Updated 12:20 p.m.: Next week at the March meeting of the MTA Board, those who hold the fate of the New York City transportation network in their hands will vote to approve a sweeping array of service cuts aimed at partially closing a $751 million gap in the MTA’s budget. While the elimination of free student travel remains a key centerpiece to this plan, MTA Chair and CEO Jay Walder announced that the Board would delay a vote on the fate of the Student MetroCards until June.
Walder’s announcement came on the heels of a Wednesday meeting with students and transit advocates who support free rides. While some have billed it an outright victory for the students, the program is far from saved. Rather, the MTA can delay this vote until the summer because it will not take the authority long to implement a half-fare plan in September as provided for in the current plan.
Still, Walder stressed his willingness to work with the city and state to find the funds for the program. “I strongly believe that students in New York City should be able to travel to school without paying, just like students around the state,” Walder said. “The MTA has been compared to the yellow school bus, and that’s a good analogy. Students don’t pay to get on the school bus, but the bus doesn’t show up unless the State or school district provides funding. I wish I could commit to fund this program, but the MTA simply does not have the money to cover this State and City responsibility any longer.”
He continued: “I also want to take away any confusion about whether or not this will be dealt with at the board meeting on March 24th. There is no need to deal with it at the board meeting on March 24th. We’d like to leave additional time, as much time as possible for discussion with the city and the state.”
The comforting news out of Wednesday’s meeting came from the student statements. Those in attendance seemed to recognize that New York’s politicians — and not its transit authority — should be the ones funding student travel. “We want the state and the city to bring new revenue sources that can keep flowing in and this is for the broader budget,” one student said to New York 1.
Still, though, elected officials do not seem willing to find the money for the free rides. Even though they’re happy sinking money into a yellow school bus system and even though every other district in the nation pays for student travel, the Mayor thinks he’s already doing enough. “The state cut back the subsidies and cut back the monies they give to the MTA,” he said. “I’m sympathetic. He’s got to balance his budget.” Students be damned, says Walder. They can pay.
Those organizing the students called yesterday’s meeting “a step forward” but recognize that much work remains to be done. Both the city and state have little money available, and if free student travel is the victim of multiple budget crunches, the only avenue students may be able to pursue is to agitate for better representatives in Albany and City Hall. New York shouldn’t let its students down, but the MTA should not be paying for student travel out of its own pocket. With three months to go, the student MetroCards are on life support. Will someone save them?