion of funds from the federal infrastructure bill.

A fare increase on the Long Island Rail Road and other agencies will be postponed for at least six months, Lieber said, and there will be an indefinite deferment of service reductions.

Lieber interrupted a committee meeting on Monday to announce the changes, which he said came with the approval of Gov. Kathy Hochul.

"The bottom line is the governor is saying ‘we want riders back. We want to support the economy’s recovery. We don’t need fare hikes at this time,' " Lieber said later in an interview with 1010 WINS radio. "And what she’s also called on us at the MTA to do — and which we’re heeding in our budget — is to put off service cuts through the whole five year plan."

Hochul, speaking from Albany International Airport while on her way to attend the signing of President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, confirmed that the service cuts "are off the table." The governor credited Biden's infrastructure plan, which is expected to deliver about $10.5 billion to the MTA. The president signed the legislation Monday at a White House ceremony.

"Those of you who are commuters on the MTA and have been anxious about how much this is going to go up, especially in this era of inflation," Hochul said, "I'm really excited to say that we will not have to raise the fares or have any service cuts."

The announcement takes off the table two major strategies for the MTA to increase revenue, even as it still reels from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused ridership and other funding streams to plummet.

The MTA’s financial plan, last updated in July, predicted deficits totaling $10 billion by 2025. It counted on several gap-filling measures, including fare hikes, service cuts and federal aid to close the deficit.

Last week, the MTA said it will get $10 billion out of a federal $14 billion COVID-19 transit bailout passed earlier this year, because of a negotiated deal to share the funds with New Jersey and Connecticut.

The anticipated money from Biden's infrastructure plan will largely go to MTA capital improvements, which are funded separately from the agency's operating budget.

"Obviously we are responsible for making sure there’s a balanced budget and we’re going to have to work with our partners in Albany, including the legislature, to address the MTA’s emerging needs brought on by the COVID crisis," Lieber said.

For the past decade, the MTA has raised fares every other year. A fare hike was due this year, but the MTA postponed a January vote because of the financial impact on riders from the pandemic. The latest postponement puts off a fare hike vote until the summer of 2022 at the earliest.

The agency has also said it would consider "right sizing" service levels to match reduced demand throughout its agencies, including the Long Island Rail Road, which is still carrying only a little more than half the riders it did before the pandemic.

Monday's announcement put such service reductions on hold "indefinitely," Lieber said.

Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA Permanent Citizens Advisory Commitee, an advocacy group that includes the LIRR Commuter Council, called the announcement "great news," but cautioned that the MTA still needs to find a sustainable funding source "so we are not put in such a difficult situation going forward."

"Keeping service at the highest levels possible is critical to getting riders back on board," Daglian said. "This afternoon’s bill signing at the White House should mean that there’s enough breathing room so we can focus on getting back on track, and back on board, as we continue to recover from pandemic."

With Michael Gormley

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