Testimony: NYC Council Committee on Transportation

Testimony by David R. Jones, President and CEO, Community Service Society of New York  

Hearing on Improving the City Subway System, before the New York City Council Committee on Transportation 

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

My name is David Jones. I am the President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit organization that works to advance upward mobility for low-income New Yorkers. For more than 170 years, CSS has used rigorous research to drive changes in public policy to combat poverty and economic inequality. I am also one of the city’s representatives on the MTA Board. The main reason I agreed to take on this responsibility was because of my concern that our public transit system had become a barrier, instead of a gateway, to economic opportunity for low-income New Yorkers.

In April 2016, CSS partnered with the Riders Alliance, a grass roots transit membership organization, to launch the `Fair Fares’ campaign which was calling for half-price MetroCards for working-age New Yorkers living at or below the poverty level ($24,000 for a family of four). 

The driving force behind the campaign were findings from a 2016 CSS report entitled, “The Transit Affordability Crisis,” which found that more than a quarter of low-income New Yorkers often were unable to afford bus and subway fares. For the city’s working poor, transit expenses can exceed more than 10 percent of their family budgets, limiting their ability to access jobs and forcing them to forgo other necessities.

Over the course of the last year, the `Fair Fares’ campaign expanded to include transit advocates, labor, grassroots immigrant and worker groups, criminal justice organizations, workforce development agencies, good government groups and elected officials – including many of the folks in this room. Together we elevated the struggles faced by low-income New Yorkers who so often cannot afford to get to work, to medical appointments, and home to their families after a long day.

As you all know, yesterday the Mayor unveiled his proposal for funding `Fair Fares’ for low-income New Yorkers along with urgently needed subway improvements through a modest increase in the existing “millionaires tax.”

The Mayor’s plan recognizes the critical role of public transit to the life of our city and how essential it is that we provide a steady stream of funding to sustain the system, while also ensuring that our public transportation system is accessible and affordable to everyone.

To borrow some of the mayor’s own words from yesterday’s announcement, “the status quo won’t do” when it comes to addressing the needs of our aging mass transit system. And to be sure, increasing the “millionaire’s” tax is just one of options we can pursue to achieve our goals of sustaining the system while funding a discount fare for the neediest riders. There are other funding sources external to the MTA that could provide a reoccurring source of funding so essential to meeting our transportation-related policy needs.

Many of these are not new and have been proposed by various transit experts. For example, increasing the statewide gasoline tax to fund a fare discount program and other transportation needs outside of New York City is also worth considering. Initial estimates suggest that a statewide increase of five cents in the sales tax on motor fuel could generate as much as $310 million annually to fund capital needs and a discount fare for the working poor.

By implementing a fairer citywide tolling system such as the one called for in the Move NY Fair Plan – reducing tolls where they are high and raising them in areas with high traffic and good transit access – the City could generate substantial revenue to fund road and bridge improvements, maintain and improve the regional transit network, and cover the cost of reduced transit fares for the lowest income riders. And some form of congestion pricing for vehicles traveling into Manhattan’s central business district during peak hours deserves a serious look.

We should also consider generating additional revenue to fund various transportation related needs through fees and taxes on vehicles such as increasing vehicle registration fees, as well as imposing surcharges on taxis, black cars and app-dispatch services like Uber and Lyft.

Access to public transit is an economic necessity for all New Yorkers. A series of signal failures, track derailments and system fatigue breakdowns have underscored the problems with our aging system and the need for the city and state to work cooperatively on solutions, including adequate funding sources to keep our buses and subways viable. When it comes to maintaining the system all options should be on the table.

Thank you. I would now be happy to take your questions. 

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