Now Is The Time For The MTA To Investigate Alternate Fare Structures

Source: Brendan Ross / Flickr

Source: Brendan Ross / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: This past week the MTA unveiled a series of progressive initiatives, including additional restorations of service that were cut in June 2010. Prior to those service reductions, the media paid little attention to them. The headlines mainly revolved around the MTA’s plan to cut student fares. It wasn’t until years later, when the impacts were fully felt, that public outcry began and service restorations were made. The first round included the return of the truncated portions of the B4 and B64 — which were not replaced by other routes — earlier this year.

This round includes other restorations such as the return of the B37 and the old B70 in Bay Ridge. A few bus routes will also be restored in the other boroughs. On the subway side, afternoon G train service will be increased and the M will now operate on weekends. The MTA is to be commended for these improvements but they do not go far enough. Other bus routes, such as the B71, which had seen its ridership increase by 29 percent between 2005 and 2010, will not be returning. Is the B37 returning because of a significant grassroots effort advocating its restoration while few were asking for the return of the B71? How much of a role did the actual numbers play in the MTA’s decision?

The bad news is that, with this improvement package, the MTA also announced proposed fare increases for 2015 and 2017 at last week’s board presentation. I am not a budget person so I will not be critiquing the MTA’s plan. Ben Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas did a fine job of doing just that. The MTA presents a lot of numbers and is basically saying ‘we would like to do more but this is all we can afford within our financial constraints and we have no alternative but to continue raising the fare every two years. Trust us because we are doing everything correctly.’

But are they?

What The MTA Is Not Doing

Part of the MTA’s job is to perform long range planning. When it comes to fare increases, they fail miserably due to their shortsightedness. About a year ago, before the last fare increase, I wrote a three-part series, “What Is A Fair Fare?” I suggested that the so-called flat fare we have is really not so flat since some short trips involving two buses and a train require multiple fares while long subway rides, no matter how many trains you take, require only one. I suggested the MTA investigate a time-based fare instead, without being so concerned about riders making a round trip on a single fare. I suggested possibly reducing the two hours currently allowed to make a transfer to 90 or even 60 minutes (with exceptions) to reduce negative revenue impacts. Since the MTA was under pressure to devise a new fare in less than six months, they were not in a position at that time to investigate such an alternative.

However, there is now a year and a half before the next scheduled fare increase and enough time to investigate other fare structure alternatives. A proposal to merely continue fare and toll increases every two years without end with no other alternatives is irresponsible and is no plan at all. As Ben Kabak points out, fare increases will continue: “Until New Yorkers start agitating louder for an end to fare hikes…” Notice that due to the outcry in 2010, changes to the student fare are no longer being proposed.

Future Implications Of Not Altering The Fare Structure

If the fare rises by only 25 cents every two years, by 2025, it will reach $4. If any four increases are for $.50 cents rather than a quarter due to a downturn in the economy or reductions in state aid, both of which are real possibilities, by 2025 the fare would be $5 each way. Those having to pay a double fare would be paying $20 a day for a single round-trip and express bus riders could be paying $24 a day. A family of four paying double fare would pay $80 for a round-trip or nearly $100 if they made a round trip by express bus. The toll to get to Staten Island from Brooklyn could easily be $25 a day or $500 a month, based on travel of five days a week. The year 2025 is not that far away. It is as far in the future as 2000 is in the past.

The MTA is very concerned about replacing the MetroCard with another fare medium because it is becoming increasingly costly for them to maintain the aging equipment the continued use of MetroCard would require. They know that at some point in time it will have to be replaced. Yet they believe that it is perfectly acceptable to keep the same current unfair fare structure in place forever with biennial fare increases. The percentage of riders paying double fares, as more Select Bus Service (SBS) and Limited routes are added over the next generation, will increase, since changing from one of these routes to a local bus requires an extra fare for a third vehicle. Your alternative to walking long distances and paying a double fare is to use slow local buses for your entire trip, which is not in the passenger’s interest or the MTA’s.

What Needs To Be Done

Riders need to be allowed to make as many transfers as required in order for them to complete their one-way trip. Some revenue would be lost if a round trip can be completed within two hours. However, no one has studied what the true revenue impact would be because the MTA assumes that allowing a round-trip within two hours would not result in any additional trips being made. That is not the case. Additional trips would be made and others trips would be attracted from dollar vans, which would counteract some of the projected revenue loss. Further, the economic benefits to the city that such a change in the fare structure would bring are also ignored. The vast majority of those making round-trips would still be paying two fares since they would not be able to make a round trip within two hours. Even fewer round trips could be made for a single fare if the two-hour transfer period were shortened.

Also, we may now be providing more local bus service than we need because some make slow two-bus trips when a bus to a subway to a bus, which may be quicker, is avoided because it costs a second fare. As the fare keeps increasing, so does the incentive to save a fare. When two or more are traveling together, the incentive to save a fare or take a cab is greater. No one is considering the costs to the MTA or the user by using slower modes of travel or by making indirect trips to save fares, or trips that are not made by mass transit because of a required double fare. Fewer than half the riders buy an unlimited MetroCard, and as its costs rise, fewer will be able to afford one.

The Past Should Be A Guide For The Future

The BMT and, later, the New York City Transit Authority resisted changing an antiquated bus transfer system, which only allowed free transfers between routes operated by the same private companies (or through reciprocal agreements between companies) for more than 50 years after those companies no longer existed. That caused riders to walk extra distances and pay additional fares. Lost revenue estimates also did not consider additional trips by allowing free transfers between virtually all-intersecting bus routes.

When the policy was finally changed in 1981, bus ridership greatly increased and revenue losses were nowhere near what was anticipated. When service improvements are made, the MTA overestimates the costs of providing new services because they do not consider or underestimate additional revenue. Similarly, when fares are hiked or service is reduced, additional revenue is overestimated and negative effects on ridership are underestimated. Consider page five of the board presentation, in which the MTA re-estimates lower fare revenue than was predicted in February — a month before the last fare increase. Why should we believe that MTA financial projections are accurate?


Alternative fare structures need to be studied now and financial projections need to more accurately predict effects on revenue by considering potential additional ridership that positive fare changes would entail. The benefits to riders and greater economic benefits to the city also need to be considered.

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.

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  • peppertree5706

    I assume that you mean weekend service of the M train in Manhattan and Queens Blvd. The Myrtle Avenue portion of the M runs 24/7.

    DC and other areas have a premium fare at rush hour. Modern technology would enable the MTA to charge premium rush hour fares. That is good and can ease the crush at rush hour and more people will change to ride after rush hour.

    In other cities, a bus transfer is a flat two hours with unlimited transfer. No other rules or no small print, just a free transfer for two hours. Is that easy enough?

    • Allan Rosen

      Yes, I was not talking about the shuttle portion of the M.

      I have no problem with a premium fare at rush hour providing the fare is significantly lowered during the off-peak and it could be lowered by different amounts for different time periods. However, my feeling is that the MTA would raise the fare during rush hours and leave it at $2.50 during the off-peak.

      Yes, a flat two hours with unlimited transfers is easy enough and sounds fair.

      • peppertree5706

        What is a fair premium for rush hour? I would think a 15% premium for rush hour. A super low overnight fare may be nice.

        • Allan Rosen

          I think that would be fair. Also, a 15% reduction from the base fair for weekends would be nice. But everything depends how those changes would affect the bottom line and that’s why we need a study.

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  • aemoreira81

    What about the idea of zoned express buses? Those routes generate less revenue as there isn’t any turnover on the route—-express bus fares could be based on mileage. For all surface options, and the subway, the idea of peak pricing should also be revisited, with a 50-cent higher peak fare for fares paid without a fare pass over the non-peak fare (Peak fares would be waived on official holidays where a weekend schedule is operated, the Friday after Thanksgiving, and December 25-January 1.)

    • Allan Rosen

      How would a zone express be enforced? You could charge less for passengers getting on near the middle of the route, but you would have to have tickets that the driver would check when the passengers got off to make sure they don’t ride to midtown for example if they only paid for downtown, for example. It would greatly slow up the disembarking process. It might work if you could work out the logistics.

      Express buses are now more than twice the regular fare. I don’t think they could go much higher. If you had zone fares, I think it would make more sense to give a discount for those traveling shorter distances rather than charging more for those riding longer, but that would have a negative fare revenue impact unless it increases ridership and capacity is available without providing additional service.

      • aemoreira81

        The zones could be by borough (i.e., a bus to Staten Island, traveling through either Brooklyn or NJ) would be more. The BM5 would be one borough for purposes of this, however. CT Transit does have express bus zone fares in Hartford Division.

        • Allan Rosen

          You know the SI politicians would be screaming bloody murder and they usually get what they want. Their tolls actually went down last time when everyone else’s went up. They got the MTA to consider anyone making three trips a month to be considered a commuter and receive a reduced toll (like $3 each way) while Brooklyn drivers who make the same trip to SI and NJ every day receive no discounts and pay twice that amount and have to subsidize them.

          They claim they are imprisoned by tolls, but they knew the deal when buying there at greatly reduced property values because of the tolls.

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