After both the mayor and governor declined funding half-fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, the “Fair Fares” campaign rhetoric has sharpened.
Advocates and city officials criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s previous transit proposals and questioned the city’s leadership on Monday addressing inequality at a rally on the steps of City Hall Monday and following a City Council oversight hearing on improving public transportation through the five boroughs.
“We’ve seen this city make investments and suggestions which would cost vastly more than this proposal—watercraft buzzing around city harbors, a light rail transit that could only, ultimately, serve my kids — millennials who have a lot of money and can pay two fares,” said David Jones, an MTA board member appointed by de Blasio.
Jones is also the president and CEO of Community Service Society of New York (CSS), which launched the campaign for income-based fare subsidies with the Riders Alliance in April 2016.
He argued that funding discounted fares for New Yorkers living at or below the federal poverty level would have a much more significant impact on the city than the mayor’s Citywide Ferry Service or shorefront streetcar proposal, known as the Brooklyn-Queens Connector or BQX for short — two planned projects that are not integrated with the MTA’s fare payment system.
There’d be about 800,000 New Yorkers eligible for such a fare reduction. Based on anticipated participation levels, would cost about $200 million to fund annually, according to the CSS and Riders Alliance.
The mayor last month unveiled an $84.7 billion preliminary budget that excluded any such program. He reasoned at the time that the city “can’t afford” subsidizing the discount. Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for the mayor, echoed the remarks in a statement, reiterating that the MTA, a state-run agency, should be responsible for funding the reduced fares.
“The proposal is a noble one, but it would create a substantial financial burden for New York City,” Goldstein said. “As New Yorkers know, the MTA is the responsibility of the State. They should consider covering the cost.”
Former MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast, who retired from his post last month, argued that social policy should not be the responsibility of a transit agency.
Efforts now have trained even tighter on the mayor. With backing from the majority of City Council members, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Transportation Committee, hopes that a program would be included in de Blasio’s final budget proposal.
The city already contributes $1 billion annually in direct subsidies and an additional $4.3 billion in indirect annual subsidies to support MTA operations, according to the mayor’s office. It pays $45 million a year to subsidize fares of schoolchildren and $15.5 million annually to support fare discounts for elderly and disabled commuters.
“So for busing for schoolchildren, you’re willing to participate; for bussing of seniors, you’re willing to participate—but for bussing of poor people, you’re saying ‘not my problem,’ ” argued Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield, who directed his frustration at a city Department of Transportation representative during the hearing. (The MTA declined to attend.) “I can think of no other issue in the city that would do more to help low-income New Yorkers…than lowering the cost of basic transportation.”
As MTA fares are set to increase again on March 19 — the sixth time since 2008 — advocates are sounding the alarm on farebeating offenses. There were 24,591 fare evasion arrests made in 2016, according to the NYPD.
“Since the implementation of broken windows policing, many arrests in low-income communities are for fare evasion,” said Deborah Lolai, client advocate at the Bronx Defenders. “Our clients are not sometimes jumping the turnstile because they want to steal from the MTA. They occasionally do so because they don’t have the money for a MetroCard.”