When it comes to Metro-North fare increases like the ones due to be considered at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Feb. 27 board meeting, or reconstruction projects, or repair and replacement of equipment, “We’re going to have to put up with the short-term pain that’s involved in trying to rebuild this railroad while it’s running,” commuter advocate Jim Cameron told the Business Journal.
He likened what’s happening with Metro-North to changing a car’s fan belt while the engine is running. “It’s difficult to maintain service and be fixing things at the same time, but decades of neglect have caught up with us.”
Metro-North ridership in 2018 totaled 77,795,615, down 215,124 from 2017. Harlem Line ridership was 25,170,872; Hudson Line ridership was 15,733,489; and 36,891,254 rode the New Haven Line.
Cameron, founder of the Commuter Action Group, spent 19 years serving on the Metro-North Commuter Council which had been created by the Connecticut legislature. He was its vice chairman for 11 years and chairman for four years. His Commuter Action Group, found on Facebook, Twitter and the website CommuterActionGroup.org, provides forums for Metro-North riders in Connecticut and New York to have their say about the railroad while learning about the views and experiences of others. When he’s not speaking out about railroads, he’s busy running a Darien-based corporate and executive communication consulting company.
“The MTA needs money,” said Cameron. “They need to invest in the repair of the tracks, the signal system and the overhead power lines.” That’s not exactly news to the MTA, as demonstrated in its recently adopted budget for 2019 and financial plan, that extends through 2022. The MTA’s board approved a $17 billion budget for 2019 that includes increases in bus and subway fares in New York City, fares on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, connecting fares to ferries and Hudson Link buses and tolls at its seven bridges and two tunnels. The MTA board held off taking a vote on the hikes at its Jan. 24 meeting, with board member Lawrence Schwartz among those members wanting assurance of service improvements before being willing to vote for any increases.
MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran said the budget deficit is projected to reach $1 billion in 2022. “Without additional recurring revenue in the near-term, future options will be even more service reductions, reductions in staffing and/or additional fare and toll increases,” Foran said.
For Metro-North, the final proposed budget for 2019 shows total receipts of $1.149 billion and total expenditures of $1.77 billion, leaving a negative cash balance of $621 million, which it looks to collect in subsidies from the MTA and the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT). Proposed fare increases would apply on the Hudson, Harlem and New Haven lines in New York state. Fares on the New Haven Line in Connecticut are determined by the CDOT, and there are no announced plans for it to seek a fare increase this year.
The cost of a monthly ticket on the Harlem Line between White Plains and Grand Central Terminal would rise from $268 to $278. From Chappaqua, it would go from $311 to $322. The ride from Pawling would increase from $475 to $490 and from the end of the line, Wassaic, it would remain unchanged at $536.
On the Hudson Line, riders from Yonkers to Grand Central would pay $248 for a monthly ticket, up from $239. The price from Peekskill would go from $369 to $383. From the last stop, Poughkeepsie, there would be no change from the current $521.
On the New Haven Line, the cost of a monthly ticket from Port Chester to Grand Central is proposed to increase from $289 to $300. A one-way off-peak ride from Port Chester would go up to $10.25 from $10.
Some tickets would see very small increases. A one-way senior citizen ticket on the Harlem Line from Scarsdale to Grand Central would go from $6 to $6.25 and a one-way peak-hour child ticket from Ossining would increase from $7 to $7.25. Other tickets, such as those bought on the train, which cost more than at a ticket window or machine, would remain priced as they are today or increase by $1.
The MTA board was presented with plans for a maximum increase of 3.85 percent for monthly and weekly tickets and no increase on monthly tickets at or above $500. There would be a 4 percent increase to the one-way formula, but if the percentage rise came out to more than 6 percent, the increase would be capped at 50 cents. There would be a 2 percent increase for service west of the Hudson contracted through NJTransit.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a Feb. 7 speech to the Association for a Better New York forecast that the MTA’s fiscal picture will get worse before getting better, with a 30 percent increase in fares and tolls being a distinct possibility. “The MTA has been plagued by organizational dysfunction and disinvestment for decades, and we need better management and more money to turn it around,” he said. Cuomo called on the state legislature to enact congestion pricing for midtown Manhattan in which motorists going below 60th Street would pay fees which would raise an estimated $15 billion for the MTA’s next capital plan.
Cameron points out that mass transit already is highly subsidized. “If it literally costs Metro-North $10 to get you from Point A to Point B, in Connecticut the fare only covers about 75 percent of that. In Westchester and Long Island, the fare only covers about two-thirds of the cost.” He noted that even as fares and subsidies continue to rise, riders must feel they’re getting a return on their investment.
“The biggest complaint is that the trains are running slower. The next is the lack of seats on busy trains.” An even bigger complaint, said Cameron, is when trains are standing room only and conductors can’t move around freely to collect tickets. “When you see somebody you know is an infrequent rider and they’re getting a free ride, you kind of resent that. It’s like walking into a store and seeing somebody shoplift. Eventually, you’re going to pay for that.”