Testimony: MTA Public Hearing on Proposed Changes in Fares

David R. Jones

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the MTA’s proposed changes to New York City’s bus and subway fares.

My name is David R. Jones and I am President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, a 170 year-old organization that works to advance upward mobility for low-income New Yorkers through research, advocacy, service innovation and litigation.

Since the MTA announced proposed options for its latest round of fare increases coming down the track, much of the debate has centered on narrow questions about trade-offs between base fares and bonuses. The issue I am here to raise this evening has gotten virtually no attention: that is, the fares are already unaffordable to vast numbers of New Yorkers.

In our most recent annual survey, the Unheard Third, 2014, we asked a question about transit affordability for the first time and were stunned by the findings.  Among a series of hardships we have tracked for over a decade – covering housing, hunger, health and family finances – the most frequently reported was being unable to afford basic transportation.  One out of three poor New Yorkers said they were often unable to afford subway and bus fares.  Thirty-one percent of the working poor and a quarter of workers in households with incomes below twice the federal poverty level, frequently cannot afford to buy a MetroCard, a necessity in New York City. And this is today, before either of the proposed options for fare increases goes into effect.

In the more car dependent rest of the country, everyone recognizes that the cost of mobility is itself a barrier to upward mobility. If you can’t get to your job, can’t get the kids to school, can’t get to the distant store to buy things a little cheaper, you can’t get ahead. Buying a car, repairing it and filling up the tank are clearly major costs.  But daily subway and bus fares add up, especially if you travel to two or more jobs or work split shifts. Better-off New Yorkers can take advantage of buying an unlimited monthly pass for $112.  But those struggling to make ends meet can’t lay out that much, especially if the card could get lost or stolen, takes months to replace and requires a credit card purchase that racks up high interest rates for late payments.  Weekly passes might be more feasible, but don’t offer much of a discount with four unlimited 7-day passes totaling $120.

Seniors and people with disabilities can get half-price reduced fares on the MTA. There is a case to be made for that:  they are more likely to live on limited incomes, travel at non-peak times, and may have difficulty walking distances. But what about those on really limited incomes:  the poor?  Let’s offer them reduced fares.

The naysayers will immediately raise objections citing the difficulties and costs of implementing a low-income discount.  Some will point to the new city law intended to expand access to the TransitChek program that allows employees to pay for some transit expenses using pretax earnings.  The latter program sounds good but is cumbersome to use and is worth more to higher earners in upper tax brackets. As to logistical problems, the MTA has already figured it out for seniors and people with disabilities.

The potential for lost revenue requires serious number crunching to forecast how much is really at stake. If low-wage workers cannot afford to take a trip now, then the revenue loss might be relatively small, and the main impact would be to increase ridership. But we also need the leadership and the political will to seek alternative revenue sources.  The MTA relies much more heavily on fares from riders to meet operating expenses than other cities across the nation. According to New York City’s Independent Budget Office, the “farebox recovery ratio” in 58 percent for New York City subways and buses compared to 44 percent in Chicago, 38 percent in Boston and 36 percent in Philadelphia.

If we want to make New York a place that is attractive to business and a place where everyone has an opportunity to get ahead—propositions that our elected officials espouse—then  we need to make it affordable for workers, to get to and from their jobs, and for the unemployed to find work. In fact the public is already on board with this idea. In the Unheard Third survey cited earlier, we also asked New Yorkers whether or not they favor offering half-price fares to low-wage workers. Nearly 7 out of 10 (69 percent) said they like the idea. Eighty-three percent of low-income New Yorkers favor it, including nearly three-quarters (73 percent) who strongly favor the proposal. 

Some smaller cities are already offering discounts to low-income customers. In Madison, Wisconsin riders who certify that their incomes are at or below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines can purchase a 31-day pass for $27.50 or about half the regular price of $58.00. CARTA, the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority offers reduced low-income fares of $1.00, a 75-cent discount off the regular price per ride. And starting next March, Seattle’s King County Metro Transit will offer a fare discount to riders with a household income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The fare for eligible riders is reduced to $1.50 from $2.25 or $3.00, depending on zones and peak times.

In London, which is more comparable to New York City in terms of population size and cost of living, people who are unemployed, looking for work or receiving “Income Support” can receive a half-fare public transit discount, valid for three months. Having such a program in New York would have certainly benefitted Leatrice S. while she was out of work. During her job search last spring the cost of a MetroCard represented a big expense for the 24-year old single-mother and Queens resident. “There were times when I just did not have the money for a weekly MetroCard, so I had to purchase the fares day by day,” she said.

My organization provided Leatrice with four weekly MetroCards ($120 value) in May 2014 to cover travel expenses associated with job interviews, her volunteer work, her daughter’s school and other activities. In August she was hired as a program associate for a Brooklyn-based nonprofit. Still, transit is a major expense for her.

Post-recession job growth in New York City has been concentrated in low-wage sectors, where workers earn so little that affording the subway fare has become a daily hardship. We need fair wages, but we also need reasonable fares. A savings of $56 a month, half the price of a 30-day unlimited pass, is the equivalent of keeping an extra day’s pay in your pocket each month for someone making the minimum wage. And that would make a real difference in the lives of the city’s 436,000 working poor.

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