The MTA’s forthcoming fare increase, which the agency’s chairman has called “modest” and “small,” will drive up the cost of tickets for thousands of Long Island Rail Road riders by nearly 30%, as the LIRR will discontinue a discount program catering to part-time commuters.
The elimination of the LIRR’s 20-Trip Ticket, which costs about 20% less than the current cost of 20 peak trips, was among the changes approved last month by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board in an effort to raise annual fare revenue by 4%.
The fare discount program was launched in March 2022 to appeal to commuters who were no longer going into the office five days a week and, as such, did not need a monthly pass. LIRR ticket sales fell when people stopped commuting full time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision to get rid of the 20-Trip Ticket, which is used by about 14,000 riders each month, comes as the railroad looks to steer its customers back to monthly passes. The MTA’s fare changes take effect on Aug. 20, but monthly ticket buyers won’t see the new rates until September.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Among the fare changes recently adopted by the MTA and set to take effect Aug. 20 is the elimination of the Long Island Rail Road’s 20-Trip Ticket, which offered a discount of 20% over the cost of 20 peak trips. With the new rate hike, the cost of those same 20 trips will rise by nearly 30%.
- The 20-Trip Ticket was created in March 2022 to cater to customers who stopped commuting five days a week during the COVID-19 pandemic, and no longer needed a monthly pass. LIRR officials said sales data indicates that customers prefer monthly passes, which were discounted by 10% last year.
- Commuters and advocates say there is still very much a need for the 20-Trip Ticket, because many Long Islanders are still only commuting two to three times a week. The LIRR sells about 14,000 20-Trip Tickets each month.
Among the 20-Trip Ticket’s loyal customers is Bethpage commuter Steven Riegler, who is still working from home most days, and takes the LIRR to his Manhattan office twice a week. The elimination of the program means the same 20 trips that have been costing him $224 will, by the end of this month, cost him $290 — a 29.5% increase. That’s around the same cost of a monthly ticket from the same station — $287.
Riegler, a chief financial officer for a private company, said he doesn’t mind occasional fare hikes, but called this one “outrageous.”
“You come to expect these increases. I’m not going to complain about that. But the fact that they’re removing this ticket, which is clearly benefitting a significant percentage of their commuters right now … It’s a money grab. There’s no other way of looking at this,” said Riegler, 52.
He believes the MTA should have done more to publicize its plan to do away with the ticket before holding public hearings on its fare adjustment plan in June.
“If they had focused on that, I’m sure there would have been constituents there that would have said, ‘Wait a second. This is ridiculous. This is not a 4% increase,’ ” he said.
MTA: Monthly ticket more popular
In a statement, MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said the 20-Trip Ticket was meant as a “promotional fare to encourage post-pandemic ridership recovery.” In another attempt to lure back ridership, which was around 40% of pre-pandemic levels in early 2021, the railroad discounted the cost of monthly passes by 10% at the same time it introduced the 20-Trip Ticket.
After compiling data on ticket sales for more than a year, Donovan said the LIRR came to the conclusion that customers, “by a wide margin,” preferred the discounted monthly ticket over the 20-Trip Ticket. The LIRR sells about 41,000 monthly commuter passes each month, Donovan said.
In July, the LIRR averaged about 220,000 riders on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and about 200,000 on Mondays and Fridays, according to data published by the railroad.
Donovan noted that because of the discount, even after the fare increases, monthly ticket prices “will still be less expensive than at any time in the past eight years.”
With LIRR weekday ridership returning to about 70% of pre-pandemic levels, MTA officials in a statement said 20-Trip Tickets were being only “modestly used.” In addition, the agency said it is looking to simplify its fare structure — a goal aimed in part to reduce instances of fares being collected incorrectly.
But several riders said the decision overlooks the fact that hybrid work schedules remain the norm for many major employers. According to real estate technology firm Kastle Systems, weekly office occupancy rates in Manhattan remain at around 48% of pre-COVID levels.
Other commuter rail systems have kept discount programs that started during the pandemic to cater to hybrid work schedules, including NJ Transit’s FLEXPASS, which also offers 20 peak trips at a 20% discount.
Greenlawn commuter Andrew Skibins said he’s still only going into the office two or three days a week, so a 20-Trip Ticket lasts him about a month. Buying a monthly pass doesn’t make sense, he said, because “half the month, I’m not there.”
“Honestly, I thought the 20-Trip was one of the best things that they did. And to eliminate it, I think is very short-sighted,” said Skibins, 58, who believes the MTA is trying to force the return of a five-day commuting week. “If they want to do that, great. But employers aren’t doing that.”
Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, pushed for months during the pandemic for the railroad to create the 20-Trip Ticket, and called it a disappointing “step backward” to get rid of it. He noted that weekday ridership remains lighter on Mondays and Fridays than during the middle of the week, indicating that “people are still doing the hybrid thing.”
“This ticket, when we instated it, was a move with the times. Now all of a sudden we’re backing off,” said Bringmann, a non-voting member of the MTA Board who tried to convince the railroad to keep the ticket.
“I gave it my shot, and the response that I got from the railroad and from the MTA was, ‘We didn’t get a lot of complaints about it,’ ” Bringmann said. “But they really didn’t make a big deal about the fact that they were eliminating it. Now, everybody is all up in arms.”