No matter what happens with its Doomsday budget, whether federal transit funding comes through or not, the MTA is going to raise the fares next year. The uptick is part of the never-ending, biennial fare increases that see the cost of transit inch upward in New York City every two years like clockwork and not, as MTA Chair and CEO Pat Foye has repeatedly said, part of the MTA’s effort to close its multi-billion-dollar budget gap.
In other words, the fares would be going up with or without the pandemic next year, and while New Yorkers have grown numb to the drumbeat of ever-escalating transit costs, this year’s menu of potential changes to the fares sure has raised eyebrows among the city’s transit cognoscenti. In particular, as part of the strategy of throwing everything against a wall to see what sticks, the MTA has proposed eliminating unlimited 7- and 30-day Metrocards. The agency had previously cut the 1-day Fun Pass and a 14-day card a few years ago due to low usage rates, but it’s not clear why the MTA would look to do away with passes that incentivize more transit usage. To make matters worse, the rationale offered by Larry Schwartz, Andrew Cuomo’s MTA enforcer and right-hand man on the agency board, were mystifyingly mysterious.
We’ll get to all the politics and policy decisions in a minute. Let’s start with a look at the proposals on the table.
Usually, when the MTA prepares for these fare hikes, the agency offers two menus of fare hike options. But after increased criticism a few years ago from MTA Board members who felt they were denied a say in the policy of the fare hikes, the agency has opted for a series of blanket policies and a variety of logic games. It’s not yet clear how the MTA is going to get from here to a concrete set of new fares, but the net impact of the changes to the fares will be a 4% jump in fare-based revenue. The table below, which the agency has labeled “for illustrative purposes” only, offers a glimpse at the “policy options” under consideration.
The MTA put more details online last week, and here we have a quasi-glimpse of the various proposals at play. The permutations are confusing with a lot of conditional statements, but the MTA is essentially considering maintaining the base pay-per-ride fare or increasing it by 25 cents. If the pay-per-ride fares increase, the unlimited ride cars would see smaller increases — a 7-day card could cost $34.75, up $1.75 from the current price, and a 30-day card could cost $134, up $7. If the MTA holds the base fare, the weekly pass could cost $36 or $3 more and a monthly could cost $139, up a whopping $12 from current rates. The monthly hasn’t seen this large an increase since 2010 when the cost went up from $89 to $104.
In this great puzzle of either-or-maybe options, the MTA has also said it could keep the fee for new Metrocard purchases at $1 or increase it to $3 per card. This fee, which is avoidable if you stick an expired Metrocard into a vending machine, should be increased as both an incentive to get riders to switch to OMNY and a way for infrequent or tourist riders to offset commuting costs for transit regulars.
But I’m burying the lede: The MTA is considering eliminating “one or more” time-based passes. There is no trigger here or an either-or option, and it’s not clear what will happen if the MTA decides to embrace the proposal. That is, the move to cut unlimited ride passes stands alone, and the MTA has not the public what the trade-off would be. Would it mean no increase in the pay-per-ride fare or a separate slate of fare proposals? We do not know, and instead, this is a pure policy consideration by the MTA, allegedly separate from the ongoing pandemic slump. It also makes absolutely no sense.
Generally speaking, one goal of a well-run public transit system in a heavily populated cit is to incentivize transit usage. The only way for millions of New Yorkers to move through the city each day efficiently is via high-capacity,, rail, and the more riders the better. Unlimited Metrocards were a revelation for New York City and one that unlocked the transit system for millions. For a one-time upfront fee each month (or week), potential riders could swipe as many times as they wanted, and taking short trips — whether by bus or train — became second nature. It was, in fact, best to maximize monthly swipes to get a better deal. At a time when the MTA needs to attract riders to shore up its finances and help avoid crushing gridlock on city streets, doing away with time-based incentives is foolhardy.
If anything, in fact, the MTA’s unlimited ride, time-based passes should be cheaper. Currently, the breakeven point for a 30-day Metrocard is a shade over 46 rides and for a 7-day card, 12 trips. With the 47th swipe in a 30-day period, it becomes more cost-efficient to pay $127 than to buy rides at $2.75 per trip. This is generally a high bar to clear when compared with international norms. Most international transit systems heavily incentivize time-based passes – in Stockholm, for instance, the break-even point for a 30-day pass is 26 rides and a 30-day Navigo pass in Paris pays for itself after the 39th trip. So the MTA already over-burdens users of time-based compared with international peer systems.
Meanwhile, as OMNY completes its system-wide rollout in a few days, the MTA should look to further incentivize transit while making the system more accessible through fare capping. In essence, fare capping means that after a certain number of rides per time period – whether it be day, week or month – a rider no longer pays for additional trips. In London, for example, generally, rider aren’t charged each week after their 15th trip. This allows riders who can’t afford a monthly pass upfront to enjoy the benefits of limitless transit after reaching a fare level. The MTA has yet to determine if they will implement fare capping with OMNY, but this, rather than the elimination of time-based passes, is the policy discussion worth having.
So why is the MTA considering a shift in fare policy that would disincentivize riders while shifting away from international norms? The answer appears to have arisen in the form of a half-formed rant by Cuomo aide and MTA Board Member Larry Schwartz during last month’s board meeting. Here’s what Schwartz had to say:
I’m going to take the same position I took two years ago. I don’t think the people who depend on the MTA’s mass transit system should have to pay more. It’s for the casual rider that I believe should be paying more in offsetting any increases that the riders who depend on the system. That is why I like freezing the New York City subway fare at $2.75 because it would actually mean a $2.65 fare. It would be a 10 cent decrease. That is why I believe the 30-day commuter – these are people who depend on the mass transit system to get to work as opposed to the casual daily rider that buys an off-peak ticket or to go to a show or restaurant, the doctor or has a trial in New York City. So I’m all in favor of that.
The other thing I want to say is that right now, I am somewhat in favor of eliminating the time based passes because I believe there is a lot of fraud associated with them…I would really like to see the 7-day time based fares on ZIP code or something. Who is purchasing those 7-day time-based passes? Because again, I am not here to hurt the people who rely on the system the most. The people that can afford to should pay more, the people that cannot shouldn’t. But I’m also concerned with the 7-day and the 30-day. There’s been a lot of fraud associated with these things that hurt people who pay the 2.75 trip on New York City subways.
Again, my goal is not to see the base fare increase for both the bus and subway riders and also for those people who depend the most on commuter rail, those monthly pass holders. Again, the people who depend on the system the most should be held harmless, and the people that are casual riders who use the system….um, you know, they can…It’s the best deal in town. They’ll never find an alternative source of transportation other than walking to get from Point A to Point B whether it’s coming into the city or going from one part of the city to another than it is the MTA system….My thing is for those casual people, they can probably absorb a little bit more.
So much of what Schwartz said makes no sense, and if you can make heads or tails of these arguments, more power to you. Even though in pre-pandemic times, over 50% of riders used time-based cards, Schwartz thinks they’re used only by casual riders. He also seems to think those riders don’t rely on the system most and should be socked by higher fares, again a shift from a rational fare policy. I don’t know how or why he thinks eliminating unlimited cards would lower the fare, but the biggest red flag is in his evidence-free claims of fraud.
The last time Schwartz raised an argument like this, it sent us down a years’-long path arguing over fare evasion and its impact. Now, Schwartz, without providing a shred of evidence, claims that 30-day cards are subject to “a lot of fraud.” On its face, that makes little sense as each time-based card carries with it an 18-minute timeout to combat fraud, and Schwartz has provided nothing to back up his claim. But we have to listen to it because he’s the one on the board closest to the Governor, and the Governor is responsible for the decisions made within and about the MTA.
So here we are, staring at fare hikes that involve a lot of moving parts and a threat to cut off the city’s unlimited cards, transit lifelines for millions and one that makes riding easy. If the MTA is truly considering eliminating these cards, they owe it to the public to explain why, and Schwartz owes it to the public to present evidence of this fraud. Otherwise, the MTA should leave well enough alone and make these time-based cards more readily affordable for everyone rather than cutting them out entirely.