For the 25 percent of subway and bus riders that use the MTA’s new contactless fare payment system OMNY, there hasn’t yet been an unlimited ride option. Riders can only buy a single ride for $2.75. But, the agency is currently reviewing an idea known as fare capping, which would automatically give users an unlimited card if they’ve bought a certain number of single fares.
“It’s one way of taking advantage of OMNY, which we’re going to do,” acting MTA Chairman Janno Lieber said Wednesday.
He thinks there are other fare formulas that OMNY’s all digital system could allow for, although he didn’t elaborate on the other options the board is currently considering.
“The next phase is to look at is how do we use OMNY to give people more appealing fares,” Lieber said. “That’s a subject we’re getting into with the board, the board has ultimate fare responsibility.”
An MTA committee created to examine fare capping hasn’t met yet, according to board member Andrew Albert, who’s on the committee.
Still, Albert supports the idea. “It’s an incentive for more discretionary travel,” he said.
This month, OMNY cards became available to purchase at drugstores, another step to make the program more accessible as the MTA moves to phase out MetroCards by 2023. As before, anyone using a credit card linked to their smartphone or a credit card with a chip will have their fare automatically deducted when they tap an OMNY reader.
While some employers offer commuter benefit cards, not all of those cards come with a chip, so users can always add that non-chip card to their smartphones to use at OMNY readers.
All of these OMNY options still only allow users to buy a single ride, meaning commuters more reliant on mass transit—like those who take more than 12 subway/bus rides a week or 47 rides a month—miss out on discounts.
“Pairing OMNY with fare capping is the perfect match: it’s a marriage between technology and equitable fare policy,” Lisa Daglian, who represents riders on the MTA board as the Executive Director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, wrote in a statement. “It will encourage people to get back onboard, and the more they ride, the sooner they’ll do it for free.
“Fare capping is also essential to making subways and buses affordable for regular riders – including those who now rely on monthly and weekly MetroCards – as we transition to OMNY,” she continued. “Giving all riders the opportunity to get unlimited access to subways and buses without having to upfront costs will level the playing field and allow people of every income ability to take advantage of the benefits of taking as many rides as they need. Hopefully we’ll see that soon on the LIRR and Metro-North as well.”
The commuter rails are expected to have OMNY by 2023.
State Senator Andrew Gournades isn’t waiting for the MTA board to discuss the issue. He submitted legislation to the transportation committee on Thursday that would require the MTA to do fare capping with OMNY.
“Fare capping is a deeply equitable policy, providing automated relief to the most cash-strapped of MTA customers who may not be able to afford unlimited passes upfront,” it notes in the text of the bill.
Under a section of the bill titled “Fiscal implications,” it’s left as “TBD.”
The MTA hasn’t given up on the MetroCard either. In an effort to bolster ridership, the MTA announced Wednesday that it will allow organizations and companies to purchase bulk MetroCards without charging them the $1 “green fee” it usually charges individuals. The only requirement is that companies purchase a minimum of 50 cards.
While the MTA voted to postpone the bi-annual fare hike this year, due to financial struggles of many riders, and the ongoing effort to bring riders back to mass transit from the pandemic lows, the agency is still expecting major shortfalls in the coming years.
There have been new pandemic-era ridership highs, like more than 3 million riders every weekday on the subways last week. But across the MTA’s properties, overall ridership isn’t even half of what it was before the pandemic. Currently, the MTA is at 44% of pre-pandemic levels. While that’s 4% better than what the firm McKinsey’s had predicted for the agency at this point in the recovery, it still means a major loss in revenue.
The MTA is expected to make just $2.8 billion this year from fares, compared to $6.4 billion in 2019.
Federal relief sent to the MTA this year will allow the agency to close the year with a balanced budget, which is required by state law. But it’s unclear how the MTA will close its budget gap in the coming years.
In July, the agency reported that it expects to end this year with a $5 million surplus. But is projecting deficits in the coming years: $3.1 billion in 2022, 2.4 billion in 2023, $2.4 billion in 2024, for a total of nearly $8 billion.
Next month the MTA will present the board with its updated financial plan, and the board will begin thinking about what type of fare increase riders could face next year, and whether OMNY will play a role in it.