The city restored some of the funding to its Fair Fare program that offers half-price transit fares for New York’s neediest commuters in this year’s budget, but transit advocates say officials must up their game to spread awareness and enroll more low-income commuters as the Big Apple comes back from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We talk about transit as this engine of recovery and the mayor should be doing everything in his power to make people aware of this program,” said Jaqi Cohen, director of the Straphangers Campaign with the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group. “The city should be doing anything it can to get people back on subways and buses, and that includes Fair Fares.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker launched the program to much fanfare in early 2019 and it enables any New Yorker aged 18-64 living at or below the federal poverty line to get a 50% discount for fares on subways, buses, and Access-a-Ride.
The benefit, which is run through the Department of Social Services, is not available for MTA Express Buses, the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, PATH, or the JFK AirTrain.
Mayor de Blasio slashed funding for the program by $65.5 million early in the pandemic in April 2020, amid cratering revenues and a drop in demand, reducing the Fair Fares budget from its original $106 million to $40.5 million.
Hizzoner and Speaker Johnson touted this year’s $98.7 billion municipal spending plan as a “Recovery Budget” and a “radical investment in working families,” but neither politician made any mention of the transit subsidy.
The allocation was quietly increased to $53 million, according to Mayor’s office spokeswoman Laura Feyer, who told amNewYork Metro that this reflects a still lower demand as subway ridership remains around just below half of 2019 numbers, saying that “anyone who needs this benefit will receive it.”
In his daily press briefing Monday, de Blasio said that he would adapt the funding when commuters are likely to return in greater numbers over the coming months.
“We’re obviously going to expect to see uptake intensify as we go month by month,” Hizzoner said on July 12. “It’s been slow for a while, but we do expect it to come back and we’ll address the funding as we go along according to need.”
The extra funding would come from DSS coffers, according to Feyer.
Miles to go…
But city’s allotment will quickly fall short if more riders enroll or if the existing roughly 230,000 Fair Fares receivers return in greater numbers, according to an economist who has studied the program during the pandemic.
“Even if the people currently enrolled go back to using transit at pre-pandemic levels the funds would not be enough. They are assuming really flat enrollment and tepid transit usage,” said Debipriya Chatterjee, a senior researcher with the Community Service Society, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income New Yorkers.
Chatterjee proposed fitting number would be somewhere between $65-$73 million, as enrollment and commutes are likely to come back in the months ahead as people return to their commutes and in-person work.
There were 700,000 New Yorkers in the age range whose incomes are below the federal poverty level, according to estimates by Chatterjee based off of 2019 Census data, meaning less than a third of eligible people have enrolled in the program.
The federal poverty level for 2021 is someone who earns $12,880 a year, or $17,420 for a family of two, and $21,960 for a family of three, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
After an advertising blitz by the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in January 2020, the number of enrollees doubled from 101,094 that month to 202,045 by July, topping out 235,474 by December, according to data collected by the researcher.
Since the beginning of this year, the figure has fluctuated around 230,000, the data show, with the Fare Fares website’s most recent count listing 228,633 people, an almost 7,000 drop from the high watermark.
Fair Fares offices also shuttered during the pandemic, and the city has moved them into branches of the Human Resources Administration, according to Feyer.
The spokesperson said eligible residents can apply entirely online or call 311 if they need help. If someone wants in-person assistance, the rep advised them to make an appointment through 311 with one of the city’s 10 HRA offices.
But beyond just keeping the program alive at the current rate, advocates called on the city to dust off their pre-pandemic marketing and outreach campaign and make sure everyone who can get Fair Fares knows about it.
“Now is the time to start an aggressive campaign to let people know about Fair Fares, how to apply, to make it easy for people to prove their eligibility,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, a group advocating for on behalf of riders.
In response to a follow-up request, mayoral spokesperson Isaac McGinn did not say whether City Hall was conducting any outreach for the program, but reiterated the online and in-person enrollment options.
Speaker Johnson’s spokesperson Jennifer Fermino said the Council would work hard to ensure the program’s success.
“The Council is extremely proud of this program, and will do all we can to make it a success. Transit access is vital to the wellbeing of all New Yorkers. No one should be shut out. We urge all eligible New Yorkers to apply for Fair Fares,” said Fermino.
To check your eligibility for Fair Fares, apply, or renew your membership, go to nyc.gov/fairfares. You can also call 311 to get in touch with HRA for an in-person appointment.