Home Fare Hikes The impending circus with a MetroCard at stake

The impending circus with a MetroCard at stake

by Benjamin Kabak

MTA Board Members Listen to Audience During Hearing at FIT email 2--(c) William Alatriste (1)

MTA Board members are gearing up for another round of public abuse. (Photo by flickr user azipaybarah)

Whenever the MTA is facing a fare hike, the authority’s board must partake in a charade that most transit advocates consider to be akin to a circus. At public locations throughout the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District, MTA Board members and agency presidents will subject themselves to countless hours of public abuse as the uninformed masses heap insults upon them. Straphangers, disgruntled workers and grandstanding New York City politicians will take to the mic to gain political points without adding to the discourse, and the MTA is expected to both take it without response and turn public unrest into coherent policy.

This time around, though, the circus has a point for the way we ride rests in the balance. As we learned in July, this year’s fare hike proposal came with a huge hitch: The MTA may very well do away with the Unlimited ride MetroCard. To combat the fact that the average fare today is lower, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than what we paid in 1996, the authority has proposed to cap the unlimited ride cards and eliminate the one- and 14-day cards. The overall proposal looks a little something like this with a $1 surcharge on new cards added as well:

Pass Type Current Fare Unlimited Proposal Capped Proposal
30-Day Card $89 $104 $99/90 trips
Fare Per Trip      
59 rides $1.51 $1.76 $1.68
90 rides $0.99 $1.16 $1.1
110 rides $0.81 $0.94 N/A
7-Day Card $27 $29 $28/22 trips
Fare Per Trip      
16 rides $1.69 $1.81 $1.75
22 rides $1.23 $1.32 $1.27
30 rides $0.90 $0.97 N/A

There is, of course, a third proposal that made waves last month. The MTA could institute a scheme where they offer capped and uncapped cards, and the truly unlimited cards could cost around $130 for 30 days. It isn’t a Doomsday scenario, but it’s a big blow to the psyche of New York’s straphangers long used to riding the rails as often as they want for under $100 a month. Even if the $130 scenario doesn’t come to pass — “It’s not going to happen,” Andrew Albert of the NYC Transit Riders Council said — the costs will go up.

Enter the fare hike hearings. In the past, I’ve subjected myself to these hearings, a fate I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, and I’ll likely attend a part of the hearing in Brooklyn next week. They are, to say the least, tedious affairs. They start with the politicians who think they are too important to sit through the hearing and must be heard while people are paying attention. These electeds — the same people who voted to remove $143 million in earmarked money from the MTA’s coffers — will point fingers as “fat cat Board members” and anyone but themselves. It is a lesson in deflecting blame.

Then, the union leaders and disabled riders will bemoan the way the MTA dumps on them. While some of the complaints are valid, the point of the hearings is not to create a free-for-all. The authority is interested in raising the fares by 7.5 percent in a way it and the public think is fair for all. No one likes fare hikes, but they’ve become an evil of the New York City subway system.

Instead of this circus, then, New Yorkers should defend the way we ride. The Unlimited Ride cards ushered in a new golden age of sorts underground. People ride more often than they used to and have come to rely on the subways for shorter rides. It’s easier to justify a two-stop trip when the MetroCard was bought and paid for two weeks ago, and the ride itself actually helps to reduce the average cost of a swipe. To maintain ridership, to maintain the role of the subways as the desired method for travel, Transit should encourage people to ride, and to do that, the Unlimited ride cards should not be cut.

Starting tonight, then, New Yorkers should stand up for their Unlimited ride cards. The MTA Board has to vote on two competing proposals later this month, and they haven’t decided yet which one to implement. If enough people speak up, we’ll keep our unlimited ride cards for a few dollars more. Maybe 90 rides would be enough for everyone, but as soon as straphangers start counting their swipes, the subways seem more like a luxury and less like a vital part of everyday life. Only the circus can save these cards this time around.

After the jump, the full information about the nine upcoming fare hike hearings.

All hearings begin at 6 p.m.; registration opens at 5 p.m. and closes at 9 p.m. All registered speakers will be heard.

Monday, September 13
The Cooper Union — The Great Hall
7 East 7th Street at Third Avenue

Hilton Garden Inn
15 Crossroads Court
Newburgh, Orange County

Wednesday, September 15
Hostos Community College — (CUNY) Main Theater
450 Grand Concourse

Thursday, September 16
St. George Theatre
35 Hyatt Street
Staten Island

The Garden City Hotel
45 Seventh Street
Garden City, Nassau

Monday, September 20
Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel
135-20 39th Avenue
Flushing, Queens

Suffolk County Legislature
725 Veterans Memorial Highway
Smithtown, Suffolk

Tuesday, September 21
White Plains Performing Arts Center
11 City Place, 3rd Floor City Center
White Plains, Westchester

Brooklyn Museum — Cantor Auditorium
200 Eastern Parkway

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Alon Levy September 13, 2010 - 12:55 am

Remember, people: the $99/$130 proposal assumes that every person using an unlimited monthly more than 90 times makes more than 90 separate trips, rather than making illegal out-of-system transfers.

Al D September 13, 2010 - 10:22 am

Please define illegal-out of system MetroCard transfer. For example, I often use the OOS transfer between the 7 & G on my unlimited card.

Adam G September 13, 2010 - 10:32 am


Alon Levy September 13, 2010 - 7:28 pm

Illegal = unofficial out-of-system. For example, between the G and the J/M/Z.

Al D September 14, 2010 - 12:28 pm

I’m not getting this one. Please clarify. Illegal and unofficial are 2 different concepts.

Alon Levy September 14, 2010 - 3:21 pm

It’s not illegal to make those transfers, no. But they don’t count as transfers: you need to pay an extra fare, and the ridership statistics do not acknowledge them as single trips.

CenSin September 13, 2010 - 1:03 am

I just wished someone would take the wisdom on this blog and shove it in front of the workers, the politicians, and foremost, the masses. It seems that the truth always get muffled or distorted and it’s frustrating.

Andrew September 13, 2010 - 6:42 am

Go to one or all of the hearings and speak.

Of course, you’ll get booed, but a few people may actually hear you over the din.

Sharon September 13, 2010 - 11:02 pm

If riders only knew how much we are paying some mta workers their mouths would hit the floor. The fact that Si express bus drivers drive empty buses round trip to meet union rules etc. Or why in the world do we need TBTA police to patrol the mta bridges and tunnels at far more officer and cost than the NYPD does to patrol the brooklyn bridge for instance

Andrew September 13, 2010 - 6:46 am

I don’t think the $130 option was ever considered an actual proposal. It was the answer to an academic question: if both a capped and an uncapped card were offered, how much would the uncapped one have to cost?

Then the press misunderstood (probably deliberately) and ran with it.

To anybody who wants to express a preference for one of the two actual options, remember that if you can’t make it to the hearings in person, or you don’t want to wait hours until you’re called to speak, you can still submit your comments online or by mail.

Mitch45 September 13, 2010 - 7:44 am

Typical MTA doublespeak – an “unlimited” Metrocard with a ride limit.

Benjamin Kabak September 13, 2010 - 7:52 am

It obviously still wouldn’t be called an unlimited card. It’s not double-speak; it’s a fare hike proposal.

Scott E September 13, 2010 - 8:07 am

I still can’t get passed the fact that there will be nine… nine!… hearings. Based on your description, it’s no wonder that board members are often absent from them, and even if they are sitting in their chair, they can’t possibly be fully in attendance mentally.

How much does this traveling circus cost, anyway?

Even one of the last Presidential debates was televised, with the public submitting questions via YouTube. There is certainly a more productive and cost-effective way to conduct these hearings.

Benjamin Kabak September 13, 2010 - 8:21 am

As mandated by Albany. Brilliant, right?

JamesL September 13, 2010 - 9:56 am

Has anyone floated the idea of just capping rush hour rides? Give each card a certain number of rides during peak hours, but still let people ride all they want during off-peak times when capacity is plentiful.

Al D September 13, 2010 - 10:34 am

The fares, as outlined above, are all reasonable. They are all deeply discounted from the base fare of $2.25. I’d choose then the $99/90 ride cap for the monthly card contingent upon whether certain transfers requiring another swipe will still count as transfers. Otherwise, this becomes a double hit.

Scott E September 13, 2010 - 11:35 am

It’s just a perception, but I’d bet that if I swiped my 30-day/90-trip Metrocard on the 29th or 30th day and saw that I have 10 or 15 trips remaining, I’d be tempted to sell swipes to get my money’s worth. With the current setup, where the display just says “GO”, I wouldn’t feel that way. (Now, I’m too honest to do this, but I’d be that this might encourage even MORE swipe-sales).

The next big debate will be whether or not to display the trips remaining, or perhaps only to display it when below a determined threshold (4 trips or so).

Old Yeller September 13, 2010 - 2:40 pm

As a person who has been to many MTA public hearings I think the entire premise of this article while well-intended is a little naive. The MTA uses these public hearings to push their agenda, in this case a fare hike. The MTA board knows what it is going to do and it does not matter what anyone says.
You can bring the most cogent articualte arguement ob tyour side and it will mean nothing. The fare will be raised or tweaked. But beleieve me, the circus does not come from the audience it comes from the MTA board itself. They are only there because they have to be there by law. They could not care less what the public or the unions or the disabled or whoever say.
That is why the abuse is heaped upon them. And IMHO they deserve evry bit of it.

Benjamin Kabak September 13, 2010 - 2:46 pm

You’ve absolutely missed my point. Of course, the MTA Board isn’t going to not raise the fares because of public outcry. That would be naive. Rather, the MTA Board has two competing hike proposals and wants to hear from the public as to which is preferable. Both raise the fare revenue by 7.5 percent while one cuts the unlimited MetroCards. That’s a definite difference in the proposals.

You — along with 60 percent of the city — can feel that the MTA Board deserves abuse, but even though the MTA isn’t blameless, it’s your politicians who have failed you. You’re just taking their bait, hook, line and sinker.

Old Yeller September 13, 2010 - 3:14 pm

So you believe the politicans are to blame? I would agree to the extent that they do not properly fund the MTA. With the city funding at 1990 levels leading the way.
But we all must understand that politicans are merely playing the “don’t blame me” game which is what they do as politicians.
I also think your 60% number is somewhat generous. I’d go much higher.
The circus is still the MTA and it’s board, not a bunch of citizens trying to get from point A to point B.
I think you are playing the MTA’s game of smoke and mirrors.
When we surrender to “how much” a fare hike rather than ” do we need” a fare hike is the kind of defeatist thinking the MTA thrives on and merely allows them free reign for the next fare hike.
Accountability is a big word and an anthema for the MTA.

Benjamin Kabak September 13, 2010 - 3:17 pm

How do you propose the MTA close its budget gap and also keep fares up with inflation? By not doing so for decades, the system was strapped for cash and couldn’t modernize. I’ve examined the MTA’s books very closely for another project I’m working on, and you can’t escape the conclusion that the authority is in need of cash. They can’t cut enough to cover their potential deficit, and with Albany stealing dedicated funds and too afraid to implement a tolling or congestion pricing plan, hikes are the only way to close the gap right now.

J B September 13, 2010 - 7:31 pm

Actually I don’t think unlimited cards were ever a good idea. Yes they encourage ridership, but why should that be the MTA’s a goal? The real goal should be to encourage people to ride mass transit INSTEAD of drive, while unlimited cards encourage people to take trips they wouldn’t otherwise take, by car or otherwise. I would go so far to argue that unlimited cards actually ENCOURAGE some driving, in that they increase the costs of taking transit for people who only take it occasionally, making driving or taking a taxi more appealing to them; it contributes to budget woes and therefore makes it harder for the MTA to provide a reliable and attractive system and therefore an appealing alternative for drivers; and it overcrowds the system with people taking trips they may not otherwise take, also putting off drivers who may consider the subway as an option.
Perhaps a better plan would be lowering the base fare to $2, and offering a free ride for every $10 added to a metrocard. That way frequent users would still pay only $1.66. If you think this is unfair to poor people, perhaps a better solution would be subsidizing fares for the poor only, instead of for the rich and middle class as well.

Alon Levy September 13, 2010 - 9:11 pm

I would go so far to argue that unlimited cards actually ENCOURAGE some driving

You’d be wrong. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, unlimited cards are a standard way to induce mode shift. By making it attractive for people to buy transit trips in bulk, they make it attractive for people to then choose to take transit instead of pay the extra cost of driving.

Justin Samuels September 13, 2010 - 9:56 pm

All other US cities with major mass transit, like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago, have unlimited passes. It makes taking mass transit more convenient.

Alon Levy September 13, 2010 - 10:27 pm

Globally, I know a few cities whose subways have no unlimited passes, such as Shanghai and Singapore. But a very large majority do have unlimited passes, of varying utility levels; in most (but not all!), the unlimited discount is much larger than in New York.

J B September 14, 2010 - 1:14 am

Interesting… I stand corrected! I actually haven’t yet knowingly been in a city with unlimited passes, aside from New York.

ajedrez September 15, 2010 - 4:58 pm

Also, it discourages them from taking taxis, since it isn’t the difference between $2 and the cost of the taxi-it is the difference between $0 and the cost of the taxi. Even if they already paid for the MetroCard, phychologically, they see themselves as paying nothing (because the merginal cost is $0). The same applies for driving.

Andrew September 15, 2010 - 7:57 am

Unlimited cards encourage off-peak ridership, which is cheap for the MTA to accommodate. Anybody with an unlimited card is already commuting twice a day on most weekdays, probably during rush hours, and would be making those same commutes with or without the unlimited option. Anything on top of that is off-peak. As currently priced, the unlimited card is slightly more expensive than a month’s worth of weekday commutes, so the MTA is effectively charging regular rush hour riders just a little bit extra for unlimited off-peak rides.

rhywun September 13, 2010 - 7:02 pm

The proposal that stands no chance of passing seems the fairest one to me. Now that it’s been pointed out, I’m not exactly happy to find myself paying extra just for the convenience of folks who ride twice as much or more.

Andrew September 15, 2010 - 8:03 am

Twice as much measured in terms of number of rides, not in terms of distance or in terms of how much it costs the agency to provide that ride.

The thinking behind the fare hike proposal :: Second Ave. Sagas September 17, 2010 - 2:18 am

[…] time around, the fare hike proposals are more complicated. The MTA has issued two separate proposals, and each, in addition to including higher rates, has its drawbacks. In one plan, riders would be […]

Catbus» Blog Archive » The STM and the illusion of participation November 6, 2011 - 2:34 pm

[…] They simply get announced. Unlike in New York, where the recent fare hike was part of a long and angsty debate (the conclusion of which was to make the unlimited ride card more expensive, rather than cap […]


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