Testimony by David R. Jones, President and CEO
Community Service Society of New York
Before the New York City Council Committee on Transportation
Hearing on How Can Public Transportation Better Serve the Needs of New York City Residents
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on how public transit can better serve the needs of New York City residents.
My name is David Jones. I am 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. Today, CSS continues its remarkable 174-year legacy in using 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 I am concerned that the cost of transportation is becoming a barrier for those with low-incomes.
Access to public transit is an economic necessity for all New Yorkers, but especially for the working poor struggling to survive on low wages, for young people seeking a GED or commuting to college so they can get ahead, for parents trying to get their children a better education and expose them to the resources the city has to offer. But our buses and subways have become unaffordable for far too many—one out of four low-income working-age New Yorkers say they often can’t afford a MetroCard, according to our survey research.
This dilemma is about to get worse. Although the base fare will be unchanged, starting March 19th, most New Yorkers will have to pay more per ride. Unlimited passes will rise to $32 for the 7-day pass and $121 for the 30-day pass. The type of fare that is most widely used among low-income riders, the bonus card, will cost 5.7 percent more per ride because the amount of the bonus you receive when you put at least a round-trip on your card is being reduced. Using the MTA’s data, fares used by 82 percent of low-income riders will become more expensive.
Making public transit affordable should be a priority for this city and this mayoral administration which came into office promising to combat economic inequality. We, along with the Riders Alliance, transit advocates, labor, grassroots immigrant and worker groups, criminal justice organizations, workforce development agencies and good government groups have come together to call for half-price MetroCards for New Yorkers living at or below the poverty level, or about $24,000 for a family of four. About 800,000 people would be eligible for a savings of $726 a year off the cost of 12 monthly passes. That is a significant savings.
I’ve been an advocate for the working poor for more than 30 years, and in my memory few ideas have garnered this much consensus. Our proposal for half-fares has drawn the support of editorial boards including the Daily News, the New York Times, El Diario, The Amsterdam News, and AM NewYork. Indeed, even a New York Post columnist said, “It’s not a bad idea: Mobility means opportunity.” City & State named Fair Fares one of 2016’s best ideas. It is supported by the majority of the Council, four of the five borough presidents, the Comptroller and Public Advocate, by major unions including RWDSU, 1199, 32BJ, the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) and the TWU, as well as the fiscal watchdog, Citizens Budget Commission. And most important, it is supported by the public: Seventy-three (73) percent of your constituents.
Current law allows the mayor to secure a discount for a class of riders, as it already does for seniors and people with disabilities, as long as the city makes up the foregone fare revenue. We estimate the cost to be about $200 million a year, and the MTA has calculated the cost to be a similar figure, $212 million. While that is a significant cost, it is a miniscule fraction of the city’s nearly $85 billion budget and a modest amount to achieve a bold and worthy goal: insuring physical mobility and the economic mobility it brings to New Yorkers struggling to get ahead. Our city gains an enormous competitive advantage from its extensive mass transit system that enables employers to draw from a vast citywide labor pool, but we undercut that advantage when we make transit unaffordable.
The city has plans for new watercraft and a streetcar. While these are welcome additions, they will largely serve affluent New Yorkers living in river view condos. They will require an additional fare since they won’t be part of the MTA system. With deeply subsidized new transportation modes promised for the affluent, and transit tax subsidies that give a break to middle and higher income earners, shouldn’t we help those who need it the most?
Yes, we know that the MTA is a state authority. And yes the state needs to invest more in the MTA because in the long run, continual fare increases every two years will be unsustainable.
So why should the city subsidize fares for its lowest income residents?
Because it is the right thing to do. Because it will advance economic opportunity. Because it is affordable and feasible. Because between 2007 and 2015 subway and bus fares rose 45 percent, six times faster than average salaries in New York City. Because a city subsidy will avoid putting even more upward pressure on the fares that other riders have to pay. Because all the savings the working poor will derive from this measure will go right back into the local economy to purchase necessities such as food, clothing and to pay the rent. Because the Mayor has the legal authority to do it without an interminable delay and fight in Albany. Because low-income New Yorkers need relief now. They need to get to work and school tomorrow. Not five years from now. Because our city should be a Progressive Leader. Especially today, when instead of wringing our hands and resisting, we should be raising our hands and insisting on positive actions within our power: Make our transit system affordable to all New Yorkers.