Commuters spoke at the first in a series of public hearings held by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over a proposed rate increase. Many commuters urged the MTA to reconsider on Thursday. NewsdayTV's Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Criag Ruttle

The MTA’s plan to raise fares by around 4% — including on the Long Island Rail Road — could be the breaking point for some riders already stretched to their limits by the cost of a train or bus trip, commuters said Thursday.

That sentiment came through clearly at the first two of a series of public hearings on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s first proposed rate increase in four years. The MTA will hold additional public hearings on Friday and Monday, before voting on the proposal next month. If approved, the new fares would take effect by Labor Day, MTA officials said.

On the Long Island Rail Road, ticket prices would increase on average by around 4%, according to the railroad. Bridge and tunnel tolls could increase by as much as 10%. And, on New York City subways and buses, the cost of a single trip would increase to $2.90, from the current $2.75. 

“It will strain my family and many others,” City College student Gina Russell, of Brooklyn, said at the hearing at the MTA's Lower Manhattan headquarters. “Getting an opportunity to make money and play my part in the economy is now threatened by whether or not I have the money to get there. I may very well have to pick up 15 cents off the ground.”

The proposed rate hike comes after the MTA twice postponed scheduled increases, citing riders’ economic hardships because of COVID-19. But the pandemic also devastated MTA revenues, as ridership plummeted, and still remains around 30% below 2019 levels.

Although the recently-adopted state budget includes $1 billion in new annual aid for the transit agency, MTA external communications chief John McCarthy said the proposed increases are important, and stave off bigger increases in the future.

“More frequent, smaller toll adjustments avert radical fare increases,” McCarthy said at the beginning of the hearing. “And it allows customers to have a predictable fare increase that tracks inflation.”

The MTA has set a $500 cap on the cost of any monthly LIRR tickets, and noted that, because of a 10% cut last year, the cost of a monthly ticket would remain below what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

MTA officials have also noted that they are trying to minimize the impact of the increases on riders who can least afford them, including by introducing new discounts, like a $7 Peak CityTicket for LIRR trips within New York City during the weekday rush hours.

But the MTA is also considering eliminating some fare discounts, including the Atlantic Ticket, which reduced the cost of an LIRR trip between Queens and Brooklyn.

“Please do not eliminate the Atlantic Ticket,” LIRR rider, and transit advocate, Andy Pollack said in his Zoom testimony. “And please think about what you’re thinking of cutting before you raise the fares to $2.90 and you think about raising our fares on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.”

Several commuters also took issue with the notion of paying more for what they said is worsening service. 

Since the last fare increase in 2019, “there has not been much improvement with the MTA at all,” according to Crystal Enniful, who testified during the second hearing held Thursday.

“It has gotten dirtier. It has gotten more unsafe. People are being pushed onto the tracks,” Enniful said. “The last thing we want to think about . . . is paying more for our train.”

Others noted that the proposed hike comes as the MTA has acknowledged losing $700 million in unpaid fares each year, including $24 million on the LIRR.

The MTA recently launched an initiative to combat fare evasion, including through new subway fare gates that would be more difficult to leapfrog.

Still, bus rider Lydia Streiter observed that “the problem has gotten worse and worse, not better.”

“I don’t know why I have to pay a fare increase to pay for everyone else who doesn’t pay at all,” Streiter said.

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