Get Ready for the $3 MetroCard Swipe (Sorry, Poor People)

Governor Andrew Cuomo and MTA chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast, the two men who effectively control the MTA, ride the E train in September, 2014.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and MTA chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast, the two men who effectively control the MTA, ride the E train in September, 2014.
Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

The cost of a MetroCard swipe could increase next year from $2.75 to $3, and thirty-day passes will increase from $116.50 to $121, as part of a 4 percent jump in tolls and fares unveiled at today’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting.

The increase does not include discounts for low-income New Yorkers, nor does it reduce the high cost of Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road for city residents beyond the reach of the subway — two proposals the MTA board deferred to a yet-to-be-determined date.

Low-income riders rely on cash and small-dollar MetroCard purchases more than other riders, locking them out of bonuses available to riders who buy in bulk. Transit and anti-poverty advocates, including Community Service Society president and MTA board member David Jones, are leading the push for half-cost fares.

"A hundred and sixteen dollars for a thirty-day pass is beyond the means of many, if not most of the individuals who are really low income," Jones said.

The advocates are pushing Mayor Bill de Blasio to fund the program for city residents. According to a recent story in the Times, the de Blasio administration is looking at the proposal, "but city officials were reluctant to commit to paying for it without the help of the state and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who controls the authority."

Cuomo spokesperson Jon Weinstein referred questions about the governor's position on low-income fares to the MTA.

Suburban representatives said they would also like low-income fares in their areas. "Every one of us is sensitive to the social fare issue," MTA chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast replied. "It is one of the real issues we have to deal with as a board."

Just not today — or at least with this fare hike.

Another punt: Equalizing the cost of Metro-North and LIRR trains in the city with the cost of a MetroCard swipe. In an April update to its OneNYC environmental plan, the de Blasio administration said it would "work with the MTA to complete [a] study of commuter rail fare policy prior to scheduled 2017 fare and toll increases."

That study has not materialized, though the city’s Department of Transportation says it is working closely with the MTA on reduced fares for in-city trips. The Voice asked Prendergast about the study after today’s board meeting. He wasn’t aware of it. "I’ll go back to staff," he said. "We may or may not have been involved."

Bottom line: Lower-cost commuter rail trips won’t be happening with this fare hike, either.

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The MTA is touting this fare increase as its lowest since 2009, and pointing to cost-cutting initiatives launched in 2010 that are now yielding $1.6 billion in annual savings, set to increase to $2 billion a year by 2020. "The cost cutting that we’ve done has avoided a 20 percent fare and toll increase in this time," said MTA chief financial officer Robert Foran.

That doesn’t erase the compounding impact of fare hikes scheduled every two years since 2009. From 2008 until 2017, when the latest increase is set to take effect, the cost of a thirty-day pass will have jumped 49 percent, from $81 to $121, and a MetroCard swipe will have gone from $2 to $3. (The MTA is also weighing an option to keep the fare at $2.75, while reducing the bonus offered to people who load $5.50 or more onto a MetroCard.)

Over the long term, labor, health, and capital costs threaten the MTA’s budget, a burden that is being increasingly pushed onto straphangers.

Interested parties are already lining up: thousands of Transport Workers Union Local 100 members held a rally in front of MTA headquarters in Lower Manhattan last night to lay out their demands for a new contract. Their current contract, negotiated months before Governor Andrew Cuomo secured re-election in 2014, expires at the end of the year.

Another threat: the sky-high cost of capital projects in New York, driven by big-ticket subway and train expansions. Even smaller items, like the $500 million cashless tolls program Cuomo is ramming through the MTA, cost much more than comparable projects in other cities.

Prendergast waved off this concern, simply saying that New York’s system is more complex and expensive than any other city in the world. "There is no comparable city to New York," he said. "There is no place where it’s 24/7."

Public hearings on the fare hike are scheduled for next month, before the MTA board approves a final plan in January.


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