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By Joan Gralla
NEW YORK, Nov 20 (Reuters) - New York City’s subway riders and commuters will have to pay higher fares while enduring longer waits for trains that will be more crowded and cleaned less often, all measures needed to close a yawning deficit, state transit agency officials said on Thursday.
Drivers will also feel the pain as bridge and tunnel tolls, along with subway and bus fares, will all be increased enough to raise the agency’s revenues by 23 percent, starting in June next year. And about 2,700 agency employees would be laid off at all of the authority’s arms.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the biggest U.S. mass transit agency, at a board meeting proposed reductions in cleaning and train trips, closing subway token booths and ticket-collecting stations on the commuter rail roads, and reducing cash collection of tolls in slow periods. The cuts, which would start in the spring, included slashing paratransit services, which aid the disabled, and Long Island’s buses, mainly used by people who cannot afford cars.
“The customer will notice crowding and see standees on both weekdays and weekends ... and increased travel time,” Executive Director Lee Sander said, describing the impact on one suburban rail road. Calling the plan “distasteful” and “extremely painful,” he stressed the agency’s role as an economic engine, noting its recovery from a downward spiral in the 1970s spurred the region’s “renaissance.”
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority must close a $1.2 billion deficit next year, which was caused by sliding real estate tax collections and a massive bond sale several years ago that over time has proved increasingly costly.
Fare hikes might add 50 cents to the now $2 cost of a one-way subway trip.
BALANCE THE BUDGET - OR ‘GO TO JAIL’
H. Dale Hemmerdinger, the MTA chairman, noted that the agency only has two methods to balance its books, as it must by law: raising fares and tolls or cutting service.
“If we can’t, we can all go to jail,” he told the board.
Fares and tolls were last raised in March.
In July, the MTA predicted it would need to boost revenue by only 8 percent — one-third of the amount now planned.
On Thursday, a 5 percent hike was proposed for January 2011.
New York City and New York state must close multibillion-dollar deficits spawned by Wall Street’s collapse. And so far, neither has shown any inclination to bail out the mass transit agency though its ridership has soared to 60-year highs.
There are a few other ways the agency could stave off its harsh remedies. A commission set up by Democratic Gov. David Paterson on Dec. 5 will issue recommendations that may include taxes or tolls on city-owned East River bridges that now are free. Or Congress could include more money for mass transit in a second economic stimulus package.
“Federal dollars, large amounts, should be invested in serious infrastructure projects to improve mass transit around the country,” Hemmerdinger said.
Though the agency dealt only with its operating budget on Thursday, its capital plan also has a multibillion-dollar deficit.
The Straphangers Campaign, nonprofit transit advocates, urged slowing down construction of Manhattan’s new Second Avenue subway for the East Side, which has just one over-crowded line.
Instead, rapid bus service should be added on First and Second Avenues next year, a much less costly and quicker solution, the Straphangers said.
Concluding the meeting by calling it “this board’s cry for help,” Hemmerdinger noted:
“We’ve postponed everything we can until June to allow the (state) Legislature to come back and give us a hand.”
But by March, the MTA must know whether it will have to solve its problems on its own. (Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Jan Paschal) (Reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by James Dalgleish)