Amidst an ongoing pandemic that has decimated the economy and reduced daily transit ridership to essential workers traveling to keep the city and themselves afloat, the MTA Board has tabled talks of a fare hike, agency officials confirmed on Monday. The decision comes after months of public pressure by both elected officials and transit advocates, and it marks the first time since biennial fare hikes began in 2010 that the MTA Board — and by extension, the governor — has opted to cancel or at least postpone a fare hike.
Rumors that the MTA would be delaying the fare hike had been swirling since the New Year, and as the local pile-on from elected officials continued throughout the holidays and into 2021, it seemed as though the politics of a mid-pandemic fare hike would make the move untenable. CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer broke the news, and MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye sent out a statement a few hours later explaining the decision:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked economic havoc — devastating the MTA’s ridership and revenues and bringing them to levels far worse than the Great Depression. It has also hit people of color and low income communities hardest, many of whom are the very same essential workers that have been on the frontlines of this crisis and who are also most dependent on mass transit.
“As part of our biennial review of fare and toll policy, the MTA conducted the unprecedented level of outreach this year required, holding eight public hearings and receiving 2,100 public comments. What we heard at these hearings was that people are suffering and cannot shoulder even a modest fare increase right now.
“Buoyed by President-elect Biden, incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the MTA also has hope for $8 billion in additional pandemic relief and continued federal investment in mass transit in 2021 and beyond. For these reasons, the MTA has decided to postpone the planned fare increase for several months. We plan to move forward with a discussion and vote on recommended toll changes in February.”
According to Clayton Guse of The Daily News, the MTA will not move to raise the fares until at least the summer, and I expect the agency to delay the hike until the pandemic abates and transit ridership rebounds significantly.
The city’s transit advocates were quick to praise the move. “When riders organize, our governor listens. With offices closed and Broadway dark, a transit fare hike would fall overwhelmingly on essential workers and New Yorkers with no other way to get around beside the bus, subway, and paratransit,” Riders Alliance Policy & Communications Director Danny Pearlstein said. “With the regressive MTA fare hike off the table, Governor Cuomo must now put a stop to state raids on transit-dedicated funds. While riders are breathing a sigh of relief, the governor must craft a bold, progressive solution to his transit agency’s money woes.”
For now, the relieve is temporary. The MTA will seek to raise fares within the next six or twelve months, but the decision this week is the right. Last month, as the MTA seemed on a collision course with a public economically drained by the pandemic, I wrote a piece urging the MTA to delay the fare hike, and the reasoning holds up. On the backs of essential riders, the MTA would have raised approximately $79 million in total by implementing a 2021 fare hike, and the agency is still requesting $8 billion from the incoming Biden Administration. It would have been political suicide for any fare hike to go through, and from conversations I’ve had with MTA and state sources, it seems clear the Governor knew this.
So what happens next? First, the mystifying debate over the future of unlimited ride fare cards will be delayed a few more months, and that may give us more time to understand why Larry Schwartz, architect of New York State’s current vaccine rollout plan, wants to eliminate them. Second, the bridge and tunnel toll hikes will continue, and this is good public policy. Drivers should be expected to pay more, both as a way to capture the externalities of driving and as a way to encourage transit usages.
The MTA hasn’t revealed the specifics of the planned toll hikes, but we know that crossings could increase to as much as $6.70 for New York E-ZPass customers. We also know the MTA is considering variable tolling based on time of day and/or on so-called Gridlock Alert Days, a quasi-congestion pricing plan. Resident discounts and carpool incentives may be reduced as well. Again, these are all fine proposals that should be adopted, especially as bridge and tunnel traffic has recovered significantly faster than transit usage. (Bridge and tunnel traffic is down by only 16-17 percent from pre-pandemic figures while subway and bus ridership have steadied at around 30 and 45 percent of normal, respectively.)
Still, the MTA plans to reduce some service. The commuter rail lines will see some trips eliminated as part of a pandemic-related “right-sizing” of weekday service, and New York City Transit has had to cancel around 2 percent of scheduled trips in recent months due to crew unavailability, as Jose Martinez reported on Monday. The LIRR/Metro-North cuts will be approved by the MTA Board, but the subway service reductions remain off the books. Ideally, the MTA won’t have to make further cuts, but the budget remains shaky at best.
The big X Factor though involves federal funding. With a technical Democratic majority in the Senate and control of the House, the Biden Administration should be able to secure the rest of the funding the country’s transit agencies have requested, including $8 billion the MTA wants, and the next COVID-19 relief package should include this funding, if Democrats get their way. With no room for error in the Senate, that remains a reasonably sizable “if,” but we should know soon how aggressive Democrats in the Senate will be in determining the future of the legislative filibuster and their political success. The city and the MTA need a strong federal response.
For now, though, cooler and saner heads have prevailed, and transit fares will not increase in April, as originally anticipated. This is welcome news for a city and its workforce hoping to reach the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel and the right move by the MTA and Gov. Cuomo.