Adi Talwar

Iris De La Cruz, 23, says taking the Metro North from her home in Morris Heights to her job near Grand Central station cuts her commute time in half compared to taking the bus and subway, but she still only uses the line ‘once in a blue moon’ because it’s too expensive.

On June 6, the MTA will begin offering a discounted Long Island Railroad ticket for riders traveling between Atlantic Terminal and nine other LIRR stations in Brooklyn and Queens, where access to the subway is limited.

Dubbed the “Atlantic Ticket,” it’ll serve as a field study lasting six to 12 months to see if the reduced fare has an impact on ridership, according to the MTA. It’s inspired by an earlier proposal from the New York City Transit Riders Council called “the Freedom Ticket,” and is similar to the MTA’s existing CityTicket, which allows riders within the boundaries of New York City to take the LIRR and Metro North lines on the weekends for a discounted one-way fare of $4.25.

Under the initiative, a one-way ride between Atlantic Terminal and the nine included LIRR stations will cost $5, a discount compared to the current fare of $10.25 during peak and $7.50 during off-peak hours.

And while the Atlantic Ticket initiative has received some criticism — several elected officials blasted the proposal in March for dropping an earlier provision which would’ve also offered the discounted LIRR fare to those heading directly to Penn Station — some transit experts see it as a potential model for how the MTA can utilize the city’s commuter rail lines to serve more than just suburban riders.

“It’s a first step in hopefully greater use of the commuter railroad in the city,” said Richard E. Barone, vice president for transportation at the Regional Plan Association, one of several groups that’s advocated for years for a more strategic use of the city’s commuter lines.

Advocates say the Atlantic Ticket could help fill seats on LIRR trains that have the capacity for more riders, and potentially reduce overcrowding on subway lines in southeast Queens. More importantly, it will shorten commutes for residents in these targeted neighborhoods, where the LIRR offers a faster ride than New York City Transit subways and buses — but at a much steeper cost.

“Many of our customers from eastern and southeastern Queens live near enough to the LIRR to use it regularly, but because of our existing fare structure they’ve historically chosen to commute using a combination of MTA subways and buses,” MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said in a statement announcing the Atlantic Ticket last week.

It’s this existing fare structure that leaves many New York City residents who live in areas served by LIRR and Metro North lines unlikely to use the systems. Fares are set up in a way that charges riders traveling shorter distances within city limits more per mile than those coming from further off in the suburbs—though advocates have been pushing for years to get commuter rail fares reduced in parts of the city poorly served by the subway.

Commuter rail fares are “just way too expensive” for city riders

Iris De La Cruz, a 23-year-old from the Morris Heights neighborhood of the Bronx, has two options when it comes to traveling to and from her job in Manhattan: a short walk and a 20-minute ride on the Metro North into Grand Central Terminal, or an hour-long commute via the 4 Train, which includes a 15-minute walk to the nearest subway station.

When she first started her current job, she took the Metro North frequently, but had to cut back because the cost of fares — $9.25 for a one-way peak ticket or $6.75 for a one-way off peak — was too expensive.

“Financially, it was becoming too detrimental,” she said, saying she now only takes the Metro North “once in a blue,” opting instead for the longer walk and subway ride that costs her just $2.75 each way. “You tell yourself, is it worth it? Because it’s literally double the time.”

De La Cruz thought about purchasing a monthly Metro North pass, but the $208 cost was still “just way too expensive” for her budget.

“I just feel like it’s not fair because it’s kind of like exclusive to only a certain amount of people,” she added. “Not everyone can afford this kind of investment every single day to commute to work.”

A look at fares on the Metro North and LIRR show that city riders are charged more-per-mile than customers traveling longer distances to and from the suburbs. The 8.10-mile trip from the Morris Heights Metro North station to Grand Central Terminal costs $9.25 one-way during peak hours, or about $1.14 a mile. The 59-mile ride from the Beacon station on the same line to GCT costs $22 one-way peak, or about 37 cents a mile.

A one-way peak ticket on the New Haven line from the Pelham station in the Bronx to GCT costs $10.75 for the 15.1 mile journey, or 71 cents a mile. A ride during the same time of day from Larchmont to GCT costs $12.25 for the 18.7 mile commute, or about 66 cents per mile, while the fare for the 50.5 mile-peak ride from Fairfield, Conn., to GCT is $18, or 35 cents a mile.

On the LIRR, the 13.2-mile ride from Queens Village — one of the nine stations where riders will be eligible for the Atlantic Ticket — to Penn Station costs $10.25 one way during peak times, coming to about 78 cents a mile. The fare for the 29.1 mile trip between Syosset and Penn Station costs $13.50, or 46 cents per mile, while a 53.1 mile peak ride from Stony Brook to Penn runs $19, or 36 cents a mile.

In an email, MTA Spokesman Aaron Donovan explained that the commuter rail fares are “set up much like a taxi meter,” meaning it includes a fixed charge for every trip, plus an additional charge that will depend on the distance of the ride.

“So for the shorter trips that have a lower distance traveled, the fixed-cost takes up a larger share of the total,” he said.

“The fixed portion of the fare recognizes that travelers derive a certain value from getting from Point A to Point B, regardless of how far [they’re] traveling, and for the railroads, a large portion of our costs are fixed regardless of how far the trains travel (for example the length of the trains, the crews, etc.),” Donovan continued.

“The variable portion of the fare recognizes that a portion of our costs are higher for longer trips (wear-and-tear on equipment, maintenance of greater lengths of track, greater fuel usage, etc.).”

The end result, however, are fares that are cost prohibitive for many city riders.

Monica Murray, who lives in an apartment building just a short walk from the Morris Heights’ Metro North station, says she frequently takes the commuter line to get into Manhattan, ponying up the $4.50 senior fare each way because it’s closer, faster and the station has an elevator, which her local subway station lacks.

While Murray can afford the fares, many of her neighbors can’t, and are forced to take the cheaper but less convenient subway, she said.

“If you don’t have the $4 for this, that’s how you’ve got to go,” she said. “A lot of people who live in my building don’t know that this [ Metro North stop] exists.”

William Henderson is executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, which has been advocating for reduced commuter rail fares in transit-starved parts of the city since the early 2000s.

“To use capacity that’s not being used to allow people to travel within the city,” he explained.

Still, there are practical reasons the MTA’s fares are structured the way they are, he says—including different costs involved in running Metro North and LIRR trains than subway trains. Commuter lines also offer better service on some fronts than the subway, including more comfortable seating and generally less crowded rides.

“It’s a different kind of service,” he said.

However, better utilizing the portions of the LIRR and Metro North that run through the five boroughs could transform commutes for riders in areas poorly served by New York City Transit, and could potentially lessen the strain on the city’s subway and bus network.

“Just using the system we have today and opening it up for New Yorkers would improve the commutes pretty substantially,” Barone explained. “The first step is actually agreeing that we can use the system for more than just people coming from outside, [from] the suburbs.”

‘An okay first step’

The MTA has yet to determine if Atlantic Ticket will be permanent, or if the model will expand to offer cheaper fares on other parts of the commuter rail network — a decision that’ll depend on how the ticket is used by riders over the next several months.

Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy for TransitCenter, feels the program could have been more expansive: The reduced fare should also cover travel to and from Penn Station, and a similar deal should be offered to riders who use the city’s Metro North stations, he said.

(In its press release, the MTA said the reduced fare field study was specifically aimed at travel to and from Atlantic Terminal because that portion of the LIRR system “has more seating capacity on existing trains than it does on trains to Penn Station.”)

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“It’s an okay first step in terms of what the commuter network could actually do for the city. It’s kind of like a molecule in the drop of a bucket,” Orcutt said of the Atlantic Ticket.

He described the MTA as having a “sort of Berlin Wall between the commuter rail and the transit system.”

“I think that what’s missing in the equation is the city of New York and its legions of politicians stepping up to demand an agenda” that would better serve city riders, he said.

The New York City Transit Riders Council, one of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA’s member organizations, sees other city neighborhoods it thinks would greatly benefit from an offer like the Atlantic Ticket.

In its 2015 “Freedom Ticket” report, the group advocated for the rollout of a similar proposal in Morris Heights and Riverdale, which are “isolated from the subway system” but have Metro North stations, as well as Brooklyn’s East New York.

Henderson, director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, says the four new Metro North stations being planned for the Bronx would also be “key places where a freedom ticket product would be useful.”

“We want to take care of the people who just don’t have a good way to get place to place in the city,” he said.

To make use of the commuter rail networks in a way that would really benefit city riders, the MTA would have to do more than just slash fares, experts say. There are capacity issues to consider, especially with the LIRR, according to Henderson.

“They’ve got the East River tunnels; they’ve got a limited number of trains they can get through to there,” he said. “Once they get through the tunnel, they’ve got a limited number of trains they can get into Penn Station.”

The schedules on Metro North and LIRR lines would also need to be reconfigured, as some city stations don’t see trains frequently enough to be a viable option for residents, said Barone of the Regional Plan Association.

“You would need to make some additional investments over time,” he said.

With the New York City Transit system in crisis and the number of residents in the five boroughs at an all-time high, now is the time for the MTA to reconsider how it best should use its commuter lines, and the Atlantic Ticket is that first step, according to Barone.

“That old policy that we had in the past needs to be rethought, and luckily, it is,” he said.