We spend a lot of time talking about where New York City’s transit system goes and how it could be better, but we don’t spend too much time talking about where the transit doesn’t go. We know how current service could be improved, and we all have fantasy maps regarding planned service extensions. But we don’t always address the so-called transit deserts where transit riders have few options and commuters face long rides to job centers.
At a time when affordability is a buzzword surrounding the political discourse in the city, these transit deserts stick out like a sore thumb, and last week, Ydanis Rodriguez, head of the City Council’s transportation committee, held a hearing on improving access. From light rail to ferries, the speakers ran the gamut of topics we’ve discussed over the past few years, and those facing questions responded adeptly. For instance, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg spoke about how light rail involves more than just tracks and a line on a map; it involves, she explained, the need to invest in the infrastructure behind light rail and create a sustainable network.
One idea though that has come up time and again over the years involves commuter rail access through New York City. When I was in Berlin and Paris this past summer, I had the opportunity to ride both the S-Bahn and RER trains, and for someone used to New York City’s concept of commuter rail, the European model is eye-opening. These trains enjoy the benefits of through-running through center city areas, and the fare structure is rationalized to encourage both intra-city and city-to-suburb travel. It didn’t cost me more to take the RER a few stops than it would have to make a similar trip on the Metro.
Here, the LIRR and Metro-North do not share a fare structure with each other, let alone with New York City Transit, and those who board commuter rail lines within New York City pay a much higher — and often cost-prohibitive — fare. If our politicians have their ways, this practice would end, and riders would be able to use commuter rail trains within the boroughs for a much lower cost. The city is pushing aggressively to make this happen, and one MTA Board member is embracing the cause.
As officials explained, last week, they want the MTA to reduce fares on intra-city travel and provide a free transfer from the LIRR or Metro-North to New York City Transit’s network. The MTA though is crying poverty. Agency Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast claimed that such a move would cost the agency $70 million per year and that no one has yet identified how to cover the missing revenue. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Gothamist. “This year we will lose $575 million on unreimbursed paratransit service as well as discounted fares for seniors and free rides for schoolchildren. When we start each year more than half a billion dollars in the hole, we don’t want to dig it any deeper.”
Allen Cappelli, the Board member who plans to bring up the issue during today’s committee meetings, doesn’t accept the cries of poverty. “Honestly, it sounds to me like seat-of-the-pants analysis and I think this issue warrants more than somebody’s best guess,” Cappelli said to the Daily News. “Now that money is, while tight, not as dire as it was, we ought to be looking for ways to improve service for people in our region.”
This debate of course gets to the heart of the conflict between the suburban-focused commuter rail and the city-centric subway system. Do suburban riders want city passengers hoping on board their commuter trains for a few stops? Do suburban riders want to see their trains slowed in order to make more stops to better serve inaccessible areas? Can MTA agencies work together on rational fare policies? These are questions that hit at the very essence of the MTA’s regional approach and haven’t been satisfactorily addressed in years.
I expect this conversation to continue, especially as the MTA looks to reactivate certain LIRR stops in Queens and bring Metro-North into Penn Station via the Penn Station Access plan. Eventually, we have to move toward a European model. But can we get there without unnecessary kicking and screaming? We’ll find out soon.