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Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) commuters are in for a rough ride come June 1.

The MTA has increased LIRR fares up to 29 percent for all tickets to and from Manhattan and Brooklyn to help fill billion-dollar budget gaps projected for the next four years. Photo by Joe Rizza

That's the date hefty fare hikes, which are increasing up to 29 percent, go into effect. Further, weekend service on the West Hempstead branch has been totally eliminated. Service to Belmont Station, with the exception of Belmont Stakes Day, has been axed and weekday off-peak and weekend service on the Port Washington branch has been reduced from half-hourly to hourly.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) approved these changes, along with several others, late last month to help close billion-dollar budget deficits projected for the next four years ($1.2 billion for 2009, $2.4 billion for 2010, $2.6 billion for 2011 and nearly $3 billion for 2012).

MTA officials partially blame their structural deficit on the impacts of a weakening economy.

The MTA board adopted its 2009 final proposed budget in December 2008. After already reducing expenses and streamlining operations, MTA officials argued that raising fares and cutting services were the only two remaining means within their control to close the financial shortfall.

Legislator Rich Nicolello said the MTA's mismanagement of mass transit in the region is outrageous. "The fare hikes and service cuts are the wrong thing to do at the wrong time. These actions could not come at a worse time for Long Island's commuters, who are already struggling with stagnant wages, a high cost of living and a deepening recession," he said.

Assemblyman Tom McKevitt agrees. "The MTA proposed payroll tax is a disgraceful plan that will put more cost burdens on Long Island commuters. It is completely irresponsible for the MTA to think commuters will pay for their mistakes," he said. "With an annual budget of over $11 billion, this mismanaged bureaucracy has had enough time to throw away money. It is time to point the fingers at the right people and demand fairness to all the hardworking Long Island commuters. I oppose any plan that will raise costs and further increase the economic strain that is already imposed on my constituents."

In addition to the LIRR, Metro-North Railroad will also see increases of at least 24-29 percent while Long Island Bus base fares jump from $2 to $3.50 a ride. Long Island Bus services Nassau, including many of the county's disabled population.

Don Dryer, director of Nassau County's Office for the Physically Challenged, pleaded with MTA board members back in January: "We can't be priced out."

The trip fee for those who rely on the para transit system, particularly LI Bus Able Ride, has increased from $3.50 to $6; a LI Bus Able Ride 20-trip book will now cost $120, up from $70.

Further, LI Bus service on the N51, 53, 65, 66, 67, 80, 87 and 93 and the N2 extension to Jamaica during weekday peak periods has been eliminated. Monthly MetroCards will soon cost $103, up from $81, and base subway fares, increased by 50 cents, will now cost $2.50, effective May 31.

Bridges and tunnels haven't been spared either. Currently, major crossings cost $5 in cash and $4.15 in E-ZPass charges. Under these new proposals, cash fees will go up to $6.50 and E-ZPass charges will increase to $5.26.

Floral Park Trustee Tom Tweedy, who attended the MTA's January public hearing along with fellow trustee Jim Rhatigan and Mayor Phil Guarnieri, told the Dispatch: "In light of the desperate state of the MTA finances, how could the MTA in all its arrogance have thought they could have begun the third track project which, in just two years, had exponentially increased in projected costs?"

Trustee Tweedy continued, "The MTA's deficit in operating budget and capital planning did not happen overnight. We need transparency in the MTA - Audit now. Those responsible should be held accountable and fired. I believe the time has come to examine the entire operation of the MTA with a critical eye towards efficiency. If it needs to be broken up, so be it. We can no longer afford the patronage and overhead that are overwhelming the efficient operation of the MTA. These fare hikes and service cuts cannot go ahead unexamined."

Senator Craig Johnson, who represents the 7th Senatorial District, said the MTA board's decision is just one more "unfortunate and disappointing action" by an authority that has been "plagued for years by fiscal mismanagement and a willingness to incur an irresponsible amount of debt."

The senator, however, said he hopes that in the months before these crushing fare hikes and service cuts take hold, all parties will be able to agree to a solution that will not only mitigate these actions, but will also make the MTA more accountable, more efficient, and more transparent.

Senator Johnson, who has said publicly that eliminating all service to Belmont, with the exception of Belmont Stakes Day, is counterproductive and harmful to efforts by state and local officials to make Belmont Race Track a world-class destination.

He thinks MTA board members need to put their noses to the grindstone and streamline operations and reduce expenses before resorting to this. "This includes re-examining both its contracts with outside companies and consultants, and how its approximately 14,000 properties are used. Simply put, any properties that are underutilized, or not being used to fulfill the MTA's core mission should be leased, or sold off, with the revenues earmarked for continuing operations," Senator Johnson said.

John Lee, director of communications and media relations for the New York Racing Association, told Anton Newspapers: "While understanding the MTA's situation, we are very concerned with this development and still hope it can be changed. It's a serious blow not just to Belmont Park but for the surrounding communities and their plans for development and growth. We'll be drafting a 'Plan B,' but are still hopeful we can find a way to keep fans coming to Belmont Park by train."

Assemblyman Tom Alfano, a strong advocate of the Belmont Park redevelopment, said he's disappointed that Governor David Paterson has not given the Legislature a bill to pass to address the MTA's situation. Nor has the governor sought the input of legislators within the MTA region, whose constituents will be most affected by the fare increases," he said.

In the 21st Assembly district, thousands of commuters will be hit again in the pocketbook, Alfano continued. "Time and time again we have seen the MTA waste millions of dollars in public funds, only to turn and hold commuters hostage by increasing fares to riders. In communities like Floral Park, Bellerose Village and Bellerose Terrace we got to see the LIRR and MTA incompetence on the third track, hazardous material shipments, mercury in the soils and a host of issues that never get solved to the satisfaction of communities."

As of press time, talks continued between the state legislature and Governor Paterson regarding an agreement to bring in additional revenue to the MTA before the fare increases and cuts in service begin.

A monthly ticket from stations located in Zone 4, including Floral Park and Stewart Manor, to Penn Station currently costs $185. The proposed fare increase is $50, soon costing $235.

A one-way ticket from stations in Zone 4 to Penn currently costs $6.25 and $12.50 for round trip during off-peak hours. The proposal calls for the prices of those tickets to increase to $7.75 and $15.50 respectively.

A one-way ticket to Penn Station from any Zone 4 station currently costs $8.50 and $17 for round trip during peak hours. The proposal calls for the prices of those tickets to increase to $10.75 and $21.50 respectively.

These increases take effect June 1.


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