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

Three things make New York City the world’s greatest city: Its resilient and diverse people, the idyllic Central Park, and the New York City subway, the central nervous system that keeps our great city moving.

Former Governor Andrew Cuomo ran the subways with an iron fist, through his power to appoint the majority of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board. The system gives the governor sway over the subways while New York City’s mayor retains enormous power over surface transportation.

With Cuomo’s exit as the state’s chief executive, there is an opportunity to make positive changes at North America’s largest subway system. We need initiatives long snubbed by Cuomo that would benefit all New Yorkers, particularly people of color, who disproportionately depend on MTA rail and bus service.

We must demand that the city go forward with extending the Second Avenue subway to Harlem and implementing long-delayed congestion pricing, which would provide badly needed capital funding to the MTA to address its myriad challenges. We should also expand the “Fair Fares” program which received $53 million in this year’s budget, about half of the pre-pandemic level. We should even consider extending the discounts to moderate income Metro-North and Long Island Railroad commuters, an idea ignored by Cuomo.

Governor Kathy Hochul, who officially assumed duties on August 24 and views the MTA as vital to the state economy, has already said she wants to upend the status quo. She made a point of riding the subway to Harlem last month to welcome the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women convention.

An MTA board shakeup (disclosure: I’m a member) could be in the cards. Our new governor might use a 2019 law that says the term of any board member expires along with that of the city or state official who recommended them for the post.

Gov. Hochul has pledged to work with the next NYC mayor. Democrat Eric Adams, the hands-down favorite to win the November general election, has signaled he has big plans for public transportation. MTA service plummeted to unprecedented lows during the pandemic. The agency has struggled to regain ridership.

The governor and the new mayor will have plenty of room to make policy moves. Cuomo’s exit leaves a long list of MTA signature projects in flux and the MTA’s top leadership in transition. Cuomo announced his resignation the same day the U.S. Senate passed a historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that is likely to send New York billions of dollars for massive projects.

The congestion pricing plan championed by Cuomo, which would toll vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, has been stuck in place for months over an environmental assessment. Cuomo blamed the Trump administration for the delays, but President Joe Biden gave the greenlight for the assessment last March. The MTA still hasn’t moved towards implementing it.

Revenue from congestion pricing would fund all sorts of repairs, such as new signals and tracks, handicap accessibility upgrades at 66 subway stations, and add 1,900 new subway cars and 200 more buses. It also would increase the Long Island Rail Road’s capacity by 50 percent.

The MTA board must follow through on Cuomo’s pledge to build the decades-old plan to extend the Q line up to 125th Street, beyond its current end at 96th Street. The East Harlem line would include desperately needed new stations at 106th and 116th streets

Fair Fares was launched in 2019 and enables New Yorkers aged 18-64 living at or below the federal poverty level to get a 50 percent discount for fares on subways, buses and Access-a-Ride. The federal poverty level for 2021 applies to an individual earning $12,880 a year, $17,420 for a family of two, and $26,500 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The de Blasio administration will soon begin promoting Fair Fares again with ads in English, Spanish and Chinese on buses and subways, at subway station entrances, on bus kiosks and inside local storefronts; in ethnic publications covering 11 languages; radio and digital ads, all with a focus on neighborhoods with the highest needs.

A promotional blitz of the Fair Fares program is long overdue. My organization, Community Service Society, estimates that based on 2019 Census data, as many as 700,000 New Yorkers could be eligible for discount MetroCards. The city can and should do more to reach those who are eligible.

In fact, we should consider expanding eligibility to all low-income New Yorkers (incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty level) to ensure Fair Fares is available to workers who ride MTA Express Buses, the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, PATH and the JFK AirTrain, all of which currently prohibit Fair Fares discounts.

Why do such a thing? Because Metro-North and Long Island Railroad commuters pay a king’s ransom of as much as $500 for monthly passes.

That’s a pretty penny for moderate income workers, many of them struggling to afford the daily schlep to New York City.

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 an MTA Board Member. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.