David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have come together to support a sustainable source of revenue for the Metropolitan Transit Authority bus and subway repairs. They have thrown their support at long last behind congestion pricing as the best option to raise money for the troubled transit system.

After putting aside their bitter rivalry, the governor and mayor released a 10-point plan last week that offers the best chance in years for an opportunity to lock in predictable, long-term sources of revenue to cover budget deficits and critical bus and subway capital improvements. The State Legislature faces an April 1 deadline to take up congestion pricing as part of the state budget.

The Cuomo and de Blasio plan will help hold the line but not totally eliminate the need for future fare hikes. Case in point: the MTA voted to hike fares in April, with a weekly MetroCard rising a buck to $33, and a monthly pass rising to $127, up $6 per month. The fare hike vividly illustrates this reality: the MTA needs both a revenue source for capital improvements as well as future fare hikes for day-to-day operations. That means New York City must take steps now to protect the working poor and low-income families.

After facing criticism for a slow start, the mayor has now committed to a plan to roll out the Fair Fares program to provide half-priced MetroCards to all New Yorkers living at or below the federal poverty level. The program is being phased in. So far, 45,000 employed cash assistance recipients were notified by mail and phone of their eligibility for MetroCard discounts. In April the program will be offered to an additional 85,000 employed food stamp recipients, and in the fall, it will reach another 84,000 New Yorkers below poverty including NYCHA residents, CUNY students and veterans. Starting in January 2020, half-priced fares will be available to all low-income city residents, an estimated 700,000 people. The discount, initially limited to 7-day and 30-day passes, will be good on pay-per-ride MetroCards starting mid-March.

The Community Service Society (CSS) led the campaign for Fair Fares and built, along with Riders Alliance, a strong coalition to advocate for half-priced fares for all residents at or below poverty. From CSS research we found that one in four low-income New Yorkers struggled with the cost of bus and subway fares, forcing many people to choose between a MetroCard and other essentials such as paying rent or buying food. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson championed Fair Fares, securing funds in the budget to pay for it. Relief is now on track for the lowest income city residents; like the trains it faced some delays, but most importantly we now have a clear timeline and plan to make transit affordable to those struggling hard to get ahead. New York City’s program will be the largest by far of any reduced fare program for low-income transit riders anywhere in the country. And it is precisely the kind of game-changing progressive policy that the mayor can claim as a model for other big cities—like Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago—with large black and Latino populations who depend on public transit.

The governor and mayor made the right choice by embracing congestion pricing which would charge drivers tolls for the right to drive into Manhattan below 61st Street. It serves three important goals: generating revenue to support transit, reducing traffic congestion, and encouraging more transit ridership. The governor and mayor have proposed a reorganization of the MTA and that congestion pricing revenue, income from a cannabis tax along with internet sales tax that would be put in a “lock box” reserved solely for transit system capital improvements. Without congestion pricing, MTA officials predict everything from a major fare increase to the laying off of transit workers.

Approving congesting pricing will not solve all of the MTA’s financial problems. The transit agency budget will remain reliant on revenue sources that swing wildly with economic cycles. They include taxes on mortgage originations, real-estate transfers and corporate income. They tend to be boom-or-bust revenue sources, and they figure prominently in the cycle of subway and bus fare hikes and service cuts when the New York City economy falters. What is more, the authority has a long list of costly priorities from improving the bus network to installing more elevators in the subways.

With subway and bus fares all but sure to rise into the foreseeable future, Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to expand and publicize Fair Fares is even more urgent. It deserves the same kind of robust outreach effort that accompanied other important progressive initiatives like Pre-K and paid sick days.

The working poor, the unemployed searching for a job, economically struggling immigrants (regardless of their status), college students and veterans – all those who’ve met the income qualifications should be encouraged to take full advantage of half-fare MetroCards. Next stop: economic opportunity.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years and a member of the MTA Board. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.