An MTA Discount Program So Exclusive Almost No One in New York Qualifies

Derek Jiminez relies on the New York City subway to get to a maintenance job that pays around $1,000 a month. The fare adds up fast, but since he got a half-price MetroCard two years ago, his checks have gone up a bit more.

With the extra money, he can afford things he couldn’t buy before, like a pair of guitars he bought on sale. But above all, he says, he saves what he can.

“I’m sticking to it for now, for rainy days,” said Mr. Jiminez, 56, who lives in East Harlem. “The economy is really suffering.”

Mr. Jiminez is among 260,000 passengers enrolled in the city’s Fair Fares program, which subsidizes public transit fares for New Yorkers whose income is below the federal poverty level — about $28,000 a year for a family of four. Since the program launched in April 2019, registrations have increased almost sevenfold.

Many elected officials, advocates and the head of the transit agency that operates the subway have been lobbying incoming mayor Eric Adams to fund more of the program and expand eligibility, arguing that many other users could benefit from it.

New York City, where it typically costs $2.75 to ride the subway, operates one of the most expensive major transit systems in the country, and despite the popularity of the discount fare program, it only reaches poorest users. Many working-class commuters, who rely on public transit daily, don’t qualify and have to dig deep to ride.

Of the U.S. cities that offer discounted rates, New York has among the strictest income eligibility rules for its program, requiring applicants to be at or below the federal poverty level.

About 900,000 adult New Yorkers live in poverty, according to census data.

“It is imperative that public transportation is accessible, affordable and equitable for all New Yorkers,” City Council President Adrienne Adams said in a statement Sunday, as she called on the mayor to double funding for the program, $53 million. at $106 million. The city pledged that amount at the start of the program, but it was cut in half when the pandemic triggered a financial crisis.

Mr. Adams agreed on Monday to increase the funding, but only to $75 million. “Since its inception, Fair Fares has proven to be a transformative program for so many New Yorkers struggling to cope,” Mr. Adams said in a joint statement with the speaker.

Although Ms. Adams said she was happy with the additional funds, she added that the Council would continue to ask for more money.

Discounted MetroCards, which can be used on the subway and on buses, can be a financial lifeline in New York City, where for many residents public transit is a basic necessity.

“People are literally choosing between having a meal and paying for a MetroCard,” said Danny Pearlstein, spokesman for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group.

Felix Cepeda, 41, makes a modest living, in part doing community outreach for an immigrant advocacy group. He sleeps at his girlfriend’s apartment in East Harlem or at a sister’s in the Bronx. He said he used to jump turnstiles before he signed up for Fair Fares last fall.

“It’s very difficult to put money that I don’t have to spend on the card,” Mr Cepeda said. “It’s money I can use for food.”

Janno Lieber, president and CEO of the MTA, said expanding the subsidized MetroCard program could help the transit system attract riders as it struggles to emerge from the pandemic.

City leaders have “talked about all these different poverty and equity priorities,” Lieber said. “They have already made a commitment to this. They just need to fund it to a level that makes it real.

The agency’s finances, which have been battered by the loss of goodwill in the age of the pandemic, have been stabilized by injections of federal aid, as well as millions of state dollars allocated by Governor Kathy Hochul to help delay planned rate hikes. But the MTA still faces a $1.4 billion shortfall in 2025.

The first budget proposed by Mr. Adams is due Wednesday and transit advocates say the city can afford to spend more money on the subsidized fare program. The city’s current spending plan is $102.8 billion.

“For a relatively small percentage of the city’s budget, that can make a very big difference,” Pearlstein said.

A survey released Monday by the Community Service Society, an anti-poverty nonprofit, found that many low-income New Yorkers didn’t even know the Fair Fares program existed. The report also found that many poorer people, especially those who identify as Latino or Black, struggled to afford subway or bus tickets.

In addition to spending more money on the program, the group is urging officials to raise the income threshold for applicants and promote fair fees more aggressively. Today, part of this awareness is done through advertisements in subways, buses and some stores.

“We use a poverty rate that applies to Mississippi and Manhattan, which is crazy,” said David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society and MTA board member. “What may seem like a bargain in Mississippi may barely pay rent in New York City.”

Among major U.S. cities, New York’s transit system is the third least affordable by percentage of revenue spent on fares, behind only Los Angeles and Miami, according to a recent assessment by ValuePenguin, a transit research website. consumers.

According to a study published last summer in Transportation Research Record, an academic journal, at least 15 cities in the United States offer discounted programs for low-income transit riders.

Low-income passengers on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority system can receive $6 off the cost of $12.50 weekly passes and $24 off the cost of $50 monthly passes thanks to the Low-Income Fare is Easy program. Boston offers a more limited program for low-income riders ages 18-25.

In New York, the Fair Fares discount can be applied to weekly and monthly unlimited ride cards, reducing the price of a weekly pass from $33 to $16.50 and a monthly pass from $127 to $63.50 .

The 50% discount is also available for the Access-A-Ride program, which provides door-to-door transportation within the city for people who cannot use public transportation due to physical or mental disabilities.

Early in the pandemic, some transit systems, including the MTA, temporarily stopped charging for bus tickets to limit contact between riders and drivers. In Boston, authorities have decided to make at least three bus lines free until February 2024, in the hope of making the system fairer.

The Fair Fares program was created after years of aggressive lobbying by transit advocates and anti-poverty groups, who argued it would help the city tackle inequality.

Mr. Adams’ predecessor, Bill de Blasio, was initially cool about the idea because he didn’t want to provide more money to the MTA than the city was already doing.

He eventually gave in to pressure from the city council, but the rollout of the program was disorganized: it didn’t start on time, people were confused about how to apply, and it wasn’t always clear who could be eligible or what types of MetroCards would be offered at half. the price.

“Much of the population is low income, provides service jobs and, essentially, ensures that our communities continue to function. And they continue to use public transit in much higher numbers,” said Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “I think we need to see public transit as that essential provision for low-income people.

About Eleanor Blackburn

Check Also

Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families Board of Directors Expands

The Council has been expanded to increase representation from across Canada as well as to …