Mayor’s Inexplicable Reluctance to Reduce Transit Fares for Working Poor

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Mayor de Blasio has a unique opportunity during the current budget negotiations to wield the power of his mayoralty to help poor New Yorkers struggling with the cost of bus and subway fares.

The question is: will the mayor continue to stubbornly cling to this notion that the only way to fund half-priced transit fares for working-age New Yorkers living at or below poverty -- popularly known as `Fair Fares’ -- is through a special tax on millionaires – a tax everyone pretty much concedes is going nowhere?

Or will he instead lead on this issue, as he did when he was a candidate for mayor and campaigned on a policy platform of addressing inequities in our city and leveling the economic playing field for our most vulnerable residents?

Truth be told, the mayor has tried to have it both ways on Fair Fares. On the one hand he supports it conceptually, using words like “noble” and “impressive” to describe the proposal. But when it comes to actually funding it, he insists the program is too expensive.

Yet by announcing this month that the city was making additional capital investments in a highly-subsidized ferry service that serves primarily upper-income, non-minority New Yorkers, at a cost of $300 million, the mayor undercut this argument.

If there’s money in the city’s nearly $90 billion budget for expanding ferries, which will serve a fraction of the city’s public transit users in some of the city’s more affluent areas, why isn’t there money to help the working poor better access mass transit, the vast majority of whom are black and Latino?

When the mayor nominated me to the MTA Board, he knew I intended to represent the interests of the city’s low-income residents and be a voice for their struggles with transit affordability. Since that time, the effort to adopt a half-priced transit fare program for the poor has gained substantial political and public support. A broad coalition of elected officials, district attorneys, budget watchdogs, transit advocates, faith leaders, labor unions, criminal justice advocates and social service providers all back the proposal. Most prominent among them is Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has made Fair Fares a priority in budget negotiations with the de Blasio Administration.

Other major cities have adopted half-priced transit fares for low-income riders. Earlier this month we learned that Paris is considering a plan to make its entire transit system free. Why isn’t New York City setting the bar for other cities to follow?

Let’s be clear: Fair Fares is an anti-poverty initiative that could save the city’s lowest income residents $726 annually off the current price of monthly MetroCards. It is not a windfall for the MTA. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

Transit affordability is a real issue for hundreds of thousands of low-income residents in this city. The working poor can spend upwards of 10 percent of their tight budgets on transit. So reducing the cost of transit for our most vulnerable citizens would be one of the most effective ways of reaching all the city’s poorest. Unlike the Earned Income Tax (EITC), for example, benefits would go to workers at jobs that don’t provide a regular, official paycheck, the unemployed searching for work and immigrants regardless of their status.

Making our public transit system more affordable would also likely reduce incidence of fare beating, a low-level crime driven primarily by poverty which results in a disproportionate number of arrests of poor blacks, mostly young men. Consider this: The city spends an estimated $50 million a year prosecuting fare evaders according to research by the Police Reform Organizing Project. Another $48 million is spent annually by the city’s Human Resources Administration to provide some public assistance recipients with free MetroCards to get to job trainings. Implementing a Fair Fares program would reduce these expenditures, perhaps significantly, and those savings could help offset its overall cost. 

Over the next week Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson are expected to hash out a final budget. We hope the mayor seizes this opportunity to match his lofty rhetoric about making New York a more equitable city with unqualified support for a measure that most everyone agrees would have an immediate and fundamental impact on the city’s poor.

As progressive policies go, Fair Fares is a potential game-changer for the city’s low-income residents, one in four of whom say they cannot afford bus and subway fares. We know public transit is fast becoming out of reach for many low-income working-age New Yorkers. The mayor can – and should -- do something about it. 

Issues Covered

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