Long Islanders came out in droves Jan. 21 to slam the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) proposals to fix its mounting budget woes. Raising fares and cutting services to those who rely heavily on mass transit, particularly the disabled, is not the solution, many said.
Once the crowd made its way through an MTA police security checkpoint, they urged LIRR President Helena Williams and the MTA board to think about what such drastic hikes and reduced service would mean to their loyal customers.
MTA fare and toll increases would yield a 23 percent increase. Toll hikes for bridges and tunnels and service changes to New York's subway system are also on the table. After already reducing expenses and streamlining operations, MTA officials argue that raising fares and cutting service are the only two remaining means within their control to close a $1.2 billion shortfall.
"We are not in any way enthusiastic about these cuts," Eliot Sander, MTA's chief financial officer, told concerned citizens while MTA Chair H. Dale Hemmerdinger assured, "We don't want to do this. We are angry like you are..."
Town of Hempstead Councilman Ed Ambrosino said mass transportation is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. "When you look at the Long Island Rail Road, you look at the lifeblood of Long Island," Ambrosino said. "We understand the need to balance a budget but we ask that you dig deep and dig hard, not take it out of these people's pockets before you exercise every opportunity to find it elsewhere."
In West Hempstead, a hard-fought fight has led to a transit-oriented development on Hempstead Avenue, finally replacing the controversial Courtesy Hotel. "We need the Long Island Rail Road as a vein to that [residential] development," Ambrosino added.
The councilman believes the LIRR also serves as a necessary arm to the revitalization of Belmont Racetrack in Elmont. Communities surrounding Belmont could see an economic boost from the revitalization project and would only benefit from continued service to the famed racetrack. "The MTA acronym, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, does not stand for Money To Albany," Ambrosino chided.
Floral Park Mayor Phil Guarnieri, publicly critical of the MTA/LIRR for years, said the agency's plight is an "old and unambiguous story." He suggested board members address the "infirmities" that plague their own house before raising fares, eliminating service to Belmont and closing 20 manned ticket offices, including one in Floral Park.
Senator Craig Johnson, who represents the 7th District, said eliminating all service to Belmont, with the exception of the Belmont Stakes, is counterproductive and harmful to efforts by state and local officials to make the racetrack a world-class destination. "Smart development of Belmont is a cause I have championed since my election to the state Senate, and one that has deep bipartisan support from elected officials and community leaders alike. Frankly, it is sad that the MTA seems to be out of touch with much of this. The residents of Elmont and Floral Park deserve better," Senator Johnson said.
Garden City resident Joanne Adams, NYRA Community Relations manager, said, "Eliminating service to the Belmont Park train station would undermine New York State's mandate for NYRA to promote racing and increase attendance at Belmont Park. The future economic development of the Elmont community's vision plan would be negatively affected by the closure of the Belmont Park train station."
NYRA Communications Director John Lee also spoke at the Jan. 21 hearing: "I became a fan of thoroughbred racing, especially racing at beautiful Belmont Park because I could get there on the LIRR. Generations of racing fans have and Belmont Park patrons have depended on the "Belmont Special.' This drastic service cut would undercut one specific and vital Long Island business, to the detriment of the surrounding communities."
Thoroughbred owner Stephen Zorn, representing the board of directors of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, added, "One of the target groups for creating new racing fans are the thousands of bright, energetic and relatively well paid young professionals who come to New York from all over the world. Most of these folks don't have cars. If we want to turn them on to racing, and make lifelong fans of them, we need the Belmont Park train service."
Allen Cappelli, new to the MTA board, assured members are very concerned about the proposed cuts. "The problem that we're facing is a difficult one..." Cappelli said, adding that MTA members have lobbied Albany for funding to try to avoid service cuts and proposed increases. "Please join with us in reaching out to your state senator, your state assemblyman, the governor, and help us," Cappelli said.
Senator Johnson said he understands that the MTA is not immune to the effects of the worldwide financial crisis. However, he thinks that before they resort to service cuts and fare increases, the authority should do everything in its power to streamline its operation and reduce its operating expenses.
"I understand that some steps in this arena have been made, but more must be done. 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.
"As a senator, my toughest job this year is going to be balancing the state's budget with the needs of my constituents, Long Island and all of New York. But I can tell you we are looking at every possible angle to streamline our operations and to find new revenues so that any cuts will be mitigated. I urge you to do the same," the senator added.
Don Dryer, director of Nassau County's Office for the Physically Challenged, said raising the trip fee from $3.50 to $7 for those who rely on the para transit system, particularly Able Ride, would lead the disabled community toward the "dark days of sheltered existence." Noting that a staggering 70 percent unemployment rate already exists among the disabled, he pleaded with MTA officials: "We can't be priced out."
New Hyde Park Village Trustee Don Barbieri, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is bound by a wheelchair, owns a small business in Penn Station. He rides the Long Island Rail Road every day.
"When you get on a train in New Hyde Park, you can't exit that train anywhere between New Hyde Park and Jamaica. Floral Park, Bellerose, Queens Village, none of those stations are [handicap] accessible. If you want to enhance revenue through the system, make those stations accessible to the disabled community."
Barbieri suggested ideas to boost revenue. "As sweet as it is I would wager that all of us who arrived here tonight using Able Ride, as I did, came in a separate bus ... The software program that is used to route the buses is antiquated ... It does not do an adequate job in enabling the people who schedule the rides to see to it that the fleet is utilized to its best ability."
Barbieri continued, "I appreciate you guys working on our behalf and I can feel it that you sincerely want to see this service maintained and enhanced and it is greatly appreciated. Let's find a way to make an investment in the software system, which will enable the employees who run the Able Ride program to do a better job. There shouldn't be one person on a bus when you come to an event like this..."
Joe Smith, president of MTA Bus/LI Bus, said the MTA is currently looking into merging data systems and noted it would take 60 to 90 days to complete the review.
Ticket agents stood united against the possible closure of 20 ticket booths across the Island. Anthony Simon, a Transportation Communications Union (TCU) rep, said the turning over of manned ticket booths to automated machines would take away the eyes and the ears of the MTA.
"The outrageous decision to close ticket offices will have a devastating effect on the lives of our brother and sister ticket agents ... Closing ticket offices removes the face-to-face interaction with our customers, it poses significant safety concerns in that there will no longer be a live person to aid in the event of an emergency," Simon said.
Simon continued, "The MTA philosophy in security is "If You See Something, Say Something.' Taking bodies out of our system removes the eyes and ears of the MTA. It weakens our ability to protect the riding public."
The TCU's general chair, who represents the ticket clerks and agents along the Long Island Rail Road, added, "They're taking away the front line employees while only eliminating one manager's job, which was recently created and never filled. Let's look at 1996. You had 97 manned stations and 12 managers running them. After these cuts we'll have only 30 manned stations and 25 managers ... How confident is the Long Island Rail Road on the reliability of these machines? Tonight they had a ticket clerk sit in Garden City ... and a repair crew sitting and waiting, just in case one of the machines went down. Why? They didn't want to be embarrassed when the MTA board's here."
Floral Park Trustee Tom Tweedy added, to rousing applause, "The MTA has over 6,000 employees, yet only a few thousand of these public servants have positions that actually serve the public. Among the top of that list are ticket office personnel. They should be among the last positions eliminated, instead of the first."
Floral Park's station serves not only Floral Park and its 16,000 residents but also commuters from the villages of South Floral Park and Bellerose and those living along the Nassau County border of Queens and beyond. Floral Park is actually the last manned station on the Hempstead line.
"Removal of personnel from Floral Park and New Hyde Park based on empirical data fails to take into account the human issues surrounding this cut," Senator Johnson said. "A number of my constituents use these stations, some of them older and less familiar with automated machines; machines which cannot respond to inquiries or provide anything beyond basic assistance. There are also safety issues at stake. Accidents happen, and with no official personnel present at these stations, response time will be greatly diminished."
Gerard Bringmann, chair of the Long Island Rail Road Commuters Council, demanded that the quality of service be "dramatically" improved if fare increases are instituted. "This is not the time to be penny wise and pound foolish," Bringmann said.
West Hempstead Civic Association President Rosalie Norton said eliminating weekend service on the West Hempstead branch would only negatively impact businesses near the station. "Weekend service is vital," Norton said, referring to the Trammell Crow Residential project slated to replace the Courtesy Hotel. "We worked very hard to get that zoning," she said. "Eliminating weekend service sends the wrong signal to the builder, the community and to the Town of Hempstead."
Malverne Village's mayor, Patricia McDonald, agreed, adding that cutting weekend service could lead to the closure of the West Hempstead branch line altogether. "Keep proportionality in mind ... the burden must be shared," McDonald said.
A 29-year-old financial analyst who lives in Port Washington and commutes daily to Manhattan for work said cutting back off-peak service on the Port Washington branch from hourly to every half-hour greatly impacts his decision to remain in Port Washington. "Commuters can neither afford the unreasonable increases nor the reduction in service ... We demand and deserve a proactive approach," the part-time Fordham University student said. "Due to an escalating financial crisis in the financial services industry, many workers like myself are forced now to work longer hours at lower pay..."
Senator Johnson, who lives in Port Washington, said eliminating half-hour off-peak trains on the North Shore would cause great hardship to the tens of thousands of his constituents that use the line via the Port Washington, Plandome, Manhasset and Great Neck stations.
"This is a population that relies heavily on train service for their livelihoods and to provide for their families. Many of these jobs, both inside and outside the struggling financial sector, simply do not follow the peak usage schedule," he said.
According to an MTA spokesperson, service cuts could come sometime in the spring while fare hikes are expected to come in June if the proposals were to go forward.
The increases could be lessened if the recommendations made by the Ravitch Commission, a commission appointed by the governor to seek ways to fund MTA capital projects and operating needs, are implemented.
The commission made a series of recommendations in December 2008 to provide new sources of revenue. If implemented, these new revenue streams could reduce the fare and crossing charge increase to a more reasonable 8 percent and largely eliminate the need for service reductions.