Home MTA Economics Bloomberg: No free rides for anyone

Bloomberg: No free rides for anyone

by Benjamin Kabak

As the MTA rushes headlong toward economic Armageddon, free rides have become a major political issue. In the face of a lack of political support, the MTA — rightly so — has refused to fund student transit. While the state has pledged some money and the city is trying to find the funds for the Student MetroCard program, the authority is holding students hostage as collateral for the potential of a political rescue.

Yet, as these machinations go ahead behind the scenes, Mayor Bloomberg has called for an end to all free rides. If New York City students can’t have free rides, said, the Mayor, neither should MTA employees. Pete Donohue and Kate Lucadamo of the Daily News had more:

The mayor called into question the policy of giving retired transit workers free bus and subway rides since free and reduced cards for city students are on the chopping block.

“Does it make any sense to give retirees passes for the rest of their lives and not give our kids passes so they can go to school? No,” Bloomberg said during his weekly radio show. “It’s pretty hard to argue that that is an intelligent policy.”

About 20,000 former retired bus, subway and commuter train workers get travel passes for their twilight years as a retirement benefit. Some 585,000 students also have free or discounted MetroCards – but they could lose them because of the MTA’s budget woes.

Bloomberg here is picking on a benefit that has been in the TWU contract for years, and, as expected, union officials are none too pleased. “After years of fiscal irresponsibility by the state government and the MTA, Mayor Bloomberg wants to hang the current fiscal woes around the necks of the elderly, our retirees, and that’s not right,” current TWU head John Samuelsen said.

Of course, if the world were in two shades, this would be a fight in shades of gray. Bloomberg is right in picking on the MTA’s giveaways for retirees, but Samuelsen has a great point too. The city — and state — simply has not lived up to its funding expectations. Fifteen years ago, the city promised to help fund free student rides, and yet, since 1995, the city hasn’t upped its monetary contributions at all. The $45 million the city paid last year is the same $45 million it paid in the mid 1990s.

So what to do? The workers who toil for decades in harsh conditions deserve some benefits after they retire. Do those benefits include free MetroCards along with health insurance and a solid pension plan? That’s not a bad question to ask, but until the city can find more money for student cards, it’s not one Mayor Bloomberg should be asking.

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nycpat February 8, 2010 - 12:59 am

This is a benefit given to all transit and railroad workers in the world. Even in the 19th century.

Jerrold February 8, 2010 - 1:40 am

What concerns me ALSO is that maybe they will next want to take away the half fare for senior citizens and the handicapped.
(YES, I am in the latter category, and in not too many more years I will be in BOTH categories.)

Andrew February 8, 2010 - 8:02 am

Outside of rush hours, I believe that’s required by federal law – an unfunded mandate that isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Jerrold February 8, 2010 - 10:41 am

I hope you’re right!

I seem to remember that New York pioneered that concept, in 1969 or 1970, under the Lindsay administration. It was for senior citizens only, and it was probably not yet a Federal mandate.

Aaron February 9, 2010 - 2:33 am

In general, I go pretty easy on the MTA when it comes to accessibility. After all, it is a very old system. Having said that, I would very much resent paying full price for a system that didn’t provide anything close to full service. E.g.: There is are only two accessible subway stations on the entire UWS, and they’re right next to each other (66th and 72nd on the IRT). There are no accessible subway stations on the UES, unless you count Lex/63rd. There are no accessible stations in Park Slope or even nearby; in fact, most of Brooklyn is off limits, save for Downtown, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. The G train, when pared back to 23rd/Ely (which isn’t accessible) will have only one accessible station, on the temporary extension to Church Ave – a true train to nowhere.

On top of that, tourists are, for all practical purposes, unable to obtain Autogate MetroCards (it’s technically possible but extremely difficult – I go to herculean efforts to keep mine up-to-date now that I’m living on the West Coast), which wreaks havoc at stations that are accessible but lack staffing due to MTA cutbacks. Although many cities, if not all, have disability pricing, only New York restricts its wheelchair-accessible gates to people who have gone through a medical assessment process. When I lived in NYC the first time, in ’02, without knowing anything about the Autogates beforehand, I went to Borough Hall and basically begged them to issue me an autogate card because of inability to use the gates (I am very visibly disabled, in a wheelchair and missing a leg), but they still wouldn’t.

Ben’s recent post describes the connection between the IND 6th Av and the Lex IRT being rebuilt, noting that it’s the only connection between the two in Manhattan. For wheelchair users, that connection is entirely inaccessible, and every time I’ve been in New York, a trip from the 6th Av IND to the East Side always involves 3 trains. I’ve occasionally even had to detour in and out of another borough to get an accessible transfer, before Times Square became accessible.

So yeah, I would very much resent being asked to pay the full fare. The disabled fare should, of course, increase in a way that tracks the full fare, but wheelchair users in NYC receive far less service than they pay for.

Glenn February 8, 2010 - 6:40 am

I don’t think the MTA can willy-nilly break a contract term like that. But the idea of looking at retiree benefits as a whole should be on the table for a more meaningful long term conversation about the viability of the transit system. The TWU has been very narrow-minded in their policy lobbying approach: Where were they on Congestion Pricing?

If TWU knows what is good for them, they need to get a reliable long term financing deal in place at the State level.

Andrew February 8, 2010 - 8:01 am

Nice try, Mr. Mayor, at attempting to cover up the real issue: that, unlike everywhere else, the local school board (here the NYC Department of Education) refuses to fund student travel to school. There is no reason for these costs to be borne by the transportation provider. If you want your schoolkids to have free rides to school, as they absolutely should have, then it’s entirely up to you to fund the free transportation program.

All NYCT employees – TWU members, members of other unions, and nonunion employees alike – are all promised free NYCT transportation on retirement. You can’t just summarily take it away from them. You could push to have this particular retirement benefit rescinded for new employees, but why would you? This is probably the cheapest bit of the retirement package. Unlike students, who create a massive peak on the bus routes that serve schools, retirees (who by and large are not working) travel at no particular time of day to no particular locations.

Aaron February 9, 2010 - 2:36 am

That’s what I was wondering too – how many retirees stay within the 5 boroughs after they retiree? How many of this subset commute daily, and how many of them are traveling during morning rush hour? The cost here has to be weighed against the cost of breach of contract, and also the cost of goodwill. I can’t imagine this is going to be a huge revenue source for the agency.

Scott E February 8, 2010 - 8:04 am

I’ve generally liked Bloomberg, but his transit policies and campaign “promises” increasingly annoy me. Here, he’s trying to deflect a city responsibility (student transportation) by fabricating a connection to an MTA responsibility (employee compensation).
Personally, I have no problem with free rides to current and retired employees. The managers in the public sector, including transit, get paid far lower salaries than their counterparts in private industry (this is why the most capable leaders work for private business). They attempt to make up the difference in “non-monetary compensation” (aka perks) such as free transportation, which cost less to the agency than a pay hike.

Chicken Underwear February 8, 2010 - 8:08 am

The Mayor is just talking. He can’t take away benefits that have been earned and agreed to by the Union and the MTA. He has nothing to do with it.

My wife is a NYC teacher. Is Bloomberg gonna tell us we can not give our kids an allowance if they don’t make their bed?

He is just making a lot of noise.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines February 8, 2010 - 9:16 am

[…] Bloomberg Says MTA Retirees Should Also Lose MetroCard Privileges (SAS) […]

Mike February 8, 2010 - 9:29 am

The people that voted for Bloomberg should be embarrassed and ashamed. He has not once mentioned any of his transit policies that he used to convince the uninformed since he was elected.

It is the cities responsibility with help from the state to pay for student’s to get to and from school. The MTA should have never even contributed to it.

David Robertson February 8, 2010 - 9:49 am

Remember the ‘free crosstown buses’ Bloomberg promised in his misleading advertisement for the mayoral election

Benjamin Kabak February 8, 2010 - 9:51 am

I hate to defend Bloomberg here because I think the two of you are 100 percent right. However, to expect him to reform transportation in the three months since Election Day 2009 is a bit demanding.

Still, he’s not going to deliver on those promises. I feel pretty comfortable saying that.

Jason A February 8, 2010 - 10:38 am

Yes Bloomberg should be asking the question. While the TWA workers are paid well, their other benefits are extravagant. They get a very generous pension, full healthcare, free transit, and I am sure there are a bunch of other benefits that I am not even aware of. If these were brought in line with private sector jobs, I wonder if the MTA would be in financial trouble.

My issue with fixing the MTA budget is that they keep trying to raise revenue to pay for these benefits, instead of cutting the benefits.

nycpat February 8, 2010 - 12:27 pm

NYCT workers, unlike LIRR and MNRR, are civil servants. You can’t just tell them; “Those benefits we owe you? That you’ve spent years working for? We’re not going to give them to you.” How come you say nothing about the interest on the debt MTA owes. What is it now 15% percent of the budget slated to go higher? Of course they’re obligated to pay that, just like civil service benefits.

rhywun February 9, 2010 - 7:06 am

No, but contracts expire and need to be re-negotiated. What are the chances the city will demand concessions next time around? I’m going to guess roughly “0%”.

Larry Littlefield February 8, 2010 - 10:57 am

“Unlike everywhere else, the local school board (here the NYC Department of Education) refuses to fund student travel to school.”

Actually, state aid pays for most school transportation elsewhere, and NYC gets very little of that money. The state decided to have the MTA go into debt instead.

Perhaps what Bloomberg ought to be saying (given the state deficit) is the state should cut all school transportation money, not just money for NYC, and all municipal aid, not just municipal aid for NYC, and the whole STAR program, not just the STAR income tax relief for NYC.

aestrivex February 8, 2010 - 1:24 pm

i find bloomberg’s criticism to be at least on some level valid (given the current financial meltdown of the MTA), though entirely an unrelated issue from student rides, which the city should fund.

i think it’s completely fair for employees as a retirement benefit to have free rides, but i also find it a valid point that if so much of the entirety of the system is up on the chopping block, then perhaps benefits of that kind should be, as well.

the issue, as i see it, is that those retired workers who get free rides were promised them as part of their retirement — to retract them now would be going back on that agreement. the same applies for the MTA’s bloated pensioning obligations.


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