Pat Foye, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has said that service on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North could be reduced by as much as 50 percent — and bus and subway service by 40 percent — in the coming months if the MTA does not receive $12 billion in federal aid. At the same time, fares could go up by more than the scheduled 4 percent next year.
In other words, there would be substantially less service for more money. And those cuts would not only leave many commuters seething, but could also create further financial and safety risks for the MTA and its passengers.
Significant service cuts or fare hikes require a public hearing process. As a recipient of Federal Transit Administration funding, the MTA must comply with federal Title VI and other civil rights guidelines. Service cuts cannot have an adverse impact on minority, low-income and physically challenged communities. The process would require a series of public hearings across the metropolitan area, which would take the MTA several months. It would be subject to review by the FTA and the New York City and state governments.
Service reductions would require the MTA to update its FTA bus, subway and commuter rail fleet management plans. The FTA would want to ensure that the MTA has the financial resources to maintain its equipment, so that rail cars can remain operational for their intended lifespan of 39 years, and buses, 14 years. But with such extensive reductions, several hundred to several thousand commuter and subway rail cars and buses would no longer be needed, and couldn’t simply be kept around as spare equipment.
The LIRR has a fleet of more than 1,150 cars, and Metro North, more than 1,260. New York City Transit has 6,400 subway cars, and more than 5,700 buses operate in the city. The fleets are partially federally funded, and equipment that is no longer needed for passenger service as a result of service reductions would require the FTA’s permission to be temporarily mothballed in a safe and secure location, while still being maintained. That would defeat the goal of cost savings.
Another option would be to transfer equipment that is no longer needed to another transit agency. The paperwork alone involved in this process would take several months, and, once the transfer is completed, if ridership increases significantly or parts of the fleet need to be replaced, additional equipment would not be readily available.
The MTA could also purchase the excess federally funded equipment from the FTA, basing its value on depreciation. The MTA would then be free to sell the surplus equipment and keep the proceeds. And it could retire any equipment that has already reached the end of its intended lifespan. But this, too, could lead to a shortage of equipment down the road.
Most important, as far as commuters are concerned, a major reduction in LIRR service would go directly against promised increases in that service: new trains for the New York Islanders’ arena at Belmont Park, starting next October; a 40 percent increase in rush-hour service when the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track is completed in December 2022; the addition of 24 trains per hour during peak times in support of the $11.2 billion East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal, also scheduled for December 2022; and an increase in reverse-peak service on all branches by the end of that year.
The MTA board of directors has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of both commuters and taxpayers. We need to make sure that Foye details all of the potential costs and challenges of the changes he has in mind with the board as well as elected officials at all levels of government before he proceeds with those cuts.
And Long Islanders need to know how their daily commutes will change if the proposed cuts and fare hikes are implemented. How overcrowded will trains become? What will be the cost in time that commuters spend standing on platforms? How will social distancing be maintained as the coronavirus pandemic drags on? These are questions that all of us who use the LIRR and any other branches of the MTA should be asking.
To voice your opinions, write to Foye, at the MTA, 2 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10004, or LIRR President Phil Eng, at the LIRR, 4312 Sutphin Blvd., Jamaica, N.Y. 11435. Or record a comment for one of the MTA’s monthly board meetings, now being held on Zoom. For a schedule and instructions, go to www.mtaboardmeetings.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office for over three decades.