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Half-Price MetroCards for Low-Income New Yorkers Get $50M Council Boost

By Danielle Tcholakian | April 5, 2017 11:41am | Updated on April 5, 2017 2:43pm
 Transit advocates and a top MTA board member have been pushing for the half-price MetroCards for months.
Transit advocates and a top MTA board member have been pushing for the half-price MetroCards for months.
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Courtesy of the MTA

CIVIC CENTER — The City Council's latest budget proposal calls for $50 million in funding for a pilot program to provide half-price MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers.

Transit advocates, and even a top MTA board member appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, have been pushing for the subsidized MetroCards for months, with efforts intensifying since the recent MTA-approved fare hike.

"It's so important for New Yorkers struggling to get around our city that this make it into the Mayor's executive budget," City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the Council's transit committee, said in a statement after the budget proposal was released Tuesday night. 

"My colleagues and I are ready [to] find a way to get it done creatively after hearing concerns about cost. We're hoping to find a willing partner in our mayor, who has shown he cares deeply about getting city residents out of poverty and the criminal justice system."

The funding was first reported by the New York Daily News.

The budget also calls for $12 million to bring Citi Bike to The Bronx, Upper Manhattan and Staten Island, the first public funds requested for the privately operated bike share program.

The full cost of subsidizing half-priced MetroCards for all low-income New Yorkers is estimated to be $200 million, and de Blasio has consistently said that the city cannot afford to do it.

The mayor believes subsidizing fares should be the responsibility of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is in charge of the MTA.

But transit advocates at a press conference Wednesday likened the pilot program approach to gradually raising the minimum wage to $15, an initiative the mayor supports.

According to advocates, the $50 million pilot program would take effect next year and cover the very poorest New Yorkers, such as families of three who make about $10,000 a year.

It would also only apply to "working age" New Yorkers, since the city already subsidizes MetroCards for students and seniors, said Nancy Rankin, Vice President for Policy, Research and Advocacy at the Community Service Society. 

The total number of people who would qualify for the program is 380,000, according to Rankin, and includes undocumented immigrant New Yorkers.

The cost of the program would increase to $100 million for fiscal year 2019, still only covering the very poor, and then to $200 million in 2020, when it would be expanded to cover all New Yorkers living below the poverty line.

"Just like the $15 minimum wage didn't reach $15 all at one, that's what we're proposing," Rankin said. "What could be more consistent with the mayor's policies than this proposal for fair fares?"

"There's no reason for the mayor to say no at this point," agreed Rebecca Ballin, campaign manager at the Riders Alliance.

Lauding de Blasio's "progressive" policies and noting that the mayor is currently in Seattle, a city that has a "fair fares" program, Rodriguez said, "This can be his next initiative."

But the mayor seems to disagree.

“The pilot program, like the original proposal, is a noble one, but the mayor has been very clear: the MTA is the responsibility of the state and they should consider funding the program," said de Blasio spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein in a statement.

Goldstein noted that the city provides nearly $1 billion annually in direct subsidies and an additional $4.3 billion in indirect annual subsidies to support MTA operations, and last year committed $2.5 billion toward the agency's capital plan, apparently more than the city ever has before.

Currently, the city pays $45 million annually to help subsidize subway fares for schoolchildren, more than the state's contribution, Goldstein said, plus $13.8 million for elderly and disabled subway riders and $1.7 million for elderly and disabled bus riders.