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MTA hears from public at Huntington meeting on fare, toll hikes

Larry Penner of Great Neck speaks to an

Larry Penner of Great Neck speaks to an MTA panel Wednesday night, Dec. 7, 2016, in Huntington at a public hearing about the agency's planned fare hikes set to begin in March. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

A small but informed group turned out Wednesday night in Huntington for an MTA hearing on expected fare hikes with some pointing out that as the cost of a train ticket or toll keeps going up, their paychecks have stayed the same.

It’s that disparity — between what the MTA expects riders to pay when the planned fare hikes for the Long Island Rail Road and toll crossings take hold in 2017 and what commuters can afford — that had Alexander Ho asking questions of an 11-member panel of MTA and LIRR leaders inside the Huntington Hilton.

Why, wondered Ho, an engineer who lives in East Islip, is the MTA planning to make an LIRR ride cost more when salaries like his aren’t keeping pace?

“I just think that might be too much,” said Ho, one of about 10 people who spoke when it came time for those in the audience to address the panel.

The proposed increases are set to take effect in March.

“I didn’t get a 4 percent rate hike on my paycheck,” Ho said, adding that it’s probably safe to say many of his fellow commuters haven’t gotten a recent raise.

The hearing, which included MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast on the panel, was the agency’s third public meeting to gauge reaction from commuters and others about the planned hikes. It’s the only hearing planned for Long Island.

Two other hearings were held in Queens and Staten Island on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

Some 83 percent of the fares will rise by up to 4 percent, though some can shoot up 6 percent, officials have said.

Some inside the hotel conference room came armed with statistics and historical facts to make their cases. Most, but not all, were opposed to the hike.

“The fare increase is reasonable,” said Larry Penner, who described himself as a former director of the Office of Operations and Program Management for the Federal Transit Administration.

From the start, Penner said, the MTA has been open and honest about its fare increases.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he said.

But state Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont), said through a legislative aide that the hike was a burden to her constituents.

“Some Long Island Rail Road commuters will have to pay as much as $15 more for their monthly passes,” said Kiana Bierria, who read a statement for Solages at the hearing. “This is unacceptable considering that the quality of MTA services has not increased in proportion to cost.”

Upcoming automation at MTA-run tolls at bridges and tunnels will eventually mean fewer workers, union leaders told the panel. Instead of fare hikes, the agency should pass the savings in labor costs on to commuters, Roger Clayman, executive director of the Long Island Federation of Labor and Michael Gendron, executive vice president of Local 1108 of the Communications Workers of America, told the panel.

Larry Rubenstein, vice chair of the LIRR Commuter Council, an advocacy group for riders, echoed Ho’s concerns pegging increases in fares to increases in salaries.

“Many of these riders have not yet seen anything near the level of increase in their salaries as they have seen in their commuting expense,” he said. “And some are making do with less income than when the current system of fare increase began in 2009. ”

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