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Distance-based fare not fair to the distant, MTA official says

Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Mitchell Pally attends

Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Mitchell Pally attends a MTA board meeting in Manhattan on Jan. 25, 2017. Credit: Charles Eckert

Suffolk’s MTA board member said Tuesday the agency should think twice before raising LIRR fares next year because county commuters already bear an unfair cost burden and a price hike will hit them the hardest.

“We charge them more because we charge by distance, even though they live in less-wealthy areas,” Mitchell Pally said at Tuesday’s MTA board meeting in Manhattan, referring to Long Island Rail Road customers from Suffolk County.

The MTA has yet to formally propose a specific fare increase, which would have to be voted on by board members, though on Tuesday they discussed a 4 percent hike for 2019.

“That, to me, is a public policy decision that has to be reconsidered . . . I understand why it is. It’s not fair to my constituents,” Pally said about commuters from Suffolk, where the median income is $12,000 less than in Nassau, according to U.S. Census data.

The MTA’s latest revenue projections are more than $200 million higher than in February, agency officials have said, and a new surcharge for Uber and other for-hire vehicles is expected to generate $300 million next year.

Addressing the board, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota agreed that the agency’s financial plan “reveals a clear and urgent need for new and consistent revenue.”

“I encourage a more robust discussion and debate and decision-making about new revenue sources that are going to be necessary for the MTA to move forward,” Lhota said.

Chief financial officer Robert Foran said the biennial fare increases remained critical to the agency’s long-term financial health but he was mindful of Pally’s concerns for Suffolk riders.

Responding to Pally, Foran said the MTA was mindful of the high fares paid by those with the farthest commute. To address that issue, he said, the agency capped railroad monthly ticket increases at $15 with the most recent fare increase of 4 percent last year.

Foran said on Tuesday that he still had to “run the math” on next year’s possible fare hike.

“We are in the process of going through what we might do,” Foran said.

But Pally of Stony Brook said the MTA should reconsider raising rates again, especially as fares have increased by 33 percent since 2009. Pally said Suffolk commuters pay as much as $6,000 a year for their LIRR passes.

If approved, the MTA's fare increase would be the seventh over the last decade. During that time, the cost of a monthly ticket between Penn Station and Ronkonkoma has climbed from $267 to $391 a month.

Some MTA board members, including Pally, have hoped that a congestion pricing plan for cars driving south of 60th Street in Manhattan would lessen the need for regular fare hikes, but the State Legislature has still not acted on the proposal, which would take years to implement.

Meanwhile, the MTA’s latest financial plan also revealed a price tag for the “LIRR Forward” initiative spearheaded by new railroad president Phillip Eng. The program, which includes expediting the replacement of troublesome track switches and hardening infrastructure from weather threats, is estimated to cost $132 million over the 2019-2022 financial plan period.

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