Host: New York’s City Council wants to give half-price metro cards residents below the federal poverty line. The initiative is called Fair Fares. Transit advocates say that one in four New Yorkers struggle to afford the fare.
And Council members say the program would cost only a quarter of a percent of the city budget. But as Alissa Escarce reports, Mayor Bill De Blasio is reluctant to commit city funds.
Danna Dennis is trying to find somebody to ask the Mayor a question.
Dennis 1: Anyone out here struggling to pay for their metro card, or know anyone who’s struggling to pay for their metrocard?
Dennis is walking up and down a line that snakes around a South-East Bronx high school. A couple hundred people are here. They’re waiting for a town hall meeting, where they can ask the Mayor for help with problems in their borough.
Dennis is holding a clipboard and has a hot pink scarf tied around her head. She is on the hunt for fresh voices to talk about subway fares. Dennis has been talking to officials about this issue for a couple years. It’s something she’s dealt with personally.
Dennis 2: The metro card was a big part of my living. I would say after paying my rent it was one of the biggest things I had to worry about.
Dennis says a subway discount would have made a big difference for her a couple years ago. She was working as a home health aide and making just eleven dollars an hour.
Dennis 3: I was on a daily to weekly basis trying to make a decision of, do I get lunch today, do I walk.
Now she works for the Riders Alliance, a community group that advocates for better public transit in New York City. It helped to craft the Fair Fares proposal.
And Dennis is feeling positive. The Alliance scored a big win was last week, when City Council Speaker Corey Johnson appeared on the Brian Lehrer show –
Johnson 1: One of the big announcements that we’re making today is that the Council is putting as one of our major priorities Fair Fares.
Johnson is talking about priorities in negotiations over the city budget. He says he wants to use more than two-hundred-million dollars in city funding to cover the cost of lower subway fares. Almost every City Council member is on board with the plan. But the Mayor is a holdout.
Harold Stolper is a labor economist with the Community Service Society of New York. He says low-income New Yorkers often spend around ten percent of their income on transit.
Stolper 1: And when you add that on top of rent and food, that’s just a dramatic amount.
And Stolper says the expense is more than an inconvenience.
Stolper 2: To have upward mobility you need physical mobility. You need to get to work, you need to get to school, to get training degrees so you can get better jobs. And a lot of people take that for granted.
The Mayor’s office says De Blasio supports the idea of a subway discount. But he and the City Council disagree about how to pay for it.
The City Council first proposed funding Fair Fares last year. And De Blasio said, sure–as long as the state passed a tax on millionaires. But it didn’t.
This year, the Mayor’s office says the city is taking on big new expenses… like millions of dollars to fix up public housing. So once again, it says there’s no room in the city’s budget for a fare discount without a new source of revenue.
The city does have a lot to pay for. At the Bronx Town Hall, many of the questions are about programs that require city funding.
Question 1: The question I’m going to ask – how does the working man fit into affordable housing?
Question 2: One of my questions is, why are so many schools being closed?
Question 3: We want to know about the healthy eating options that’s going to be available here in the Bronx.
But nobody asks about Fair Fares. When I talk to Dennis the next day, she isn’t surprised. She says the people she talked to in line had a lot of concerns… but when they stepped up to the microphone, they would only get one question. On top of that, she says it can be hard for lower-income people to get to events like this.
Dennis 4: People who come from lower-income backgrounds have a lot of things going on. They work two jobs, they work later hours… They don’t always have time to come out to things, even as simple as a town hall that may be in your own district.
Still, Dennis is hopeful that Fair Fares will be funded this year. She’ll know by the end of June. That’s when the Mayor and City Council have to agree to a final budget.
Alissa Escarce, Columbia Radio News.