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Transit Advocates Seek Even More ‘Atlantic Ticket’-Style Discounts on Intra-City Commuter Rail

State Senator Leroy Comrie, Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to The MTA Executive Director Lisa Daglian and City Council Member Barry Grodenchik at Woodside Station make the case for the Freedom Ticket. Photo: Dave Colon

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to do ... but expand regional transit.

Transit advocates are pitching the MTA on expanding an existing discount ticket program on the Long Island Rail Road to every commuter rail station within New York City in order to spur ridership on trains that have been almost empty since the pandemic kneecapped existing rider patterns — as well as to give faster commutes for New Yorkers who live near commuter rail but can't afford the ritzy rides.

The Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA made the case for expanding cheap intracity fares — aka the "Freedom Ticket" — on Wednesday with the release of a snazzy new report, Freedom Ticket Phase II: Now, More Than Ever.

Under the new proposal, the rider advocacy group is asking the MTA to introduce a new intracity discount ticket modeled after the existing Atlantic Ticket, which allows riders in southeast Queens and Brooklyn to get to Atlantic Center with a $5 single ride ticket or a $60 weekly pass that come with a seven-day unlimited MetroCard. The Committee is also asking that the new discount ticket come with a free subway or bus transfer, in order to allow for a more seamless public transportation experience. The proposed program would allow commuters to get to Penn Station and Grand Central from LIRR and Metro-North stations in the city, which currently charge riders full freight despite not actually leaving the city limits.

The Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee argues that expanding the Atlantic Ticket could provide benefits to New Yorkers and to the MTA. The Freedom Ticket could make the 38 commuter rail stations in the city accessible to populations that live near them, but would pay much more to ride into the city on the commuter lines than they pay to ride the bus or subway, which may be less convenient and is definitely slower.

The LIRR and Metro-North are not charging peak fares to any riders until the end 2021, but even off-peak fares on the trains are significantly higher than the $2.75 subway or bus. An off-peak ride on Metro-North from Grand Central to the Morris Heights stop in the Bronx costs $7.25, and an off-peak LIRR ticket from Far Rockaway to Penn Station is $9.25.

For the MTA, the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee argues that an expansion of the program could provide additional revenue for the cash-strapped agency. As the report points out, New Yorkers have bought two million Atlantic Tickets since the discount began in 2018, bringing $16 million in revenue to the LIRR.

"Atlantic Ticket-type pilot programs can be part of the solutions needed for both the MTA and riders alike," the PCAC wrote in its report. "Atlantic Ticket has shown that decreasing commuter rail fares can entice riders with more affordable and efficient options – getting more out of our region’s commuter rails."

Chief among the arguments that the rider advocates advance is that LIRR and Metro-North service have room for the new riders. Commuter rail has slowly regained some of its former riders since the LIRR and Metro-North lost 76 and 94 percent of its regular riders respectively during the depths of the pandemic. Weekday ridership on both systems has recovered to about 50 percent of pre-pandemic numbers, but projections made by McKinsey and Co. for the MTA in 2020 predicted that the railroads would regain only 80 to 90 percent of that ridership by 2024, which leaves time for the MTA to cultivate new ridership patterns over the next couple of years.

But even without the pandemic, the report suggests that the commuter rail had excess capacity to absorb city riders using it at a discount outside of Brooklyn and southeast Queens, even during the salad days of 2019. Per the numbers in the report:

    • The only times when city-bound LIRR trains between Jamaica and Penn Station and on the Port Washington Branch exceeded 50 percent capacity were on trains that ran between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. on weekdays.
    • On outbound trains, capacity was under 50 percent on trains between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.

On the Metro-North, things got somewhat tighter on certain lines before the pandemic:

    • The Hudson Line had plenty of space except during the 7-9 a.m. rush to Grand Central and in the 4-7 p.m. rush out of Grand Central.
    • The Harlem Line had plenty of space on trains except from 6-9 a.m. to Grand Central and from 3-5 p.m. and 7-10 p.m. out of Grand Central.
    • The New Haven Line had space on trains except on trains to Grand Central from 5-10 a.m. and inbound from 6-7 p.m. Trains running out of Grand Central were somewhat more pinched, with under 50 percent capacity on trains running from 2-10 p.m.

However, the New Haven Line is also going to be the beneficiary of expanded service once the Penn Access project, which is building four new Metro-North stations in the east Bronx, finishes up in 2025. The PCAC report suggests that once Metro-North trains are running from the Bronx to Penn Station, the additional track space opened up at Grand Central could also mean the MTA can increase Metro-North service to Bronx stations like Tremont and Melrose.

Commuter rail trains that are more akin to ghost trains also have nearby populations that will still rely on the service even in the age of part-time office work. As the report points out, there are almost 300,000 workers in Far Rockaway, northeast and central Queens and the west Bronx who are in the healthcare or service industry. Before the pandemic, 95 percent of those workers who used public transportation used subways and buses and just 4 percent used commuter rail, despite living nearby.

The reliance on subways and buses instead of nearby LIRR or Metro-North stations mean that commuters going from north Queens to Midtown Manhattan were dealing with 82-minute commutes on average, and west Bronx commuters had 61-minute combined trips on the bus and subway. Switching to the LIRR or Metro-North in either case could cut the commutes to 28 and 25 minutes respectively, which advocates for the proposal pointed out was worth more than just money.

"Imagine what that does for a single parent or family, when they can get back home in time to spend a lot of time to actually do something in the evening before they go to bed, to have more energy for their children, to pay attention to their homework, to make sure that their family is in a better frame of mind and creates a different quality of life for people," said State Sen. Leroy Comrie at a press conference on Wednesday hyping the discount proposal.

The report doesn't suggest a new price point for the suggested discount ticket, and instead asks the MTA to set up a Freedom Ticket Task Force to figure out the best structure for the new fare system and to monitor the program in order to make it work as well as possible. It's less of a punt to the transit agency than it is putting trust in its leadership to create a fair system.

"The MTA itself came up with the Atlantic Ticket price points, and we think they did that with a great deal of wisdom," said PCAC Executive Director Lisa Daglian. "We're not being prescriptive with the price or demanding it be the same cost as the Atlantic Ticket, it's something we want to the MTA to decide with the task force and a fare elasticity study to see what a reasonable cost would be."

As the MTA explores new ways to win riders back, a spokesperson for the agency said that the Freedom Ticket is one of many possibilities the agency could embrace.

"As Janno Lieber has been saying since his first week as Chair and CEO, the MTA needs to use innovative fare policy to bring back ridership, including extending 24-hour off peak fares on commuter railroads, increasing enrollment in the Fair Fares reduced-cost program, and pursuing new fare products across the transportation network," said MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan. "We are beginning to analyze the results of our customer survey launched in September to better understand post-COVID commuting patterns and how to improve customer service. We appreciate recommendations for making transit more affordable that come with dedicated funding sources, since cutting fares does not assure increased revenue."

The report possibly predicted the suggestion for funding to make the discount ticket a reality, as it suggested that the Freedom Ticket could be a better investment for the outerborough transportation account than the current LIRR and Metro-North discounts it provides. The OBTA, which was created as part of the deal to enact congestion pricing, funds discounts of 20 percent for LIRR monthly passes and 10 percent for monthly Metro-North passes for riders who live in the city, but that still comes out to $188 and $194 per month before a monthly MetroCard expense is factored in for commuters. The Freedom Ticket, meanwhile, could provide a $240 value every month even sticking with four weekly passes per month that include a MetroCard transfer.

"It's entirely plausible to include looking at the outerborough transit account funds and seeing if they can pay for this kind of ticket discount. Right now we think this is revenue neutral or even revenue positive for the MTA, but we're hopeful that legislators who support the program could identify funds for it if needed," Daglian said.

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