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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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LIRR Applauds Itself For Restoring Service

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) held a public hearing in Manhattan on Tuesday, Aug. 27 on the “LIRR’s Proposed Service Investments.” Yet the session could easily have been billed as “Improving Our Bottom Line.”

The MTA LIRR’s decision to restore half-hourly weekend service on the Port Washington branch starting in November, and to extend for 10 weeks each year weekend service on its Ronkonkoma branch, can also be commented on via videotape this week. The LIRR will be recording customer statements at its Great Neck station on Wednesday, Aug. 28, and its Ronkonkoma station on Thursday, Aug, 29, between 4 and 8 p.m.

The gatherings were announced with the air of self-congratulation that is the hallmark of the MTA. The MTA, after all, constantly tells its riders the MTA is improving, non-stop. Well, that’s the least they can do, considering the MTA raises fares, non-stop. The most recent ticket price hikes took effect in March 2013.

Commuters are not the only ones who have had to dig deep to finance the MTA. With the state Legislature’s approval, the MTA has been allowed since 2009 to extract another $1 billion annually from the populace through the MTA’s downstate payroll tax. New York City taxi cab drivers and the region’s rental car companies also ended up paying more per annum to the MTA four years ago as part of that same epic, Albany-orchestrated bailout.

But let’s get back to the Port Washington and Ronkonkoma branches, and why restoring and increasing service on those two lines makes economic sense for the LIRR.

The Port Washington and Ronkonkoma branches are the most cost-effective ones in the LIRR’s 11-branch system. How do I know? The LIRR’s March 2010 edition of Train Talk made public a branch-by-branch breakdown of each branch’s annual ridership, and the total cost of providing service on each line. The news flash: at the time, the average LIRR customer paid 44 percent of the true cost of their LIRR ride when buying a ticket, with the balance made up “almost entirely by government subsidies,” Train Talk reported.

The funds for the government subsidies, of course, were generated in part by the payroll tax, the taxi cab fees, and higher rental car taxes, but I digress.

To illustrate which riders were paying the most, without a government subsidy, the LIRR came up with a benchmark called the Estimated Fare Box Operating Ratio by Branch. This metric—factoring into the equation every branch’s annual number of customers, what they typically paid for their ticket, and the LIRR’s cost of providing service to them — determined riders on the Port Washington and Ronkonkoma branches finished first and second in that category, respectively. Port Washington travelers covered 67 percent of each ride through their ticket purchase, and Ronkonkoma ticket buyers paid 63 percent of the true cost of their journey, the LIRR determined. Long Beach and Huntington tied for third place (54 percent). Fare box revenue is money collected from ticket sales.

Knowing this, why did the LIRR then cut the service it now wants to restore on the Port Washington branch and then hold off three-plus years before expanding service on the Ronkonkoma branch? You need more fare box revenue? The LIRR’s own numbers showed that Port Washington and Ronkonkoma was where it could be found.

Today, trains operate hourly on the weekend on the Port Washington branch. Starting in mid-November, the LIRR is returning to what existed previously, with trains scheduled to operate half-hourly on the weekend on the Port Washington branch.

Weekend Greenport service on the Ronkonkoma branch runs today from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day weekend. The LIRR wants to extend this service, to and from Greenport, by about 10 weeks, from April into November of each year.

I’ve tried to be an advocate for mass transit, but the MTA makes it so hard. Proposed Service Investments? Restoring Your Service is a more accurate assessment of what’s taking place.

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