Let’s start with an unpopular premise: The fares for the New York City subways are far too low, and they’re kept at low levels artificially by politicians looking to curry favors with voters.
This isn’t the first time we’ve delved into the philosophy of subway fares. In November, I discussed how a five-cent fare long overdue for a raise still haunts New York City and its quest to fund transit to this day. Now, with the MTA’s calling for a fare hike in 2009 and yet another in 2011, the debate over fares is once again on the minds of New Yorkers.
Today, the base fare for entry into the subways is $2, and due to various discounts, straphangers pay on average $1.38 per ride. That is a paltry amount. Yet, the idea of raising the fare — even in light of what Streetsblog notes are irrefutable facts — is sacrosanct in this city.
On the surface, the fares are low because low fares are popular and make for seemingly sound transportation policy. If the driving forces behind mass transit are environmental — keep people out of their cars — and economic — provide low-cost solutions for people who can’t afford other means of transportation — then low fares are seemingly vital to transit success. Politicians and commuters alike both think they understand this, but when push comes to shove, politicians are loathe to provide the funds our system needs to operate and loathe still to allow for fare hikes.
Low fares, however, are clearly not the only thing keeping people underground. In London, for example, the base fare is £4.00 or nearly $8. Meanwhile, for those using the Oyster Card, the one-zone trip is £1.50 or a hair under $3. Needless to say, the Underground is enjoying record ridership year after year.
I’ll let London keep its zone system and the 19-page brochure they need to explain the various fares. But London proves that relatively high fares an age of even higher gas prices would not drive potential riders away from mass transit. Shocking, I know.
If the MTA were to raise the base fare to $4 and the cost of Unlimited Ride 30-Day MetroCards to $120 — still a meager sum — people would complain, but they would still ride the trains. Under this fare structure, the MTA might make inroads into their budget crisis. But I can see why the Three-Dollar-Fare Platform wouldn’t win me too many votes.
And thus, a key point: Politicians do not want to raise fares. They don’t want to see the fares go up on their watches because constituents will invariably take their anger out on those on the ballot. We didn’t elect Lee Sander; we can’t vote him off the island for raising fares. But we can hold Gov. Paterson responsible for his political appointees who don’t confirm to their expected roles. Sure, Sander may be looking out for the MTA’s best interest and its bottom line. But what about the rest of us who want a good subway system but don’t want to pay?
It’s the same old story with the MTA. They had a budget surplus vanish when real estate taxes tanked and operating expenses skyrocketed — basically the textbook definition of a bad economy. Meanwhile, politicians, falsely claiming populism, opted against congestion pricing, a measure that would have guaranteed the MTA at least $400 million a year annually for operating costs. Noticeably absent from the fare hike coverage is mention of how, with congestion pricing, that $900 million deficit would be cut in half.
And so in the end, it all comes down to sacrifices no one wants to make. Politicians won’t admit that the MTA is not a private company and thus needs state and city subsidies to live. New Yorkers won’t admit that subway fares are low — artificially so — and would still be a good deal even doubled. We want a top-line subway system that’s clean and efficient, but we don’t want to pay. These are irreconcilable differences, and something has to give. So let’s raise those fares until Albany is forced to lay out the big bucks.