The administration proposed a $65 million budget cut to Fair Fares, a program that offers half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers.
“For months we hoped that there would be a stimulus bill voted on in Washington to help New York City,” said the mayor during his daily briefing last Tuesday referencing the HEROES Act, from which the MTA is hoping to gain $4 billion in federal relief funding.
There is still no sign as to when the next stimulus package will pass the Senate, so de Blasio says it is time for the city to “move on” without it, hence a FY2021 budget that is more than $17 billion less than initially projected in February.
“It was an effective, important program,” he said of Fair Fares, noting alternatively that since MTA fare revenue was down to nearly 10 percent of pre-pandemic figures at the height of the city’s outbreak, a reevaluation of the initiative was necessary. “I think the underlying concept of the program was disrupted profoundly by the coronavirus.”
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who championed the 2019 pilot for Fair Fares, claims he doesn’t know what the mayor is talking about. Johnson has assured that the budget measure is a “re-estimate,” and will not cause New Yorkers to lose their benefits, nor bar others from enrolling in the future.
The casualties incurred by Fair Fares are the latest in a string of bad news for the MTA, even as ridership numbers are on the rebound.
In recent weeks, the agency has announced the pause of $50 billion in planned upgrades to the system, as well as likely delays in the implementation of congestion pricing. These setbacks, advocates say, are occurring at a time riders need public transportation the most.
"Fair Fares is a lifeline for 200,000 subway and bus riders living in poverty,” read a statement from Riders Alliance community organizer Danna Dennis. “It holds great promise for a half-million more eligible New Yorkers, especially at a time when so many are struggling to make ends meet.
"While ridership is down now,” she added, “it is returning and transit remains absolutely essential to frontline and returning workers. Mayor de Blasio must be clear in how these cuts will impact New Yorkers.”
On the same day news broke of the budget cuts to Fair Fares, the Riders Alliance held a Powerpoint press conference demanding the return of overnight subway service by the time the city reaches Phase 4 of reopening.
The launch of the #JustService campaign came on the heels of the governor’s declaration that 24/7 service will only be restored once trains don’t have to be disinfected overnight, as they have been between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m. daily since May.
Transit advocates at the conference contradicted Governor Andrew Cuomo’s talking points, saying that the subway does not in fact need to be shut down overnight in order to be kept clean, as growing evidence shows the threat of coronavirus transmission through surfaces is at a lower level than person-to-person spread.
A report by the Tri-state Transportation Campaign released in June presented a variety of options for maintaining the cleanliness of trains while also keeping them in service.
One of those proposals is the use of electrostatic sprayers, which are cited as producing quick turnaround times and could be effectively employed during layovers of buses and trains.
Riders Alliance spokesperson Danny Pearlstein called it an issue of “image vs. reality,” arguing that more space is paramount for the increasing number of New Yorkers taking public transportation each day as the city reopens and many go back to work.
“The disinfection is in significant part for show,” he said. “What riders need is genuine focus on actual, measurable safety enhancements. What we’re hearing is that more frequent service that will ease crowding is the key to making riders safer, and that cosmetic improvements like power washing the exterior of trains overnight doesn’t contribute to that.”
In addition to reopening the trains to riders overnight, the Riders Alliance is calling on the MTA to divest in its plan to hire 500 transit police officers and reallocate that $249 million into increasing off-peak service by 15 percent.
The advocates say that more frequent service on buses and trains is pivotal when it comes to maintaining social distancing on mass transit.
“Cops are a bad investment now, and the budgetary consequences will be felt for years as the MTA recovers from this crisis,” said Crown Heights resident and Riders Alliance member Elizabeth Prior. “Riders don’t want additional cops.
“What riders want,” she posed, “is to be able to return to transit without worrying about crowding on trains and platforms.”