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Cheaper Railroad Fares: That’s The Ticket

Three of us went into Manhattan from Manhasset on a recent Sunday morning. The round-trip, off-peak fares on the Long Island Rail Road totaled $48.

We could have driven the 40 miles to mid-town and back for about $25, according to AAA. That cost includes gas and considers everything from tire wear to depreciation. The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge (nee 59th Street Bridge) is free to cross, and it isn’t impossible to find free on-street parking on weekends. The advantage of taking a car over the train is $23 for three people, and $7 for two people. The LIRR wins only if I were going to drive alone.

It’s the same throughout Nassau County — off-peak fares to Manhattan don’t make you want to take the train.

That’s a shame. Our elected officials tout “green” initiatives and the virtues of mass transit, but those of us who follow this advice are, as economists say, “stupid.” It’s cheaper to drive.

Perhaps there are ways to justify high peak fares and the outrageous prices that commuters pay for monthly tickets ($242 from western Nassau; $276 from the eastern part of the county) since these riders travel at peak times when there’s much demand for service and seats, and driving is a lot tougher.

Of course, how these prices are computed is not so much economics as a witch’s brew of politics and deal-making. It’s the same with the expenses of running the LIRR. Our fares cover only about a third of the cost of keeping the trains chugging. The lion’s share comes from MTA bridge and tunnel tolls, the MTA payroll tax (which was upheld by the state’s highest court last week), and state and federal coffers.

In other words, all of us are paying for the railroad. So why must we be fleeced when we buy a ticket? Especially at those times when the trains are far from full. Some off-peak trains, such as those late in the morning and evening commutes, can be sardine cans. But at other times and in other directions, off-peak trains are very lonesome places (as my Sunday trains were).

For these, I think the railroad should have “buck trains” — $1 fares when ridership is low. They already have $3 fares for both peak and off-peak rides between local stations (Floral Park to Syosset, for instance).

If we are serious about being “green” and encouraging people (especially car owners) to use mass transit, we need (for starters) irresistibly cheap fares.

To help cut traffic, congestion and Long Island’s sky-high cost of living, it is imperative that we stop thinking of the Long Island Rail Road as a rip-off, and starting thinking of it as efficient, economical transportation. All we need are incentives.

John Owens is editor in chief of Anton Community Newspapers. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it