The City Council has introduced legislation that would allow city residents to pay a subway-equivalent $2.75 fare on the Long Island Railroad or Metro-North within city limits, and transfer to the subway or bus for free. The adjustment, they say, would make efficient commuting feasible for New Yorkers who live in some of the city's so-called "transportation deserts": Jamaica, Bayside, and Flushing in Queens; Fordham, Riverdale and Tremont in the Bronx.
"It is a tale of two cities for sure," Southeast Queens Councilmember I. Daneek Miller said this morning, at a hearing on the city's transportation deserts. "If we live on one end of the city, there is pretty much no good way to get to the other end."
According to a recent report from the Regional Plan Association entitled Overlooked Boroughs [PDF], close to 90% of NYC's 8.2 million residents live outside of Manhattan south of 125th Street. The NY Times reported in 2013 that 370,000 Queens residents and 191,000 Bronx residents commute into Manhattan daily.
Miller added that while the average New Yorker spends six hours and 18 minutes in transit each week, residents in Southeast Queens spend, on average, more than twice that—approximately 15 hours.
— eric goldwyn (@ericgoldwyn) November 12, 2015
Councilmembers supporting the bill, Miller among them, argue that commuter rail trips to the outer boroughs slice commuting times at least in half, but are not economically feasible for the New Yorkers who live in the far reaches of Queens and the Bronx. According to City data, two thirds of New Yorkers who commute more than an hour in each direction make less than $35,000 per year.
Under the current system, peak commuting hour fares from Penn Station to LIRR stations in Queens range from $8.25 to $10, while those from Grand Central to Bronx Metro-North stations cost $8.75. The peak fare from Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center in Brooklyn to Jamaica, Queens is $10. Monthly passes for the LIRR and Metro-North cost in excess of $150, on top of that monthly $116.50 Metrocard.
The MTA, however, has stated that it cannot justify the loss in revenue that a $2.75 fare adjustment would cost their already debt-strapped system. According to MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg, about 14.5 million customers a year ride the Long Island Railroad and Metro-North within city limits, and between a third and a half of them pay to transfer to a subway or a bus. Therefore, this legislation would cost the MTA at least $70 million in annual revenue.
"No one has proposed how to make up that loss," Lisberg said. "We just can't agree to accept that kind of loss—especially since we already lose so much money on other services. This year we will lose $575 million on unreimbursed paratransit service as well as discounted fares for seniors and free rides for schoolchildren. When we start each year more than half a billion dollars in the hole, we don't want to dig it any deeper."
While two resolutions up for discussion at today's hearing directly impact the MTA—in addition to Miller's, a resolution sponsored by Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez calls for an MTA study of underutilized freight rail lines for possible commuter use—the MTA did not send a representative to speak on its behalf.
"I hope in the future, they will be responsible," Rodriguez said, visibly agitated. "We contribute so much to the MTA, and the Council can ultimately override them."
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg countered that his office was not given adequate time to prepare. "The City Council requested testimony from the MTA on very short notice and everyone who could give authoritative testimony on these issues was already locked into other commitments on their calendars," he said.
In a letter to Chairman Rodriguez on the legislation, MTA President Thomas Prendergast praised the City and State for finally funding the MTA's capital plan, and pointed out measures the MTA is taking to access underserved neighborhoods—the 7 train extension serving the Javits Center, High Line, and Hudson Yards; the 2nd Avenue Subway that is scheduled to alleviate pressure on the Lexington Avenue Line by December (the same one that just got a funding cut); and an extension of the LIRR into Grand Central (by December 2022).
But Miller sees the recently-completed 7 line extension as further proof of an inequitable system disproportionately serving commuters who live closer to the city center.
"There has been major investment in the extension of the 7 line," Miller said. "About 6,000 folks are using that [per day], and we have more than hundreds of thousands of commuters that could gain access [to the city center] with this legislation. We want to make sure that the services are being provided equitably, and now they are not."
While the City Council and MTA continue to spar on these issues, here's a native New Yorker's take on the fare discrepancy between commuter rails and the subway, and the ethics of sticking it to the LIRR man.
Additional reporting by Marie Solis.