This transit chief is tired of half-measures!
New York City must fully refund its program to provide half-price MetroCards to poor New Yorkers, also known as Fair Fares, said Metropolitan Transportation Authority leader Janno Lieber Monday.
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council dramatically slashed the city initiative’s funding during the pandemic, before restoring it halfway last year. But Lieber, who chairs the state-controlled MTA, called on City Hall to divert more cash to help needy commuters, many of whom are essential workers and never left the subways and buses during the COVID-19 crisis.
“At the moment that those people were heroically continuing to use mass transit, the city cut investment in the Fair Fares program, and that doesn’t make sense and we hope and expect that that will be reversed,” Lieber told reporters during a press conference at Fulton Center on Feb. 7.
Fair Fares launched in 2019 with the city’s Department of Social Services purchasing MetroCards from the MTA and reselling them to eligible New Yorkers at a 50% discount for subways, buses, and Access-a-Ride.
Commuters aged 18-64 that live at or below the federal poverty line can apply for the program, but during the 2020 budget negotiations, de Blasio and the Council — then led by Speaker Corey Johnson — slashed its funding by 62% from $106 million to $40.5 million amid cratering revenues due to the pandemic.
They refilled the pot of money to $53 million in 2021, making up only 0.05% of the city’s massive $98.7 billion annual budget.
Slightly more than a third of people that meet the federal threshold have availed of the program so far, according to expert calculations, and Lieber said the city should bring the Fair Fares allocation back to pre-pandemic levels at a minimum.
“We should push enrollment up a lot and that means at least to have all of the money that the city put into this before the pandemic restored,” he said.
City Hall officials previously said they would adjust the funding to meet demand, citing depressed pandemic-era ridership for only bringing back funding to 50% at the time, but Lieber has pushed municipal officials to double enrollment in 2022 and DSS launched an ad campaign to boost awareness last year, which led to an increase in sign ups.
Currently, 268,574 people are enrolled in the program, according to its website, out of the 753,406 working-age city residents that meet the income threshold, according to Debipriya Chatterjee, an economist with the Community Service Society, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income New Yorkers.
The organization’s president and CEO David Jones also sits on the MTA board and has been the main cheerleader for Fair Fares on the transit panel.
“The MTA chair knows the city could effectively double the number of New Yorkers utilizing Fair Fares, and in the process get more people back on the buses and subways, which will help fuel the city’s recovery,” Jones said in a statement.
He previously said the city should raise the bar to the city’s poverty level, which is higher than that of the feds because it accounts for the steep cost of living in the Five Boroughs.
That would make almost 1 million New Yorkers eligible, or 932,022 to be exact, according to Chatterjee, and Lieber said it would make sense for city officials to consider.
“It does make sense to consider using a standard for that enrollment that isn’t just the federal poverty standard, which is obviously inconsistent with New York’s cost-of-living realities,” he said.
A spokesperson for Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said lawmakers will negotiate the allocation in the coming months for the upcoming budget.
“This Council is committed to supporting low-income New Yorkers. It is essential to keep our public transportation system accessible for all, especially as we recover from this pandemic and encourage New Yorkers’ return to the subway system,” said Breeana Mulligan in a statement. “We look forward to discussing these issues with the other side of City Hall in the upcoming budget process.”
Mayor Eric Adams’s office did not provide comment by press time.