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.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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MTA officials gathered today for a pivotal board meeting today in which the preliminary budget went under the microscope. In short, the MTA plans to cut costs and workers while raising the fares and requesting more government money to cover a crushing $900-million deficit. Fare hikes are inevitable.

City Room succinctly sums up why the MTA is requesting not one but two fares hikes by January 2011:

In presenting its preliminary budget for the 2009 fiscal year on Wednesday morning, the authority made no attempt to conceal what it considers to be its worst fiscal situation since the economic downturn that followed 9/11. When fares last went up, in March, the authority’s plan was not to have another fare increase until January 2010, with future increases every two years thereafter. Now that entire schedule has been moved forward — by six months for the initial increase and by a year for the projected future increases….

The authority’s leaders said the fare and toll increases are necessary by the confluence of soaring energy prices and a plunge in revenue from real-estate transactions, which are a prime source of the authority’s revenue. The authority is struggling to pay the interest on billions of dollars in debts that have accumulated since the 1980s, but exploded since 2000, to pay for expensive equipment upgrades; debt service alone is expected to consume one-fifth of all authority spending by 2012.

That’s really all there is to it. The MTA is saddled with crushing debt brought about by the need, 25 years ago, to restore the system to a state of good repair and by a marked decrease over that time of contributions on a city and state level. As was the case earlier this year and late last year, these fare increases will happen unless the city and state find a hundreds of millions of dollars to send to the MTA.

True, the MTA could cut capital projects. True, they could drastically reduce service. But the capital budget is separate from this operations deficit, and a lot of the federal money the MTA is using to fund its capital program is earmarked specifically for those projects. Those funds can’t be shifted to cover debt payments. And we don’t even want to touch the issue of service reductions.

The MTA, as I’ve sad over and over again, sits on a precipice right now. It could fall back into a state of bad repair so prevalent in the 1970s, and the New York economy would suffer because of it. It could — with the help of a lot of money — grow and emerge from this slump. Later tonight, I’ll have some thoughts on the state of the MTA’s fares, but for now, we are left facing something of a dead end. An unwilling legislature won’t come up with the funds for the MTA. So the transit authority is left with one recourse: fare hikes. And that’s the state of things.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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As the MTA Board debates the financial future of the transit agency and the possibility of an upcoming fare hike — the second in two years — New York politicians and newspapers are sounding off on this hot-button issue. Let’s take a look at what everyone is saying.

We start with Mayor Bloomberg. In a press conference yesterday, Bloomberg slammed the MTA for not showing budgetary flexibility. An agency with a $10 billion, he says, should be able to trim five percent of that without foisting a fare hike on its customers. I wonder if Bloomberg would be up for running the MTA when his mayoral term ends in few months. He has the business acumen to turn this organization around. The video below showcases Bloomberg’s comments:

In Newsday, we see Gov. David Paterson threatening to do “everything [he] can to prevent” a second MTA fare hike in two years. “This cannot become the new way that the MTA solves problems: Every time there’s an issue, pass along the increase to the … riders,” he said. “Let’s explore other options rather than a fare hike.”

Within the same piece, state officials are threatening audits of the MTA’s books and are exhibiting exceptional grandstanding talents. “We are not at the point now where anyone should be talking about a fare increase,” Richard Brodsky, the Assembly representative who told the MTA he would deliver more money for the financially strapped transit agency, said. To him, I say, again, show them the money.

The Times largely echoes Newsday but with a focus on the city officials. Both Mayor Bloomberg and City Council — and mayoral hopeful — Christine Quinn both voiced their opposition to the fare hike. While Bloomberg flat-out denied the MTA anymore city funds, Quinn was a bit more judicious. “Before the M.T.A. comes asking for more from the city, the state or the public, they need to do a little more housekeeping, which means cutting their overhead, cutting their management budget and cutting their administrative budget,” she said.

The quote of the day, though, comes from none other than the Congestion Pricing Grim Reaper himself Sheldon Silver: “New Yorkers are facing higher prices for food, electricity and many other necessities, and transit fares just went up a few months ago. We simply cannot afford another increase.” Those increases, Shelly, are exactly why the MTA is facing a budget crisis. But can we really expect New York officials to put two and two together and come up with four?

Also in The Times, we find the editorial board echoing my comments: They want the city and state to deliver funds for the MTA. Writes The Times:

Legislators, particularly those in Albany, bear an even greater responsibility to help after they rejected a congestion-pricing plan that would have brought the M.T.A. $500 million in additional funds annually. They spurned it anyway, leaving the M.T.A. to rattle a cup and riders to reach ever deeper into their pockets.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who championed congestion pricing, needs to move on and help transit in other ways. A sound businessman like the mayor knows that this city needs effective transit to do business, draw tourists and keep residents. Mass transit also reduces car traffic and tailpipe emissions.

Both New York 1 and the Daily News take a look at the hike proposal from the populist perspective. The News notes that straphangers already shoulder too much of the revenue burden for the MTA. NY1 reports that commuters are, unsurprisingly, not too happy with the prospects of another fare hike.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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While the newspapers today are again plastered with negative stories about the MTA’s budget crisis, I found, this evening, a glimmer of hope in the New York City subway system. On my way back to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side, I came across crews in the 96th St. subway station preparing new signs promising expanding service.

In a few short days, despite looming fare hikes in 2009 and a bunch of miserly officials decrying the MTA’s budget problems (but more on them later), New York City Transit is set to expand service on a few popular subway routes. Among those lines is the 3 train, the 17.5-hour IRT line. Currently, as the old signs tell us, the 3 runs to New Lots Ave. except for late nights. Under the new service guidelines, everything changes:

The New Sign

The new signs, seen here resting against a pillar at 11:32 p.m. last night, promise added service. The 3 will now run all the time. During late nights from 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. when the 3 used to lie dormant, trains will run from 148th St. to Times Square with connection available to the 2 train continuing on to Brooklyn. This is but one change designed to increase service along lines nearing or at capacity.

Oftentimes, these signage changes take place when no one is watching. Mysteriously and magically, the signs change, and the trains run at different times over different routes. Tonight, I was watching, and soon — perhaps later today? — the trains will run on new and better schedules.

As the subways and the MTA’s budget woes are about to face the gauntlet of public officials, it’s always fascinating to see the system changing and comforting to see the MTA working to improve service in dark days. Enjoy it will you can; who knows what tomorrow, next month or next year will bring.

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While news of the fare hike dominated the papers this morning, another big story concerning train service made the front pages as well. According to MTA’s own metrics, train delays are up significantly this year with the IRT lines bearing the brunt of the problems. More concerning, though, are reports suggesting that there is no quick fix to this problem.

For the numbers, check out the graphic at right. Ray Rivera, reporting on this story for The Times, provides some context:

The No. 4, which runs from Woodlawn in the Bronx to Crown Heights and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, reached its destination on time in only 70.1 percent of its runs in May, the new figures show. That was nearly a 12 percent decline from the same month the previous year.

The average on-time performance for the rest of the system was 91.5 percent that same month, a 1.62 percent decline from the previous May, according to the agency.

The No. 4’s average on-time performance for the year was slightly better, at 79.7 percent, a 4.8 percent decrease from the previous 12 months. Over all, the system had a 12-month on-time average of 92 percent, a 1.64 percent decrease from the previous cycle.

According to Rivera, the MTA has dispatched workers along the route to figure out why the IRT trains are suffering a disproportionate number of delays. Straphangers Campaign lawyer Gene Russianoff, as he is wont to do, questioned the MTA’s methodology, noting that the MTA counts trains as late if they reach their terminus stations after the scheduled time. How these trains behave en route is a different story and one that could make these numbers look bad.

While, as Rivera writes, “transit officials cite track work, customers holding doors, sick and unruly riders and signal trouble as the leading causes for the delays,” these reports come from train crews and based on guidelines handed out by the MTA. They are, in essence, subject to the whims of the train crew.

I think the biggest culprit in delays these days originate from passengers. Irate straphangers try to cram onto over-crowded trains during rush hour, and those driving the train can’t close the doors. While track-work delays and other non-human delays (mechanical problems, signal issues) cause their fair shares of delays, if the MTA could combat the door-holding craze plaguing the trains, I’m sure service would improve. It’s a better solution than reviving the dormant skip-stop service.

The graphic on the side charting delays comes to us via The New York Times.

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  • Reviving an old idea to fix new problems · With train delays reaching record highs — more on that in a bit — the MTA is turning to an old idea to combat sluggish service. According to Marlene Naanes, the transit authority may resurrect skip-stop service to improve train speeds and ease overcrowding. The MTA started skip-stop service in 1989 when residents in areas served only by local trains wanted what The Times called “more frequent and faster service.”

    But skip-stop service met its demise in 2005 due to increased ridership and greater service demands to the otherwise-skipped stations. To revive this one-time solution to a problem of under-crowding may just exacerbate the problems that brought about its demise three years ago without offering a satisfactory solution to the issues of slow service and overly-crowded trains. · (5)

The MTA, in an effort to close a projected budget gap of nearly $900 million, plans to raise mass transit fare revenues in and around New York City by as much as eight percent in 2009. This increase — the second in two years — would mark just the second time in subway history that the fares have risen in consecutive years.

William Neuman of The Times has the nuts and bolts behind this dismaying but predictable turn of events:

Though the precise amount of the fare and toll increase has yet to be determined, the authority will seek to increase the revenue it gets from those sources by 8 percent. If approved by the authority’s board, the increase would take effect next July and would follow a toll and fare increase in March of this year…

On Wednesday, the authority will unveil a preliminary budget plan for 2009 that calls for the fare and toll increases and outlines other measures to balance its budget, including more than $300 million in additional financing that the authority hopes to get from the city and state. Coming at a time when the state and city budgets face extreme financial pressure as well, those requests are likely to be resisted by elected officials.

The authority faces steadily rising costs, particularly for fuel, as well as sharply declining tax revenues due to a slowdown in the real estate market. Just six months ago, the authority predicted that its shortfall for 2009 would be slightly more than $200 million, less than a quarter of its latest projection.

News reports and commentary surrounding this fare hike announcement will trumpet the populist story. The MTA is putting a financial onus on their riders with this planned increase at a time when the U.S. economy is hitting a low point. But the real focus should be on our elected officials and their reactions to the calls for more money.

First up, we have the MTA’s requesting that the city kick in more money, and the city ain’t too happy about that. “City taxpayers aren’t in a position to increase our subsidy over the billion-dollars-plus we already provide each year,” Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg, said to The Times.

Loeser noted that he eagerly anticipates the findings and recommendations of Richard Ravitch and his blue-ribbon panel tasked with magically finding hundreds of millions of dollars for the MTA. Those findings, however, are not due until early December. The MTA Board will have to act before then to combat the impending budget-deficit tsunami.

Next up is the anticipated reaction from the state legislatures. During the build-up to the most recent fare hike, numerous state legislatures told the MTA that if the transit agency were to ask for more money, the legislature and our elected representatives would do the best they could to oblige.

But Neuman’s article makes it clear that the New York State legislature is not too keen to find $300 million for the MTA. So the legislature has shot down congestion pricing — one source of well over $300 million a year — and now will be reluctant to grant the MTA enough money to meet its balanced budget requirements. Blame the MTA all you want, but this sytem in Albany and City Hall, folks, is broken.

The MTA will do what it can to make ends meet, but all it can do is raise the fare and cut services. The agency anticipates drawing in an addition $200 million via the new fare structure, which will be formally announced at a board meeting on Wednesday. But that still leaves it facing a $700-million gap in its operating budget. This money has to come from somewhere else because to cover this gap through farebox revenue would require increases of nearly 33 to 50 percent. Those figures would start riots in New York.

This fare hike news boils down to one: Our elected officials should be funding public transit and making good on promises they made just six or eight months ago. But on Tuesday, they will once again get a free pass. New Yorkers are sure to pile on the MTA for its supposedly poor bookkeeping and its fare-hike deception, but the MTA is just a victim of a bad economy. Those running the agency aren’t happy to see fuel costs skyrocket, and they aren’t happy to see their budget deficit projections increase fourfold.

But the real blame lies in Albany as our elected officials — chosen by us but seemingly responsible to no one — yet again starve a public transit system vital to the economic health of both the New York Metropolitan Area and the entire state. Don’t forget those representatives when the fare hike comes along next summer. Don’t forget them each time you swipe your MetroCard, and don’t forget them ever time more money is deducted from your wallet. The blame for this fare hike news lies squarely on their shoulders.

Blue MetroCard image courtesy of flickr user Runs With Scissors.

Categories : Fare Hikes
Comments (9)
  • Fare increases on tap for 2009 · Here’s the breaking news: The MTA will seek what The Times is calling substantial fare hikes in 2009. This will be just the second time in history that the MTA will seek to raise the fares in consecutive years. More on this breaking — and dismaying — news later. · (1)
  • Patterson won’t dump Sander · While Gov. David Patterson has replaced many of Eliot Spitzer’s political appointees — including the head of the Port Authority — New York’s newest gov has no plans to replace MTA chief Elliot Sander. For MTA watchers, this should come as good news. Despite presiding over a period of extreme economic uncertainty, Sander has done an admirable job bringing innovation and transparency to the MTA. How he handles the budget crisis will go a long way toward determining both Sander’s future and the long-term health of transit in New York City, and he remains the best man for the job. · (0)

So how’s this for efficiency? Eight months after announcing this initiative and over 11 months since the flooding that knocked out nearly the entire subway system, the MTA is finally almost ready to start implementing a text-message service alert system in a few months.


According to the Daily News, the MTA should, if all goes according to plan, unveil its alert system sometime this fall. Pete Donohue has more:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects to start sending alerts to commuters’ cellphones and computers with details about unplanned service problems in September, the Daily News has learned.

The notices will help riders alter their routines to avoid floods and other incidents that cause delays, or warn them away from a crippled system altogether, officials said…”Communications with the public when you have this type of catastrophe is essential,” MTA CEO Elliot Sander said.

Efforts to improve communications began before last summer but intensified after the Aug. 8 storm, Sander said.

According to the article, the MTA has contracted with an unnamed outside firm with the capacity to send one million texts in the span of five minutes. Riders will be able to sign up for free for these alerts on the MTA’s Website, and as they can do with the weekend service advisory e-mails, riders will be able to choose for which lines they would like to receive texts.

Now, the MTA should definitely be applauded for this measure. If anything, Lee Sander as the CEO and Executive Director of the beleaguered transit agency has done an excellent job improving communication lines between the MTA and its riders.

But — and this is a rather big “but” — by the time this service will be rolled out, 13 months will have past since the August 2007 flooding. That is a painfully slow response time for a technology that other companies have been using for years. Better late than never, right?

Categories : MTA Technology
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