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The coronavirus crisis is spurring a renewed push to give riders discounted fares to ride now little-used MTA commuter trains within city limits.
The long-running campaign to expand the “Atlantic Ticket” from 10 Long Island Rail Road stations in Brooklyn and Southeast Queens has taken on added urgency, as the MTA faces the prospect of riders who may be reluctant to eventually return to the subways — and who want more room in the age of social distancing.
In a letter to MTA Chairman Patrick Foye obtained by THE CITY, mass transit advocates and elected officials said extending the discounted-fare program to other LIRR stations and eventually to Metro-North stops in The Bronx could be a “bold and needed response” to a pandemic that has “ravaged our community and punctured the MTA’s budget.”
“There’s an element of public health and safety that we should not pass up,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy organization. “People can spread out more and keep a safe distance on those trains.”
The letter to Foye asks the MTA to consider the “immediate implementation” for essential workers using the commuter railroad during the pandemic.
“We owe them not only our gratitude, but active assistance so they may continue to provide the services so desperately needed during this time,” the letter reads.
“It only makes sense to give back to those who, quote-unquote, need it because they need to get to their jobs to benefit the larger community,” said Patrick Evans, 56, of Springfield Gardens, Queens.
As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, ridership on the LIRR has plunged 95% from where it was a year earlier, according to the MTA. Subway ridership has taken a similar freefall.
“The economic and public health benefits of a citywide Atlantic Ticket-style program are numerous and cannot be ignored,” the letter reads.
All three of Brooklyn’s LIRR stations — Nostrand Avenue, East New York and Atlantic Terminal — are part of the pilot program. In Queens, the Atlantic Ticket applies to the Jamaica, Hollis, Queens Village, Locust Manor, St. Albans, Laurelton and Rosedale stations.
“Seeing as so many of our frontline workers do live in Queens and Brooklyn, why not?” asked Candace Prince-Modeste, 37, a self-employed resident of Springfield Gardens.
‘Heroic Work,’ But…
Meredith Daniels, an MTA spokesperson, said the agency recognized the “heroic work being performed by essential workers through this emergency,” but said post-pandemic plans are in flux.
“We are still navigating what our ridership will look like going forward and continue to study the numbers and financial impact before we consider any modifications,” she said.
According to figures obtained by THE CITY, more than 2.6 million riders have bought discounted Atlantic Ticket trips since the program launched in June 2018, generating more than $12 million in revenue for the MTA.
The onset of the pandemic, coupled with the MTA’s financial challenges make giving commuters other options “more relevant and necessary now,” according to Councilmember I. Daneek Miller (D-Queens).
“It is the responsibility of a public authority to provide these services, and more importantly, provide them in a more efficient and equitable way,” Miller said.
In March, when New York saw its first confirmed case of coronavirus, there were more than 60,000 purchases of the $5 Atlantic Ticket, records show, with most of the tickets sold for rides between Jamaica, Queens, and Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn. That was a 34% decrease from February.
The MTA expects to see an even more pronounced drop-off for April when last month’s numbers are tallied.
Jaqi Cohen, of the Straphangers Campaign, said the MTA has an opportunity to try something new as the city emerges from the crisis.
“Riders are looking for what the plan is going to be,” she said. “Everybody is very nervous about what the city will look like after reopening and what it means for transit.”
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