Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Mitch Pally’s suggestion last month that the agency should rethink how distance-based fares on the Long Island Rail Road are charged attracted a lot of strong reaction, generally applause from those on the Island’s East End and boos from those to the west.
But the reality is that neither Pally nor the LIRR can evaluate the consequence of changes because there are not enough detailed, recent and publicly available data to analyze and assess.
The LIRR relies on an “origin-destination” survey of commuters for much of its data, but its 2016 report, which covered 2012 to 2014, is too old. And while the report includes general information, it lacks the depth to show how changing distance-based fares to a flat fare would affect riders and ridership. And beyond what’s in the MTA budget, the LIRR doesn’t provide a detailed breakdown of how expenses differ depending on the branch, distance traveled, origin and destination, or any other factor. While we know that about 33 percent of LIRR revenue comes from fares, we don’t know how that varies by line, time of day or distance traveled.
There’s a lot we don’t know. But with online ticketing, plenty of opportunities for data collection and analytics, and ways to make it public, the LIRR should be able to step up its data game.
Regular, predictable fare increases are necessary. But the MTA, its board and its riders can’t even start to discuss possible changes to fare structures until we have a better sense of the numbers, and a complete understanding of the costs and benefits.— The editorial board