Convinced that many Long Island Rail Road commuters are not returning to the office as quickly as expected, MTA officials are counting on weekend passengers to help offset low revenue forecasts.
Ridership across the Metropolitan Transportation Authority remains below expectations more than two years into COVID-19, with the LIRR only recently, on May 17, reaching pandemic weekday ridership of 182,700 passengers. That’s about 63% of what the railway carried on the same day in 2019.
The ridership numbers translate to lower-than-expected revenue for the MTA, which before the pandemic relied on fares and tolls for about half of its revenue. With the help of approximately $15 billion in federal COVID-19 stimulus assistance, the MTA expects to be able to balance its budget within the next three years. But with no new source of revenue, the agency predicts a $2 billion shortfall in 2026 that could be made up by rate hikes and service cuts.
MTA ridership projections prepared by a consultant in 2020 projected that 75% of riders would be back by now, and that ridership could reach 90% of pre-COVID-19 levels by 2024. The MTA plans to release an updated ridership forecast in July.
“The number one issue here is the pace and frequency of returning to work,” MTA Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said at an April 27 MTA board meeting. “There is no mystery here. All we’re seeing is private sector employers… asking people to come back to work at a slower pace than expected by all sorts of industries and prognosticators.
As proof that “New Yorkers are ready to use public transportation,” Lieber pointed to the MTA’s weekend ridership numbers, which have remained relatively high throughout the pandemic. LIRR ridership on Sunday reached 90% of pre-COVID-19 levels.
This is a continuation of a trend that began long before the pandemic, as weekend ridership has steadily increased for years, while “switching” ridership – journeys made to and from from New York during weekday rush hours – remained virtually flat. Some passengers said high gas prices had made the LIRR more attractive for weekend trips and other leisure trips.
Syosset resident Cord Lehman, 25, said he’s long preferred taking the train to going to Manhattan or Islanders games at UBS Arena in Elmont. These days, he says he’s even more likely to leave his car in his driveway.
“If you have three games in a week, it can add up,” Lehman said. “Think over $30 [in gas and parking] for a $6.50 round trip train ticket – if they even check the train tickets.
While waiting for his afternoon train at LIRR Hicksville station to go to school, Pravhnoor Sethi said he noticed a big increase in off-peak passenger numbers in recent months and thinks gas prices – close to $5 on average for a gallon of regular unleaded – have something to do with it.
“People need to save money. If you are traveling in town, it is not reasonable to take a car,” said Sethi, 22. “First, [there’s] city parking problems. And, second, gas prices are too high for me. A single trip there is probably going to cost me 30 or 40 dollars.
“Discretionary travel” a positive
Acting LIRR President Catherine Rinaldi said earlier this year that the MTA had investigated whether record gas prices might encourage some inactive riders to return to the system, but found that “prices for gasoline weren’t really a factor”.
Still, Rinaldi thinks “not having to pay at the pump is one of the many reasons train travel is a very, very attractive alternative” – especially for weekend travelers.
“Discretionary travel has been kind of the unexpected bright spot of this pandemic. We didn’t expect him to come back as strong as he did. And he came back early, and he was really overperforming throughout the pandemic,” Rinaldi said in an interview.
Long Islanders will be further deterred from driving in the city when the MTA passes its congestion pricing plan, which could begin in 2023. The plan will charge motorists new tolls — up to $23 — for driving in the south of 60th street in Manhattan.
With discretionary travelers returning at a faster rate than commuters, MTA officials said they are looking for ways to better serve changing ridership. On some branches of the LIRR, several trains are scheduled at less than an hour on weekdays, but two hours apart on Saturdays and Sundays.
Speaking at a meeting of A Better New York — a business group — Lieber said the MTA needs to “adjust the service model … to meet new travel patterns,” including weekends.
“With fewer of today’s commuters coming into the office five days a week, we’re going to have to attract new customers and encourage greater transit use among existing customers,” he said. “I think attracting new riders hasn’t always been the MTA’s top priority. This has changed.
Rinaldi agreed that the LIRR should be “forward-thinking when it comes to increasing discretionary travel opportunities”.
Disadvantages of Tuning Service
While encouraging stronger weekend and off-peak service, Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens’ Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council, said adjusting service to meet demand could present certain drawbacks.
“Is this a code to cut off service at peak times? Because it’s not something we support. Commuters should always be the bread and butter of the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North,” said Daglian, whose group includes the LIRR Commuter Council.
Although ridership has rebounded faster on weekends than on weekdays, the LIRR still carries about twice as many passengers on any given weekday as it does on a Saturday or Sunday. And while boosting weekend service could encourage more people to take trains than drive, cutting weekday service could have the opposite effect, Daglian said.
“People don’t want to travel on crowded trains. They want to be comfortable. They want to make sure their train arrives,” she added. “If you reduce service, you are not making it easier to use public transit to get to work. So they will drive.
Rinaldi agreed that cutting trains “is not going to create a service that people will want to return to”. She said the railway is focused on attracting old and new riders, including through new fare types that reflect changing ridership patterns.
Two months after the MTA rolled out a 20-ride ticket targeting part-time commuters, Rinaldi said 1.1 million rides had been taken with the new ticket.
As another sign of the changing face of daily commutes, Rinaldi said the LIRR experiences its highest ridership on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – noting that many riders are working from home on Mondays and Fridays.