More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Long Island Rail Road is carrying fewer riders than expected. The railroad's weekend ridership, however, has been growing. Newsday’s Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Convinced that many Long Island Rail Road commuters aren’t returning to the office as quickly as expected, MTA officials are counting on weekend riders to help make up for low revenue projections.

Ridership across the Metropolitan Transportation Authority remains below expectations more than two years into COVID-19, with the LIRR only recently, on May 17, reaching a pandemic weekday ridership high of 182,700 passengers. That's about 63% of what the railroad carried on the same day in 2019.

The ridership figures translate to lower-than-expected revenue for the MTA, which, before the pandemic, relied on fares and tolls for about half of its income. With the help of about $15 billion in federal COVID-19 stimulus aid, the MTA expects to be able to balance its budget for the next three years. But without a new revenue stream, the agency is predicting a $2 billion deficit in 2026 that might be filled through fare hikes and service cuts.

MTA ridership projections prepared by a consultant in 2020 predicted that 75% of riders would be back by now, and that ridership could be as high as 90% of pre-COVID-19 levels by 2024. The MTA plans to release an updated ridership forecast in July.

“The number one issue here is the pace and frequency of return to work,” MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said at an April 27 MTA Board meeting. “There’s no mystery here. Everything we’re seeing is that private-sector employers … are asking people to come back to work at a slower pace than was projected by all kinds of industries and prognosticators.”

As evidence that “New Yorkers are ready to ride transit,” Lieber has pointed to the MTA’s weekend ridership figures, which have remained relatively strong throughout the pandemic. LIRR Sunday ridership has been as high as 90% of pre-COVID-19 levels.

It’s a continuation of a trend that began well before the pandemic, as weekend ridership has grown steadily for years, while “commutation” ridership — trips made to and from New York City during the weekday rush hours — has remained mostly flat. Some riders said high gas prices have made the LIRR more attractive for weekend travel and other leisure trips.

Syosset resident Cord Lehman, 25, said he long has preferred taking the train over driving to Manhattan or to Islanders games at UBS Arena in Elmont. These days, he said he’s even more likely to leave his car in his driveway.

“If you have three games in a week, it can add up,” Lehman said. “Think of $30-plus [in gas and parking] versus a $6.50 round-trip train ticket — if they even check train tickets.”

Waiting for her afternoon train at the LIRR Hicksville station to go to school, Pravhnoor Sethi said she’s noticed a big increase in off-peak riders in recent months, and believes gas prices — nearing an average $5 for a gallon of regular unleaded — have something to do with it.

“People have to save money. If you’re traveling to the city, it’s not reasonable to take a car,” Sethi, 22, said. “First, [there’s] city parking problems. And, second, gas prices are too high for me. Just one trip going there is probably going to cost me 30 or 40 bucks.”

Commuters disembark a Long Island Rail Road train at the...

Commuters disembark a Long Island Rail Road train at the Hicksville LIRR station on May 19. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

'Discretionary travel' a bright spot

LIRR interim president Catherine Rinaldi said earlier this year that the MTA studied whether the record-high gas prices might encourage some lapsed riders to return to the system, but found “gas prices were not really very much of a factor.”

Still, Rinaldi believes “not having to pay at the pump is one of the many reasons why rail travel is a very, very attractive alternative” — particularly for weekend travelers.

“Discretionary travel has been kind of the unexpected bright spot of this pandemic. We never expected it to come back as strongly as it did. And it came back early, and it’s been, really, an overperformer throughout the pandemic,” Rinaldi said in an interview.

Long Islanders will be further dissuaded from driving into the city when the MTA enacts its congestion pricing plan, which could start in 2023. The plan will charge motorists new tolls — as high as $23 — for driving south of 60th Street in Manhattan.

With discretionary travelers coming back at a faster rate than commuters, MTA officials have said they’re looking for ways to better serve the shifting ridership. On some LIRR branches, several trains are scheduled within an hour on weekdays, but are two hours apart on Saturdays and Sundays.

Speaking at a meeting of A Better New York — a business group — Lieber said the MTA must “adjust the service model … to meet new travel patterns,” including on weekends.

“With fewer of today's commuters coming to the office five days a week, we're going to have to bring in new customers and encourage more transit use among existing customers,” he said. “Attracting new riders, I think, was not always the MTA’s top priority. That has changed.”

Rinaldi agreed that the LIRR should be “forward-thinking with respect to increasing opportunities for discretionary travel.”

Drawbacks to adjusting service

While encouraging the bolstering of weekend and off-peak service, Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council, said adjusting service to meet demand could have some drawbacks.

“Is that code for cutting rush-hour service? Because that’s not something that we’re supportive of. Commuters should still be the bread and butter for the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North,” said Daglian, whose group includes the LIRR Commuter Council.

Commuters wait for a Long Island Rail Road train at...

Commuters wait for a Long Island Rail Road train at the Hicksville LIRR station on May 19. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Although ridership has rebounded more quickly on weekends than on weekdays, the LIRR still carries about twice as many passengers on any given weekday as it does on a Saturday or Sunday. And while beefing up weekend service could encourage more people to take the train than drive, reducing weekday service could have the opposite effect, Daglian said.

“People don’t want to travel on crowded trains. They want to be comfortable. They want to make sure their train is coming,” she added. “If you reduce service, then you’re not making it convenient for them to use transit to go to work. So they’re going to drive.”

Rinaldi agreed that cutting trains “is not going to create a service that people want to come back to.” She said the railroad is focused on attracting lapsed and new riders, including through new fare types that reflect the changing ridership trends.

Two months since the MTA rolled out a 20-Trip ticket targeting part-time commuters, Rinaldi said 1.1 million trips have been made using the new ticket.

As another sign of the changing face of commuting, Rinaldi said the LIRR is seeing its highest ridership on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays — signaling that many riders are working from home on Mondays and Fridays.

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