Home MTA Politics A deal to save Student MetroCards but few winners

A deal to save Student MetroCards but few winners

by Benjamin Kabak

After months of political threats and public outrage, the MTA and New York State have tentatively come to terms on a deal that will save the free Student MetroCard program, numerous sources say this evening. According to reports, the state will kick in just $25 million and provide the MTA with a few more incentives — including a higher cap on borrowing and a watered down bus lane enforcement measure — while the city will maintain its $45 million contribution. The deal comes just six days before the MTA Board was set to vote on a plan to phase out the free rides. Instead, the MTA will cash in its biggest political chit while getting too little in return.

News of the deal first broke late this evening when the Daily News spoke with the legislatures involved. At the time, those in Albany hesitated to confirm the details. “There’s no deal, but we’re getting close,” Richard Brodsky said. He later told NBC New York that the two sides were trying to agree on a dollar figure and “some other things the MTA says it wants.”

Shortly after midnight this morning, however, the MTA released a statement proclaiming that the Student MetroCards had been saved. To fund the student cards, the city and state will pay the MTA a combined $70 million. One year ago, before the state unilaterally cut its contributions, the MTA could count on $90 million from Albany and City Hall — the same amount it took in when the program first started in 1996. The MTA had maintained that the cost of providing free rides along with the revenue opportunities lost by not charging students amounted to well over $200 million, but with the state suffering through its own financial crisis, the MTA will have to pick up the difference for now.

Said the Authority in a statement:

The MTA believes that school children should not have to pay to travel to school,” the authority’s statement said, “but that funding this transportation is the responsibility of the State and City, as it is throughout the state…

While we had hoped that the State and City would pay the total cost of this program, we recognize the very difficult financial environment for not only the State and City, but for the hundreds of thousands of families in New York City who frankly could not afford to pay the added cost of transit fares for school transportation. We heard loud and clear at our public hearings, in meetings with student leaders and in protests around the city, that charging students would have a life-changing impact on the ability of New Yorkers to receive a quality education.

In light of these unbearable impacts, the MTA has decided to abandon the proposal to charge students for travel to and from school. As a result, the budget deficit that we are facing will increase, but the alternative is worse. Further actions needed to close this gap will be addressed when our preliminary financial plan is released in July.

What the MTA wanted though it won’t get. The MTA wanted a fully-funded program. The MTA wants a fully-funded capital plan, a source of revenue to avert service cuts and the same commitment to transit that Albany is willing to give to the state’s roads. Instead, the MTA will get less money from the state for Student MetroCards in 2010 than it did from 1996-2008.

Meanwhile, in Albany, the politicians continue to miss the point. Brodsky bashed the MTA for “using” students as a political pawn, one of the few options actually available to the beleaguered authority. “These kids should never have been used as a pawn in a larger dispute about MTA funding,” he said to The Times. He later qualified that statement and recognized that the MTA is in a dire financial situation as well. “The MTA needs and deserves more money, but using the students as a bargaining chip,” he said, “was never a good idea.”

In actuality, using the Student MetroCards was a great idea. What Albany or City Hall has never addressed is the why of it. Why should the MTA pay for the city and state to lean on the subways as a glorified free school bus without paying for the costs of it? The MTA should not be a pawn of the sagging public education system; it is a transit agency. Running trains frequently and on time should be more of a priority than free travel for 585,000 students. If the city and state will pay, the program should survive; if not, the MTA should cut it. It shouldn’t let the state short-charge them in exchange for meager political promises.

So where does this tentative deal leave the MTA? On the plus side, the authority will be allowed to use cameras to guard the new bus lanes. The latest measure, however, is a half-hearted excuse for true enforcement, and it covers only 50 miles of bus lanes. Financially, the authority will be permitted to up its borrowing level. This financial flexibility may help it cover some capital costs in the short term, but with $2 billion in debt service currently due, the MTA is learning first hand how harmful short-term borrowing can be to the bottom line. The students don’t have to pay this year, but the rest of us will foot the bill in the future as it comes due.

Finally, the kicker: Albany doesn’t expect the MTA to keep the Student MetroCards free for more than just another year. Since the MTA evaluates its budget on a year-to-year basis, it can threaten to revoke the program all over again in 2011, and it makes little financial sense for the authority to provide free rides. As Brodsky said to NBC, “All [the MTA] can guarantee legally is a year. I think you’re going to see them take the whole thing off the table. The MTA needs more help than we’re giving them.”

Keeping an even keel about her, Neysa Pranger of the Regional Plan Association called this deal “good news for students” and “questionable news for riders and the fares.” That it is. That it is indeed.

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Cap'n Transit June 18, 2010 - 1:10 am

On the bright side, Ben Fried calculates that the cameras are worth $4 million in increased revenue.

Oh, and Brodsky for Attorney General! Get him the hell out of the Legislature!

Nesta June 18, 2010 - 6:34 am

If it costs over 200 million for the TA to fund this program than this deal is a joke!! The agency should not have to pay a single penny towards the kids transportation.

The Boss June 18, 2010 - 10:18 pm

Let this be a lesson to anyone at the MTA. The students of this city are not going to be intimidated and they will fight again if this issue ever raises its ugly head.

The MTA Board should be ashamed of themselves for bring up this issue in the first place. Another reason I say its time for the MTA Board to be abolished and have a board that is elected by the people of the MTA Region, or get ride transit agency all together.

J B June 19, 2010 - 5:41 am

The MTA didn’t use students as a bargaining chip. Funding for the program was cut by the state and not raised in line with keeping costs by the city. The MTA generously funded the program itself. It was the state and the city that actually cut the program, and in return for diverting funds to help students until it simply couldn’t afford it the MTA is getting bashed by people like you.

Scott E June 18, 2010 - 7:46 am

On the plus side, the authority will be allowed to use cameras to guard the new bus lanes.

The MTA is allowed to use cameras? What on earth would they do with them? If the NYPD used the cameras to enforced the bus-only lanes – then I could accept it as a bargaining chip (provided there was a way to determine how much they really enforced the rules). But if a car is double-parked in a bus lane, I don’t see what the MTA can do with a picture of said car, other than post it on its Facebook page. They are powerless when it comes to ticketing and towing vehicles.

AK June 18, 2010 - 9:25 am

Not exactly– MTA Police can issue tickets for various transit infractions (walking between cars, turnstile jumping, etc.). Just as the red light cameras on Houston street are considered an extension of the NYPD (and hence, NYPD simply mails fines to offenders), so us lane cameras can be an extension of MTA Police powers (though I believe that NYPD will actually be responsible for sending out tickets, given their administrative expertise with red light cameras– someone please correct me if I am wrong).

rhywun June 18, 2010 - 8:01 am

For a state government that can’t do better than weekly stop-gap measures for itself, an entire year’s stop-gap for student cards sounds downright generous, doesn’t it.

Building 11 June 18, 2010 - 8:46 am

Brodsky: “The MTA needs and deserves more money, but using the students as a bargaining chip,” he said, “was never a good idea.”

If the MTA hadn’t done that would the money have been restored?

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines June 18, 2010 - 9:04 am

[…] MTA Folds to Albany as Student MetroCard Deal Reached (Post, NYT, WSJ, NY1, AMNY, SAS) […]

Marc Shepherd June 18, 2010 - 10:11 am

Unfortunately, when the MTA claims that student MetroCards cost it $200m per year, and agrees to provide the service for less money than it did last year, it makes it difficult for the next request to be taken seriously.

Larry Littlefield June 18, 2010 - 10:15 am

“The MTA wants a fully-funded capital plan, a source of revenue to avert service cuts and the same commitment to transit that Albany is willing to give to the state’s roads.”

Be careful what you ask for. The state has in fact treated its roads and bridges very similarly to the MTA.

John June 18, 2010 - 6:54 pm

As I said, it was the right decision to keep the Student MetroCard program around. However, I do agree that more of the cost should be picked up.
The DOE plans to save $3.4 million by eliminating school bus service to 4,600 students. That is about $739.13 per student. Divide that by 180 school days and 2 trips per day, and the cost is about $2.05 per trip. However, there is much less flexibility than with the Student MetroCards.
Currently, the city and state pay $70 million, or about $0.33 per trip. Even at $214 million (the full cost), that is about $1.02 per trip, half of what it costs to transport students via school bus, again, with more flexibility.
As I have said before, though: All agencies must work with each other to benefit the people of the city, and if it means that the MTA must lose $144 million per year, so be it.

Benjamin Kabak June 18, 2010 - 6:56 pm

Why should the state’s transportation agency lose a whopping $144 million because the DOE/City/State won’t fund student transit? Why should I have to pay for some student’s transit?

rhywun June 18, 2010 - 6:59 pm

One way or another, you DO pay.

J B June 19, 2010 - 5:45 am

Why must it be only the MTA that works to benefit the people of the city and state? Why shouldn’t it be the board of education? It’s all well and good to talk about benefiting the people, but all that’s happening here is robbing some to pay others.

aestrivex June 20, 2010 - 4:11 am

perhaps i’m wrong, but given the state’s paltry compensation this move suggests to me is that the MTA never intended to actually eliminate free student rides at all. unfortunately for the MTA, making a threat and then revoking it at the last minute doesn’t attract nearly as much attention as following through.

Under new load guidelines, Transit set to cut more service :: Second Ave. Sagas June 21, 2010 - 1:03 am

[…] simple: The authority remains a few hundred million dollars in debt, and Friday’s decision to save the Student MetroCard program does little to alleviate the financial pressure. As The Times reports, the authority’s tax […]

JK June 21, 2010 - 11:10 pm

Anyone know what the deal with student transit passes was before 1996? Is there a good synopsis out there? Man, this whole episode is really a bad sign for transit riders. The fact that the TWU and City Council were so utterly willing to go along with the MTA bashing and let Shelly escape any responsibility bodes poorly for the future of transit funding. It implies that Albany can steal MTA funding at will and it will not get called on it.


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