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Seriously, It’s Time for $2.75 Fares on Intracity Trips on LIRR and Metro-North

This will simultaneously get better, and worse, to ride inside the city. Photo: MTA

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The MTA should offer intracity trips on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North for the same price as a subway ride not only because it's fair, but also because it will boost ridership on the struggling commuter rail lines, a new report argues.

Ridership on the MTA's suburban railroads remains well below its pre-pandemic numbers, so the time has never been better for the agency to offer $2.75 fares for trips within the five boroughs, just as the agency does on its subway and buses (which are intra-city transit systems run by the very same agency, by the way).

The idea has been kicked around for years now, but the TransitCenter report, Renewing the New York Railroads, makes the case that the LIRR and Metro-North can and should function more like Paris and London's regional railroads instead of relying on New York's old model as suburban railroads solely serving commuters between Long Island or upstate and Midtown Manhattan.

Those suburban riders are still not coming back, and aren't projected to ever come back in the same numbers as before the pandemic, so researchers say now is a great time to change how the MTA uses its railroads.

The question of what to do with intracity commuter rail is also more pressing because the city is currently expanding service on both the LIRR and Metro-North with a pair of big infrastructure projects: The LIRR is going to begin running trains to Grand Central any day now, and Metro-North will begin running trains from Westchester and Rockland to Penn Station (plus and four New Haven line stops in the Bronx) when the MTA finishes the Penn Access project in 2027.

"There's really substantial new capacity on the LIRR, and there's a real project to build to build new Metro-North stations in the Bronx," said TransitCenter Director of Research Steven Higashide. "If fares are not made affordable for city residents, and if frequency isn't useful, we're not really like maximizing the potential of all of this infrastructure. So there are more reasons than ever to do this."

If commuter railroads dropped the price of an intracity ticket to $2.75 and increased service between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. to every 15 to 30 minutes at stations in Queens and the Bronx and ran trains every 30 minutes between Jamaica and Atlantic Terminal, residents of more than "a dozen outer-borough neighborhoods ... would access more than a million potential jobs in an hour, for $2.75," the report says.

Affordably opening the railroads to city residents would greatly reduce travel times for residents of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens by taking advantage of more direct routes, as the report showed with the hypothetical example of a healthcare worker from Queens who could save over an hour of commuting time each day with a $2.75 fare and free transfer if she could take the LIRR to the bus instead of a bus to a subway to another subway:

TransitCenter's report of course isn't the first time that someone has broached opening the commuter rail to more city residents. Former City Comptroller Scott Stringer pushed the idea in 2018, making many of the same arguments as TransitCenter, namely that the policy could cut commute times and connect more New Yorkers to more jobs (the report also highlighted its potential to reduce overcrowding on the subway which used to be a problem, if you can remember).

The Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA has spent years pushing the MTA to embrace commuter rail discounts in the form of what the group calls its Freedom Ticket. A fully functional Freedom Ticket would be a $5 single ride or $60 weekly pass that also gave its riders a free transfer to the subway or bus. Currently, the MTA has limited that type of ride to the Atlantic Ticket, which allows riders from southeast Queens and Brooklyn LIRR stations to buy $5 tickets to or from Atlantic Terminal.

And it's not as if there isn't a need to increase ridership on the LIRR. Even after the $11.2-billion East Side Access/Grand Central Madison complex opens, ridership on the LIRR is predicted to increase just 4 percent at most. On the other hand, opening commuter rail to city residents with a price reduction and service boost could lead to an 8-percent increase in ridership on the Metro-North, a 22-percent increase on the LIRR and make other pieces of the transit system more efficient all for a much lower price tag than your typical megaproject.

"What is so striking to me about this work is the way in which making improvements in one part of the transit system can make so many other parts of the system work better," said Higashide. "If we have fast direct rail options in the outer boroughs, maybe that means some of the existing express bus service or even local bus service that's duplicative could be pared down, and then that service gets reinvested in other parts of the city. New York is a place with a very connected transit network. So you make one part of that better, people everywhere benefit."

Higashide also pointed out that commuter rail stations in the city that are further out from the city core could, if accessible with a cheaper fare, be another option for New Yorkers to get to Manhattan when congestion pricing begins.

There a couple of hiccups in the potential embrace of real regional rail. Higashide noted that some of the existing LIRR and Metro-North stations would need capital improvements to lengthen platforms (because some stations only accommodate two or four cars on a given train) and make them ADA-accessible. There's also the question of the inefficient labor situation at the commuter railroads. The MTA itself noted that it runs the most expensive and least efficient commuter rail service in the entire world, by leaps and bounds, in its own cost comparison report.

The TransitCenter report noted that when the London Overground eliminated conductors and began running more frequent service, but Higashide said the organization didn't have a position on how or whether the dreaded labor reform had to be an aspect of commuter rail expansion. But whatever obstacles might exist for the expansion, Higashide said that the idea has been brought up enough times in the past that the MTA should at this point publicly grapple with how to open more of its system to more riders.

"To some extent this is the next conversation worth having. It's incumbent on the MTA to put out a real plan for what it would take to accomplish this, because otherwise, it's hard to know, why we aren't doing it," he said.

For its part, the MTA doesn't have much interest in the proposal, with a spokesperson calling it a "non-starter" for a variety of reasons, including what the agency claims would be hundreds of millions of dollars in capital costs.

But other veterans of the rail expansion wars point out that it's been done before, and can be done again.

"More affordable commuter rail fares within the city during both peak and off-peak hours have already shown to be transformative for riders who have long commutes using multiple trains and buses — as the Atlantic Ticket and City Ticket pilot programs have shown —  and even boost ridership and revenue for the MTA as it faces a steep financial cliff," said PCAC Executive Director Lisa Daglian. "With East Side Access on the horizon and Penn Access in the works, now is the time to expand fare discount options within the city so that riders from Rosedale to Wakefield and beyond can afford faster trips on the LIRR and Metro-North."

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