Mayor Eric Adams has lent his support to a pilot program that would make some city buses free, giving an eleventh-hour push to a proposal championed by state legislators amid delayed budget negotiations.
The mayor made the comments Tuesday in a video posted by Queens Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, the primary sponsor of a legislative package to “fix” the Metropolitan Transportation Authority by investing in increased train service and making buses free.
The pilot program, included by the Assembly and Senate in their responses to Governor Kathy Hochul’s executive budget, would make two bus lines in each borough free, for a total of 10 routes citywide. Those routes have not been decided, but the Assembly’s proposal stipulates that in each borough, one would have to serve a low-income community and the other a commercial corridor.
The cost of the program is estimated at about $50 million annually.
“I strongly support the thought of having ten buses being free. The lines in the city I think will make a major impact,” Hizzoner said. “Our transit system is the lifeblood of our system, I use it all the time. Let’s see if we can get this over the hump.”
Mamdani, a democratic socialist, said that the centrist mayor’s endorsement demonstrated the proposal’s wide appeal.
“No matter our place on the political spectrum, we know free buses would be a huge win for working-class NYers who rely on public transit,” Mamdani said. “The time is now.”
Studies have revealed that bus riders have lower incomes on average than subway riders and drivers, and are more likely to be Black or Hispanic. A year of unlimited monthly rides currently costs more than $1,500.
Fare-free buses have been tried in several American cities in recent years. Boston suspended fare collection on several bus lines last year, while Washington DC intends to make all its local buses free starting in July. Buses and streetcars have been free in Kansas City since 2019.
The Legislature’s adoption of the free bus proposal put lawmakers at odds with Hochul, whose executive budget did not include the pilot program. The proposal is part of the governor’s and legislature’s competing plans to rescue the fiscally-beleaguered MTA, which faces a $600-million-and-growing deficit without new streams of funding from Albany.
Budget negotiations have now gone nearly three weeks past their April 1 deadline, with the main points of contention seeming to be tweaks to the bail reform law and the governor’s housing plan. The status of MTA funding is unknown; the state budget is notorious for being deliberated in secret by “three people in a room,” namely Governor Hochul, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
MTA leadership has expressed confidence in Hochul’s rescue plan — which mostly depends on payroll taxes, along with future casino revenues and cost shifts to the city — especially compared to that of the Legislature, which relies on taxes on corporate profits, Uber and Lyft surcharges, and the creation of a residential parking permit system.
On Tuesday, MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber declined to take a position on the mayor’s endorsement of the pilot.
The MTA’s austerity budget passed in December depends partially on a 5.5% fare hike this year, bringing the cost of a subway or bus ride to $2.90. Hochul’s budget also accounted for the fare hikes, but both the Assembly and Senate rejected them. The continuing uncertainty out of Albany could prove deleterious to the transit agency, Lieber opined.
“There is some urgency,” Lieber said at a press conference at Grand Central Terminal on Tuesday. “We’re not running out of money to run service today, but for planning reasons and also because so much of what we do requires bureaucratic process and public hearings and so on. We need to get it going.”
The mayor’s endorsement of free buses comes even as he faces criticism for the administration’s snail-like pace in installing new bus lanes, which would speed up the nation’s slowest buses. The administration was statutorily required to build 20 miles of bus lanes last year but did not even come close, building out a mere 4.4 miles of transit-privileged roadway according to the Department of Transportation’s February Streets Plan update.
“Mayor Adams owes millions of city bus riders fast and reliable service. He pledged 150 miles of bus lanes in four years yet his administration is not even close to being on track to keep the mayor’s promise,” said Danny Pearlstein, spokesperson for the straphanger advocacy group Riders Alliance. “Regardless, if the mayor supports free bus service, he can fund it himself out of the City budget and pilot it on City-subsidized routes operated by MTA Bus Company.”