A Message from the Mayor to the City’s Working Poor: Take the Trolley

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Mayor Bill de Blasio just doesn’t get it. He has staunchly opposed Fair Fares -- a program to implement half-priced MetroCards for working poor families in the city. This despite his pledge to address inequities that make it harder for low-income families to get ahead.

The mayor argues that the city cannot afford Fair Fares. But the city has an $85 billion budget. Yet rather than dip a little into that pool to ensure that the poorest among us can access our public transit system, the mayor prefers to spend billions in subsidies and capital on building a trolley to connect middle and upper-income waterfront neighborhoods and on high-speed ferries.

On the other hand, the City Council does get it. In its response to the mayor’s proposed FY2018 preliminary budget, the Council is calling for $50 million to support Fair Fares. It recognizes that making half-priced MetroCards available to working-age individuals living at or below poverty will mean that more New Yorkers will be able to afford to ride the subway and bus to work, to school, to medical appointments, to pick up their kids from school.  They will no longer need to quietly beg for swipes or take chances and jump the turnstiles.

Criminalizing Poverty

This last point bears further discussion. Fully funding Fair Fares will address the slow-motion war on low-income workers and the poor now being carried out in our subway stations by our own police force.  On average, a quarter of all arrests in New York City in recent years were for fare beating. In the first quarter of this year, 4,600 people were arrested for fare evasion, an overwhelming 90 percent of them black and Hispanic, according to NYPD figures.   This continues a trend that from 2015, when the NYPD arrested nearly 30,000 New Yorkers for fare evasion.

And even where individuals are issued a summons instead of being arrested – as some 70,000 were in 2015 – the effect is not benign.  A fare beat summons carries a $100 fine.  How we can expect a person who could not afford $2.75 to pay $100 on demand baffles me.  In fact less than half of these summons fines are paid or collected.  And revenues collected go to the New York City General fund, not to the MTA to support its work.    

If these numbers are not overwhelming enough, consider the impact on immigrants, who can face deportation for a fare evasion arrest, as the NYPD now grudgingly acknowledges.   The Trump administration’s hard line immigration policies place at risk not only undocumented immigrants, but also legal permanent residents.  That’s right: Green Card holders are at risk here, too.   There are already news accounts of federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents waiting outside New York City criminal courts to nab people arrested on these charges.

Quite simply, fare evasion is driven by the city’s affordability crisis.  It’s reasonable to assume the MTA fare hike approved last month made public transportation even more unaffordable. It puts an even tighter squeeze on one of every four low-income MTA riders who say in opinion polls they cannot afford their basic transportation needs.

The City Council has taken the brave step of proposing a pilot Fair Fares program aimed at a college students, or the homeless or veterans, and has proposed that the program be funded in the city budget.  This is a good start.

But a much better way forward would be to begin a gradual phase-in of subsidized MetroCards, the same way the $15 minimum wage law with implemented in stages. We could start by implementing half-cost MetroCards for 379,000 of the poorest New Yorkers, who earn 50 percent of the federal poverty level, which translates into $10,000 annually for a family of three and $12,000 annually for a family of four. Then add eligibility for families at 75 percent and, later, 100 percent of poverty. Helping the poorest of our fellow citizens reaches the neediest first and reduces the full-year cost in foregone fare revenue to $91 - $103 million, about half the $212 million for full implementation.  

Here’s another cost-saving compromise: begin the targeted rollout in January 2018, during the second half of the fiscal year.  This would allow time to gear up for a smooth roll out and cut the FY 2018 costs to about $50 million – the same figure in the current City Council budget response.

New York City is massive.  It covers more than 302 square miles.  We need to cross many of them daily to get to work, to school, to visit the doctor and to take care of the many other things we need to do.   But increasingly, we are divided in the way we do this.  One group summons Ubers and taxis.  The other takes the subway and bus – when they can afford it.  Fair Fares – reduced priced MetroCards for those among us who are at or below the poverty line – will inject a huge dose of equitability into the system. 

Our mayor should stand up and protect the working poor by providing transit affordability to those who need it the most.

Issues Covered

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