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LIRR watchdog group rails against proposed 55 percent rate hike to AirTrain

Afternoon commute at the LIRR's Jamaica station on

Afternoon commute at the LIRR's Jamaica station on April 1. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

The Long Island Rail Road’s commuter watchdog group is speaking out against the latest proposed public transportation fare hikes, including one that would boost the cost of a train ride between Jamaica Station and JFK Airport by 55 percent.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced a plan last week to raise about $270 million in capital revenue by raising tolls at its Hudson River crossings and by raising transit fares, including on its PATH rail system and on AirTrain, which links John F. Kennedy International Airport with the LIRR's Jamaica Station.

AirTrain fares are projected to rise from $5 to a proposed $7.75. Coming just months after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority raised its fares, including by an average of 4 percent on the LIRR, Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said the plan could further turn travelers off from using public transportation.

“When I saw that, I was like, ‘Wait. What? Really?’ ” Epstein said of the Port Authority’s proposal. “People could say, ‘It’s only $2.75,’ but, you know what, it does make a difference. If we’re trying to encourage people to take mass transit . . . we really shouldn’t be passing another mass transit increase.”

According to a 2016 study commissioned by the LIRR, a little more than one-half of 1 percent of the railroad’s 360,000 weekday riders also use AirTrain. About 1 percent of LIRR customers also use PATH, which will reduce the discount for multi-trip purchases under the proposed plan.

The new fares, if approved by the Port Authority board, would take effect in November.

Tolls on the Port Authority’s bridges and tunnels, including the Outerbridge Crossing, Goethals Bridge, Bayonne Bridge, Holland Tunnel, Lincoln Tunnel and George Washington Bridge, would increase $1 for cash-paying customers starting in January. Discounts for E-ZPass customers would be reduced by 25 cents.

Port Authority officials, in defending the proposal, noted that AirTrain fares have not gone up in more than a decade. They said the increases are necessary to help support a $32.2 billion 10-year capital program that will support several major infrastructure projects, including the redevelopment of JFK Airport and a new AirTrain linking LaGuardia Airport to the LIRR’s Mets-Willets Points Station in Queens.

“We recognize all toll, fare and fee increases are painful. Nobody wants to pay more. But building 21st century infrastructure requires funding — and we are committed to bringing all of our facilities in line with 21st century standards,” Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton said in a statement. “We are wholly committed to delivering improved facilities as we ask our customers to share in supporting the infrastructure investments the region so desperately needs and deserves.”

The Port Authority will hold several public hearings about its fare plan in the coming weeks, including at Jamaica on July 30, and is accepting public comments until Sept. 13. Epstein said his council plans to formally express its opposition to the hikes on behalf of LIRR commuters.

In better news for some LIRR riders, agency president Phillip Eng announced in June that the railroad will extend for another year its Atlantic Ticket program, which discounts the cost of a ticket by up to 51 percent for customers traveling within nine stations in Brooklyn and Queens. The program, launched last year, aimed to lure commuters in New York City communities with limited access to subway service.

Since the program was launched last year, the railroad has seen “a large number of riders switch their destination from Penn Station to Atlantic Terminal, helping balance out riders between our Western Terminals,” Eng said at an MTA Board meeting in Manhattan in June.

But the program also has come with some challenges. Eng noted that, with all the new riders, some Brooklyn-bound morning trains are above capacity. He also said some Atlantic Ticket holders have tried to use tickets to travel to Penn Station, which is prohibited.

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