While Governor Cuomo continues to punt on funding the MTA's long-overdue 2015-2019 Capital Plan, a group of transit advocates is calling on the city to establish a half-price MetroCard program for the City's working poor—about 800,000 New Yorkers, excluding seniors and the disabled, who live at or below the federal poverty threshold, or $11,880 for a single adult. Under the proposed plan, a single ride would cost about $1.35; riders who purchase monthly cards could save up to $700 per year.
"Because the MTA is cash-strapped, we're saying that it makes sense for the program to be run by the city," said Riders Alliance member Rebecca Bailin on Monday. "If we're helping folks with housing and food, why not help them with this basic necessity?"
A joint study [PDF] released in conjunction with the campaign by the Riders Alliance and the Community Service Society—a nonprofit that advocates for low-income New Yorkers—found that more than a quarter of low-income, working New Yorkers were unable to afford subway or bus fare at least once in 2015. Leslie, a single mother from Harlem who makes about $17,000 per year, told survey collectors that she often encourages her 14-year-old son to slide under the turnstile, and skips her substitute teaching gigs when she doesn't have enough cash for a single ride.
Advocates argue that the reduced-fare options already in place exclude the city's most cash-strapped commuters. For example, many employers are required to offer a tax deduction for commuting expenses—a benefit for New Yorkers with full-time jobs, primarily middle- and upper-class. Reductions for the elderly and disabled exclude many of the working poor, and monthly unlimited passes offer savings for those who can afford putting up $116.50 at once at the beginning of the month.
Based on the percentage of low-income New Yorkers in NYC who use food stamps, the advocates estimate that about 361,000 residents would opt into the reduced-fare program, at a cost of about $194 million per year. If the City raised the eligibility threshold to 130% of the federal poverty level—the threshold that determines food stamp eligibility—more than a million New Yorkers would qualify, at a cost of about $265 million per year.
If the Human Resources Administration were to administer the program, advocates argue that the cost would be offset by about $48 million—funding already set aside for reduced-fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers in certain qualified job training programs.
More affordable fares might also reduce turnstile-jumping. According to the Police Reform Organizing Project, the NYPD made 29,000 arrests for fare beating in 2015—more than any other type of arrest.
Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, said in a statement that her firm sees thousands of clients annually who have been arrested for fare beating. "The vast majority of people arrested for this offense are Black or Latino," she said. "Many are detained on Rikers Island at a cost of about $500 per day simply because they might not be able to afford a $2.75 subway fare."
The MTA did not immediately responded to a request for comment on the plan, which has the support of both Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James. The agency has recently balked at proposals that it argues would cut deeply into annual revenues, including a free shuttle bus to LaGuardia Airport and a $2.75 MetroNorth fare within NYC limits. The latter proposal was rejected on the grounds that it would cost the MTA about $70 million per year.
A spokeswoman for the Mayor's office in a statement that, "The Riders Alliance and the Community Service Society have put together an interesting proposal, and we look forward to reviewing the report in greater detail."