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URBAN AGENDA | Mayor de Blasio to the City’s Working Poor: Take the Trolley

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS) | 4/20/2017, midnight
Mayor Bill de Blasio just doesn’t get it. He has staunchly opposed Fair Fares -- a program to implement half-priced ...
Mayor Bill de Blasio PIX 11 News/Facebook

Mayor Bill de Blasio just doesn’t get it. He has staunchly opposed Fair Fares -- a program to implement half-priced MetroCards for working poor families in the city. This despite his pledge to address inequities that make it harder for low-income families to get ahead.

The mayor argues that the city cannot afford Fair Fares. But the city has an $85 billion budget. Yet rather than dip a little into that pool to ensure that the poorest among us can access our public transit system, the mayor prefers to spend billions in subsidies and capital on building a trolley to connect middle and upper-income waterfront neighborhoods and on high-speed ferries.

On the other hand, the City Council does get it. In its response to the mayor’s proposed FY2018 preliminary budget, the Council is calling for $50 million to support Fair Fares. It recognizes that making half-priced MetroCards available to working-age individuals living at or below poverty will mean that more New Yorkers will be able to afford to ride the subway and bus to work, to school, to medical appointments, to pick up their kids from school. They will no longer need to quietly beg for swipes or take chances and jump the turnstiles.

Criminalizing Poverty

This last point bears further discussion. Fully funding Fair Fares will address the slow-motion war on low-income workers and the poor now being carried out in our subway stations by our own police force. On average, a quarter of all arrests in New York City in recent years were for fare beating. In the first quarter of this year, 4,600 people were arrested for fare evasion, an overwhelming 90 percent of them black and Hispanic, according to NYPD figures. This continues a trend from 2015, when the NYPD arrested nearly 30,000 New Yorkers for fare evasion.

And even where individuals are issued a summons instead of being arrested – as some 70,000 were in 2015 – the effect is not benign. A fare beat summons carries a $100 fine. How we can expect a person who could not afford $2.75 to pay $100 on demand baffles me. In fact less than half of these summons fines are paid or collected. And revenues collected go to the New York City General fund, not to the MTA to support its work.

If these numbers are not overwhelming enough, consider the impact on immigrants, who can face deportation for a fare evasion arrest, as the NYPD now grudgingly acknowledges. The Trump administration’s hard line immigration policies place at risk not only undocumented immigrants, but also legal permanent residents. That’s right: Green Card holders are at risk here, too. There are already news accounts of federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents waiting outside New York City criminal courts to nab people arrested on these charges.

Quite simply, fare evasion is driven by the city’s affordability crisis. It’s reasonable to assume the MTA fare hike approved last month made public transportation even more unaffordable. It puts an even tighter squeeze on one of every four low-income MTA riders who say in opinion polls they cannot afford their basic transportation needs.