By the time you read this post, a 30-day MetroCard, just $63 ten years ago, will now set you back a Benjamin and four Georges. The MTA’s pay-per-ride discount will dip to just seven percent on purchases over $10, and the one- and 14-day unlimited ride cards are going the way of the dodo. The MTA says the average fare hike is in line with promises it made to Albany to raise fares by 7.5 percent and generate nearly $400 million in added revenue, but that’s little consolation for everyone who has to, for the third time in three years, pay more and more just to maintain services constantly under attack.
When I started this site back in 2006, the MTA fares were downright cheap compared to their prices today. A swipe of a pay-per-ride card cost just $2, and the bonus was 20 percent on purchases over $10. Today, that bonus has been reduced to just seven percent, and it’s only a matter of time before the MTA eliminates it entirely. A seven-day card cost $24, and a 30-day card set you back just $76. Today, those cards will cost $29 and $104 respectively, and they are the only remaining unlimited ride offerings available. Even worse, today’s fare hike is the third in three years.
As Andrew Grossman of the Wall Street Journal noted in his brief run-down of the fare hikes, the authority has “tried to limit the increase for their lowest-income customers.” Thus, as those of us who buy the 30-day cards “tend to be wealthier commuters with stable jobs,” we’ll be saddled with a 16.9 percent hike while the seven-day card increase is under 10 percent.
But this fare hike is about more than just the numbers. We will indeed be paying more for our cards, and we’ve now scaled the triple-digit point. But the MTA’s new fare-related policies could be just as important as the higher rates. In a press release yesterday, the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road Commuter Councils highlighted the hidden aspects of the fare hikes. These two organizations are “strenuously opposed” to the MTA’s new measures and for good reason.
Essentially, the MTA is making it harder not to plan ahead. One-way and round trip commuter rail tickets will be good only for 14 days from the date of purchase instead of six months. Ten-trip tickets will be good for only six months instead of one year. Meanwhile, these tickets will be refundable for only 30 days after purchase and now come with a $10 refund transaction fee. As the Commuter Councils note, “in many cases,” the refund with the transaction fee now “equals or exceeds the cost of a ticket.” On-board ticket sales will now come with a fee of at least $5.75. Public transit should be easy, simple and affordable. With more and more policies and higher fares in place, it’s becoming a burden.
Ultimately, the fare hike represents something of a devil’s choice for the MTA. Without it, the authority would be facing a massive $400 million deficit, and it can’t cut services by that much while still providing adequate public transportation. But as the MTA’s budget documents make exceedingly clear, the authority is not out of the financial woods yet. It projects razor thin surpluses for 2011, and odds are good that state tax revenues will come in below expectations again. In out years, the MTA expects to alternate between deficits and surpluses, but good times are not on the horizon.
For now, the fares go up. The break-even point on the unlimited cards — now set to 50 rides — creeps higher, and the pay-per-ride discount drops lower. Both moves are part of the MTA’s attempt to raise the average fare, which is still lower today in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was in 1996. That’s hardly going to make anyone feel better about the higher prices though.
As the city’s economy is slow to rebound, people — the middle class — will have to find $15 a month more for public transit. Without a better solution, without East River Bridge tolls, congestion pricing or more state subsidies, the MTA can only raise fares to generate revenue. Hopefully, in four more years, we won’t be paying $132 for a 30-day monthly, but at the current rate and without more state assistance, the MTA will continue to put more and more of its revenue burden on the shoulders of its riders. We’ll pay tomorrow. We always do.