Metro-North fare hike proposal may push riders to seek alternatives
Proposed Metro-North fare hikes as high as 16.7 percent have some low-budget passengers and reverse commuters thinking twice about whether they'll be able to continue riding the rails.
"It will affect me very much," said Abeer Alotaibi, 28, who rides the Hudson Line train into New York City on weekdays to take language courses at a downtown school.
Alotaibi pays $266 a month for a monthly pass that takes her from her home in Sleepy Hollow to the city. And while she doesn't feel comfortable navigating New York's maze of streets and highways, she said she would consider driving or taking classes closer to home if faced with a $23 increase in her monthly pass.
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"I am a student," she said. "I don't have much money."
The proposed hike is to go before Metro-North's parent agency, the MTA, for a Wednesday vote and take effect in March. The majority of the increases will fall between 8.19 percent and 9.13 percent, according to Metro-North officials.
If the proposal is approved, it will be the fourth increase in five years -- and it likely won't be the last. The MTA has said it will pursue 7.5 percent rate hikes every other year as part of a $2.3 billion bailout deal with Albany lawmakers in 2009. After next year's hike, another would follow in 2015.
"While the stereotype of the Metro-North rider may be the high income commuter to Manhattan, in truth, our riders are largely a cross section of the communities that Metro-North serves," said David Buchwald, a recently elected assemblyman from White Plains and the chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council.
"Some of these riders work in service industries and have relatively low earnings," Buchwald said. "A fare increase for these riders, who are now paying full peak fares for many trips, is not merely an inconvenience. It is a real hardship."
Metro-North's fare hike plan anticipates that a certain percentage of riders will opt out.
That is why even though Metro-North is trying to raise revenue by 7.5 percent, it has pegged the average ticket increases nearly two percentage points higher so that the hikes yield $26 million next year.
Those most affected will be riders on routes west of the Hudson. In the extreme case, the increase could be as much as 16.7 percent, though Metro-North officials said only a few commuters would see that high a hike.
"My view is, yeah, there will be a few people who won't ride the trains but my feeling is that we will continue to grow," said Metro-North president Howard Permut, who added that despite the fare increases, the railroad will focus on improving service for its customers.
"It's our job to provide a value to people so they continue to ride the trains," Permut said.
INCENTIVES TO KEEP THE REVERSE COMMUTER
Besides losing some low-income passengers, rider advocates said that reverse commuters may also choose to find alternative ways to get to work.
"I would say the fare increase does hurt lower-income riders, especially those that are reverse commuting to jobs in Westchester, such as hospital workers, day care workers," said Gene Russianoff, the legal director of the Straphangers Campaign for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
For Metro-North, which this year is on pace to break a record ridership of 83.6 million set in 2008, the reverse commuter has spurred the railroad's growth.
Over the last two decades, the number of daily reverse commuters has grown 150 percent, from 5,000 to 13,000, according to Metro-North officials. During that period, the number of morning commuters to Grand Central Terminal is up only 10 percent.
To prevent off-peak and reverse commuters from walking away, the MTA is looking at a pricing plan as part of its fare hike proposal that would have riders paying 75 percent of the peak fares. And there will be discounts for those who purchase weekly and monthly passes.
An off-peak ride from New Rochelle to Grand Central, for instance, would increase just 50 cents, from $7 to $7.50, according to MTA officials.
The goal is to spread the increases across the board for all types of commuters, Metro-North officials said.
BOARD LOOKS TO ALBANY TO INCREASE FUNDING
The MTA is trying to close a $450 million hole in next year's $12.6 billion budget that its chairman and CEO, Joseph Lhota, said is being fueled by rising debt service, as well as energy, pension and health care costs.
Already, Lhota has tried to trim the agency's budget. He has cut operating costs by as much as $800 million in the last year.
Board members say they are not happy about being forced to make low-income workers continue to incur fare hikes. Before the next hike goes through, they want the MTA to re-examine a funding system that they believe places too heavy a burden on its ridership. Nearly 60 percent of Metro-North's operating revenues come from fares -- the highest percentage of any commuter rail. The board members instead would like to have Albany pick up a greater portion of the tab.
"Our legislators in Albany have to step up to bat," said Carl Wortendyke, Rockland County's representative on the MTA board.