City Council Presses Officials on Discounted MetroCards for Poor New Yorkers

Councilwoman Margaret Chin speaks during a rally for reduced fare MetroCards this morning in front of City Hall. photo viaCouncilwoman Margaret Chin speaks during a rally for reduced fare MetroCards this morning in front of City Hall. photo via Margaret Chin's Twitter

An estimated 800,000 working-class New Yorkers would benefit from subsidized, half-price MetroCards. The City Council hammered transit officials today on how the city and the MTA should be doing more to make discounted subway and commuter rail fares a reality for low-income people across the five boroughs.

“You’re spending $13 billion more since this mayor became mayor,” railed Councilman David Greenfield during a hearing on the reduced fare proposal, Fair Fares. “You’re already spending more money on busing school children, spending more money for busing seniors. Why not give a few bucks for [busing poor people]?”

Eric Beaton, senior director of transit development for the city Department of Transportation, claimed the city simply didn’t have the money to fund the program, which would cost an estimated $212 million a year. “We contribute hundreds of millions a year to MTA operations,” he said. “While it’s something we support we don’t think it’s in the city budget right now.”

He added that the state should fund the plan. Later on, Greenfield accused DOT of “passing the buck” on paying for the low-income fare plan.

“It would save someone $726 a year,” testified David Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York (CSSNY) and Mayor de Blasio’s appointee to the MTA board. “That’s something that doesn’t go into hedge funds, it goes right into the economy. Food, rent.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio released an $84.7 billion preliminary budget for the city last month. At the time, he argued that the city couldn’t afford to fund the reduced fare program. But in the coming years, city taxpayers may have to shoulder the $2.5 billion cost of constructing the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar (also known as BQX), which might not even offer free transfers to subways and buses.

“The [reduced fare] proposal is a noble one, but it would create a substantial financial burden for New York City. As New Yorkers know, the MTA is the responsibility of the State. They should consider covering the cost,” mayoral spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein said in a statement.

The city provides nearly $1 billion annually in direct subsidies and an additional $4.3 billion in indirect annual subsidies to support MTA operations, according to the mayor’s office.

Last year, CSSNY found that more than a quarter of New Yorkers say they often can’t afford subway or bus fare. Many low-income riders forego getting medical care or attending job interviews because they don’t have enough money for the subway, according to the organization.

“Already at 2.75 a swipe, the fares are an obstacle for me and members of my community,” said Norma, a member of Riders Alliance and an unemployed mother of three girls who lives in the Bronx. “I need a metro card to get to the store, to get the girls to school, to take them to doctor’s appointments, therapy, and to get them to community and political activities that I’m involved in. Sometimes I have to choose between a metro card and buying a snack for my girls.”

Advocates from Riders Alliance, Transportation Alternatives, and several other organizations said that subsidizing fares would help reduce the number of people jumping subway turnstiles and getting arrested for it.

Between 2008 and 2013, nearly 37,500 people received sentences for fare evasions that involved time behind bars, testified Bronx Defenders attorney Deborah Lolai. “Making public transportation more affordable for the communities we serve will result in fewer arrests,” she explained. “Our clients don’t sometimes jump turnstiles because they want to steal from the MTA. They occasionally do so because they don’t have the money to buy metro cards.”