Last week, I bemoaned the near-total lack of capital funding for the MTA in the New York State budget, but one element of the budget that did include the bare minimum of a fiscal contribution to transit merits a closer look. The grant doesn’t help the MTA close its $15 billion funding gap, but it is earmarked for a specific project — and that is how these projects get built. Gov. Cuomo, you see, has guaranteed $250 million for Penn Station Access, the Metro-North project that will bring trains into Penn Station and four new stations to the Bronx.
In a sense, it’s strange to see Cuomo pushing this project and funding for it now. Metro-North trains won’t operate into Penn Station until some Long Island Rail Road trains are arriving at Grand Central, and as we know, East Side Access isn’t schedule to wrap until 2020 at the earliest and perhaps later. It’s hardly a pressing priority.
According to Cuomo’s budget release, the $250 million will cover a quarter of the project’s estimated $1 billion price tag, and New York expects the feds to pick up the remaining $750 million. Maybe Cuomo’s team feels this money won’t be available down the road; maybe the Governor just wants to cement the status of this plan or encourage the MTA start some work on the Bronx stations now even if the Penn Station Access piece won’t start until next decade.
As we know, the plan includes stations along the New Haven Line at Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point and will involve some negotiation over the right-of-way with Amtrak south of New Rochelle. For its part, the MTA has called Penn Station Access “a lot of bang for not a lot of bucks.” But I’m still worried about the fare structure.
The MTA has struggled to attract riders to its commuter rail stations within New York City because the fare structure is not aligned with the subway. The City Ticket provides some measure of relief on the weekends, but New Yorkers in solidly working class neighborhoods aren’t going to shell out $6 or $7 per ride. There is though an easy way to solve that problem, and for inspiration, the MTA could look to Paris.
The City of Lights is attempting an experiment in pricing by instituting a flat monthly, universal fare for travel within a region that would encompass much of the MTA’s network were it grafted onto New York. At $76 a card, the price is nice too. Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic penned a long post on this experiment, and he inexorably brings New York into the picture. “Imagine,” he writes, a single monthly fare card for all transit service” within the New York Metropolitan Area.
Freemark opines on the positives and negatives, and I excerpt at length to highlight some thought-provoking ideas:
It is an aggressively pro-transit policy that further reduces the cost of riding the train or bus compared to commuting by car; this effort corresponds directly to the [French] national and regional government’s massive investment in suburban tramway and BRT lines, plus a vast new network of automated metro lines. Perhaps its greatest benefit is that it encourages people to take the fastest services available on any trip, while current fare policies give people discounts for taking slower local services…
Most importantly, the decision to spend hundreds of millions of euros on reduced fares could mean hundreds of millions of euros not being spent on better transit service every year—and some would argue that the best way to improve transportation is to expand service, not to lower fares…The cost tradeoff is certainly not one to scoff at. Last week, New York’s independent Citizens Budget Commission recommended capping the number of rides that can be taken with the (far more geographically constrained) unlimited fare card on New York City’s MTA Subway and bus system, in effect putting a limit on unlimited. Though the cap would affect relatively few people, it would be designed to raise revenues in a fiscally tight environment for an agency that is struggling with quickly growing ridership.
On the other hand, were New York to change its fare policies to allow current monthly pass holders to ride the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad to far-off destinations deep in Upstate New York, Connecticut, or Long Island—in other words, do what Paris is going to allow this fall—the MTA would be left with fewer revenues. But customers would benefit. They’d get faster service on commuter rail lines that many now avoid because of the higher price of travel (a trip from Jamaica in Queens to Penn Station in Manhattan, for example, costs $10 on the Long Island Rail Road for a 19-minute trip versus just $2.75 on the Subway for a 35-minute trip). People in neighborhoods currently only served by commuter rail, both in the city and in the suburbs, would suddenly have a reasonable-cost travel option equivalent to their peers with Subway access. People living in the city would suddenly have a much cheaper way to visit Long Island beaches on weekends, and people living on those beaches would suddenly have a much easier way of working downtown. These are not imaginary benefits.
Moreover, the cost tradeoff is not so simple as a conflict between lower universal fares and better service. Rather, the funding used to pay for the universal fare comes from a revenue source that may not have been politically feasible to raise unless it addressed the issue of equalizing transport access among different areas of the city. In other words, the hundreds of millions of euros being spent on this change may have only generated political support for the improvement of the transit system in the context of standardizing fares.
New York, of course, faces its own challenges as the money to subsidize fares would have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere — Albany — has been reluctant to touch any progressive ideas on transit funding or transit growth. Still, as the governor has clearly made Penn Station Access a priority, for the project to be a success, the governor and his appointees should consider the fare structure too. Even if New York isn’t prepared for a regional one-fare system, better aligning intra-NYC fares would be a step in the right direction. If anything, in Queens, it may be a way to spare the Queens Boulevard lines a capacity crunch, and in the Bronx, it could usher in a successful Penn Station Access project in eight or nine years.