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Metro-North holds 3-hour hearing on fare hikes, but almost no one shows up

A public meeting for MTA goes into recess

A public meeting for MTA goes into recess amid an extremely small attendance at the Westchester County Center in White Plains. (Nov. 15, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

Cash-strapped Metro-North commuters accusing the MTA of balancing the budget on the backs of riders? Not quite.

Angry commuters wondering why Albany hasn't stepped in to ease the burden on the cash-crunched Metropolitan Transportation Authority? Hardly.

Just six people -- only two of them regular commuters -- addressed the five-member MTA board and its president during a three-hour hearing over a proposal to increase Metro-North fares by 9.3 percent next year, which would be the fourth hike in five years.

MTA board members chatted among themselves while the hours whiled away. Some got down off the dais and took seats in the audience, talking about the latest news from the baseball front -- Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey's NL Cy Young Award.

Speaker Tom Durkin, 61, of White Plains, complained that perhaps few noticed that the MTA had changed the venue for the hearing. Flooding at the Yonkers Public Library, where it originally was scheduled, forced the change.

"I think you could do a better job of notifying people," said Durkin, a retired computer programmer who seldom rides the commuter rail these days. "Maybe that's why there's nobody here."

Durkin did, however, take time to make a point about his pet peeve -- not being able to fill his MetroCard for the New York City Transit system at train stations in the Hudson Valley.

MTA officials defended their notification process.

"It's hard to say why the turnout is low, but I wouldn't attribute it to our procedures, which haven't changed from past years," said Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesman.

The cash-strapped MTA is seeking to plug a $450 million hole in next year's $12.6 billion budget.

Under the proposal, some commuters would pay more, others less under a distance-based pricing plan. For instance, a one-way fare from White Plains to Grand Central would jump 75 cents, from $10.50 to $11.25. And a Penn Station-to-Harriman ride would rise from $13.50 to $14.50.

Barry Adler, who has been riding Metro-North since he was in high school, was among the few fuming mad about having to continue to bankroll fare increases.

He decried a system loaded down with debt that keeps forcing riders to pick up the tab.

"Two billion in debt payments every year?" said Adler, 55, of White Plains. "That's ridiculous. To have a private transportation agency as the fifth-largest debtor in the United States, that's insane. It doesn't serve anyone except rich people in the end.

"It comes to a point where it's not a fare, it's a tax," Adler added.

Adler is retired from his job in medical claims, which had him commuting into the city for 20 years. He seldom makes the trek into the city anymore.

"When do you come to a point where people just won't use it anymore?" Adler said.

He estimated that a couple commuting into the city from White Plains every day pays nearly $750 a month when the price of a monthly MetroCard is factored in.

Commuter advocates urged the MTA to find more reliable revenue streams instead of turning to riders every few years.

Ryan Lynch, the associate director of the New York City-based Tri-State Transportation Campaign, blamed Albany for letting down riders.

"Transit riders have held up their end of the deal, and Albany hasn't," Lynch said. "Moving forward, the governor and other state elected officials must reverse this trend and stop using transit riders as a de facto piggy bank when they shortchange a system that is so integral to the state's economy."

Newly elected Assemblyman David Buchwald, the chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, praised the MTA's efforts in getting the commuter lines up and running after the Hurricane Sandy hit. But he said the MTA needs to come up with more reliable revenue streams.

"Until the MTA funding structures change, we ask that the board commit to doing what it can to easing the burden on our riders," Buchwald said.

He said cash-strapped families can no longer afford the hikes. "It's not merely an inconvenience; it's a hardship," Buchwald said.

Randy Glucksman, Rockland County's representative on the commuter council, praised the MTA's decision to move the meeting to White Plains because the Yonkers library was less accessible to public transportation.

He agreed with Buchwald, saying state officials need to come to MTA's rescue. "Our state must reexamine how the MTA is funded," Glucksman said.

The hearing was the third and last one in the Hudson Valley. The board is set to vote on the fare hike in December.

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