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LIRR fares to rise Friday -- again

A Long Island Rail Road rider purchases a

A Long Island Rail Road rider purchases a ticket from a machine at the LIRRs Jamaica Station. (Feb. 27, 2013) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

LIRR ticket prices have more than quadrupled over the past three decades, far outpacing inflation and taking a bigger percentage out of commuters' incomes.

And Friday, they go up again.

Monthly ticket prices have risen 318 percent since 1980. But as hefty as the increases have been, they are in line with the growing cost of providing public transportation over the same period, federal statistics show.

The latest LIRR fare hike, which will hit commuters' March monthly passes, increases ticket prices from 7.1 percent to 15.3 percent, depending on the trip and ticket type.

Other Metropolitan Transportation Authority fare and toll increases, including those for buses, subways and sister commuter railroad Metro-North, take effect Sunday.

"It's not only the fact that fares are increasing, but that they're increasing faster than people's ability to pay for them," said William Henderson, executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee. "We're really concerned that people are starting to lose their ability to afford transportation."

A Newsday analysis of LIRR fares since 1980 found the cost of traveling on the railroad has grown out of proportion with several other economic indicators, including inflation and median household incomes on Long Island.

With the latest fare increase -- the 11th since 1980 -- the average cost of a monthly LIRR ticket is $309. In 1980, it was about $74. Adjusted for inflation, that same ticket would be $206 today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2009, the state legislature adopted a plan for the MTA to raise fares by 7.5 percent every other year. That puts the next fare hike in 2015.

LIRR commuting costs also account for a larger piece of riders' income than they did in 1980. The median household income that year was about $26,000 in Nassau and $25,000 in Suffolk, according to U.S. Census Bureau reports. Average LIRR commuting costs would have represented about 3 to 3.4 percent of income.

Median household income has increased by about 250 percent in Nassau to about $91,000 and by about 236 percent to $84,000 in Suffolk. Average LIRR commuting costs now consume about 4 to 4.4 percent of those funds.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said riders' concerns about growing fare costs are valid and the agency has tried to minimize hikes through internal cost cutting. But with labor costs, including pensions and health benefits, increasing faster than inflation, regular fare increases are necessary, he said. Labor costs represent 60 percent of the MTA's budget.

Lisberg noted that the agency did not increase fares between 1995 and 2003, even as costs grew. "When it finally came time to pay the piper, we had to have significant fare increases to make up for it," he said.

The LIRR's projected 2013 operating expenses are $1.95 billion -- more than 400 percent higher than in 1980, when the railroad spent about $385 million. If its costs had risen only by the inflation rate, the LIRR would be spending $1.08 billion this year.

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union -- the LIRR's largest labor organization -- said in a statement that blaming workers was "inaccurate," and that the MTA should instead look at "its layers of management, consultants and high level salaries" as reasons for its fiscal problems.

The pace of LIRR fare increases parallels the growing cost of providing public transportation, according to federal research. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' price index for intercity transportation, which includes commuter rail lines, reported costs have risen by 347 percent since 1980.

Mantel Williams, spokesman for the American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, said transit providers across the country have struggled for years without sufficient government funding.

"A lot of them are dealing with situations or laws where they have to have a balanced budget," Williams said. "So if you don't get that increase in federal or state and local funding, you have to do one of two things: cut service or raise fares."

Public transportation is still usually cheaper than driving, he said.

"Transportation is a basic need, just like food or shelter," Williams said. "You don't have a choice. You have to get back and forth from work."

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