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.”