Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the City Council’s transportation committee, said Wednesday he’s pursuing legislation that would provide free public transportation for working-class city residents.
The lawmaker — who represents the 10th Council District neighborhoods of Inwood, Marble Hill and Washington Heights — provided few details on the plan, saying he’s at “the beginning” stage of the effort and would provide more details at a later date.
“There’s a whole movement nationwide to make transportation free. I will be leading that initiative,” Rodriguez said Wednesday during a press conference about the planned expansion of Fair Fares, an existing city program that offers half-priced MetroCards to certain residents living at or below the poverty line.
“I will be working with my colleagues on the Council, with a coalition. I will be knocking [on] the door of the city, state and the federal level to say, ‘Let’s bring all the resources that we need to make transportation free to all working-class New Yorkers,'” he added.
Such a proposal may seem like a longshot for a city the size of New York, especially at a time when the MTA is cracking down on fare evaders, and as Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to deploy hundreds of additional police officers to patrol the transit system to ensure riders are paying their $2.75. Even Fair Fares, which gives 50 percent transit fare discounts to certain low-income residents, took months of campaigning on behalf of advocates and lawmakers before it was included in the 2018 budget agreement, and Mayor Bill de Blasio was initially reluctant to fund the initiative.
Rodriguez acknowledged that reluctance at Wednesday’s press conference, but pointed to the fact that Fair Fares did eventually get funded as evidence that more can be done.
“Even though previous [politicians] said, ‘We cannot do it, we don’t have the money to do it,’ [City Council Speaker Corey Johnson] said, ‘Yes, this must be done, and we want to leave the legacy,'” Rodriguez said.
Other governments are, in fact, undertaking free transit initiatives: Estonia launched such a program in 2018, while the small country of Luxembourg is poised to offer free public transport starting this spring. In interviews with City Limits earlier this year, experts pointed to programs like Fair Fares as a potential starting-off point for expanding low or no-cost transit to more populations of New York, though said it would likely be a long and politically tricky road to get there, if it ever does.
Fair Fares itself has been rolled out in phases since its launch at the start of the year: First eligible were New Yorkers receiving cash assistance or SNAP benefits, with the criteria expanding this fall to include CUNY students, student veterans and NYCHA residents earning below a certain income level. Come January, the program is slated to begin offering open enrollment to all New Yorkers living at or below the federal level, as long as they’re not already receiving some other public transit discount.
It’s not clear who Rodriguez is specifically referring to when he says his plan would apply to “working class” New Yorkers, and his office said the exact criteria for who would qualify for the free rides is expected to be worked out in City Council discussions.
Residents must meet set income requirements to be eligible for the current Fair Fares program; a single person must earn $12,490 or less a year, while a three-person household can must earn $21,330 or less to qualify. A reduced-fare program operated by Seattle’s King County Metro, for comparison, requires a single person to earn no more than $2,081 a month, or $24,972 a year, to be eligible, according to the system’s website.
Since its launch, 89,405 residents have enrolled in Fair Fares, according to the city. Transit advocacy group Riders Alliance is currently surveying participants to get feedback from them ahead of the program’s full rollout at the start of the new year, and says a majority of respondents so far report that the discount “has helped them save money, pay bills, and avoid the harsh choice of a meal or a MetroCard.” A 2018 report from the Community Service Society of New York — another group that campaigned for Fair Fare’s passage, and a City Limits funder — found that 25 percent of the New Yorkers it surveyed who earn less than poverty wages said they struggle to pay for public transit.
Existing Fair Fares’ participants also told Riders Alliance they would like to see the program offer customer service support for users and applicants in more languages, and to make it easier to replace a lost or damaged half-priced MetroCard, according to a press release from the group.