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September 07, 2009

The State Budget and Rail Fares

Writing a state budget this year has been like making sausage: you don’t want to watch the process, but you hope the outcome is tasty. Alas, this year’s budget is hard to digest.

As I wrote last June, lawmakers’ summer-long deliberations on a new budget would solely determine our fares as commuters on Metro-North. Back then, Governor M. Jodi Rell proposed a 10 percent fare hike for the trains (and 40 percent for bus riders!).

But she quickly canceled mandated public hearings and said she’ll await the outcome of lawmakers’ work. She laid the gun on the table. Lawmakers may just pull the trigger. Each will blame the other if we take a bullet.

On Aug. 31, at literally the 11th hour as the final touches were being placed on a new budget, legislators pulled a fast one: a pork-filled amendment providing money to a number of projects by reducing the state’s Special Transportation Fund which pays the deficit in operating costs for mass transit.

Democrats claimed the maneuvers were just accounting adjustments and all would work out favorably in the final “reconciliations” of the budget on Sept. 23. There will not be, they hoped, any fare hike.

But one document I received from those deliberations--“the smoking gun”--made specific reference to the funds transfer as being equivalent to “a 10 percent fare increase on Metro-North effective Oct. 1, 2009.” Reading that, I got to worrying.

First, it would be impossible (if not illegal) to raise fares so quickly. The law requires notification of at least 60 days, consent of the MTA Board and public hearings.

Second, any fare increase on Metro-North should really be seen for what it is: a tax on helpless commuters with little choice in their choice of how to get to work.

As for the public hearings, well, they’re really moot if the fare hike is already in the budget. Asking for riders’ input on what’s, by then, a done deal is a tepid PR effort. Nothing that gets said at such hearings can change the inevitable.

Worse yet, hearings scheduled when Rell first proposed this fare hike were set for places and times that guaranteed poor attendance by riders: Stamford’s hearings were to be at noon and 6 p.m., times when Metro-North riders were at work or on the train.

Rell is correct in pointing out that our Special Transportation Fund is running out of money to subsidize mass transit. This is the bitter fruit of lawmakers’ short-sighted decision in 1997 to cut the state’s gas tax by 14 cents per gallon. But it is wrong to now ask commuters, who already pay the highest rail fares in the United States, to pony up even more money.

We may dodge a bullet (if lawmakers kill this 10 percent fare hike), but the gun is still pointed at our head. We’ve got to replenish the Special Transportation Fund without discouraging use of mass transit by constantly raising fares.

Meantime, Metro-North has adopted a “don’t ask / don’t tell” policy in its customer relations. The railroad decided to cancel this year’s annual customer satisfaction survey as its parent agency, the MTA, aligns that questionnaire with similar surveys done on the Long Island Rail Road, buses and subways.

It couldn’t possibly be that Metro-North didn’t want a bad report card, could it? After steep fare hikes in New York State in June, overcrowded trains with little air conditioning this summer, and then the news that Connecticut’s new M8 rail cars would be months late, Metro-North must have known that this year’s survey would give them low marks.

Like a failing student facing final exams, I guess it’s sometimes easier to drop a course than face a bad report card.


Webmaster said...

Customer's satisfaction is very important from my point of view. Steep increase in budget just annoyed all, it must be gradual increase so that customers can cope up with.

Delly News Blog said...
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