New York City’s transit fares are on the rise again next year. In what was nothing more than a formality, the MTA this week confirmed that the agency’s policy of small biennial fare hikes will continue at least through 2019 and that the fares will rise in March of 2017 by an amount designed to increase fare revenue by around 4 percent. Riders aren’t happy, but if the MTA can offer a carrot to this ugly stick of increased transit costs, it’s a pill New Yorkers will resignedly swallow.
For a very long time, the MTA used to eschew fare hikes as a policy. Whether by order of those controlling the politics and purse strings in Albany or whether due to financial mismanagement, the agency would, as Chairman Tom Prendergast said on Wednesday, “stretch out” the period between fare hikes as much as they can. This led to perennially strained budgets and complicated negotiations with politicians. As the fares are the MTA’s only way to guarantee certain revenue, it wasn’t ideal, and the recent policy, enacted in the midst of a financial crisis, seems better than most, at least in a vacuum.
The problem with constant fare hikes is how it exposes the tension between what the MTA is and what people want it to be. Setting aside legitimate gripes about the declining quality of service, what do we want and need the MTA to be? Is it a vital government service that ensures mobility for New Yorkers across neighborhoods and income levels while saving our city, to the extent it can, from Los Angeles-level gridlock? Or is it an entity that’s supposed to cover (most of) its costs through fare revenue? Is it capitalism, socialism or some mix of both? I can’t given you a definitive answer; those are questions worthy of book-length explorations. But right now, it’s a mix of both, and the price we pay for rides keeps increasing.
So next year — and again in 2019 and probably again in 2021, 2023 and every two years until the Atlantic Ocean swallows our subway system — the fares will go up, and we’ll grin and bear it because even at $120 per month, a 30-day MetroCard will be a far better deal than driving everywhere. But something has to give. If the MTA is going to continue to raise fares, the agency also has to offer something in return for these fares hikes. Lately, the focus has been on a plan for reduced-fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, and this movement will gain steam as another fare hike arrives. Under this plan, the city would subsidize rides, and the introduction of a new fare scheme would allow for a seamless transition to this arrangement if the city and state-run MTA can come to the table. The timing is right, but the politics of cooperation between the de Blasio Administration and Gov. Cuomo’s MTA may not be.
The other something to offer should be in the form of better service. During comments on the new financial plan earlier this week, Prendergast acknowledged that the MTA has to improve service faster, but speaking at a meeting and doing something are two vastly different things. The MTA is hamstrung by work rules that require significant lead time for workers to pick new shifts; thus, the MTA can’t add service tomorrow without planning for it six months ago. But if a fare hike is scheduled for eight months from now, the agency can certainly prepare to offer better service then. The questions are whether the agency has the capacity to deliver more frequent and more reliable subway service, and as a core competency, it’s not quite clear the MTA can do much better than it has been lately. That’s not a comforting thought, and ridership has flatlined as a result of it.
So where do we go from here? The fares are going to go up before the winter of 2016-2017 ends, and some service improvements or other relief should come with the hike. New Yorkers don’t like fare increases, and they certainly don’t like being told to pay more for what many few as sub-par service. To overcome the perception that the fare hike is simply a money-grab will require improved service of one form or another, and that right now is a big ask.