New York City could offer free transit fares to more than 760,000 low-income seniors and people with disabilities for $67 million a year, according to a report published Thursday by the city Independent Budget Office.
The cost may seem high — but it’s less than the $95 million the city budgeted this fiscal year for its Fair Fares program, which offers half-priced MetroCards to New Yorkers under the age of 65 whose income is less than 120% of the federal poverty line.
The IBO report looked at the cost to expand Fair Fares and to make rides free for subway, bus and Access-A-Ride trips for seniors and disabled people who make less than 200% of the federal poverty line, which is $30,120 a year for one-person households. All New Yorkers over the age of 65 and those with disabilities already qualify for 50% fare discounts through the MTA’s Reduced-Fare program, regardless of their income.
“Because eligibility for the MTA’s Reduced-Fare MetroCard Program currently makes one ineligible for Fair Fares, nearly all of these 762,000 New Yorkers would be new participants in Fair Fares, and their trips would represent a new City expense for Fair Fares,” the report states.
The report estimates half the people eligible for the hypothetical free rides would sign up.
The city has seen even lower sign-up rates for its Fair Fares program: It’s available to an estimated 900,000 New Yorkers but has roughly 315,000 people enrolled, according to data published by the city Human Resources Administration.
Danny Pearlstein, spokesperson for the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance, said the idea would change lives and is worth the $67 million per year.
“Building on Fair Fares, both with broader eligibility and deeper affordability, will make it easier for low-income New Yorkers to make ends meet,” Pearlstein said in an email. “As Mayor Adams and Speaker Adams negotiate the next City budget, riders urge our leaders to prioritize expanded access to affordable public transit.”
His gusto was not shared by Councilmember Chi Ossé, who represents parts of Brooklyn and commissioned the report from IBO, only to balk at its findings.
“Due to the fiscal climate of the city, we have decided to hold off on pursuing further with this initiative at this time,” Ossé’s spokesperson Elijah Fox said in a statement.
Transit advocates have for years called for more fare discounts for low-income New Yorkers as a response to the MTA’s rising problem of fare evasion.
MTA board member David Jones — who runs the Community Service Society of New York that helped establish Fair Fares — said the city should “absolutely” look into funding the free rides down the road.
“We have to look at the budgetary constraints, but if the IBO is right, the costs, while significant, are rather small against a multi billion dollar [city] budget,” said Jones. “So, if not this year, maybe next, but I think it has to be explored.”