As the MTA acts out its political charade of threatening service cuts and the elimination of the student MetroCard program in the hopes of spurring some politicians to action, fare hikes remain the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The Authority could always attempt to avert cuts by drastically raising fares. When I last posed a fare hike solution, 78 percent of my readers said they preferred paying more to suffering through service cuts.
Yesterday, fare hikes and other more equitable funding solutions for the MTA crept back into the news. In a report for the Drum Major Institute on Public Policy, John Petro studied the potential fare hike that will come as early as 2011 and called upon the city to enact congestion pricing. Although congestion pricing remained Petro’s main focus, his fare numbers are alarming. The MTA could have to raise fares by 15 percent or more next year, leaving us with 30-day Unlimited Ride MetroCards that cost over $100.
For the MTA and for New Yorkers, that $100 mark seems to be a bit of a psychological hurdle. The agency, after all, has always had the fare option on the table, and the powers-that-be could have opted to jack up the prices of a ride years ago. By doing so, they should shift the fare burden onto the backs of their riders to a nearly unprecedented level the world over. Already, New Yorkers pay far more through farebox revenue than their international peers do for what is ostensibly a public good. Why not make the system fully dependent upon fares?
The main problem here is one that gets to the very root of the subway system. Is mass transit in New York City a vital part of city life that the government should support or is it an unnecessary luxury that should fund itself? To become self-sustaining, the MTA would have to raise fares to such a degree that ridership would necessarily decline. Many people simply would not be able to afford paying $100, $125, $150 for a monthly pass, and the per-ride cost would soar past $3. Ridership would decline, and thus, to compensate for that missing revenue, the MTA would have to raise prices even more. It would be a vicious, vicious circle indeed.
If the MTA is a vital part of city life and the state economy — which it is — then the government should be assisting it more than it does. If the MTA makes New York City possible, if the subways allow for people to live far from their offices in affordable neighborhoods in commute in over many miles for just the current swipe of a MetroCard, then the government shouldn’t be allowing the MTA’s services to slide, their fares to creep up too high or the agency’s finances to slide into turmoil.
And so we arrive at the threat of a $100 MetroCard. When the unlimited card was first introduced on July 4, 1998, the card cost $63. Today, it costs $89, and that increase is outpacing inflation by over seven percent. When the MTA breaks that $100 barrier, many people will no longer view the 30-Day as a necessity. Rather, a triple-digit price tag makes it a luxury. Even if the card remains a good deal — and it will because the pay-per-ride price continues to ride — many people will be hard pressed afford that $100 outlay every month.
In the end, as Petro details in his report and urges in a Daily News op-ed, congestion pricing should hold the solution. Implementing congestion pricing to avoid fare hikes and the end of the student MetroCard program would save a family of four $2300 a year while contributing to the overall economic and environmental health of New York City. As those prices creep ever higher and the MTA slides closer to financial disaster, it is time again to consider congestion pricing. That $100 MetroCard may be inevitable, but we can try to push it off for as long as possible.