Last week, New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams added her voice to the call for expanding the reach of the City’s half-priced transit discount program, Fair Fares, to include New Yorkers whose incomes are just above the program’s income eligibility cut-off.
Since its launch in 2019, Fair Fares has provided an economic lifeline to New Yorkers struggling with transit affordability. Under the program, low-income residents with household incomes at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) can receive half-priced bus and subway fares.
But as Speaker Adams acknowledged during her “State of the City” remarks last week — delivered before a packed Bronx audience featuring Mayor Eric Adams, City Council members and a venerable “who’s who” of city leadership — the income threshold for participation in the Fair Fares program is too low, and leaves out many New Yorkers who still struggle every day to afford the fare.
Approximately 280,000 New Yorkers are enrolled in Fair Fares, about one third of the eligible population. Some may ask: Why expand a program with low enrollment? Research shows that Fair Fares’ modest enrollment numbers can be tied directly to lack of public awareness. Many of those eligible for the program simply haven’t heard of it. About half of the 932,000 New Yorkers eligible for Fair Fares had not applied for the program, with another 14 percent reporting they did not know how to apply.
More robust publicizing of the program is sorely needed. But it should go hand in hand with opening the program up to more New Yorkers.
Our Unheard Third survey found that one in three New Yorkers with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of FPL often struggle to pay for transit. These individuals and families—most of whom are working multiple jobs—experience economic insecurity on a daily basis and can be pushed into poverty by even the smallest, unexpected expense like a visit to the emergency room or a malfunctioning appliance.
By expanding Fair Fares to capture New Yorkers with incomes under 200 percent of the poverty line, the City would be making the transit discount available to a large swath of working-class New Yorkers. We’re talking about home healthcare workers, laborers, food service and restaurant workers. In other words, the very people who make this city run.
Consider this: for a family of four, the official poverty level is $26,550. However, for a mother and two children it’s only $23,030, and for a single New Yorker it’s an unimaginable $13,590. The official poverty level–which is the same nationwide, in rural Alabama as in New York City– excludes many New Yorkers who earn a little more, but are still struggling to get to work, medical appointments and school for themselves or their kids. A more realistic measure of economic need in New York City should be at least twice the federal poverty level.
Importantly, expanding eligibility for Fair Fares transit discounts from 100 percent of FPL to 200 percent would provide targeted assistance to a group of working-class New Yorkers who rely almost exclusively on public transit. Such an expansion would provide a steady stream of revenue, making it a win-win for the MTA and working New Yorkers.
Based on a Community Service Society (CSS) analysis of data available from the Census Bureau, roughly 1.7 million working age New Yorkers would qualify for Fair Fares at 200 percent of poverty. Of that number, 45 percent or around 772,000 are likely to be regular bus and subway commuters.
As for the cost, expansion of the program is estimated to cost the city between $195 million and $225 million annually, a rounding error in the city’s $102 billion budget. That seems like a reasonable investment of taxpayer dollars to spread the economic benefits of the program to more New Yorkers.
Compared to other transit agencies with discount fare programs, New York City has one of the most restrictive. According to data compiled by the Journal of the Transportation Research Board, nine of the nation’s 14 largest transit agencies require recipients who receive fare discounts to have incomes between 125 and 200 percent of poverty. That includes the BART system in San Francisco and Kings County Metro which serves the greater Seattle, Washington area.
Of course, none of these systems approach the scale of New York’s. Even so, we need to find ways to keep transit fares affordable for all New Yorkers. To manage costs, the city could phase in expansion based on ridership growth, and adjust funding to meet the need.
When we first imagined Fair Fares, we started cautiously. But today, we know the actual program cost and utilization patterns. All of this tells us that we can afford to expand the program to more of those in need. And we should.
As city budget negotiations begin, we hope Mayor Adams will work with the Speaker and City Council to expand Fair Fairs. In doing so, he will be keeping a promise to fight for working-class New Yorkers.
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 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.