The cost of a monthly MTA Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) ticket to Penn Station from western Nassau has increased 87 percent over the past 12 years, to $252 from $135.
Those figures should be discussed as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) seeks state legislative support this spring to fund its next series of capital programs. To illustrate how the MTA’s commuter rail ticket fares have soared in the 21st century, $135 in 2003 dollars is equal to having $171.47 in 2015, according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator’s website. In other words, the MTA’s monthly commuter rail ticket prices have since 2003 grown at more than three times the U.S.’s rate of inflation (27 percent).
The MTA’s commuter rail fares have risen even more within that 12-year period for those residing in either eastern Nassau or Suffolk County. Moreover, so-called fare box revenues, the monies collected from ticket sales, reflect only a portion of the monies MTA system users and non-users alike contribute to the MTA’s coffers. To bolster the MTA’s bottom line, the State Legislature imposed in 2009 a downstate MTA payroll tax, a law which also added a $25 supplemental MTA fee on downstate vehicle registrations, increased the MTA’s tax on rental cars, and added a 50 cent per-trip MTA fee on all taxi cab rides originating in New York City. The creation of these new MTA revenue streams now provides at least a $1 billion annually to the MTA, even after the payroll tax was scaled back slightly in 2011. Besides the city and Long Island, five other counties—Dutchess, Rockland, Orange, Putnam, and Westchester—were tasked with digging deeper six years ago for the MTA.
Given this history, I was unreceptive to the MTA’s newspaper print ads this month, counseling New Yorkers on “How to Get the Best Value for Your Buck” amid the MTA’s latest fare and toll changes, which took effect system-wide on Sunday, March 22. The advertisement’s two tips for the LIRR’s monthly commuters could not possibly have been written by a regular LIRR rider. One said monthly tickets are available for purchase at “any ticket office or ticket vending machine, or online at mta.info.” Yes, and how does that ensure a monthly rider gets the best value for his or her buck? The other tip was a painful reminder of how the federal tax code favors drivers over mass transit users: It stated: “Ask your employer about pre-tax benefit programs that allow you to pay for your commute with pre-tax dollars.”
Well, LIRR commuters who today have employers who offer this pre-tax benefit already know the pre-tax dollar limit is capped at $130 a month for mass transit ticket buyers whereas drivers can set aside up to $250 in pre-tax dollars to pay for parking.
The mass transit experience for many Long Islanders continues after arriving at either Penn Station or Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, and the news is not much better for subway riders. The base subway fare rose last week to $2.75 from $2.50, per trip. Yet, once again, look at what a per-trip base subway and bus ticket cost in early 2003: $1.50.
The MTA is at least consistent—the region’s subway and bus riders, like their commuter rail counterparts, have seen their MTA fares increase 80-plus percent over the past 12 years. Anyone who follows New York’s mass transit debates knows one thing is certain—whatever the MTA received previously in the form of financial support from MTA system users, taxpayers, car owners, rental car companies and taxi-cab drivers has, in the MTA’s view, been insufficient.
Mike Barry, vice president of media relations for an insurance industry trade group, has worked in government and journalism.