Higher transit fares are coming soon, and there ain’t nothin’ we can to stop it.
Later this morning, at 9:30 a.m., the MTA Board will hold a special meeting to handle the fare hike. The meeting will be streamed online, but I already know what’s going to happen. The MTA officials and board members will talk about how this 2011 fare hike is both Albany-approved as part of the funding package passed last year and a necessary evil. The MTA, despite over $700 million in internal cost-cutting, still faces a sizable deficit, and the authority doesn’t want to cut service. So we pay more.
As the fare hike proposals made the rounds a few months ago, the MTA unveiled a new approach to capturing revenue. Since introducing the unlimited ride MetroCard in the late 1990s, the MTA has suffered from a revenue gap. While the unlimited cards have spurred higher ridership, their frequent use means that the average fare is today lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was in 1996.
So to close this inequality in its monetary stream, the MTA put for two proposal: a capped card and an unlimited card with a higher price. The capped card would have come in two denominations: One would have been valid for 30 days or 90 rides for $99, whichever came first, and the other for 7 days or 23 rides for $28. Beyond the typical snark from New Yorkers — “how could it be unlimited if it has a cap?” was a constant refrain — the response to this proposal was loud and swift. Despite the fact that most New York subway riders do not reach the 90-ride limit in 30 days, the loudest among us seemed to hate this proposal.
The Straphangers Campaign were the most vocal opponents of the capped card. They believed that a capped card would not encourage transit ridership. Instead, potential straphangers would underuse their cards early in the month in an effort to ensure that the countdown of swipes wouldn’t reach zero before the end of the 30 (or seven) days. It was, in other words, a lesson in the psychology of payment plans. Would you rather pay a few dollars more for something that is unlimited or a few dollars less while having a constant reminder that the thing for which you paid could eventually reach zero before time runs out? With reservations, I supported the former.
At the various MTA fare hike hearings, the public came out in favor of the unlimited card. People want options, and later this morning, the MTA will vote for the options. “An overwhelming majority of transit customers told us that keeping 7-Day and 30-Day passes that provide for unlimited travel is preferred to a capped pass,” MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder said in a letter to his board. “It was clear that the unlimited pass has become a fundamental part of life for many users of the NYC Transit system, encouraging ridership by both offering a steep discount and eliminating the need to worry about monitoring how often one uses the system. We heard that message; and in this proposal the weekly and monthly transit passes remain unlimited.”
So what then will the new fare structure be? According to documents released yesterday by the MTA, the 30-day unlimited ride card will cost $104 up from $89 now, and the seven-day card will cost $29, up from $27. The one-day Fun Pass and the 14-day card will be eliminated, and the MTA is targeted the 30-day card to close that aforementioned revenue gap.
The base fare for the pay-per-ride plans will not increase, but that’s merely incidental. Single-ride tickets will now cost $2.50, and the MTA is significantly altering the pay-per-ride discount. Instead of a 15 percent bonus on all purchases at $8 or more, the new bonus will be just seven percent with a minimum purchase of $10. This new math means that a MetroCard user must swipe his or her unlimited ride card at least 50 times over 30 days for it to be a better deal than the pay-per-ride card. Under the current fare scheme with $89 cards, the tipping point is 46 rides. So the MTA is, in effect, adding four rides to the fare equation.
The final kicker is the MetroCard fee. In an effort to cut back on waste and MetroCard costs, the MTA is instituted a $1 surcharge on all new MetroCards purchased from a booth or a MetroCard Vending Machine. Out-of-system purchases will not be penalized, and I’ve been told that the unlimited cards, which are currently one-and-done, will be refillable now.
But the real story behind the fare hikes — and in a sense, I’m burying the lede here — are the toll proposals that have emerged. Spurred on by outraged Staten Island motorists, the MTA is contemplating a proposal in which they do not raise the E-ZPass fares on all MTA Bridges & Tunnels crossings and instead jack of the cash fares. The full breakdown is available here as a PDF.
In The Times today, Michael Grynbaum tackles this discrepancy, and transit advocates are not happy. Rail supporters believe keeping the E-ZPass fare low discriminates against subway riders and doesn’t capture the full costs of driving while representatives from the Bronx in particular allege class warfare. Those who can afford E-ZPass shouldn’t get a discount over those who can’t. I believe however that anyone who owns a car in New York City can afford the $25 payment for an E-ZPass tag. This proposal is just one of two that the MTA Board will consider.
And so the fares will go up again. On January 1, 2011, we’ll be paying more for the subways, and as NBC New York notes, we won’t be getting more. Instead, we’ll be paying more to ensure that service levels do not dip any lower. In a city that sees over five million subway rides per weekday, that is a sad commentary on the state of political support for New York’s transit system.