Once upon a New York minute, just the threat of a subway fare hike was enough to sink candidates and raise voter ire. In fact, one of the reasons the MTA has had to dig out from decades of deferred maintenance — and one of the reasons why the MTA was created in the first place — was due to the five-cent fare. Until the system nearly broke down, politicians simply could not raise transit fares in New York City without seriously jeopardizing their reelection changes.
With the MTA firmly entrenched in Albany, now, one could be forgiven for hoping that the days of playing politics with MTA fare hikes are a relic of the past. One might also hope to hear from the distant rich relative or receive a lifetime supply of 30-day unlimited ride MetroCards. Politics and the MTA are alive and well.
Recently, I’ve spent some time examining Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s relationship with the MTA. When convenient for him, he uses the agency for positive press; when inconvenient, he runs away or actively works to hold off the bad news. The looming 2015 fare hikes are no exception.
As part of the MTA rescue plan a few years back, the agency committed to biennial fare hikes. Although these raises seem to outpace inflation, the MTA is still playing catch-up from the introduction of the unlimited ride MetroCard nearly twenty years ago, and the inflation-adjusted average fare is still less today than it was in 1996. The fare hikes are a sure way for the MTA to guarantee revenue and a way to level the fare with long-term inflation. We had a fare hike in 2013, and we know we’re having one in 2015. The increase in revenue may have dropped from a projected eight percent to around four percent, but the fare hike is coming one way or another.
In the past, the MTA has unveiled fare hike information in early October in order to prepare the public for hearings and brief the Board on the fiscal plan. This year, the MTA has engaged in near-radio silence regarding the fare hikes. In fact, during last week’s MTA Board meetings, agency head Tom Prendergast danced around the issue. He again confirmed the hikes were happening and promised information within a few weeks. Otherwise, though, he was tight-lipped on the numbers or proposals for revenue increases.
“For me to go any further than that is inappropriate because there haven’t been discussions. We have to follow the process and ultimately this has to follow a process where there’s an interchange with the public,” Prendergast said when pressed on the issue.
So why the delayed timeline and the lack of details or even a leak? I’ve been told by a few people in the know that Governor Cuomo has put the kibosh on fare hike talk until after Tuesday’s vote. He’s not in danger of losing to Rob Astorino, and the existence of the 2015 fare hike is public knowledge. But Cuomo doesn’t want the press to focus on numbers and increased costs at or around Election Day. He wants to run up the score on his opponents and then have this news come out. (This may as well be why the MTA Reinvention Commission hasn’t turned in a report yet, but I haven’t been able to confirm or refute that suspicion one way or another.)
And so we get another round of MTA politics. No one is discussing fare policy before Election Day. No one is discussing the capital plan, and no one is talking about ways to reform the MTA. It’s just the way Gov. Cuomo wants it.