Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Light at the End of Tunnel for MTA Customers?

Threatened fare hikes for patrons of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority's bus, subway and commuter rail lines might not be as severe as originally announced, according to a story in the Staten Island Advance. Citing a report by WCBS-TV, it says New York Gov. David Paterson and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have come up with a plan to help the MTA close a $1.2 billion budget gap.

The plan calls for new tolls on four bridges across the East River that are now free and a payroll tax, paid by employers, on the income of commuters. If implemented, MTA fares would still rise by around eight percent, but that would be fare less than the 23 percent announced last month by the agency's executive director, Eliot Sander. Not known is whether the plan would help avert service and maintenance cuts included in the so-called "doomsday budget."

Nobody likes to pay more for anything, especially New Yorkers who rank among the most heavily taxed people in the country. However, a 23 percent fare hike would hit hardest those who could afford it the least: members of lower income groups and students of the vast City University of New York system (my employer), who rely on the subways and buses to get to class.

Also, the marginally higher costs would drive thousands of commuters off the rails and onto the highways, adding to congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Tolling the bridges would have the opposite effect by incenting people who now drive into Manhattan to take a train or bus instead. The additional ridership would generate additional fare income to meet MTA's cash needs.

In the long run, New York State and City leaders need to rethink the way public transportation is funded. The New York City subway system has the highest farebox recovery of any transit agency in the country. Perhaps strap hangers are already paying more than their fair share. But, lets get through this crisis first.

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