View Full Version : Commuter Fare Increases

January 20th, 2005, 09:16 AM
January 20, 2005

Fare Increases Adding Up to a Grumpy Ride to Work


Long Island Rail Road passengers in Hicksville, on a train bound for Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. Riders face a fare increase of 5 percent.

Alan Greenspan and other inflation-fighters may be soldiering on, but for most commuters in the New York area, the latest battle has already been lost.

All around the region, the cost of getting to work is jumping, and the increases are easily outpacing gains in wages, according to figures compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. From mid-2003 through the middle of last year, average weekly wages in the region rose 3.2 percent, while transportation costs rose 5.7 percent. And that was before the latest round of increases.

Connecticut residents felt the first bite of the year when their train fares rose 5.5 percent on Jan. 1. Suburban commuters in New York are facing a 5 percent fare increase two years after a 25 percent increase, as well as a rise in parking fees. Many will also pay more to ride the subway, starting Feb. 27, when the price of unlimited monthly MetroCards will go up 8.6 percent.

New Jersey residents are not likely to be spared. Yesterday, New Jersey Transit, which operates trains and buses in the state, proposed a fare increase that would take effect in midsummer and that would raise ticket prices an average of almost 15 percent. Just three years ago, it raised fares about 10 percent.

George D. Warrington, the agency's executive director, said it was playing catch-up after going from 1990 until 2002 without raising prices. He said the increase was needed to bridge a projected $60.6 million gap in the operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

But that logic is unlikely to soften the blow for the system's current users.

Under the proposal, which must be approved by the agency's board and by Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, most people commuting into New York would pay about 13 percent more. For example, the price of a monthly train pass from Summit to Hoboken would rise to $174 from $154, while the monthly fare for buses between Perth Amboy and the Port Authority Bus Terminal would go up to $184 from $162.

"No one's getting this kind of pay increase, so these rising transportation costs will far outstrip the growth in wages, particularly for low-income households," said Mark M. Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com, an economic consulting firm in West Chester, Pa.

With the economy on the rebound, economists say they expect employment and pay to rise this year, but not as fast as transit fares.

Tony Chan, an accountant who commutes to Midtown from Manhasset, on Long Island, said he was bracing for what he called a "triple whammy" that will push his commuting cost up by almost 10 percent in March. Mr. Chan, 30, rides the Long Island Rail Road to Pennsylvania Station, then catches a subway. The prices of both the monthly train pass and the MetroCard are going up, and the discount he receives for buying them together is shrinking. In his case, it is a double triple-whammy, because his wife, Alice, also an accountant, has the same commute. Together, they will pay more than $490 a month, up from about $447 now.

"When I add it up, it's a lot; it's close to $6,000 a year," said Mr. Chan, who declined to reveal their income. "I'm pretty fortunate, but I still feel it with everything else going up, like health insurance co-payments."

Rae Rosen, a regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said the overall effect of the fare increases would be muted because the local economy was strong and growing. While the increases are not likely to push many workers or jobs away from New York, there is too much slack in the job market for workers to demand immediate raises to cover their higher monthly expenses, she said.

"On the middle and upper ends, I think you're going to see very little impact," she said. Most families like Mr. Chan's will simply have less disposable income, she said.

Of course, those who drive to work are seeing an even higher increase in transportation costs because of the high cost of gasoline, which has hovered above $1.70 a gallon for months. But if they drive to the train station, they are also paying higher parking fees. Metro-North Railroad is raising fees at some stations along its lines in Westchester and Putnam Counties, starting next month. Irvington residents will pay about $440 a year, up from about $300, for example.

The pending fare increase on Metro-North, which will take effect at the end of February, will be the second in two years, pushing fares more than 30 percent higher than they were in early 2003. The monthly fare from Goldens Bridge, on the Harlem line, for example, will go up to $251 from $239.

But Metro-North officials have pointed out that the railroad has gone more than seven years without an increase.

Indeed, the 1990's were a sort of golden age for suburban commuters in New York and New Jersey. The economic boom that ran for most of the decade drove up incomes and housing values year after year, but transportation costs rarely budged.

Metro-North raised fares just once between January 1990 and May 2003. New Jersey Transit's 10 percent increase in April 2002 was its first since July 1990. Adjusted for inflation, Mr. Warrington said, its fares are lower than ever.

Mr. Zandi said transit agencies in Philadelphia and many other cities were in a similar situation.

"This is a phenomenon that is happening in many parts of the country," Mr. Zandi said. "There are big budget holes at the state and local level, so they're cutting back on subsidies and grants they give to transportation. And this is all happening before wages really start to rise."

Mr. Zandi said that over time, wage increases would accelerate, diluting the impact of these sharp increases in commuting costs.

In New Jersey Transit's case, during the 12 years when it did not raise fares, it papered over its annual operating shortfall by transferring money from its capital budget.

Mr. Warrington has been paring administrative costs at the agency since he arrived in 2002, but the costs of fuel, employee health care and security have risen. The agency has also added light-rail service along the Hudson River and in the Trenton area and has improved rail connections to Penn Station in Midtown.

While raising fares, New Jersey Transit wants to ease commuters' ability to move among the different modes of transportation. Mr. Warrington proposed allowing holders of monthly train passes a free transfer to the light-rail systems or to a bus on one leg of their trips.

The plan received support from Jack Lettiere, New Jersey's transportation commissioner, and two other members of the agency's board, John L. McGoldrick and Patrick W. Parkinson, and all said they would listen to riders at the 13 public hearings scheduled for February.

Mr. Lettiere called it "a good first step," but Kelley Heck, a spokeswoman for Mr. Codey, said yesterday that he thought the proposed increases were "a bit high" and would like to see them reduced in favor of a bigger cut in expenses.

Commuter advocates who spoke at the board's meeting yesterday demanded that the state raise its tax on gasoline to help subsidize mass transit before raising fares again, but workers at Penn Station in Newark expressed resignation.

Crystal Jones, 29, who was on her way to work as a waitress in Manhattan, said, "Public hearings are nice, but commuters know the reality. When Jersey Transit announces a fare increase, it's going to happen no matter what."

John Holl contributed reporting for this article.


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company