Home MetroCard Drilling down on the politics of student MetroCard cuts

Drilling down on the politics of student MetroCard cuts

by Benjamin Kabak

Let’s revisit the Student MetroCard argument for a few minutes. After the MTA Board voted this morning to cut free student transit — and, in fact, even before the vote — politicians were already slamming the agency for doing so. In a way, as I said yesterday, proposing cuts to the student transit discount was designed to get the attention of politicians, but at the same time, why should the MTA continue to subsidize free student transit? After all, the state isn’t really funding the program any longer either.

To understand the politics behind the student MetroCard cut, let’s jump back in time approximately 15 years when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. At the time, the city gave $700 million to the MTA, and according to a Times article, $125 million of that — or three times the current subsidy — went to student transit passes. Those figures were in the news because Mayor Giuliani was planning on cutting the subsidy to renegotiate a lesser contribution to the MTA from the city.

After much back-and-forth between the city, the state and the MTA, the three parties struck a deal on student transit in mid-1995. Each party would all contribute $45 million to the venture, and the funding would be split evenly. The $45 million is an important figure because, up until this year, that was still the level of city and state funding for the program. Despite assurances of at least equal funding as costs rose and on-again, off-again promises to fully subsidize student fares, the city and state simply hid their economic deficiencies in the MTA’s fragile books.

In 1996, the student passes again made headlines. This time, politicians were proposing a switch to student MetroCards. Prior to that year, students received only bus passes and could not use them on the subways. With the relatively new MetroCard technology, the MTA could offer better options for commuting services. At the time, the agency said it lost $5 million annually on the giveaways.

Two years later, the state assembly began a process that expanded student MetroCard eligibility to even more people. At the time, The Times said the program would cost an additional $45 million to administer. Only the MTA was saddled with costs as state and city contributions never increased above that $45 million level. As the ranks of the city’s children has swelled, the cost to administer this program has too, and it now costs the MTA upwards of $170 million a year to provide free rides, at the mandate of the city and state, to students.

Yet again, student MetroCards are on the chopping block, and it has again become a hot-button issue. Transit officials and city budget experts are noting the politics behind the move but also the absurdity of expecting the MTA to give away rides. “This is something the city and state should pay,” the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas said to The Times. “It’s education spending, not transit spending. I think it is a pretty clever way to pressure the city and state to stop hiding their own budget problems in the MTA.”

MTA Board members concurred. “Who should have to pay for it are the people who provide the education, and that’s the state and the city,” Ira Greenberg, the Board’s LIRR Commuters Council representative, said today.

Looking again at the graphic atop this post, we can appreciate the absurdity behind those who criticize the MTA for a move the state itself just made to save money. Last month, New York State eliminated most of its funding for the student MetroCard subsidies. To balance its own budget, New York cut their contributions from $45 million to just $6 million. Although Gov. Paterson has promised to restore that money if the money for it rematerializes, why should the MTA be left picking up the tab? Any outrage should clearly be directed toward the elected officials who will not commit to funding student travel.

In the end, parents, as news outlets have found, will be quick to bash the MTA. It’s true that student MetroCard cuts are an easy to way to get attention, but the MTA should not have to cover for political shortfalls. “Nowhere else in the United States is the public transportation system responsible for the costs of transporting students to school,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said. “In other municipalities throughout the country the local government will provide that transportation free of charge, and in most cases, provide a fleet of yellow buses.”

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Jordan December 16, 2009 - 4:14 pm

The program should be ended 100% a.s.a.p.

Seb December 16, 2009 - 11:33 pm

yo dude maybe you dont care because your not a student but I am and almost all the student i know arent walking distance from school personally i have to take 2 buses and an hour of my time to get to school. Honestly if they cut it by next year I amm royally screwed. I go to public school and I have to buy a monthly metrocard($100) to just get to and from school? then what the point of the taxes my mom and dad pay and whats the point of public school? I got to public school so i dont pay fro school now my family is losing 1000 dollars yearly fro my school? also im middle class so that really does effect my family. and like the article said the city and mta are making cuts, so why do students have to pay (literally) for the mistakes of others?

Benjamin Kabak December 16, 2009 - 11:51 pm

You’re missing the point. The MTA shouldn’t have been expected to pay for student transportation in the first place. It is the city’s and state’s responsibility to make sure its students can get to school. In the past, Albany and City Hall have told the authority that the student MetroCards would be covered, and they haven’t. In fact, this year, the state cut its student transit subsidies by $39 million. There is simply no reason for the MTA to cover for the city and state to the detriment of everyone else.

stormy03 December 19, 2009 - 1:40 am

I totally agree with you everything you said…why should MTA be responsible for something the city’s and state’s should be handling…this is totally luda I must say. Well something better give and give soon before it bell hell up in harlem.

Boris December 17, 2009 - 12:29 am


Your parents’ taxes go to pay for 20-year-long Florida vacations for former MTA workers and teachers. When the economy was good, there was a little left for student MetroCards and schools, but not any more. That’s the way our politicians want it, and hell, they get to do what they want. When you grow up, you can try to become a politician too!

Don Anon December 17, 2009 - 6:46 pm

If you are a student, I truly fear for the future. Your post is barely comprehensible. Do they no longer teach basic reasoning skills in the public schools? Do they no longer teach basic grammar, punctuation, and capitalization? What a mess!

Chicken Underwear December 16, 2009 - 6:09 pm

I am confused. Why do student MetroCards need to be funded? Why does the program need $170 million?

It does not cost the MTA anything to let the students ride for free. Are they adding EXTRA trains or buses so students can get to school?

Abraham Moussako December 16, 2009 - 7:02 pm

the lost revenue from those students not paying, yet still taking up room on trains and buses? and yes, if added up, all of the students riding on the subways/buses for free would probably add up to at least 15 subway trains and 60 or so buses (mind: those are very conservative and unscientific estimates)

Andrew December 16, 2009 - 7:42 pm

Certainly! NYCT schedules service based on loads – if loads exceed guidelines, more service is scheduled (where feasible). There are dozens if not hundreds of “school trippers” – buses that are scheduled specifically to accommodate school crowds. Many of them even divert off their regular routes to better serve schools. When schools are closed, the school trippers don’t run.

Chicken Underwear December 16, 2009 - 10:27 pm

I stand corrected. I did not think the students had such an impact on ridership.

Then The Dept of Ed should pay. It has got to be a better deal than yellow school buses.

Sarah December 16, 2009 - 6:47 pm

Does making this about education not about transportation make the argument for funding the metrocards clearer? Do other cities or school districts pay for public transportation for students? If metrocards weren’t free, would the school district be required to provide schoolbusses?

Obviously NY schools don’t work like this, but if everyone just went to their local public school, how many students would live within walking distance of their schools?

Abraham Moussako December 16, 2009 - 7:03 pm

probably almost all of them… or at least biking distance.

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 12:31 am

In the US, school districts typically provide transportation for kids who live too far away to walk, whether by public transit or yellow school buses. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a public school district shifting the cost of transportation from the school district to the parents.

Benjamin Kabak December 17, 2009 - 12:34 am

Or how about the first time I’ve heard of a public school district shifting the cost from itself to the nearest transit agency?

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 12:36 am

Yeah, that too. I grew up in Rochester and a couple years I had to take the city bus to school rather than a yellow school bus, but I’m pretty sure the city paid for it, not the RTS.

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 12:33 am

PS. In the suburbs, where the majority of Americans live, few students are within walking distance of their high school. (Elementary schools tend to be more numerous and often within walking distance, but not in more thinly-populated suburbs.)

I don’t have any figures, but I think in America today that likely the majority of students don’t live within walking distance of their high school, if not also elementary.

Julia December 16, 2009 - 8:36 pm

There actually were student subway passes pre-1996 — Ben, I’m surprised you didn’t have one! They looked just like the bus passes but said “R” (rapid) instead of “S” (surface) on them. You had to wait on line and show your pass to the token booth clerk, and they’d let you in the emergency door.

And some lucky kids had an “R/S” pass.

Seb December 16, 2009 - 11:35 pm

I have a question to all of you are you all adults out of school?

Benjamin Kabak December 16, 2009 - 11:52 pm

I’m far too old to get a student MetroCard any longer. I had one in the late 1990s at the tail end of high school.

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 12:34 am

I graduated high school in 1988, and not in NYC.

Sarah December 17, 2009 - 3:15 am

Is it common for elementary school kids to take public transportation to school unaccompanied in NYC?

Chicken Underwear December 17, 2009 - 4:59 am

No. I am a parent of 2 elementary school children. Most kids walk to school with their parents. Some kids take a school bus and some take public transportation with their parents. Kids ride free.

rhywun December 17, 2009 - 10:06 pm

I doubt it. I’ve lived here 12 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids that young riding alone. Plus elementary school is almost always a neighborhood school. On the other hand, where I grew up (Rochester) we had “magnet” elementary schools too and I was bussed to one of those for 4th through 6th grade, so I guess it’s possible.

Chicken Underwear December 18, 2009 - 5:14 am Reply
Benjamin Kabak December 18, 2009 - 11:45 am

In fact, don’t send that message because that petition is set up by a bunch of people who don’t know or understand the issues. I’ve yet to hear anyone convincingly argue why the MTA should be the one to shoulder costs for student commutes.

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nicole January 13, 2010 - 12:20 am

see everyone has a point here but why do the children have to be penalized for something that the government is responsible, theres a good side and a bad side to all of this and they each have reasons, but basically all theyre doing is blame each other back and forth about something that basically affects newyork

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Tara January 16, 2010 - 1:55 pm

I’m a student in middle school and I have a older brother in high school. Both of us go to school by public transportation because both of our schools are far from walking distance. If they cut metro cards for students then my parents would have to pay a lot monthly to get us to school. If we decide we walk to school both of us would have to wake up really early to go to school because I live 4 avenues and 29 streets away from my school, it would take me hours to actually get to school without being late. The MTA shouldn’t be responsible to get students to school but the government should do something about it because students and their family shouldn’t have to waste lots of money just to get to school. Homeschooling would be a much better choice if students and their family would have to spend so much money.

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BOB February 19, 2010 - 12:46 am

i feel that we shall all be happy and live happy lives i am in high school and unfortunately there are no highschools in walking distance from my home, if i i try to ride a bicycle i will be very tired and i have asthma how can i make it ?? my family is poor, isnt public school free for a reason? America the land of opportunity.Well give us an opportunity to learn. Think about the majority of the people,if you adults are honestly worried about the future then help us get to our schools to learn and be educated. If we cant get to our schools how will we learn. Stop being selfish and think about the US in U.S.A

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Jimmy March 31, 2010 - 7:47 pm

This effects high school students and elementary school students, or just college students?


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