Thursday, 29 Jul 2021

M.T.A. Postpones Fare Increase as It Tries to Lure Back Riders

The transit agency that runs New York City’s subway, buses and two commuter rails will hold off on a fare increase for the rest of the year as it struggles to lure back riders.

After raising fares on a regular cycle, the agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, will not move on what had been a proposed 4 percent increase, Patrick J. Foye, the chairman and chief executive of the M.T.A., said Tuesday.

“It’s the board’s unanimous recognition that many of our customers are suffering the aftereffects of the pandemic,” Mr. Foye said in an interview, citing workers who have suffered job losses and salary reductions, and businesses that are facing financial hardship.

The agency’s move comes as the M.T.A., which had faced financial calamity as riders disappeared, has been buoyed by an infusion of federal aid.

The M.T.A. has also been under intense pressure from rider advocates who say now is not the time to raise fares when many of the commuters sustaining the subway and buses are essential workers whose incomes are lower than many of the office workers who are still able to work remotely.

“A premature fare hike would be highly inequitable, falling overwhelmingly on low-income and essential workers,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a grass-roots advocacy group.

The agency also decided against raising fares when it is trying to bring back more riders to the largest transit system in North America, Mr. Foye said.

Transit ridership and fare revenue plunged at the height of the pandemic as commuters worked from home, businesses closed up and tourists stayed away. Since then, subway and bus ridership has picked up, but it remains half of the prepandemic peak of more than seven million daily weekday riders.

Mr. Foye said the board of the M.T.A. will address the fare issue at its monthly meeting on Wednesday, where the agency will unveil an update on its 2021 financial plan. Mr. Foye said he would join the rest of the board in directing the agency’s chief financial officer to remove the anticipated 2021 revenue from a fare increase — about $17 million — from the financial plan.

The agency had already postponed the fare increase in January until later this year after its finances were stabilized by an expected $14.5 billion in federal pandemic aid.

Transit officials said they have received $4 billion of that federal pandemic aid so far, and expect to receive the remaining $10.5 billion through a multiyear reimbursement process that will cover its operating losses.

Still, at least one M.T.A. board member on Monday left open the possibility of a fare increase in the near future. “There may be a fare hike in 2022,” said Larry Schwartz, the chairman of the M.T.A. finance committee and a close adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who effectively controls the transit agency.

The transit system will play a crucial role in New York’s recovery as many offices and public schools move to fully reopen after Labor Day. But fears of an uptick in subway crime have scared away some riders, and a staffing shortage at the agency has forced thousands of subway trips to be canceled and resulted in longer waits and commutes.

Many subway and bus riders welcomed any delay in a fare increase, saying they could not afford one.

John Louis, 85, who was riding a bus in Manhattan, said fares were already too high. “What can I do?” said Mr. Louis, who does not have a car. “It’s not fair for a lot of people.”

Still, Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group, said that while the first delay in a fare increase was reasonable given the pandemic, any further delays would only put more financial stress on the agency. Even before the pandemic, the agency faced budget shortfalls because its operating costs exceed its revenue.

Though the transit agency is expected to cover its costs for the next couple of years with federal pandemic aid as well as an additional $2.9 billion federal loan, it could face a $2.4 billion budget gap as soon as 2025, Mr. Rein said.

“It would be appropriate to raise the fares now because the M.T.A.’s long-term finances are in a precarious position,” Mr. Rein said, noting that the city has a fare subsidy program for low-income riders.

The transit agency has raised fares every other year since 2009 to help balance its budget.

Ashley Wong contributed reporting.

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