Home Fare Hikes The Delayed Fare Hike Edition of ‘That’s No Way To Run a Railroad’

The Delayed Fare Hike Edition of ‘That’s No Way To Run a Railroad’

by Benjamin Kabak

A $3 base fare for subway and bus rides were among the fare hike options the MTA decided to push off until February.

When 2018 drew to a close, a level of certainty seemed to surround the MTA. The long-planned L train shutdown loomed four months out; a looming vote on fare hikes seemed to be a mere formality; and with momentum building for a congestion pricing plan, Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan seemed well on the way to reality.

But then, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo, everything changed in the blink of an eye. Cuomo, circumventing the MTA Board, canceled the L train shutdown, sidelined Andy Byford from the project, and then capped off his month by pushing the MTA to delay the planned vote on the fare hikes. It was a flurry of activity orchestrated by the man in charge of the MTA who keeps insisting he isn’t pulling the strings, and it’s created uncertainty — and potentially budgetary pressures — at a time when the MTA can least afford to lose on the money.

The latest chapter in this saga began to unfold last week shortly before the MTA Board meeting that was planned to feature the fare hike vote. Now, as much as New Yorkers don’t want to pay more for what many perceive to be declining subway service, biennial fare hikes have been a feature of the MTA since the structure was approved as part of the 2010 bailout. Every two years, the fares increase by a modest amount, and these hikes, the best tool the MTA has for guaranteed revenue increases, have been met with relatively little resistance as the fare jumps are built into the budget.

But this time, after torpedoing the L train plans, Cuomo started speaking out against fare hikes, as Emma Fitzsimmons reported in The Times last week. Cuomo, expressing “no faith” in what his MTA says, urged the agency to avoid a fare hike. “Tighten your belt,” he said. “Make the place run better.”

In the same piece, former Cuomo aide and current MTA Board member Larry Schwartz said he was examining ways to tie fare hikes amorphously to, as he put it, “performance improvements” or would be otherwise “dead set” on voting for a hike. And then, during Thursday’s meeting, the MTA simply punted. Before any debate or alternative proposals could be presented publicly, the agency tabled all talks. “I’m concerned that we’re making a decision today when we need to be a little slower, a little more thoughtful, and need to consider a few more options,” Cuomo appointee Peter Ward said, moving to delay the discussion. The Board quickly decided to wait on debating fare hike proposals until the next meeting, currently scheduled for Wednesday, February 27.

What was so strange and abrupt about the move was how quickly it came about. The MTA Board had heard only some words from the governor and vague rumors of other proposals. After the vote, Schwartz said his efforts to develop a proposal tied to performance metrics was “in vain” despite internal conversations. To me, this is a good thing, as any attempt to tie guaranteed revenue to better service is one way to put the MTA on a path to a death spiral. If the agency can’t provide better service, the agency can’t raise fares or generate revenue for service at which point its only option is to cut service, thus leading to worse service, less revenue and that dreaded death spiral.

Much like with the L train shutdown shutdown, the “why” of the delayed fare hike vote remains an open-ended question. Dana Rubinstein tried to break it down. I’d urge you to read her entire piece, but I found this excerpt a succinct summary of this mess:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo controls the MTA’s L tunnel plans and the color of its tunnel tiles, but he claims he doesn’t control the MTA. The governor says he has “no faith” in the MTA’s leadership, which he helped appoint. He thinks the MTA doesn’t actually need more than $300 million a year in new fare revenue, because it can just “tighten” its belt and “make the place run better.” But he does think the MTA needs $1 billion a year in new revenue from congestion pricing, which he wants to see imposed on New York City. “It’s really hard to decipher,” said one board member, referring to the general state of MTA politics right now.

It’s well within Cuomo’s rights as the head of the state to attempt to reform the MTA, but running the agency as a fiefdom and operating behind closed doors at a time when the agency needs public support does little but undermine the MTA. With uncertainty clouding the fare hike discussion, it could now be a few months before the MTA can generate the revenue it claims it needs to avoid massive budget shortfalls. If new fare hike proposals are presented next month, the agency may need to hold additional public hearings, wait to vote on the new proposal and then wait to implement these proposals. Instead of a fare increase — and guaranteed revenue come April 1 — the MTA may have to wait to increase fares until July, losing out as much as $90 million it can’t afford to see wiped off the books. Ultimately, too, the public will pay for this politicking through increased hikes or service cuts.

To me, this is backsliding. After years of a commitment to transparency and a big show by Byford to produce a plan to do better, Cuomo has seemingly stepped in to blow everything up, and no one knows why. Did he do it because congestion pricing is now significantly closer to reality and he seems concerned about the political fallout from that move? Is he worried Corey Johnson and other city reps are making noises about re-asserting local control over subways and buses? Did someone actually shake him by his lapels to get him to focus on the L train and, by extension, the MTA?

No one yet knows why Cuomo is suddenly doing what he’s doing. But shortly after the fare hike vote was delayed, Cuomo had an about-face and acknowledged that the MTA would have to implement a rate hike sooner rather than later. It was an odd admission from the governor who had spent weeks slamming the agency for planning to raise fares and one that left observers scratching their heads even harder. Right now, Cuomo’s endgame is opaque and playing out on a day-to-day basis. Where this ends is up in the air, but riders, agency officials and MTA rank-and-file don’t know which way the wind will blow on any given day. And that’s no way to run a railroad.

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BRIAN BERKE January 29, 2019 - 9:09 am

If Andy Byford reads this……….Welcome to New York!

Larry Littlefield January 29, 2019 - 9:19 am

I think the Governor is blinded by the values of his own generation. He thinks the public in general doesn’t care about the collective future, and would be happy to see the city, state and United States utterly destroyed if they could be better off individually now.

That’s the majority of Generation Greed talking. It worked for all the other Governors. It worked for businesses, Presidents, broken families. I want for me now!

Well, you have a whole lot of people in NYC who are not members of this generation. Who are willing to accept a horrific commute for 15 months for a better and more certain future, and fare increases if that means the transit system doesn’t collapse. HOW UNLIKE THE STRAPHANGERS OF 20 YEARS AGO!

It’s too late of course. Cuomo’s game is to defer the costs and avoid the blame until he, and his, are outta here! DeBlasio too.

But the victims have figured out who they are. I mean consider your view, Ben. They used to be identified as “problem solvers.” Now you know they were actually “future disaster causers.”

Willl January 29, 2019 - 12:27 pm

The truth Larry. ????

John A. Noble January 29, 2019 - 10:06 am

This sort of is off-topic to the main theme of this post, but I noticed in the proposal that they’re no longer accepting coins on express buses. Can someone shed some light on the logic behind this? They’re not changing the fareboxes, so the coin slot will still be there, and they’re not eliminating coin payment on local buses. On the face of it, it seems really punitive to Staten Islanders who have already been pummeled by the disaster they called an “express bus re-imagining,” and who have no access to MetroCard machines virtually anywhere in the borough (the Eltingville Transit Homeless Shelter doesn’t count, and express bus riders usually don’t take the ferry, which is where the other machines are). Just wondering.

eo January 29, 2019 - 10:18 am

The current buses and fareboxes will remain, but any new buses can get modified fareboxes without the coin slots. Note how little the coin slots are used on the express buses (0.1%). The saving from labor having to collect, sort, count and deposit the coins in a bank is probably bigger than the revenue collected in coins.

If you kept the currently existing coin slots and just got the new buses with fareboxes without such slots, you will confuse the public because one can never know if the next bus to show up is old one with functioning coin slot or a new one without such slot.

John A. Noble January 29, 2019 - 10:26 am

Thank you… Based on my observation riding express buses, it’s definitely a very, very small minority of riders who use coins but it’s higher than 0.1%. I personally will use coins if I have some money left on my MetroCard but not $6.50 (in other words, use the coins to pay the difference). Since I wouldn’t have that option anymore, it raised the question in my mind as to whether they were eliminating coin payment for a nefarious money-making purpose. Your reasoning does make sense, but I still think the timing for this trivial move that will disproportionately (or perhaps only) affect Staten Islanders is really bad IMO, assuming this fare hike still does go through.

smotri January 29, 2019 - 12:37 pm

I remember using coins for buses as a child when fares were more like 50 cents, 75 cents, etc. Bringing all that change for a $6.50 bus fare… seems as if you’d have to really ‘watch your pennies (quarters)’!

Theorem Ox February 3, 2019 - 1:17 pm

You can probably count on the MTA to not re-program the bus farebox (or claim that it’s impossible for technical or practical reasons) to suppress it from going into a “split fare” mode for Metrocards with partial balances even as they ban cash payments.

So thanks for the donation. Now pay up or get out!

Will January 29, 2019 - 12:29 pm

Don’t they sell MC in stores ? F the coins. That takes up so much Time. Other system got rid icons and cards now it’s just a tap

SEAN January 29, 2019 - 2:47 pm

I think that this is a ramp up for the tap card system that will replace the MetroCard in a few years.

As for the fare increase, why cant the tolls be increased to a point that cause drivers to reevaluate alternatives for getting around. Now some may need there vehicles for work reasons such as construction & related contractors, but the rest of them need to be more mindful that their actions have external impacts on others.

Michael549 January 31, 2019 - 3:31 pm

Much too often there is a “Manhattan-Centric” view of travel and transportation issues and assumptions really have to be checked.

“As for the fare increase, why cant the tolls be increased to a point that cause drivers to reevaluate alternatives for getting around.”

An argument based on concepts for “congestion pricing in the central business districts of Manhattan” – can easily NOT APPLY to the various transportation issues of areas NOT RELATED to central Manhattan.

The idea behind a congestion pricing scheme for the central business districts of Manhattan is to effect changes in travel within plus to/from the central business of Manhattan – it is a definition thing.

If you are talking about establishing or increasing tolls around the central business districts of Manhattan (the usual argument) – that is one thing. If you are talking about increasing the tolls around the NYC regional area – based upon arguments for central Manhattan – that is another thing – and do not confuse the two.

There are good public policy arguments for having a fair rational road toll structure over the various roadways, bridges, tunnels and pathways in the region. For example – the tolls on the George Washington, Throgs-Neck, Tri-Borough Bridge, Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and Queens Mid-Town Tunnel are about $8.50. The toll for the Verrazzano–Narrows Bridge is $17.00! Now it is one thing to use tolls to support the maintenance of those facilities, and to provide some money for mass transit – as a general argument. It is a whole other argument to say, “why cant the tolls be increased to a point that cause drivers to reevaluate alternatives for getting around.”

Just how “high” do you think tolls should become? Just how do you think many of the goods that support this metropolitan area actually get here?

Do I really have to explain that the George Washington, Throgs-Neck, Tri-Borough Bridge, and the Verrazzano–Narrows Bridge do not directly connect to the central business districts of Manhattan? There is a good rational argument for re-evaluating the toll structure of the various roadways, but that is what is not happening.

How does one “re-evaluate alternatives for getting around” – when there are not any timely practical alternatives?

I live on Staten Island, and worked in Brooklyn for a long time. A lot of Staten Islanders work in Manhattan, plenty work in Brooklyn, plenty work in New Jersey, and some in Queens. It took 35 minutes by car to get to work in Brooklyn, compared to the 90-minutes by bus, the ferry and two subway routes. While I am glad that 3-4 years ago the hourly weekend and night ferries were done away with, that does not erase the influence of 35 years of such poor transit. When work on the weekends easily became a 2-hour trip just to get home! Public transit can often be not very timely, to the point of being time consuming. Time is not a renewal resource!

There are plenty of folks who work in places where public transit either does not service well, involves a difficult and time consuming journey, or where public transit simply does not exist. Ever try taking public transit buses with connecting journeys where each bus is scheduled to be 30 minutes apart – day in/day out in all types of weather? Ever try taking public transit when the nearest bus stop is more than a half-mile away in all types of weather on streets without sidewalks? Yeah, public transit!

Let’s see are there a lot of public transit options between Staten Island and New Jersey – A BIG NOPE!! Are there a lot of TIMELY public transit options between Staten Island and Queens – that do not involve traveling through Manhattan? A BIG NOPE!! The same could be said for connecting the Bronx to Queens, and other places involving the “outer boroughs.”

Now I’m a very much a pro-public transit guy as you will ever find – but there are times when to face facts. There are a lot of factors that go into the decisions about housing, transportation, work locations, ease of commuting, etc.

There are plenty of people that have jobs in the central business districts of Manhattan – where millions of riders every day use public transit to travel between their work places and their homes in upper Manhattan, the “outer boroughs”, and New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut. That is as it should be.

And there is a good public policy argument for reducing the number of cars traveling into the central business districts of Manhattan.

And then, “but the rest of them need to be more mindful that their actions have external impacts on others.”

This is a really interesting loaded statement! Especially given the imperfections of the public transit, roadway and related transportation systems in the region.


SEAN January 31, 2019 - 4:05 pm

Mike, Sorry to set you off – just asking a question.

S I is in a unique position & not an advantageous one at that. When it comes to NYC commutes, the NJ communities of Jersey City, Bayone & Woodbridge have faster trip times than S I does & I realize that can surprise many.

City Lab had a piece today regarding the possibility of the end of federal transportation funding by 2021 for public transportation & 2022 for roads. That is unless the gas tax is raised or an alternative could be found.

The weirdest part was reading some of the comments below, as many of them suggest that each state should handle their own transportation needs & who cares about public transit.

Will February 23, 2019 - 12:41 am

Traffic jams and congestion will force drivers to mass transit. I will do is lower the tolls on bridges and Institute Tolls on the East River bridges as the same as subway fare

Will February 23, 2019 - 12:44 am

GWB and Lincoln are $15

JJJ January 29, 2019 - 3:03 pm

I do not think the MTA is legally allowed to stop accepting coins without conducting an equity/civil rights analysis as dictated by the FTA.

There is no reason why they cant allow the driver to collect the $7 in cash, bills only, exact change.

AMH January 29, 2019 - 5:08 pm

No way the union will let vulnerable drivers accept cash!

sonicboy678 January 30, 2019 - 10:21 am

That’s an awfully specific (and impractical) payment method.

JJJ January 30, 2019 - 4:08 pm

Why impractical? Paying 7 dollars in coins is impractical. Asking drivers to carry change and make change is impractical. Accepting the bills is not. One can simply ride an NJT express bus to see it in action.

sonicboy678 January 30, 2019 - 6:24 pm

Way to not make your case.

I’ve taken NJT buses a few times. Not once did I find cash payment practical, especially since what you’re proposing is having the exact amount in denominations that, even with their ubiquity, may not be held by the potential passenger at that time. Add to that the issue of the MTA using a collection method that would tear the bills to shreds, the possibility of the driver attempting to pocket the money, and the practicality of having a fare medium that can be used across different modes, and that “practical solution” proves to be anything but.

SEAN January 30, 2019 - 8:06 pm

A few things of note,

1. As Sonicboy has pointed out, the fair collection system that the MTA has employed would shred bills as they use a giant vacume that sucks the coins out of the boxes.

2. NJT is in the process of implementing a state wide tap card system. This would eliminate the need for drivers to make change on the interstate routes as well as making transfers simpler as those thin paper slips would be removed. Not to mention no more slow lines when boarding busses.

sonicboy678 January 30, 2019 - 11:06 pm

Honestly, NJT should’ve done that years ago.

SEAN January 31, 2019 - 11:39 am

Oh, no doubt about that. I wasn’t sure if you were aware, so I mentioned it.

I don’t know how old NJT’s fare equipment is, but I would guess the fareboxes on the intrastate busses are around 20 to 25-years old & the interstate busses it’s got to be around the same if not more as the tech inside had not changed over that time.

As for the new card system, it should be piggybacked to PATH’s Smartlink card. The same should happen with the MetroCard replacement whenever that gets done, as one card could fix a whole host of transit issues.

AMH January 31, 2019 - 3:21 pm

The new tap card had better be compatible across local transit systems–does anyone know if that’s the case?

SEAN January 31, 2019 - 4:14 pm

When I first read the press release a year ago about the card, there wasn’t any mention of it. Perhaps we’ll know more as we get closer to launch. I would like to believe there will be compadibility to Smartlink, but I won’t assume it until word gets out.

SEAN January 31, 2019 - 4:27 pm

This is the release I referred to above.


Modernization Effort Includes Additional Fare Payment Options

NEWARK, NJ – In a continuing effort to improve the customer experience, NJ TRANSIT is taking steps to modernize the fare payment system and offer additional payment options. The proposed upgrades seek to reduce cash and paper-based tickets while providing customers with quick, easy and convenient ways to pay.

“Improving the customer experience has been at the top of my priority list,” said NJ TRANSIT Executive Director Kevin Corbett. “Giving customers the ability to utilize the latest technology to pay fares offers a major convenience to them and multiple benefits including easier payment options, speeding up boarding and making our collection systems more efficient and up to date.”

A contract renewal approved by the NJ TRANSIT Board of Directors earlier this year with Conduent Transport Solutions Inc. of Somerset, New Jersey, includes provisions to accept mobile payments, open bank cards and a NJ TRANSIT fare card.

The contract allows NJ TRANSIT and Conduent to develop the future of fare payment systems within the NJ TRANSIT system including:

•The acceptance of mobile payments and open contactless bank cards.

•A new contactless NJ TRANSIT fare card with options to add cash value to the card at local retailers.

•Customer account management through the NJ TRANSIT App or online.

•Installation of more than 2,500 validators on the bus fleet and on light rail platforms to accept the contactless fare card, mobile payments and barcodes.

•Upgrades to TVMs, ticket office machines and the MyTix sales feature of the Mobile App.

These emerging technologies will incorporate an account based system where customers can manage their account, view ride and ticket history, check balances and add value. Customers who do not have access to mobile payments or contactless bank cards, will achieve the same level of convenience using a contactless NJ TRANSIT fare card. As a result, all customers will experience greater convenience with a tap and ride feel.

The current electronic ticketing through the Mobile App will continue to be used, upgraded and expanded. The contactless fare card is a great option for our cash customers and would be a complement to the NJ TRANSIT Mobile App, MyTix ticketing.

sonicboy678 February 1, 2019 - 1:24 am

Don’t expect such compatibility.

JJJ January 29, 2019 - 3:00 pm

There should not be a fare hike. The 2-year plan was created in the depth of the recession, when unemployment was high, the stock market was low, and real estate was stagnant. Government, essentially, was broke.

We have had unprecedented growth over the last 5 years. That grows means more payroll taxes and more property taxes. There should not be a funding shortage.

Fares cannot be set using an arbitrary percentage increase over a previously arbitrary price. Transportation is a competitive market, and as ridership has shown, people are moving to the competition at the current rates. Charging a higher fare simply makes that Uber ride more attractive.

sonicboy678 January 29, 2019 - 5:00 pm

There really shouldn’t be, but given that the government has been playing games with funding for years now, it’s desperately needed.

Long-term, what we really need is for the government to make funding transit a much higher priority, and not just for NYC.

Larry Littlefield January 30, 2019 - 10:55 am

Despite “unprecedented growth” in tax revenues here, and one tax increase after another, government is still broke. Pension and debt costs, and other costs such as Medicaid for seniors, health care for retired employees, etc. continue to absorbed all the money.

The biggest growth has been in funding for the schools, even as enrollment has shrunk. But the UFT has ordered its politicians to deliver another $5 billion. Meanwhile, home health care employment is soaring to the moon.

SEAN January 30, 2019 - 1:14 pm

I recall a provision in NYS education in witch it is illegal to spend less in a given year compared to the previous year. I know this rule applied in special ed as my mother was involved in that arena for quite a few years, but I wonder if that rule applied elsewhere. Personally I would believe so, but maybe someone could correct me if I’m mistaken.

Alon Levy January 31, 2019 - 7:40 pm

Make it $3 and try keeping it there for a while via eliminating the bonus at the next fare hike. Round fares are friendlier to passengers who pay cash at stations.

SEAN January 31, 2019 - 8:32 pm

Hey there Alon, I think the MTA & other like agencies are trying to remove themselves as cash handlers as it costs them money. That is why there’s a real push to have farecards or apps as payment. See the NJT piece I posted above.

Pedro Valdez-Rivera February 2, 2019 - 2:20 pm

That’s still #CuomosMTA in a nutshell. I’m not surprised there.

Nick February 6, 2019 - 9:59 am

It’s insane that the express buses will soon cost $7 for a ride, yet the ferries are only at $2.75-$3.00.

sonicboy678 February 6, 2019 - 10:44 pm

Given how different they are…


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