“If New York’s city and state leaders truly prioritize a society where social equity as well as environmental sustainability are fundamental values, discussion of subway and bus fare increases would not be on the table. And if the overarching goal is to bring riders back to the nation’s greatest public transit system, why disincentivize them with higher fares?”
Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) officials recently said they may need to raise subway and bus fares by 5.5 percent in 2023 to shore up the operating budget, which has been drained by a pandemic-induced drop in daily ridership. Fares could go as high as $3 by 2025.
Before the pandemic, subway and bus fares accounted for 42 percent of MTA revenue. Now, fares make up just 23% of the operating budget. The loss in farebox revenue has helped lead to a $1.6 billion deficit. MTA officials say they plan to ask the state for more money but they’ll still have a $600 million shortfall.
At $2.75 per ride, subway and bus fares in New York City are already among the most expensive major public transit systems in the country. And although 900,000 New Yorkers live in poverty, only around 278,000 riders are enrolled in the system’s half-price Fair Fares program. Thousands of New Yorkers with limited incomes likely experience days where they are forced to choose between food or going to work, a job interview or class.
If New York’s city and state leaders truly prioritize a society where social equity as well as environmental sustainability are fundamental values, discussion of subway and bus fare increases would not be on the table. And if the overarching goal is to bring riders back to the nation’s greatest public transit system, why disincentivize them with higher fares?
Instead, why not lower fares, drastically, to a ridiculously affordable amount, perhaps just $1 per ride. Lowering the fare would not only take a vast portion of the economic burden off the backs of millions of current transit users, it just might incentivize scores of other leery New Yorkers to hop back on buses and subways, significantly growing farebox revenues over time.
During a Nov. 30 board meeting, MTA Chair Janno Lieber basically instructed local and national policy makers and advocates to put on their thinking hats and come up with an alternative funding solution if they want to avoid a fare increase.
“We could definitely avoid a fare hike if there is a plan, an answer, coming from all of the decision makers, Washington, Albany, City Hall, and maybe others, that fills the $600 million gap,” Lieber said.
In addition to seeking more federal aid, perhaps city and state leaders could also explore potentially significant and currently untapped revenue streams on the city’s largest public space, our streets.
Last year, the MTA and governor postponed a predicted two-year fare increase in a move meant to attract riders back to the system. Despite that muted effort, day to day ridership on the subway, bus and commuter rail system has remained at about 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, car ownership numbers are way up and automobile traffic has come roaring back with streets, avenues and bridges just as choked up and congested as they were before the pandemic. Data shows the number of automobiles paying tolls on MTA-controlled bridges and tunnels has not only rebounded, on some days, it actually surpasses pre-pandemic numbers. For example, on Nov. 28, MTA collected tolls from 904,337 vehicles, or 118 percent of the comparable pre-pandemic day.
And while the implementation of congestion pricing will tap into that traffic in parts of Manhattan, producing around $1 billion each year in revenue for MTA coffers, it’s still far short of what the system needs to continue offering the level of service it does today on a long term basis.
Data from the city’s Department of Transportation shows an average 443,000 cars crossed the Ed Koch-Queensborough, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges each day in 2018. Assuming those numbers are still somewhat accurate, tacking on an additional $3 crossing fee could bring in an extra $1.3 million in dedicated daily funding that could be earmarked for the MTA.
The city is also home to an estimated 3 million or more curbside parking spaces and around 95 percent of those spaces are free. Laid next to each other, those 3 million street parking spaces would span nearly halfway around the earth.
New York City, unlike most other large U.S. cities, does not have any residential parking program that would require monthly or yearly permits to park in certain neighborhoods. Instead, the estimated 45 percent of New Yorkers who own automobiles are essentially provided a subsidy to store cars, the overwhelming majority of which are SUVs the size of tiny Manhattan studio apartments, on public space for free.
If the city implemented a system where automobile owners are charged an average $100 per year for a neighborhood parking permit, revenues could reach well into the hundreds of millions of dollars in MTA funds. In other neighborhoods, metered hourly parking might be a better approach, but in any case, charging drivers a nominal fee to store their automobiles would benefit far more New Yorkers than those inconvenienced.
If there were ever a moment for a brave, bold and fair rethinking of how we fund the nation’s largest public transit system, it’s now. Whatever the funding solution turns out to be, New Yorkers who rely on the subways and trains for their livelihoods shouldn’t be the ones bearing the financial burden.
Cody Lyon is a former journalist and a Manhattan Community Board 1 member.