With the Metropolitan Transportation Board (MTA) expected to vote this month to raise bus and subway fares, Borough Presidents Eric Adams (Brooklyn), Gale Brewer (Manhattan), Ruben Diaz Jr. (Bronx), and Melinda Katz (Queens) urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to use his executive power to establish a half-price fare for New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 64 living in households at or below poverty.
Citing research from a Community Service Society (CSS) report released last year which found that more than one in four working-age, low-income New Yorkers often cannot afford the cost of bus and subway fares, the borough presidents called on the mayor to fund a discount fare program in his FY2018 Executive Budget. In doing so, the four borough leaders join a growing number of city elected officials, major advocacy organizations, unions including RWDSU, 1199SEIU, 32BJ, NYSNA and TWU and editorial boards supporting a proposal by CSS and the grassroots transit membership group the Riders Alliance to establish half-price fares for New Yorkers living at or below the federal poverty level.
“We should consider developing a more nuanced system of collecting fares, one that takes into account a commuter’s means and provides a discount to those New Yorkers who need it the most,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “That is why I am proud to join my fellow borough presidents in support of the ‘Fair Fares’ campaign. Their research has found that one in four low-income working-age New Yorkers often cannot afford bus and subway fares.”
Public support for the “Fair Fares” campaign is also strong. Seventy-three (73) percent of New Yorkers say they favor a policy of providing half-priced fares to low-income residents, according to a 2016 CSS poll conducted in collaboration with Lake Research Partners. A discount fare would save working-age city residents living in poverty ($24,036 for a family of four) up to $700 annually on the cost of a MetroCard.
Roughly 800,000 low-income New Yorkers would be eligible. CSS estimates that the program would cost the city about $200 million in foregone fare box revenue-less than 0.3 percent of the current $83.4 billion municipal budget. Existing law gives the mayor the authority to secure a discount for a class of riders as long as the city makes up the differential and administrative costs.
According to the CSS report, The Transit Affordability Crisis, 58 percent of poor New Yorkers are reliant on buses and subways for their livelihoods. The cost of riding the city’s buses and subways has steadily increased over the years, proportionately outpacing earnings for the city’s lower-income households. For example, between 2007 and 2015 bus and subway fares rose by 45 percent-six times faster than average salaries in New York City, according to a September 2016 report from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
The announcement by the city’s borough presidents comes at a critical time. On January 25, the MTA is scheduled to vote on a proposed four percent fare hike. Board members will be voting on options that include the possibility of raising the price of a single ride to $3 and the cost of unlimited cards to $32 for a weekly and $121 for a monthly MetroCard. Before the MTA vote, the mayor’s office is expected to release its preliminary executive budget for the coming fiscal year. The de Blasio administration has said the proposal for reduced fares is under review. Although Mayor de Blasio characterized the proposal as “noble” and “impressive,” he has yet to endorse it.
One of the constant themes of testimony at public hearings held in December on the proposed fare increase was the disproportionate burden it would have on the city’s working poor. Speaker after speaker at hearings in Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens recounted their struggles affording the current fare, and how a rise in transit costs would force them to choose between purchasing a MetroCard and paying for other essentials, such as rent and food.
CSS President and CEO David R. Jones, who serves on the MTA Board, said that transit costs can consume 10 to 12 percent of the household budgets of the city’s working poor. “Making the city a more equitable place to live and work starts with ensuring that our vast public transportation system is both affordable and accessible to all New Yorkers, and not just the economically better-off. That’s why we are calling on the mayor to step in and address this inequity by funding a discounted transit fare for the city’s lowest-income residents as we already do for seniors and the elderly.”
Income-based fare discounts are already in place in San Francisco and Seattle, among other cities. Proposals to establish half-price fares for low-income residents are under consideration in Boston and Denver. Adopting such a program in New York, the most transit-dependent city in the nation, would have an immediate and positive impact on one of the city’s biggest socioeconomic challenges: narrowing the income inequality gap.
“With transit fares about to go up again, City Hall must support this program, which would give real cost-of-living relief to the city’s working poor,” said Borough President Diaz. “For a relatively small investment, considering the size of the overall city budget, we can make the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers appreciably better.”