Opinion

Fair Fares funding a test for New York’s progressive mayor

By David R. Jones and John Raskin |  

March 20, 2017 |  

(Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio came into office three years ago pledging to create a more equitable city. His vision for what our city could achieve gave hope to many New Yorkers, particularly low-income New Yorkers who saw a champion in the new administration.

De Blasio promised to be a mayor who would level the playing field for those left out of the city’s economic growth and prosperity. On a number of fronts, he has succeeded.

A review of some of the mayor’s policy accomplishments offers a compelling case that he has, in fact, used his power to try to foster greater social and economic equality. As mayor, he has expanded paid sick days, expanded the number of pre-kindergarten slots and built and preserved tens of thousands of units of affordable housing. Just recently, the mayor proposed that the city provide a right to counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction in Housing Court, and he is working to reverse decades of disinvestment in the city’s public housing by committing more than $1 billion over 10 years to repair roofs in New York City Housing Authority developments.

This kind of forward-thinking, progressive policymaking is what many New Yorkers want to see from our mayor. And it could not come at a more critical time: President Donald Trump’s administration is poised to slash billions in funding for critical health, housing and safety-net programs that will hit New York City especially hard. Progressive policies that improve the lives of vulnerable New Yorkers are needed more than ever.

But one issue remains unaddressed. For many low-income New Yorkers struggling to get to work and school, the cost of subway and bus fare is increasingly out of reach. A report last year by the state comptroller found that bus and subway fares rose 45 percent between 2007 and 2015, six times faster than average salaries in the city. On March 19, the cost of a monthly MetroCard increased from $116.50 to $121. For most users of the system, the increase is manageable. But that’s not the case for the working poor. The cost of getting just about everywhere you need to go to in the city will fly even further out of reach.

Last year, our organizations – the Community Service Society of New York and Riders Alliance – joined together to launch the “Fair Fares” campaign. It calls on the mayor to fund half-price bus and subway fares for working-age city residents living in poverty. The impetus behind the campaign was data from CSS’s annual Unheard Third poll, which found that paying for public transit was one of the most frequent hardships experienced by low-income New Yorkers. Specifically, the survey found that more than a quarter of working-age low-income New Yorkers – 35 percent of Latinos and 25 percent of blacks – often cannot afford the fare.

A majority of the New York City Council, four borough presidents, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and 48 organizations, including major labor unions, have all endorsed fair fares. The only prominent city politician who opposes the proposal seems to be the mayor. He declined to include it in his fiscal year 2018 preliminary budget, citing its cost and arguing that the operation of the city’s buses and subways is a state responsibility.

Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a state authority, there is ample precedent for the city stepping up to subsidize fares. The law explicitly gives the mayor power to secure discounts for categories of riders, as long as the city offsets the costs, as it does for seniors and students. Moreover, the city stands to reap millions in savings from making fares more affordable. The city spends more than $50 million a year dragging mostly poor people through the criminal justice system for fare evasion. The city Human Resources Administration spends $48 million annually to help public assistance recipients get to their required training programs, a tacit acknowledgment that poor people cannot afford to use public transit now.

At an estimated $212 million, or 0.25 percent of the city’s proposed $84.7 billion budget, fair fares will not break the bank. But, it would improve the economic prospects of low-income residents and make our vast mass transit system more affordable to those who must rely on it to get and keep jobs, and access higher education and training programs. Indeed, a lot of the city’s poorest residents are waiting for the mayor to take up transit affordability with the same fervor as he did with paid sick days and universal pre-K.

Here’s something else the mayor should consider: A majority of New Yorkers (62 percent) say they are more likely to vote for a mayoral candidate who champions reduced fares for low-income New Yorkers. Further, more than half of black and Latino respondents who identify themselves as Democrats – the mayor’s core constituency – say they are much more likely to vote for a mayoral candidate who backs reduced fares. The same Unheard Third poll found very little public support for the mayor’s top transit priorities. When asked about their top priorities for the mayor, respondents said expanding ferry service and the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar ranked dead last – at just 3 percent – among a list of 10 issues.

The start of the 2017 mayoral election season is the perfect time for the mayor to burnish his progressive bona fides. To use the power of the purse to work with the New York City Council and enact a truly progressive agenda that stands in stark contrast to the harsh policies coming out of Washington, D.C. To unapologetically step up on behalf of the neediest New Yorkers who are arguably the city’s least powerful political constituents.

Reduced-price MetroCards for our lowest-income residents makes sense economically and pragmatically. Other cities, including London and San Francisco, have done it. Before this budget season comes to an end, we ask that the mayor reconsider his position, and add a provision to the city budget that supports half-price fares for those in true need, a policy befitting the city he leads.

David R. Jones is the president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York. John Raskin is the executive director of Riders Alliance.

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