Killing monthly MetroCards is the wrong way to fix the MTA
The state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a lot of problems — and will need a Biden bailout. But the MTA does control a big part of its own fate: fare and toll increases. Yes, it needs to raise fares and tolls. But no, it shouldn’t eliminate monthly subway and bus passes to raise revenue, as it suggested last week. That would undo two decades’ worth of urban progress.
At last week’s board meeting, the authority showed a $6.1 billion funding shortfall for 2021, well more than a third of next year’s $16.1 billion budget.
The MTA’s problem: Seven out of 10 of its regular riders are still missing, worse on commuter rail. Even the smartest of budget cuts can’t fix this — and you know the MTA, because it won’t take on its powerful labor unions, won’t make smart budget cuts.
The MTA proposes to fill part of the gap — $148 million — with a fare increase on subways and buses and a toll increase on bridges and tunnels.
One part of this is fine, if not great: Raise tolls on bridges and tunnels by 8 percent, to an average of $6.70 one way.
Though people are using all modes of transportation to a lesser degree during the pandemic, they are still driving around more than they are taking the subways and buses. Last week, bridge and tunnel traffic on MTA crossings, like the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, was down by “only” 16 percent compared to 2019, while subway traffic was down by 70 percent.
Someone who can afford the monthly upkeep on a car can better afford a toll hike than can someone who is taking the subway or a bus.
But what about subway and bus fares? The MTA might raise fares by 9 percent, increasing the base $2.75 fare to nearly $3. But the MTA is offering an “out”: Instead of increasing the per-ride fare, it would eliminate 30-day passes, currently $127.
Larry Schwartz, a board member appointed by Gov. Cuomo, justifies this on the grounds that the “casual rider” should pay more, as opposed to the essential worker paying by the ride.
This is backward. The MTA introduced the monthly pass in 1998, and the entire point was to encourage the “casual rider.”
Any pre-COVID-19 commuter could do the math and see which is more economical (and most did): If you travel to and from work each day, five days a week, the cost of a monthly pass versus the cost of pay-per-ride — $124 — was about even.
So why pay for a monthly pass? The reason was simple: “free” rides after your commute.
The introduction of the monthly pass meant that commuters could use the MTA for “free,” on their days off, to visit friends, farmers’ markets, museums, beaches, new neighborhoods.
And they did. Between 1988 and 1998, annual ridership increased by just 200 million, to 1.2 billion riders, from 1 billion, according to an NYU analysis. But between 1998 and 2003, just half the earlier time frame, ridership jumped to 1.4 billion.
The reason? Casual riders. If your trip to the supermarket, to the museum, to your friend’s house, is free, you’ll take it. Now, more than ever, the MTA needs its casual riders.
It’s a marker of New York’s catastrophic 2020 that the number of people buying monthly MetroCards has plummeted from 51 percent to 34 percent of riders. Most people now are only intent on the next ride, usually to get to (low-paid) work.
We need those missing people back — and shouldn’t ditch them forever.
Essential pay-per-ride workers, too, even if they can’t afford a monthly pass, need more eyes and ears on platforms and trains (provided everyone is masked) to keep them safe.
A big reason why crime has soared on subways this year — six murders, a modern record, plus two near-fatal pushings last week — is the lack of foot traffic. No one is around to deter bad guys from committing violent crimes.
New York needs people to climb down the subway steps without thinking about whether it is costing them an extra $2.75 or an extra $3. At some point, a return to normalcy will require everyone to think more than a day in advance, and the MTA should be ready, when its people are ready.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal. Twitter: @NicoleGelinas
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