Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged on Tuesday an “aggressive” effort to advertise the city’s half-priced transit fare program for low-income New Yorkers known as Fair Fares, following criticism from state transit bigwigs and advocates that City Hall wasn’t doing enough to make needy commuters aware of the benefit.
“We’ve put a lot of money in the budget to start it up again and promote it,” de Blasio said in response to a question by amNewYork Metro at his July 20 briefing. “I definitely want an aggressive outreach effort.”
The mayor and the City Council quietly restored funding for the two-year-old program to $53 million in this year’s city budget, half of pre-pandemic levels when $106 million was earmarked for the initiative, and de Blasio reiterated his administration’s approach Tuesday that officials would boost funding if demand grows.
“If it becomes more and more popular, we’ll make adjustments to keep ensuring that it can grow,” he said. “I think it’s something that really helps people, but you know, we also need to see people coming back to the subways in the kind of numbers we use to know to really get to the full impact.”
The program launched in 2019 and 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 city buys MetroCards from the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and then sells them to eligible New Yorkers through the Department of Social Services at half price.
De Blasio and the City Council agreed to slash Fair Fares funding at the outset of the pandemic in April 2020 by $65.5 million down to $40.5 million, due to cratering revenues and a drop in demand as people avoided public transit en masse for fear of catching COVID-19.
Despite that cut, enrollment doubled in the first half of 2020 following an advertising blitz in January, form 101,094 that month to 202,045 by July, topping out 235,474 by December. But the figure has stagnated around 230,000 for the first half of 2021, despite riders returning to public transit during that time.
About 700,000 New Yorkers match the current requirements to be eligible for the program, according to research by the Community Service Society, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income New Yorkers, and MTA board members said the city dropped the ball on getting people signed up.
“The current administration has not been aggressive and active in promoting Fair Fares,” said MTA finance committee chairperson Larry Schwartz, a longtime ally of Governor Cuomo, on Monday.
David Jones, a mayoral appointee to the MTA board also called on de Blasio to do more for the discount fares program and said officials could double enrollment.
“I think the relative lack, in this case of the city, in advertising this program has impeded [Fair Fares],” said David Jones. “It can reach another quarter of a million easily if we really push it.”
One public transit advocated agreed with the MTA honchos, saying the city should be getting out there to community groups to spread the word about Fair Fares.
“We know that these New Yorkers are out there that would benefit from this program,” said Jaqi Cohen, director of the Straphangers Campaign with the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group. “There’s no reason that the city should not be getting out there more aggressively.”
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 the city’s Human Resources Administration for an in-person appointment.