Home MetroCard Revisiting the economics and politics of student transit

Revisiting the economics and politics of student transit

by Benjamin Kabak

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.”

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Tania March 1, 2010 - 12:50 pm

Mr. Donovan is incorrect: in Cincinnati, Go*Metro (the public bus line) runs several additional buses along many popular lines during school hours go directly from select routes to schools for large high schools. The system also offers a $1.00 discount to all students with a valid student discount pass.

The MTA is also denying the stark truth: coupled with all of the school closings under the Bloomberg administration, students whose families can’t afford to send them to a distant school plain won’t. My local zone high school was over 4 miles away from my home. Had it not been for the student Metrocards, my parents–a middle class family trying to get their two children through school–would not have been able to send me there.

Benjamin Kabak March 1, 2010 - 1:04 pm

And why should the MTA and not the state or the city — those instruments of local government and not a public authority tasked with running transit — fund your travel? Just because Bloomberg closed schools and you have to travel a distance to get to the school you want to go to doesn’t mean the MTA should pay. No one has yet to offer up a reason — good or bad — why the MTA should pick up the slack that our elected officials refuse to carry.

Anyway, Aaron Donovan isn’t wrong. Go Metro has a contract with the Cincinnati Public Schools to fund student travel. It isn’t funded point blank out of the agency’s budget as you would have the MTA do with student travel in New York City.

Scott E March 1, 2010 - 1:04 pm

Not that its a remedy, but if parents end up paying out-of-pocket for student transportation, isn’t that somehow deductible on federal or state taxes? It might make it a little more palatable. (I’m pleading complete naïveté here, I don’t know that there’s an actual line-item deduction).

Aaron March 1, 2010 - 6:47 pm

It might be a deduction, but aren’t most working-class and even a lot of lower-middle class people going to take a standard deduction anyways and not ever realize the benefits of it?

Rhywun March 2, 2010 - 12:42 am

Yep. Only 38% of New York (State)’ers itemize. The rate climbs to 64% for those families earning over $50K, and I suppose those with kids are more likely to itemize than those without, but the system still penalizes those of lesser income, by being so complex.

sparky March 1, 2010 - 1:51 pm

There’s a third point you might want to mention: it is in the city’s and state’s interest to blame the MTA, or at least to keep quiet. That way they can continue to push the costs off to the transit agency rather than include them as education costs, which, after all, is what they are.

Perhaps (I say this without being up to date on the latest battle-lines) the more effective avenue would be to compare city-suburban education transportation costs. That way the battle returns to the more familiar city-suburban educational equity issue. Also, reframing it that way has the advantage of making the dollar amount appear smaller as a proportion of the overall education budget rather than as part of the MTA’s budget.

SEAN March 1, 2010 - 2:27 pm

How about charging fares for using school busses throughout the state. that way nobody gets a free ride. LOL

Larry Littlefield March 1, 2010 - 2:33 pm

How about it? Or at least cutting state funding for school transportation throughout the state to zero — the only level of funding at which NYC can be counted on to get its fair share.

Nesta March 1, 2010 - 3:29 pm

The people in the suburbs pay HUGE school taxes for those school buses and other education expenses. They are not free rides as you suggest.

Benjamin Kabak March 1, 2010 - 3:32 pm


As Streetsblog wrote today, it would be cheaper for the city to simply fund student MetroCards than to provide yellow school buses for every city student. City residents wouldn’t need to draw in as much tax revenue as the suburban families pay for their buses.

SEAN March 1, 2010 - 6:00 pm

There is one district here in Westchester that doesn’t transport students, Pleasantville. Afew others that are simmilarlly sized like Tuckahoe, Bronxville & Rye Neck could scale back transport of students or out right turminate it with the exception of special ed.

Rhywun March 2, 2010 - 5:33 am

I grew up in Rochester, a mid-size city with a large, diverse school district. I attended “magnet” schools that were always located on the other side of town. In 7th and part of 9th or 10th grade (when we had moved even further from my high school), I lived outside the reach of the yellow bus so they gave me a city bus pass – which worked fine. The other years I got the yellow bus. The point is, even in a city which made no special provision for school transit – it was *easy* to use the public bus to get there. Maybe somewhat less convenient, but almost certainly cheaper on the city budget. Then I spent 11th grade in Germany, where the yellow bus is unknown, all (high) schools are selected by “choice” rather than neighborhood, and all transportation is on public transit. So I have seen all sides of this issue. In NYC, I think it’s clear than the yellow bus is not needed for most students – public transit is sufficient for most. The fact remains that it should be funded by the city government – the same agency that is responsible for funding the schools.

Joe March 1, 2010 - 6:52 pm

And to tack onto Ben’s post above, the buses are provided for by the school taxes in suburbia, not by their taxes for transportation or roads. I don’t think anyone here is making the case that transporting students is free (though some politicians have made that claim), what is being discussed is whether a transportation agency should be funding what is typically paid for by school resources.

Mark L March 1, 2010 - 3:01 pm

This morning, as I stood on a crowded M96 and looked at the many children filling the seats (including the handicapped seats), I realized that they weren’t paying. I’d originally supported maintaining the free passes for children, but the more and more I have experiences like this, I don’t see why they shouldn’t pay for the space they’re taking.

In other places, parents need to pay to transport their children. Why not NYC?

Cap'n Transit March 1, 2010 - 3:14 pm

I don’t know where you grew up, Mark, but the school buses to my public high school were free.

Mark L March 1, 2010 - 3:57 pm

I grew up in the south. Buses to school were provided by the school district. You went to one of the designated pick up points. Mine was quite a hike through a farm and around a small factory. My mother ended up driving me the 8 miles to school each morning instead. When I was 15, I got a driver’s license and worked part time to buy a used 63 Chevy. After that, I drove myself (and picked up a few friends along the way).

If the school district wants to bus kids, they should pay for it. There’s plenty of fat to be cut from their budgets.

Alon Levy March 2, 2010 - 6:48 pm

I feel your pain. Walking 10 miles in the snow uphill both ways gives you perspective, doesn’t it?

Rhywun March 2, 2010 - 12:54 am

How do you know “they weren’t paying”? Did they sneak in thru the back door? Because if they show a pass or whatever at the front, they ARE paying. Via the taxes we all pay. The large cities of New York State have school districts which are in effect a department of the city government. It is the city government’s responsibility to pay for student transit, not the state, nor the MTA. Heck, we even pay city income tax which ostensibly should pay for student transportation among many other things. Problem is, the city income tax also funds the skyrocketing cost of city employees’ health care and pensions. Unfortunately, the city’s kids didn’t collectively bargain for the transportation benefit that the city is nevertheless obligated to provide, so… it’s got to go.

Rhywun March 2, 2010 - 12:29 am

It’s wrong to focus on how “cheap” student rides are – the simple fact is that students should not be paying for it out-of-pocket at all. Especially with NYC’s high taxes, it’s a joke that we can’t afford to “bus” our kids to school like every other community in America.

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