National News

New York City Leaders Agree to Provide Discounted MetroCards to the Poor

Posted June 7, 2018 7:05 p.m. EDT
Updated June 7, 2018 7:06 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — New York City leaders have reached an agreement in principle to provide reduced-fare MetroCards to low-income subway and bus riders, according to three people briefed on the discussion.

Under the terms of the deal, the city would fully subsidize the cost of providing half-priced MetroCards to those below the federal poverty line — a household income of about $25,000 for a family of four.

Some of the program’s details, including how to administer the complex plan, are still to be worked out. But in clearing the largest hurdle — how to pay for the program — New York City is poised to create an enduring everyday subsidy that is likely to be very popular, and very hard to eliminate in future budgets.

The city will provide $106 million in its upcoming budget, which would pay for six months of the program, beginning in January, one of the people said. Starting halfway through the next fiscal year would allow the city to mount an advertising and public education campaign.

The deal was reached after a late-night meeting on Wednesday at City Hall between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, the people briefed on the negotiation said.

Subsidizing fares for the poor has been gaining traction outside New York City in places like Seattle and Toronto, and other cities in the United States have been considering the idea. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his Democratic primary rival, Cynthia Nixon, have both expressed support for the approach, though neither has offered details on how to make it happen.

The agreement ended months of wrangling and contentious meetings over the “fair fares” program that Johnson had championed. He and de Blasio are expected to convene for a public handshake on the deal on Monday.

Even so, the budget must still be approved by the full City Council, and some close to the negotiations cautioned that elements could change. Johnson was expected to brief his members on the contours of the agreement Thursday afternoon, and a vote must take place by the end of the month, which coincides with the end of the fiscal year.

For Johnson, still in his first year as Council speaker, the agreement is a major victory; for de Blasio, it may be seen as something of a capitulation, since he was reluctant to back the proposal because of its costs.

De Blasio had expressed support in theory for transit discounts, which could benefit as many as 800,000 New Yorkers. But he has held firm to the notion that the best approach to pay for the discounts would be a new tax on high-income earners — a funding mechanism he also favors to underwrite new spending on improvements to the faltering subway system.

His stance has appeared at odds with his political image as an advocate for the poor and a supporter of social service programs. But locked in a bitter dispute with Cuomo over funding for the city’s beleaguered subways, de Blasio maintained that he could not commit the city to more transit spending, especially given the record of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs New York City Transit.

“Look, the goal is laudable,” de Blasio said last month. “I believe there’s a better way to pay for it on an ongoing basis.”

Nonetheless, the fair-fares issue has broad appeal to the mayor’s liberal Democratic base, and he may ultimately seek to claim it as his own. Johnson had lobbied aggressively for the proposal, marshaling his colleagues in the Council to hand out flyers at subway stops, appearing in a web advertisement and repeatedly arguing for it in private meetings with de Blasio. The speaker has made the case that the city, flush with cash from rising tax revenues, could afford to take on the new spending itself.

“There’s money to do this,” Johnson said in an interview last month.

Last week, de Blasio indicated he would be willing to fund some portion of the plan during an hourslong late-night meeting in Gracie Mansion, according to two people person briefed on the meeting. At around midnight, de Blasio offered $25 million. But Johnson, who wanted the program fully funded, walked out.

A spokesman for de Blasio initially declined to confirm or deny that an agreement had been reached. “I have no reaction to it,” said the spokesman, Eric F. Phillips, on Thursday. Later he said in a text message: “We are still working. There is no deal.” He also denied that Johnson had walked out of the meeting last week.

At a news conference, Johnson said that he had been talking to the mayor “every single day about this,” and would be updating Council members on progress in the negotiations during a closed-door meeting Thursday. At the meeting, he laid out the contours of the agreement, including the cost and start date, according to a person who was present.

“We are fighting; we are pushing,” he told reporters. “We will hopefully have a deal soon.”

One person briefed on the negotiation said that the money would not go directly to the MTA, and that the program would be administered instead by a city agency, probably the Human Resources Administration, which already runs many of the city’s benefit programs.

The cards, the person said, would be handled much like those reduced-fare MetroCards that are already subsidized by the city for students, seniors, the disabled and about 40,000 people who receive cash assistance. About $120 million is currently spent on those existing programs.

Under some of those programs, reduced-fare MetroCards are personalized, and cost $1.35 per ride, slightly less than half the base subway or local bus fare of $2.75.

Riders Alliance, an advocacy group for subway and bus riders, and the anti-poverty group Community Service Society has aggressively advocated for the plan for more than two years, arguing that the high price of transit punishes the working poor and others in a city where the cost of living is always rising. Members of the Community Service Society met with officials from the MTA to discuss logistics of the plan, and the group has proposed that the Human Resources Administration could create a database of those who qualify.

Supporters highlight not only the proposal’s financial benefits for struggling residents, but also view it as criminal justice reform: Discounted cards could reduce the number of arrests for fare evasion and the detrimental effects that follow, such as incarceration on Rikers Island for repeat offenses or outstanding warrants.

Council staff have estimated that, in the first year, about 40 percent of those eligible would sign up for half-price MetroCards, and that by the time it is fully implemented, about twice that number will have signed up. The full cost of that, Council officials have said, could reach $250 million.