THE COMMUTE: Most likely $2.50.
But the real question is: What will happen to the bonuses and unlimited passes? Those discounts have been decreasing with each fare increase and the MTA is now proposing to eliminate the modest seven percent bonus when paying for at least $10 in rides. Also, last time the MTA tried to cap the unlimited passes but, instead, chose to steeply increase their cost, making them less useful for some.
Several months ago, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota postponed the next fare from January to March 2013 because the MTA’s finances were in better shape than previously thought. So it came quite as a surprise when he announced on September 12 that eliminating the bonuses or discounts should be considered because the MTA only receives $1.63 for each $2.25 trip made.
Most of that reduction is due to unlimited seven- and 30-day passes. It is unclear if he is counting senior and student fares in that calculation. The seven percent bonus only lowers the base fare from $2.25 to $2.10 (Currently, the price for a one-way subway ride is already $2.50). The original reason for these discounts was to encourage riders to switch from paying in cash or tokens to the MetroCard. But aren’t there other reasons to maintain these discounts? Of course there are. The more passengers buy in bulk, the shorter the lines at station booths and vending machines. Also, if someone has already pre-paid for their trip, the greater the likelihood to make that trip by mass transit instead of walking, thus increasing revenue for the MTA. Besides, the MTA also benefits since they receive more money in advance that they can invest sooner and earn interest on.
A $2.50 base fare and elimination of the bonus represents an increase of nearly 18 percent for anyone who currently buys at least $10 worth of trips at once. That is quite substantial, especially when the city’s and state’s policy is to encourage the use mass transit. But that still is not the entire story.
Possible Elimination Of Unlimited Ride Cards
Lhota’s statement opens the door for a discussion about elimination of unlimited ride cards. However, according to the New York Daily News, the unlimited ride pass would only jump from $104 to $109 per month, after a much steeper increase in 2011.
Nevertheless, a possible elimination of the payroll tax currently being considered by Albany could very well threaten the future of the unlimited pass. The MTA might hold unlimited passes hostage if Albany takes that step or else threaten more service cuts. Riders would certainly care — but would Albany?
The MTA dislikes unlimited passes because of the small numbers of people who abuse them. Messenger services buy unlimited passes in bulk that they then transfer between employees. Fare scammers buy as many as 10 passes and sell swipes at a reduced cost at the turnstiles, keeping track of the number of minutes that have elapsed since the last time a pass was used since they cannot be used more frequently than every 18 or 20 minutes.
But is that a reason to punish those who legitimately need to take 10 or more trips a day, such as my friend who uses her pass to make numerous stops during the course of a workday because she is in sales. Forcing those like her to pay for each trip individually could increase her mass transit expenses by well over $5,000 per year. For some, it may make more sense to buy or lease an automobile, putting more pollution guzzlers on the road when our national goal is to encourage the use of mass transit. The MTA could also cap unlimited ride cards at four or six trips per day, which still could double someone’s transit expenses who makes multiple trips during the course of a workday.
When unlimited ride cards were introduced in 1998, the number of mass transit trips soared. If they were eliminated or capped at a limited number of trips, ridership would plummet. Subway riders would see little change other than less crowded trains as more riders would choose to walk one stop rather than taking the train. However, the changes on buses would be dramatic. If ridership plummets 20 percent as a result of a fare increase and elimination of unlimited passes, service would be cut dramatically. On a route running every four minutes, service could be cut to every five minutes for a several hours a day. However, on routes with less frequent service, a 15-minute headway could become a 20-minute headway if the reduction in patronage triggers a service reduction according to the service guidelines in use.
The real effects on service would even be greater due to the percentage of buses that bunch. A wait that was previously 30 minutes could increase to 40 minutes, thereby reducing someone’s choice to use that route in the first place, if alternatives exist, threatening the very existence of part or the entire route. That, in effect, could spur another round of service cuts. Regardless of what happens with the fare, we must make certain that unlimited ride passes are maintained.
What Will Probably Happen
It is no coincidence that Lhota made his announcement when he did, six months before a proposed fare increase. He gets to test the waters to determine how the public feels about eliminating bonuses. If there is no public outcry, then he can suggest the possibility of eliminating or capping unlimited passes. Proposing all fare and toll increases at the same time would undoubtedly spark a huge public protest. By unveiling the increases a little at a time, he can suggest alternatives to see which sparks the least protest so as to least hurt Governor Cuomo’s chances of reelection.
Once all the cards are on the table, he announces that he doesn’t want to go back on his promise to restore some of the service cuts, so the public will have to choose between or a combination of raising the base fare, eliminating bonuses, eliminating the unlimited passes, raising their cost or capping them, or just raising the base fare to $2.75 instead of $2.50.
The final result will be a compromise the politicians and MTA claim everyone will be able to live with. This strategy makes everyone focus only on the choices that the MTA has given them and eliminates any possibility of other discussions such as a switch to a time-based fare instead of a vehicle based fare, as I suggested in my series, “What Is A Fair Fare?”
- The MTA should be made to justify any proposed fare increase by clearly spelling out all the alternatives, including switching to a time-based fare;
- There should be enough citywide hearings so that you shouldn’t be required to wait two or three hours late into the night to speak, as with the service cut hearings;
- There should be separate hearings for toll increases as these are unrelated to the transit fare and;
- The MTA should not be allowed to hold combined hearings for 2013 and 2015, as the Port Authority did before raising its tolls the last time.
The purpose of public hearings should be to determine if a fare increase is necessary and by what amount. Instead, the MTA first announces the increase and then holds hearings only because they are legally required. Most believe their attendance would be futile and do not even show up since they believe the decisions have already been made. To some extent they are correct. However, an unusually large turnout lets politicians know that voters will hold them accountable in the following election if they do not allocate the MTA the funding it needs to operate and which MTA proposals are the most unpopular.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).
Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.