Long Island Rail Road commuters got a reprieve from higher...

Long Island Rail Road commuters got a reprieve from higher fares Monday after the MTA announced it would not move forward on a proposal to raise them. Credit: Jeff Bachner

The MTA — citing the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its customers, including those on the Long Island Rail Road — is putting off a planned fare hike vote, but is moving ahead with a separate vote next month to raise bridge and tunnel tolls.

Three days ahead of a planned vote on fare hikes — potentially by up to 16% on some LIRR tickets — Patrick Foye, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, on Monday night issued a statement saying that since the agency proposed its plan in November, riders have made it clear they "are suffering and cannot shoulder even a modest fare increase right now."

Foye also expressed optimism that the MTA, which already has received about $8 billion in COVID-19 aid from the federal government, might receive more federal stimulus money.

"For these reasons, the MTA has decided to postpone the planned fare increase for several months," Foye said.

A source with knowledge of the process said the fare vote isn't expected to be taken up before June.

The announcement was celebrated by transit advocates, who had urged the authority to hold off on the fare hike plan. Since 2010, the MTA has followed a schedule to raise fares every other year — a strategy the agency said has allowed it too keep up with inflation and avoid large rate increases.

With MTA ridership still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, advocates, including some on the MTA’s board, expressed concern that a fare increase would further deter lapsed riders from returning to the system. LIRR ridership remains about 23% of pre-pandemic levels.

Danny Pearlstein, spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a transit watchdog group, noted in a statement that those still using the transit system include essential workers "with no other way to get around."

"With the regressive MTA fare hike off the table, Governor [Andrew M.] Cuomo must now put a stop to state raids on transit-dedicated funds," Pearlstein said. "While riders are breathing a sigh of relief, the governor must craft a bold, progressive solution to his transit agency's money woes."

The MTA’s fare increase plan aimed to raise revenue by 4%, but could have manifested in some riders paying significantly more. Under one proposal being considered by the LIRR, monthly and weekly ticket prices would have remained the same, but the railroad would have raised the cost of other fares, including one-way and round-trip tickets, by 7%-16%.

Another option considered would create a "flat fare" for LIRR trips made between Long Island and New York City — meaning that a rider traveling from Montauk to Penn Station would pay the same as one traveling from Valley Stream. The plan drew objections from Nassau County riders and representatives, who feared their fares would skyrocket to make up for those in Suffolk going down.

"The decision by the MTA not to raise fares was the right move," Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement Tuesday.

While the MTA is sparing public transportation users from paying more for now, it is not doing the same for drivers. The agency intends to go forward with a Feb. 18 vote on raising tolls by about 8%.

At the MTA’s major crossings, including the Throgs Neck Bridge and Queens Midtown Tunnel, tolls would climb to $6.70, from the current $6.18, for E-ZPass customers, which make up about 95% of all users.

Those still commuting by LIRR now have another tool to help them navigate the system. At a news conference Tuesday at the new Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan, railroad president Phillip Eng announced that the free LIRR TrainTime mobile app now includes a feature that allows users to communicate directly with customer service representatives via text chat.

"The chat lines will be open daily from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.," Eng said. "We'll have our call center agents trained and ready to answer any questions, from trains schedules to schedule information and much more."

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