Fair Fares is a subsidy for the poor, not the MTA
Like many New Yorkers, Yomaira simply wants to provide for her family. She works as a home health aide, often seven days a week, to make ends meet and never takes a vacation. It’s a real challenge for her to support her brilliant daughter, a student at Brown on a full scholarship, while at the same time caring for her own mother. As rents rise uptown, the seemingly small cost of a MetroCard has become a huge burden for Yomaira. She would rather purchase the more cost-effective unlimited MetroCard but she rarely has enough for the upfront costs.
Yomaira must make tough choices to get her mother to frequent doctor appointments. She prides herself on being responsible, carefully setting aside money for different expenses. Yet far too often, she has to take money intended to pay rent in order to purchase a MetroCard. This means she pays her rent late, or worse, her mother misses appointments because they can’t afford to get to the doctor.
Yomaira’s struggle is a common one; nearly 20 percent of all New Yorkers live in poverty. For this population, the phrase “It’s expensive to be poor” could not be truer. By virtue of not having the money to purchase unlimited MetroCards, our most vulnerable neighbors actually end up paying more for their transportation. One in four lower-income New Yorkers – including many of our constituents – reported that they were often unable to afford fares in the last year, according to the anti-poverty group Community Service Society. To those struggling financially, a fare is a means to receive medical care, advance educational attainment and pursue employment opportunities.
By virtue of not having the money to purchase unlimited MetroCards, our most vulnerable neighbors actually end up paying more for their transportation.
In response, the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance and Community Service Society have proposed implementing “Fair Fares,” a plan to cut fares in half for people below the poverty line. This plan is modeled after similar poverty-alleviating programs other cities across the country have created. If eligibility for such a program were placed at the poverty line, as many as 800,000 New Yorkers would be eligible for help.
To protect the vulnerable, we must reduce barriers to opportunity. New York City boasts one of the most extensive transportation networks in the world. However, too many New Yorkers are prevented from utilizing this vast network to escape poverty. Instead of being free to pursue educational and economic opportunities, many of our neighbors are forced to make do with less. As a result, the rationing of MetroCards is common. The simple act of moving around the city is weighted against the ability to pay rent, bills or putting food on the table. This exercise often forces individuals to decide between seeking medical care and pursuing a job. These are not the types of decisions New Yorkers should be making.
This reality is not one we are powerless to change. A majority of our colleagues on the City Council support the Fair Fares campaign, as do a growing number of New Yorkers. As the respective chairs of the Transportation and General Welfare Committees, we understand that this is an investment in the promise of hard-working New Yorkers. It is a step toward transit equity and combating poverty that perpetuates the tale of two cities our mayor has worked so hard to address.
The notion that the state will take up this cause, while an attractive idea, is sadly a fantasy. State Senate Republicans are loath to support lower-income city residents and the MTA already faces significant budget challenges. Let us not look to Albany, but instead look into the eyes of our fellow needy New Yorkers. As we have done in the past, let us commit to upholding our ideals of fairness and opportunity for all. New York City currently helps subsidize fares for seniors, people with disabilities and student fares. The city’s Human Resources Administration already spends tens of millions providing low income residents free MetroCards – but they are only available when recipients attend services and workshops, forcing many to hoard their MetroCards or haggle for more cards . We propose a formal, unified program so New Yorkers can get to work, college classes or take their kids to childcare. Now is the time. We need our mayor to continue to deliver results to hard-working families.
Like Yomaira, there are many more New Yorkers, whose lives transformed with a lifeline to public transit. The mayor has called Fair Fares a “noble idea” he is open to considering. We, and a majority of our colleagues in the Council, stand ready to partner with him to make this noble idea into reality.
Ydanis Rodriguez is the chair of the City Council's Transportation Committee and represents the 10th Council District in Manhattan. Stephen Levin is the chair of the Council's General Welfare Committee represents the 33rd Council District in Brooklyn.