BY MELINDA KATZ
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “Freedom Ticket” program is gearing up to become a broken promise that represents a classic bait-and-switch on Queens.
In a transit desert like Queens, residents greatly rely on buses and the Long Island Rail Road to get around. The problem is that New York City buses—at $2.75 a ride—are notoriously unreliable and overburdened. The LIRR, while more predictable and time-efficient, is often cost-prohibitive at $10.25 for a one-way peak ticket between Southeast Queens and Penn Station.
Enter: the Freedom Ticket. First proposed in 2015 by the New York City Transit Riders Council, the plan calls for a discounted one-way $6.50 fare for a half-hour ride between six Queens LIRR stations—Rosedale, Laurelton, Locust Manor, St. Albans, Hollis and Queens Village—and either Penn Station in Manhattan or Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.
It’s a great idea, and holds much promise. Many—myself included—endorsed the plan and were pleased when the MTA, with much fanfare, announced over a year ago that it was poised to implement a pilot version of the Freedom Ticket concept. It was meant to determine whether lowering the LIRR fare would not only increase LIRR ridership, but assist in alleviating overcrowded trains on the E and F subway lines.
Then recently, and rather quietly, the MTA began discussions to revise the plan by totally omitting Penn Station from the pilot. Instead—and much to Queens’ dismay—they suggest that those who partake in the Freedom Ticket pilot from Southeast Queens go only to the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn. From there, LIRR riders are forced to take the subway into Manhattan. Excluding the Manhattan option on the LIRR adds 30 to 45 minutes each way to the commute.
Say you’re going to midtown from Rosedale during the morning rush hour. You could: A) Spend 30-60 minutes driving by car and pay a $5.76 toll each way, not to mention the parking once you get into Manhattan; B) Cough up $10.25 for a 37-minute ride into Penn Station; C) Take the Q5 or Q85 bus from the first stop to the last stop at Parsons and Archer, and then hop on the E train for a 60-90 minute commute into Penn Station or; D) Get a $6.50 one-way Freedom Ticket for a 37-minute ride to your first stop in Brooklyn, and then transfer to the subway for an additional 30-minute ride to Penn. That is, of course, on a rare good day when the trains are actually running nearly on time.
It’s not an ideal choice for any commuter. The purpose of the Freedom Ticket is to offer the LIRR to commuters as a more viable, attractive mass-transit option that saves riders both time and money and would alleviate congestion on the roads and in the subways.
Instead, the MTA is trying to sell riders an inferior fare option that would add at least an hour to their round-trip daily travel in exchange for saving a few bucks. Who—if they had a choice—would even entertain that?
The Freedom Ticket is not about charity. Queens residents should not be expected to “take what we can get.” It is a pilot to determine the effects a fairer LIRR price would have on the LIRR and subway. At a time when there is broad citywide agreement of the need to relieve congestion and prioritize public transportation, we must make every concerted effort to make transit options more equitable and viable.
Watering down the Freedom Ticket pilot program does nothing to achieve this goal. Eliminating Penn Station would simply create a suboptimal choice and set the pilot program up to fail. The MTA Board may have voted [yesterday] during its meeting on whether to begin the diluted Freedom Ticket pilot.
Together with my colleagues in government from Queens, we are urging the MTA to restore the original Freedom Ticket plan by keeping Penn Station in the pilot. For the transit desert that is Queens, anything short of that would be mere lip service to change.
Melinda Katz is Queens’ borough president.