For the MTA, no easy way out
It’s a tough time to talk about fare and toll increases.
So many Long Islanders are out of work, or underemployed. And many others aren’t ready to return to subways, buses and commuter rails yet.
But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in the toughest financial spot it has ever been in. Ridership is down about 75% on the Long Island Rail Road, and 70% on the subways, leading to massive revenue losses. The only way the MTA can make up the shortfall is with billions in federal funds — and higher fares and tolls.
While a number of MTA board members recently have raised the possibility of not increasing fares, or even lowering them, that’s likely not a logical proposition the MTA can afford now. It also wouldn’t be enough to bring riders back, since they’re not avoiding public transit only because of the price.
As a series of public hearings on fares and tolls ends Monday night, it’ll be up to the MTA board to consider all options as it tries to find ways to limit the pain and incentivize others to return to public transit.
That’s not an easy assignment.
Here’s one suggestion that won’t work: The proposal to do away with existing zone parameters that determine LIRR and Metro-North Railroad fares. It would create a "flat fare" system, where all trips within Nassau and Suffolk counties would be one price, while all trips within New York City would be another.
It’s a terrible idea that would adversely affect the majority of LIRR riders. Nassau County commuters account for 60% of the LIRR’s ridership — and they’d all likely see higher costs. Most commuter rails use a distance-based model like the LIRR’s, and with good reason.
Instead, the MTA board should maintain existing zones but look at alternative proposals to judiciously raise fares as necessary on some ticket options, while perhaps leaving others alone, like the subway base fare or the LIRR monthly pass. Also, the MTA should look for new ticket plans or other ways to incentivize workers who might return to the trains soon, but likely won’t be taking them every day.
The MTA also should raise bridge and tunnel tolls at higher rates than fares, to get people out of their cars, although some are likely driving due to pandemic-related fears. The tolls are especially important as a precursor to congestion pricing, likely more than a year away.
All of this comes at a time when the MTA is facing instances of alleged overtime fraud and other financial abuses. The authority has to continue to make changes to how it manages efficiency and best practices. Meanwhile, the agency also is cutting some LIRR service, to address ridership declines. While that’s necessary for now, the authority must be ready to restore service to areas where demand increases.
The MTA board just passed a budget based on many assumptions — including a 4% fare increase. There’s not a single, simple answer, or one everyone will like. But reasonable, thoughtful changes to fares and tolls must be considered if the MTA hopes to right its ship and make a comeback.
— The editorial board