NYC Has An Affordability Crisis — So Why Won’t Politicians Help The Poor Afford Public Transit?


For Monica Martinez’s family, taking the subway is a luxury.

“If we go out, I have to check my purse first — I don’t have a bank account,” the 35-year-old stay-at-home mother of three tells the Voice. “I have to check how much money I have in my MetroCard, how much money it’s going to cost to get back.”

The Bronx resident says her family’s budget became even tighter this fall after her husband, Alejandro, lost his job at a pizzeria.

“We had a really tough time in our house,” Martinez recalls. “If he had money saved, that money was gone. We didn’t have Thanksgiving, no Christmas presents, no Christmas dinner. So it’s been a little bit rough. But we have felt we are OK. My husband is a really hard worker, and he’s always looking out for us.”

Martinez and her family represent some of the 800,000 New Yorkers who live at or below the federal poverty guidelines — $28,780 a year for a family of five. They are the group that would benefit from “Fair Fares,” a proposal from the Riders Alliance and the Community Service Society (CSS) that would use city or state funds to provide low-income city residents with half-price MetroCards.

The proposal would cost roughly $200 million annually, according to a report from CSS, and could be administered by the city’s Human Resources Administration. If implemented, it would save eligible New Yorkers who buy monthly MetroCards $700 per person per year.

Harold Stolper, the CSS senior labor economist who co-wrote the report, says the program would mean “about $196 million goes back into the pockets of poor New Yorkers.” And it might not even cost that much in reduced revenue, since as the cost per ride falls, Fair Fares riders might take more trips.

A CSS-commissioned survey showed that more than a quarter of low-income New Yorkers can’t afford current transit fares, and there’s strong support for Fair Fares from the City Council and Comptroller Scott Stringer. But the program has been rejected both by the head of the MTA, appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who told reporters at an April 26 budget presentation that transit fare relief would not be included in the city’s $84.86 billion budget for next year.

“It’s a good thing,” de Blasio said when asked about Fair Fares. “But in a world of choices, one, we have other things that I think are even more strategically important . . . [and] structurally, it should be a responsibility of the MTA.”

When then-MTA chairman Tom Prendergast was asked about the program earlier this year, he stressed that “social services are rightly the role of municipalities in caring for their residents.”

“It should not be the MTA’s role, nor can the MTA afford to provide what would be a very real benefit to the poor,” Prendergast said.

For Martinez, who says her family earns around half the federal poverty threshold, the monthly benefit would be $60.50, half the price of the 30-day MetroCard that her husband buys most of the year to get to his new pizza-making job in Harlem. (In the summer months, he bikes to work from their home on the Grand Concourse.) But the benefits of a half-price MetroCard go beyond that, she says, to expanding her family’s travel boundaries.

“We could go to the movies. We never go to the movies,” she says. “We can go out and eat somewhere. There’s so many things we don’t do because we can’t afford it, or there’s so many things that we don’t have because we always have to put the rent, the cable, the MetroCard first.”

Alexis Perrotta, who teaches at Baruch College and studies equity and public transportation, says the Fair Fares program “would be a tremendous boon in exactly the right place.”

“It’d put a lot of money back into the pockets of people who will spend it, because they need it to spend on necessities,” Perrotta says. “It will go into avoiding homelessness, avoiding foster care, and lots of other things that are costly to society. It will go to the bodega, to the T-Mobile bill.”

For her doctoral research, Perrotta interviewed low-income New Yorkers about how they afford the cost of public transportation. “I was surprised to learn how often people mentioned fare evasion — avoiding the look of the bus driver, hopping turnstiles — how it was some necessary thing,” she says. (The NYPD arrested more than 29,000 people for fare evasion in 2015, and over 90 percent of them were people of color.) “I had a woman very memorably describe, ‘I would never want to just do that with no good reason.’ She would never take that risk unless she really had to.”

In dismissing the program on Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio cited the costs: “It’s $200 million, that’s a huge amount. It should be the responsibility of the MTA.”

But Stolper, the labor economist, says that the true costs and effects of the program are difficult to measure. “You could anecdotally, say, look at Seattle or San Francisco, look at changes in fare-beating arrests, look at employment among low-income folks.” But it would be hard to tell how much of any shift is due to those cities’ discounted-fares programs, he notes: “So many other things are changing, it’s not really something you could compare rigorously.”

The transit system of King County, Washington, which encompasses Seattle, has an annual ridership of 122 million and has instituted one of the country’s largest transit benefit programs for the poor. The benefit, called Orca Lift, provides unlimited monthly rides on light rail and express commuter buses for $54, half the cost of the regular fare. Orca Lift is available to people who live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or $57,560 for a family of five.

“We were looking at another fare increase in 2015, so we wanted to come up with something to help the low-income riders,” Mark Konecny, Orca Lift’s project manager, tells the Voice. “It just makes for a stronger economy if people can afford to get around and have money to spend on other things.”

Around 324,000 people are eligible for the program, though only 44,000 people currently use it. But Konecny is quick to add that “we want to make sure that anybody who is qualified for it can better their lives with it.” The goal, he says, is helping people with transportation costs so they can focus on improving other aspects of their lives.

“It’s called Orca Lift for a reason. It lifts people into better circumstances,” Konecny says. “You just make a stronger community when everyone gets a fair shake.”

King County’s program represents $5.8 million (including the $2.7 million in lost revenue), or less than 1 percent, of its transit agency’s $770 million annual budget. In New York, with more than ten times the annual ridership, Fair Fares would amount to less than 1.5 percent of the MTA’s annual $15.6 billion operating budget, and around 0.25 percent of the city’s $84.86 billion budget.

Mayor de Blasio, who in this year’s State of the City address said that New York’s “affordability crisis” (a phrase he used five times in that speech) “threatens the very soul of this city,” began his budget presentation on Wednesday lamenting how difficult it is for working-class people to live in New York City.

“For so many people in this city, it is still a great challenge to make ends meet, and for so many people who work so hard and try and do everything the right way, life in this city is very, very challenging,” the mayor said. “We’re trying in every way we can to relieve those burdens, make it easier on our people to live a good life in this city.”

Yet the mayor insisted that half-price MetroCards for the poor is “a very good idea that we should not do as a city expenditure.” And he waved off a Fair Fares pilot program, proposed last Tuesday by a majority of the City Council and the Riders Alliance, that would cost $50 million and cover a smaller section of New York’s poor residents.

“The minute you take a responsibility off the MTA and you start it at the city level, don’t be surprised if people in Albany try and keep it at the city level,” the mayor said. “The MTA needs to look at its expenditures and decide its priorities, and it needs to be really careful it’s investing enough in New York City, which has been a historic concern, but I’m not going to allow, in that or in any other areas, the state to shift expenses on to New York City.”

The city currently provides $1 billion to the MTA in operating expenses, including hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize discounted fares for students and seniors.

Advocates for the program say that instead of using city funding the state could pay for it by raising the gasoline tax, extending the “millionaire’s tax,” or through fairer tolls on bridges and tunnels.

Governor Cuomo, who spent Thursday afternoon driving President Franklin Roosevelt’s antique car over the new Kosciuszko Bridge, through a spokesperson declined to comment on these possibilities and referred the Voice to the MTA.

“The MTA keeps fares as low as possible while providing safe, reliable service,” agency spokesperson Beth DeFalco wrote in an email, adding that the MTA spends hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing rides for seniors, students, and paratransit riders.

Perrotta is puzzled that Fair Fares has failed to win the mayor’s budget support. “We have tax breaks for people who can afford transit checks, we have lower prices mandated for the elderly, for the disabled, we already have differential pricing. It’s not that crazy of an idea.”

Monica Martinez, who recently joined the Riders Alliance, urges the mayor to “come see the people” and talk about Fair Fares.

She recalls how her husband would spend money on transit fares looking for jobs while he was unemployed. “He would go out and come back without eating anything just to save money,” she says. “In moments like that, a half-priced MetroCard would make a big difference.”