MTA considering cutting LIRR service in half, eliminating one or more branches

Originally published in Newsday on August 26, 2020.

The MTA is considering cutting LIRR service in half — including eliminating one or more branches — to help close a $12 billion budget deficit brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said Wednesday.

At a special meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board, officials outlined the measures they say they’ll be forced to take without a federal bailout, such as raising fares by 10% by 2023, eliminating 850 LIRR jobs, and delaying the opening of a second Manhattan railroad terminal as part of East Side Access.

The LIRR would “eliminate service on one or more” branches, according to the plan. While declining to speculate on which lines might get cut, MTA chairman Patrick Foye said it would be “not unreasonable” to target branches with the lowest ridership, like West Hempstead, Oyster Bay and Greenport. High-ridership branches would see service frequencies reduced to every 60 minutes. Others would go to every 120.

Lawrence Schwartz, who heads the MTA Board's finance committee, said the proposed measures combined would only save the authority about $5 billion — less than half of what it needs to balance its books through next year.

Foye said, without federal intervention, the MTA Board likely will act on its proposed actions by November to have them in place in 2021.

MTA Board member Kevin Law, who represents Suffolk County, called the potential LIRR cuts, which would save the MTA about $160 million, "sobering."

“We’re about to see the worst train wreck in the system’s history,” Law said. “The potential cuts to the Long Island Rail Road are terrifying.”

Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR’s largest union, said the proposed service cuts and layoffs would jeopardize rider safety, in part because the ensuing crowding would make it impossible to keep a safe social distance.

“They might as well shut down, if that’s the case,” said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, who vowed his union would not “sit back and allow the MTA or anybody else to attack our members and threaten layoffs, while they have so much fat up top.”

The MTA cautioned that its funding crisis also could result in 40% reductions in New York City subway and bus service. The MTA’s bridges and tunnels also could eliminate resident toll discounts, and implement “peak period pricing.”

The “draconian” measures, as Foye has called them, aim to address a $12 billion shortfall through 2021, which includes both a large drop in operating revenue because of the pandemic, and the federal government’s delay in approving a congestion pricing plan that MTA officials said they were counting on to generate an extra $1 billion.

“Continued federal indifference and inertia on a COVID-19 relief bill will exact a horrific toll on the MTA, our heroic workforce, and millions of hardworking New Yorkers,” Foye said. “We are acutely aware of the human toll that the mere discussion of these horrific actions will cause … but if the Senate doesn’t act, and we don’t receive $12 billion in additional federal funding, we will have no choice.”

The HEROES Act passed on May 15 by the U.S. House includes an estimated $3.84 billion for the MTA for operating expenses, payments to furloughed workers, worker protections and compensation for lost revenue, according to Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Rye), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. A proposal by the Senate Republican majority did not include funding for transit agencies.

The MTA received about $3.9 billion in federal aid from a stimulus package passed in March, but went through the money by July. Angelo Roefaro, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), said Schumer is fighting to "overcome [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell’s and President [Donald] Trump’s opposition and anti-New York bias" as he did with the first relief bill.  

Even while supporting a federal bailout, some MTA Board members said the agency should be more self-sufficient, and consider pushing for the creation of a state gas tax to help fund the MTA.

"I think that we've got to do something just in case Washington doesn't hear our call," said MTA Board member David Mack, who represents Nassau County.

Foye said that while he would welcome any new revenue stream, he believes the federal government is better equipped financially than the state to help.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the MTA’s crisis cannot be solved without federal aid, even “if you increased taxes to the highest level in the country, to the highest levels ever established.”

Other board members questioned the rationale behind the MTA's proposed cost-cutting measures, a mix Andrew Albert said could result in the MTA losing more riders.

“Who would buy a men’s suit if the price was raised considerably, but you only got half the suit?” said Albert, the transit riders’ representative on the board. “I don’t think people would buy it … which is why service cuts have to be the very last thing we should look at.”

The agency outlined less-severe steps it will take immediately to shrink its budget, including cutting overtime by $215 million through 2021, reducing consultant costs by $115 million by 2021, using funding from a fund dedicated to its Capital Program to cover some operating costs, and eliminating the use of some operating revenues to help defray long-term capital investments.

Those short-term measures are expected to save about $1.2 billion annually for the next two years.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has led efforts in Albany for MTA reform, agreed that "Washington is asleep at the wheel."

"The New York economy and environment depend on a solvent, working public transit option," Kaminsky said. "The consequences are dire if this warning is not heeded."

With Tom Brune

The MTA’s contingency plan

Without a $12 billion federal bailout, the MTA said it will be forced to take “draconian” measures, including:

  • Eliminate one or more LIRR branches, and reduce service on other branches to hourly or every two hours in order to eliminate 850 jobs.
  • Close additional ticket windows to eliminate another 60 jobs.
  • Delay the start of East Side Access service to Grand Central Terminal.
  • Defer plans to electrify the Central Branch connecting the Babylon and Main lines.
  • Raise fares and tolls by 5% next year and in 2023.
  • Reduce subway and bus service by 40%.
  • Enact peak period toll pricing on bridges and tunnels.