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Tunnel Vision

Inside the Fight for ‘Fair Fares’ in New York

The movement has grown from a largely grassroots push to a completely plausible proposal, supported by a wide variety of the city’s residents.

John Surico

John Surico

Photo by Craig Warga/Bloomberg

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

Nicole, a single mother from Cambria Heights, Queens, said she often has to choose between paying for the subway, or groceries. Allan, a veteran living in the Soundview section of the Bronx, said that as a freelancer, his income is inconsistent, which sometimes leads him to ask for MetroCard swipes from other commuters. And Melissa, also from the Bronx, explained how she’s forced to go through the turnstile without paying.

“There’s been times when I had to eat less because I spent most of my cash on my MetroCard,” she said. “And I can tell you, it’s a horrible feeling."

When the Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy organization, put out a call for online petition signatures, it was no surprise that the stories from low-income New Yorkers came flooding in. According to a 2016 report by the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), transit expenses—it's now $2.75 for a single subway/bus ride, but (probably) set to rise in 2019—are a huge concern for the working poor living in America’s most expensive city, especially for single mothers, public housing residents, and community college students. With this spending already eating up at least 10 percent of a low-income family’s budget, the cost-saving weekly ($32) or monthly ($121) tickets are further unattainable, the report asserts. And to make matters worse, this income group relies on public transit more than any other.

Those numbers form the basis of ‘Fair Fares,’ a two-year-old campaign started by Riders Alliance and CSS to offer half-price MetroCards to 800,000 New Yorkers living below the federal poverty line. It’s an issue that stands apart from New York’s usual transit woes; it’s not about delays, or signal problems, or aging infrastructure (which, aside, have their own socioeconomic implications), but, rather, questioning who can actually afford to ride the largest transit system in the country.

Now, with the city’s budget due by July 1, the call to fully fund Fair Fares has hit a high pitch amongst the city’s elected officials. It has gone from a largely grassroots push to a completely plausible proposal, supported by a plethora of the city’s residents (according to a CSS poll in 2016), politicians, unions, and newspaper editorial boards alike. But the major obstacle that still (and always) exists, is, of course, politics.

For starters, the MTA, which oversees the city’s bus and subway system, is largely controlled by Albany, and finding the funds beyond the most fundamental repairs and maintenance there has been problematic. A push for congestion pricing—which would have charged drivers to enter a large swath of Manhattan at peak hours—burned up in negotiations. It instead devolved into a surcharge on ride-shares, like Ubers and Lyfts.

(But that’s not to say that the MTA is opposed to the measure: “If asked, the MTA would certainly work with the City on the Council’s Fair Fares proposal which would be paid for and administered by the City,” said spokesperson Jon Weinstein in a statement.)

That hikes the political football to City Hall. The city’s budget is generally decided by two players: the City Council, and Mayor Bill de Blasio. In 2017, the Council included a $50 million pilot program in the body's budget to phase in Fair Fares, but it was ultimately cut from the final budget by the de Blasio administration, whose officials, while voicing support for the idea, argued that the state should fund it, not the city. (This, as many transit observers know, is the constant refrain of New York politics.) But this year, the Council went a step further, with a budget response in March that recommended funding the full $212 million annual cost of Fair Fares in the city’s $88 billion budget. Forty-four of the body’s 51 members have signed on in support.

“When I became Speaker, one of the areas that I really wanted to push on in the wake of devastating federal cuts to the social safety net was what could we do in New York City to actually strengthen the social safety net for New Yorkers living in poverty,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who assumed the Council’s top position in January, told VICE in an interview.

Johnson, who previously supported the measure as a Council member, said that Fair Fares is a “cornerstone” of the Council’s budget negotiations with the Mayor’s Office, which are currently ongoing. As it stands, the city pays around $120 million a year to subsidize MetroCards, mostly for students, but, also, those with qualifying disabilities, the elderly, and roughly 40,000 riders who live on cash assistance. These options, Johnson added, show that the structure is in place for a similar program. “Fair Fares is consistent with existing city policy,” he told VICE.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office reaffirmed that Mayor de Blasio supports Fair Fares. “But instead of making riders and low-income New Yorkers pay the bill for it, he believes a tax on millionaires should fund the fare discount,” they continued. (The $212 million cost falls in the city’s expense budget, which is paid for by tax revenues.)

The “millionaire’s tax” has been the mayor’s main response to the city’s ailing transit system; that, in the wake of crumbling service, the city’s uber-wealthy should help offset the cost of fixing the mess. It falls largely in line with the mayor’s “tale of two cities” agenda, which has long called on New York’s highest-earners to pay for social equity programs, like universal pre-K and affordable housing for senior citizens.

But the mayor has been vocal about not offering up any more than the over $10 billion he says the city and its residents contribute to the MTA’s coffers each year. He initially opposed paying $418 million for the short-term plan to fix the subways (he eventually gave in), and was cold over Albany’s congestion pricing plan. Now that the city is paying a lump sum that it long refused to, the budget process this year is even more tight, his administration has said.

Yet while the mayor’s proposal is laudable, said Rebecca Bailin, a campaign organizer for Riders Alliance, it’s politically unrealistic—Albany has signaled that passing a millionaire’s tax is unlikely, at least this year. “We support the tax, and certainly support congestion pricing, and all of these progressive ways to fund and fix our subway and bus system,” she told VICE. “But for this access, New Yorkers can't wait, and they shouldn't.”

The program, Bailin argued, could be easily set up by the Human Resources Administration, which already verifies income for a number of means-based services. The plan to shift to a London-like contactless system by late 2020 and phase out the MetroCard by 2023 will make that transition even more seamless, she added. (The MTA is reportedly looking into “fare-capping,” which limits the cost of rides for those who cannot afford a monthly ride.)

“How can you get to your summer youth program if you're over 18 and not in public school, if either your parents or you can't access a MetroCard? How do you your parents get their trips to pre-k or to all these programs that [Mayor de Blasio] has initiated, that are really wonderful?” she asked. “They don't mean as much if they can't get there.”

In recent weeks, Riders Alliance has sent a letter to the mayor signed by over 100 low-income riders, Bailin said, in an effort to change his mind before the budget is finalized. An event in early June will also record videos of the pleas to a “substitute” mayor outside of City Hall.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson said that Fair Fares should be part of the mayor’s second-term mission for New York to become the “fairest big city in America.” And while similar programs exist for low-income riders in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, he said, implementing a program at such a mass scale “could be a game changer nationwide.”

“If you think about the smoking ban that Mayor Michael Bloomberg took on early in his first term, New York adopted it, and it spread throughout the entire country,” he said. “We think that if New York City took the lead, we could actually craft a policy that could be adopted nationally and internationally, and the way it could help not just New Yorkers, but a lot of people around the country.”

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