MTA Should Stand for Making Transit Affordable

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

We’ve all heard the old joke about the chicken crossing the road.  If we’re not careful, the punchline in New York City might be that it did so because it couldn’t afford a Metrocard.   

Subway fares rose this week, with the cost of a single ride going from $2.50 to $2.75 along with price increases for unlimited weekly and monthly Metrocards.  As recently as 2009, a trip on the subway cost $2.00.  The increases in fares, an important revenue source for MTA capital needs, have come while incomes for the lowest earning households have declined.

According to our Unheard Third survey more than one in four low-income New Yorkers and one in three New Yorkers living below the poverty line reported being often unable to afford subway or bus fares.  Out of 16 hardships related to health, food, housing and economic security, unaffordable public transportation was the most cited hardship among the poor.

And the problem is particularly prevalent for blacks and Latinos.  More than one third of poor Latinos and more than four out of ten poor black New York City residents said they often cannot afford subway or bus fares.   Surely, folks who are working can afford the very means by which they get to work, right?  Not quite.  One out of four low-income workers, including 27 percent of Latinos and 32 percent of blacks, reported problems affording public transportation.  Two-thirds of low-income Latinos and nearly 70 percent of low-income blacks use the subway or bus to get to work, compared to right around half of low-income whites and Asians. 

If New York City is serious about combatting economic inequality and improving the quality of life for low income residents, finding a way to make public transportation more affordable should be a priority.  Last week, I stood with Public Advocate Letitia James and representatives from the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance to call on the city to explore the feasibility of offering a reduced fare for low-income residents.  We wouldn’t be the first city to do so.  Seattle, Washington; Madison, Wisconsin; and Charleston, South Carolina are just a few of the cities around the country offering a reduced fare to those with low-incomes. 

Of course, some might balk at the idea of cutting into the MTA’s revenue stream, especially those who are unsatisfied with train service.  We certainly must ensure the MTA has the funds it needs to continue projects that will improve subway service.  However, that fact should not take a reduced fare program off the table.

A reduced fare program in New York City would have to ensure that any lost revenues from fares would be made up for by other sources.  Public Advocate James has called for the re-instatement of the commuter tax, a small income tax on individuals who work in New York City but live outside the five boroughs, which could bring in around $800 million in revenue for the city in a year.  My organization has looked into the potential fiscal impact of modestly raising the tax on gasoline, and other groups have proposed increasing tolls at certain crossings.  Put simply, there are options to ensure that the MTA has the funding it needs, even while reducing fares for low-income residents.  The city should leave no stone unturned in exploring these and other options. 

Public support for a reduced fare program is high.  When asked whether they would support reducing subway and bus fares to half price for low wage workers, our survey found that nearly 70 percent of New Yorkers said they would favor such a program, with 55 percent strongly in favor.  Support is particularly high among low-income residents, more than 8 out of 10 of whom are in favor, including nearly three-quarters that are strongly in favor.  Support dips slightly among moderate-high income New Yorkers, with nearly 60 percent in favor and more than 4 out of 10 strongly in favor. Support cuts across political party lines, with more than 70 percent of Democrats in favor and around two-thirds of Independents and Republicans. 

New York City is rightly proud of its public transportation system, which, perhaps more so than any other city, allows riders to easily access any area of the city for one fare.  However, for too many low-income residents, stagnant and declining wages and increased fares have resulted in an inability to afford to take the subway or bus.  This is particularly cruel for those individuals who need the subway or bus to get to work, where too much of their paycheck is spent on their means of transportation.  The de Blasio administration has repeatedly reinforced its commitment to ensuring that New York City is a livable place for residents all along the income spectrum.  In New York City, that means being able to afford public transportation.  It might take some creative methods to ensure the MTA has the revenue it needs to operate and improve, but if we can give low wage workers a break on the price of a Metrocard, it will be well worth the effort.  


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