Student protests and parental complaints about the MTA’s proposed student MetroCard cuts are on the verge of taking center stage this week as the MTA Board gears up to hold hearings on its slate of service cuts. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has a prime to the hearings, and I wanted to take a few minutes today to once again revisit the issue of free student transportation in New York City.
Since the MTA announced its plans to cut free student travel, advocacy groups and students have been up in arms. Just last week, a group of students delivered a letter to the MTA Board, a protest I said had the right message but the wrong audience. (Streetsblog too questioned that protest and the head of the Transit Riders Council urged the students to target City Hall.) Yet, before the traveling service cut circus hits a borough near you, let’s revisit a pair of arguments that continue to plague the student MetroCard debate.
1. The city and state are the ones who should be funding transit and not the MTA
Over the last few months, MTA officials have continually tried to lay blame for the student transit funding disaster on the state and with good reason. “I would love to see students have free trips to school but I believe that’s a responsibility that the city and state have to come to,” MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder said last week.
“We agree that school children should not have to pay to get to school, but funding this service is the responsibility of the State and City,” Jeremy Soffin, agency spokesperson, said to me recently as well. “The MTA has been called the yellow school bus for New York City, and that’s a good analogy. All over the state school kids get picked up by yellow school buses, and they don’t pay to ride. But the bus doesn’t show up unless state or local government pays the bus company.”
The reality is that the state and city have failed in their responsibility to fund transit. When the Student MetroCard program started, it was, as Metro reminded us today and I wrote in December, set to cost $135 million, and the city, state and MTA were to carry equal funding burdens of $45 million. That was in 1995, and since then, the city has never increased its contributions while the state’s have declined to $6 million. The MTA is left covering the costs, and as the below graph shows, those costs have soared.
The MTA knows it can recoup nearly $214 million in revenue by the 2011-2012 school year by charging students, and unless the city and state want to pay for student transit — a burden the state and localities carry elsewhere through New York — the MTA just should not be expected to pay.
2. A family will have to pay $687 per school year per student for transit
Some transit advocates have alleged that full-fare student transit will cost a family $1068 per student per year, but that number is simply wrong. That is the cost of 12 30-day unlimited ride MetroCards — or one year’s worth of travel. The only problem with that assumption is that students aren’t in school 12 months a year. In New York, students have 180 school days over nine months.
As I explored in depth in December, paying only for two rides per student per day for school days only would cost a family $687.90 per student. Paying for unlimited rides throughout the school year would cost just over $800 per student. For many families, these costs are a significant burden, but the true cost of transit to and from school is 64 percent lower than what may would have you believe. It’s irresponsible math to allege otherwise.
Some parents may claim that the Student MetroCard program allows their student to travel elsewhere after school. As long as that third trip is to an activity, then students are permitted to do so with their cards. Otherwise, the MTA is simply subsidizing free transit that isn’t related to school at all. The agency shouldn’t be expected to do that.
In the end, many New Yorkers, such as Michael Gould-Wartofsky who wrote a Huffington Post column on the topic, will try to blame the MTA. This is indicative of the MTA’s fat-cat culture, they’ll say, and it shows a callous disregard for students and families — especially lower class students and families — in New York City. It’s nothing of the sort. It is but another example of the why politicians scapegoat the MTA, and it’s one that should not be tolerated.
“Nowhere else in the United States is the public transportation system responsible for the costs of transporting students to school,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said. “In other municipalities throughout the country the local government will provide that transportation free of charge, and in most cases, provide a fleet of yellow buses.”