The city’s discount MetroCard program for low income New Yorkers was cut in half last year during the pandemic, due both to budget cuts and a drop in demand for mass transit. But now, as ridership continues to climb and businesses reopen, the city is adding slightly more funding to the Fair Fares program in next year’s budget, but that amount may not be enough to meet the demand.

Economists with the Community Service Society, which helped launch the program, warn funding could run out mid-year if the city continues to only fund about half of what it initially was before the pandemic.

“If you imagine a slightly stronger recovery where the transit usage increases the intensity in which each enrollee uses the program more, that increases or the number of people who are enrolling increases, and both of them are very possible scenarios, the funds will not be adequate,” Debipriya Chatterjee, Senior Economist at the Community Service Society of New York, said.

When the city approved the program in 2018 it agreed to a budget of $106 million a year. Due to budget cuts during the pandemic the city reduced it to $41 million. This year, the city is expected to boost it slightly to $55 million.

There are currently 230,000 people enrolled in the program. 

Before the pandemic, they used about $81 million worth of rides. Chatterjee estimates, based on current transit usage, at this rate, the funding might be enough to meet the demand. But if users or the number of trips people take increases by 5-7% the city would need to cover as much as $71 million a year.

The program is not baselined, meaning the city can add money as needed. 

“Fair Fares is a priority for this Council, and we are confident it will be funded to meet the needs of New Yorkers,” Jennifer Fermino, City Council Communications Director wrote in a statement. 

“It is currently funded at the projected participation level.  But as more New Yorkers enroll, the budget will be adjusted accordingly."

When the pandemic started, New Yorkers in the outer boroughs couldn’t afford to quarantine and continued to use mass transit. MTA officials have also framed subway and bus service as being critical to low-income communities

Advocates say the city should also do more to promote the program.

“The access to opportunity Fair Fares affords is more important than ever. Before the pandemic, enrollment was robust and accelerating. Looking ahead, we look forward to working with the mayor and council to bring Fair Fares to even more New Yorkers,”  Danny Pearlstein, Policy and Communications Director with Riders Alliance, wrote in a statement.

And, Chatterjee says, the program will be even more important to help New Yorkers re-enter the job market after the pandemic.

“Transit affordability will prove once again to be a challenging constraint on low income New Yorkers, especially displaced workers, think of the restaurant and leisure industry who now need to access job training programs,” Chatterjee said. “