The MTA wants to close its budget gap by taking free transit passes away from students, and Mayor Bloomberg thinks retired transit workers should lose them too. But there’s another, less-well-publicized group of New Yorkers who may have to start paying more of the costs of their transportation: people who use the trains on Staten Island.
Until 1997, Staten Island Railway (SIR) trains had a conductor collecting fares, but Metro Cards brought an end to that. Rather than try to restrict access to the stations in the system (or allowing SIR riders to continue paying cash), the conductors were let go and the system became, effectively, free, with the exception of the St. George Terminal stop where the trains meet the (free) Staten Island Ferry. Paid fares dropped $3.4 million that year.
Along with the loss of revenue, Railway Chief Officer John G. Gaul told the Times, came an almost immediate increase in “aberrant youth behavior, in vandalism, in joyriding.” And it was to address that, he said, and not the loss of revenue from riders who were boarding and exiting the train at the last free stop, that the railway started installing a “fare collection pilot project” at Tompkinsville, the next station down the line from the ferry terminal, in 2008.
Fare collection at Tompkinsville started on January 20 of this year. The MTA projects that it will bring in an additional $702,000, which will bump their annual revenue up 15%.
But it’s not about that, according to City Councilman James Odd0. Oddo says he’s “not interested in collecting a fare from hardworking Staten Islanders,” but he’d be willing to live with it if it meant putting conductors back on the trains to discourage crime and graffiti.
Now, the MTA is planning to restore fares throughout the system, using a combination of smart cards, the honor system, inspectors spot checking for fare beaters, and possibly turnstiles on one additional station where the system intersects with Brooklyn buses.
Allen Cappelli, of the MTA Board, told the Advance that while “there are people who clearly enjoy this unintended benefit,” the fare should come back for strictly for safety reasons. Oddo agrees. “[T]here is a direct correlation between the elimination of the fare on the Staten Island Railway and a spike in vandalism and crime on the trains and abutting communities. I don’t think in the long run it’s been worth the quote-unquote break.”
So, in summation, absolutely no-one involved has as their primary concern the question of asking Staten Island Railway riders to resume contributing their share to the cost of providing an urban public transportation system. Except, possibly, whoever wrote the headline for the Staten Island Advance’s take on the situation, “MTA robs Island of Railway free ride.”
The robbery is projected to take place at some point in the indefinite future. For some reason, the system can’t afford it just now.