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MTA moves ahead with planned rate hike for Long Island Rail Road

The LIRR station in Jamaica in August.

The LIRR station in Jamaica in August.   Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The MTA is taking the first steps toward a potential fare increase next year, including on the Long Island Rail Road, despite calls from riders and advocates to postpone a rate hike that they said could keep away many of the same lapsed commuters the agency is trying to win back.

At the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s monthly board meeting Wednesday, MTA chairman Patrick Foye announced that the agency was "beginning the standard process of the MTA’s fare and toll policy review." It was the MTA’s first acknowledgment, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, of its intention to stick to its policy — adopted a decade ago — of raising fares every other year.

Under that policy, the MTA usually raises fares and tolls by about 4% every two years — a rate, the agency said, that aims to keep up with inflation. A specific rate hike plan is typically released late in the year, followed by a series of public hearings on the proposal. Following approval by the MTA Board, the new rates are enacted in the first quarter of the following year.

"This is a board decision. This is the beginning of the process," Foye told reporters following the meeting. "There will be discussion, I’m sure, at the November and December meeting about all of these issues. And no decisions have been made."

MTA officials are still holding out hope for a $12 billion federal bail out. Without it, the agency said it may have to resort to mass layoffs, cutting service by 50% on the LIRR, and raising fares by more than the usual 4%.

The announcement came as the transit agency continues to wrestle with an unprecedented fiscal crisis brought on by the pandemic, which has robbed the MTA of most of its riders, and the fares they pay. LIRR president Phillip Eng said at the meeting that weekday ridership remains at around 28% of pre-pandemic levels.

Ahead of the release of the its proposed 2021 operating budget next month, MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran said agency officials "continue to identify and evaluate various fare and toll options for the board’s consideration."

LIRR fares have more than doubled over the last two decades, according to a Newsday analysis last year. Monthly tickets range from $197 to $500. A 4% increase would bring the cost of an average monthly ticket to about $358.

Huntington commuter Samuel Paniccia, who has been riding the LIRR for more than 30 years, said it would be a "bad idea" to raise fares in the middle of the pandemic, especially given the possibility that the railroad could enact deep service cuts — meaning riders would pay more for much less.

"An increase on the backs of the riders all the time has to stop," said Paniccia, an attorney, who believes the MTA should scale back service and reduce employee pay while ridership is low.

"They’re saying, ‘We get it. Everyone has suffered. But we’re not going to. We’re just going to keep making the riders pay more,’" Paniccia said. "It just doesn’t make sense."

Foye said the MTA is "acutely aware" of the financial hardship suffered by customers, and that many of the agency’s remaining riders are essential workers "who don’t have the option of working remotely." Foye said those factors will be considered in the MTA’s final decision on a fare and toll plan.

Kevin Law, the Suffolk County representative on the MTA Board, has also urged the agency to hold off on raising fares, which he believes could hurt efforts to lure riders back to the railroad. He’s suggested the MTA even consider reducing fares.

"As we deal with a declining number of commuters and as they’re being attracted to working remotely, the last thing we need to be doing … is to be increasing fares," Law said.

To highlight the urgency of the MTA’s "fiscal tsunami," Foye pointed to a new study published by New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and Appleseed, a financial consulting firm. The report found that the cuts proposed by the MTA to close its budget gap could result in the loss of 450,000 jobs in the New York region by 2022, and a $65 billion reduction in the region’s annual gross domestic product.

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