I can’t say I’ve thought much about Student MetroCards in the years since the MTA threatened to do away with them entirely in late 2010, but something about that dust-up always struck me as wrong. As enrollment numbers in New York City public schools spiked at the end of the last decade, the MTA — and not the city or city — shouldered the increasing fare burden. Both the city and state have contributed $45 million a year each while the MTA’s contributions — once also around $45 million annually — have spiked to nearly $100 million. What was one an even funding agreement is anything but.
When the MTA threatened to do away with free student rides in 2010, I supported the idea. The MTA is a transportation agency and not a school bus company. If New York City wants its students to be able to get to school in the most cost-effective way possible, it should pay the transit fees. Word emerging from this week’s yellow school bus strike drives that point home.
In an article in today’s Times, Al Baker highlights a driving force behind the strike: It has simply gotten too expensive for the city to continue to pay as much as it does for busing for 10 percent of its students. Take a read at one great anecdote and some eye-popping figures:
The day before the start of New York City’s first school bus strike in 34 years, a long yellow bus pulled up at Public School 282 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the little bodies that popped out could be counted on one hand: Three. The big bus had dropped off part of its cargo earlier, at another school, but in all, 10 children had ridden on a bus fit for about 60. A similarly large bus pulled up with 17. Finally, a modern-looking bus whose side panel said it could carry 66 children arrived with its passengers: Five children.
“I think in some cases, we have one child on the bus,” said Kathleen Grimm, the city’s deputy schools chancellor for operations.
The strike that began Wednesday, which idled more than half of the city’s school buses and forced about 113,000 children to find new ways to school, was prompted by a fight over union jobs. But its true roots are in an attempt to reform one of the most inefficient transportation systems in the country, one that costs almost $7,000 a year for each passenger, an amount so high that many of those children could hire a livery cab for about the same price. By comparison with the next three largest school districts, Los Angeles spends about $3,200, Chicago about $5,000, and Miami, $1,000.
Take whatever said you please in this labor dispute, but one thing is for sure: Those figures are insane. The city spends $7000 per student — per student — to employ yellow buses. Some reports cite the total city expenditure as topping $1 billion annually to bus around 150,000 students. Meanwhile, for the students who don’t arrive via yellow bus and request a free student MetroCard — approximately 500,000 cards are handed out per semester — the city pays the MTA a whopping $45 million. What’s wrong with this picture?