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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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LIRR Rides Return

The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is restoring half-hourly midday service, between Monday and Friday, on the Port Washington branch starting on Monday, May 14.

This is great news for the commuters in northern Nassau who had fled to their cars since late 2010, unwilling or unable to wait an hour for the next train to arrive. But the episode also highlights something the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) often downplays: fare box revenue—the money generated for the MTA when riders pay out of their own pocket to purchase a ticket—matters.

Let’s talk about the Port Washington branch schedule changes first before getting into how the MTA’s LIRR finances its operations.

“Westbound trains will depart Port Washington at 40 minutes past the hour from 9:40 a.m. through 3:40 p.m. in addition to the current departures at 10 minutes past the hour,” the April 2012 edition of Train Talk reported, in a story headlined ‘New Timetables in Effect May 14.’ Train Talk is a newsletter the MTA’s LIRR periodically produces for its customers and places on train seats system-wide. Eastbound Port Washington branch trains will depart Penn Station at 19 minutes past the hour from 9:19 a.m. through 3:19 p.m. in addition to the existing trains that leave during midday, Monday through Friday, at 49 minutes after the hour, the aforementioned article added.

The March 2010 edition of Train Talk had a story entitled ‘The Cost of Providing Service,’ which foreshadowed why cutting Port Washington service would adversely affect the LIRR’s bottom line. Fare box revenue—money collected from ticket sales—covers 67 percent of the actual cost of running trains between Port Washington and Penn Station. Commuters on no other branch pay more, as a percentage of the ticket price, for train service, the LIRR acknowledged more than two years ago.

By comparison, the Babylon branch, the line carrying the largest number of LIRR riders as of 2010, realized through fare box revenue only 51 percent of the monies needed to run trains between Babylon and Penn Station. Greenport, with its fare box revenue accounting for only 12 cents of every dollar needed to run its trains, and Montauk (17 cents on the dollar) were in 2010 the most heavily subsidized branches within the LIRR’s 11-branch system, the LIRR reported. The MTA was in 2010 also receiving additional revenues through the imposition of a 12-county payroll tax. It went into effect in 2009 and has since been partially rescinded by the state Legislature.

Yet it was this observation in the March 2010 Train Talk article, however, that got me angry.

“As is the case with virtually all public transit systems, the price of a LIRR ticket is significantly less than the actual cost of the ride, a shortfall made up almost entirely by government subsidies,” the article intoned. Translation: stop complaining, you bunch of freeloaders. If it weren’t for your generous lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and Albany, the LIRR implied, who knows what we’d have to charge you for a ticket? It begs the question: who provides the money elected officials allocate to the MTA? That’s right; the same people who ride the LIRR.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: