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December 27, 2009

Saving Money on Metro-North Train Tickets

UPDATE:  For an update on this column with new pricing and rule info click here.


With the new year we were supposed to see a 1.25% fare hike to help pay for the new M8 cars (the first of which arrived just before Christmas). But, true to her word, Governor Rell has stalled that fare hike until mid-year, closer to the time we may actually be riding in those new railcars which must first undergo months of testing.

But 2010 is bringing more closings of ticket windows at stations as Metro-North tries to save money and encourage greater use of ticket machines. Human ticket vendors are anachronistic. If your station still has one, it probably won’t by next year.

All of which got me thinking: do Metro-North riders know the cheapest way to buy tickets? If not, read on! For demonstration purposes, let’s say you want to go from Darien to Grand Central. You can find the fare charts for your travel by clicking here (or at www.mta.info)

The most expensive way to ride Metro-North is buying a ticket on the train. Not only do you pay the fare, but a penalty of $5.75 to $6.50 per ticket (in the Darien example, totaling $18 one way). That’s not a mistake you’ll make more than once.

Tickets bought from machines or ticket agents are at the regular fare, peak ($12.25) or off-peak ($9.25). No discounts.

Roundtrip tickets offer convenience, but no discount. Seniors and the disabled get a 50% discount off the peak fare ($6.00) but cannot ride in morning rush-hour. Seniors also do not have to pay the on-board ticket purchase penalty.

Traveling with kids is cheap. Up to four kids (5 – 11 years old) can travel for $1 apiece with an adult, but again, not in the morning rush-hour.

Ten-trip tickets (peak) are convenient, good for one year, but offer no discount (at $122.50). Ten-trip tickets (off-peak) are also good for one year, but offer a 15% discount ($78.75). Either kind of ten-trip ticket can be used by more than the purchaser, even if multiple people are traveling together.

Weekly tickets are a true bargain ($84), offering unlimited rides Saturday through Friday, peak or off-peak. But they can only be used by one person. Assuming five rush-hour roundtrips in a week, the weekly ticket offers a 30% discount over one-way peak tickets.

Monthly tickets are an even better deal ($264). Again, assuming a typical Monday thru Friday commuter taking rush-hour trains, the monthly ticket “commutes” their fare by an almost 50% discount. (This, by the way, is how the term “commuter” came into being. Look it up!)

If you can get your employer to participate, such programs as TransitCheck can save you even more money by allowing you to spend up to $230 per month in pre-tax money for use of mass transit. This can save you $1000 a year in taxes depending on your tax bracket.

But what’s the cheapest way to buy Metro-North tickets… one-ways, roundtrips, ten-trips, weekly and monthlies? Online! MTA’s “WebTicket” gives you an additional 5% discount, so a one-way ticket from Darien to NYC is only $11.64 (vs $12.50), and a ten-trip off-peak is $74.81 (vs $78.75).

Postage is free and the tickets arrive within a couple of days after placing your online order in a very non-descript, white envelope, so watch carefully. Now, just why it’s cheaper to buy a ticket online than in-person, I do not know. But with almost everyone having access to the internet (and assuming they have a credit card), this is the best bargain in the increasingly costly game of saving money on train tickets.

(PS: Amtrak fares vary widely by day and time of travel. There’s no discount for buying tickets online but they do offer ten-trip tickets and monthly tickets at a discount, but with a lot of restrictions).

For the full story on Metro-North ticket types and potential discounts, click here. Happy traveling!

December 14, 2009

Some Progress on Rail Station Parking

Finally some good news: we’re making a little progress on getting more parking at our rail stations. The CDOT Rail Station Parking Taskforce, created with great fanfare by Governor Rell in February, is starting to reach consensus on some solutions to our parking problems. An interim report is due this month, but it looks like the group will continue its mission of increasing access to our trains into the new year.

Given this year’s five percent decline in rail ridership caused by the recession, it hasn’t been too bad when it came to finding parking or seats on the train. But with the new M8 cars due to come online in 2010 (admittedly, a year behind schedule), now’s the time to plan for an expected increase in rail ridership. Heck, that’s something we should have done a decade back.

The recession also seems to be squeezing out some parking permit “hoarders”… the folks who waited years for their permits, don’t use them often but don’t want to give them up. This year, a lot of those hoarders took a pass on renewals. And that means new permits can be issued and some names can come off the waiting lists.
Towns have also done a better job of “scrubbing” those lists, removing the names of the dead, those who’ve moved away or got permits elsewhere.

One experiment that didn’t work was Darien’s plan to offer discounted parking permits for more distant lots. Priced at $200 vs the usual $315, almost nobody was interested. But that’s Darien.

Other ideas to increase parking that came from the Taskforce include…

1) Building decked parking structures at some stations. Of course, there’s no money and dubious interest from the towns.

2) Offering a centralized website showing real waiting list times in each community.

3) Developing a legal secondary market for parking permit “rentals” or sell-backs to issuing towns.

4) More bike and moped racks at all stations.

5) Offering incentives for car-poolers: better spaces, lower rates.

6) Improving pedestrian access to stations, such as sidewalks.

7) Offering a “guaranteed ride home” from stations for those dropped off.

8) Providing ZipCars (hourly car rentals) at key stations.

9) Improving security in station parking lots.

10) Providing van-pools from stations to key employers.

Meantime in Stamford, the gridlock continues. Plans to replace the existing station garage have not moved forward, despite a waiting list of hundreds of would-be parkers.

CDOT’s initial attempts to find a private developer who would turn the garage into an office building / condo palace turned up little interest. So now the agency is pumping money into temporary repairs to the crumbling structure.

The city of Stamford would have some say over use of the parking garage site for anything other than just parking, so they commissioned their own study of the station and surrounding roads. Of course, their recommendations don’t have to be followed by CDOT, which owns the garage and the station and didn’t even participate in the consultant’s work.

Private developers seem ready to build parking within walking distance of the Stamford station, but at what cost to users? It already costs $70 per month to park at the state-owned lot adjacent to the station, so what might the market rate for parking be at a private lot? And will commuters really want to walk several blocks to the station having been spoiled for decades with a state-owned lot with a sheltered walkway right into the waiting room?