Gotham Gazette Fri, 23 Mar 2018 08:59:47 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) De Blasio’s Progressivism Doesn’t Include Right to Public Transit de Blasio subway

Mayor de Blasio & First Lady McCray (photo: Edwin J Torres/Mayor's Office)

In his three-and-a-half years as mayor of the nation’s largest city, Bill de Blasio has focused his administration on bridging gaps between the haves and the have-nots, expanding opportunity for those left behind during the city’s recent boom years. He’s instituting universal pre-kindergarten, funded record levels of affordable housing, provided legal help to immigrants facing deportation and tenants facing eviction.

De Blasio has espoused a progressivism centered on equity and heavy on ensuring equal rights and opportunities to all, no matter one’s socioeconomic status or income. One area that this expansive view of equalizing entitlements doesn’t encompass, however, appears to be transportation. As much of the recent public dialogue around the city’s transit system centers on mounting delays and decrepit infrastructure, many low-income New Yorkers remain unable to access the system at all. Many in de Blasio’s New York can’t afford the freedom that comes with the opportunity to ride the public buses and subways.

A 2016 report by the Community Service Society (CSS), an anti-poverty nonprofit, based in part on a survey of over 1,700 New Yorkers, found that among working-age, low-income individuals, cost was the biggest problem with the city’s subways, putting it ahead of delays, crowding, and lack of service. The report also called for fare subsidization for the poor, a proposal that has seen various iterations known collectively as the “Fair Fares” plan.

Mayor de Blasio, who has hitched his legacy to ending the “tale of two cities” he decried during his 2013 campaign, has repeatedly refused to dedicate city funding to subsidizing low-income New Yorkers’ MetroCards, instead calling on the state to do so. De Blasio’s reticence on transit assistance is bewildering to activists. “We expected this would be something that this mayor in particular would embrace,” said Nancy Rankin, VP of policy, research, and advocacy for CSS, adding that the group was “puzzled because the arguments or excuses he’s put forward really don’t hold water.”

These arguments mainly center around the claim that contributing to low-income constituents’ fares is the responsibility of the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which controls the subway and bus systems. Asked about transit aid proposals at a press conference last month, the mayor said that “the State of New York should make that a priority. I think that’s a commendable priority. We can’t afford that right now.”

During recent budget negotiations, the City Council made Fair Fares a priority, but de Blasio refused to budge, even declining to fund a pilot program to test the subsidized waters.

The CSS report mentions several program specifications, and ultimately suggests that the city offer half-off fares to the roughly 800,000 New Yorkers who make 100% or less of the federal poverty rate, currently about $24,000 for a family of four. Factoring in estimates for take-up and the higher rates of ridership for people newly able to afford it, CSS expects the program would cost $115 million the first year and $194 million the second. Earlier this year, the Council requested $50 million for a pilot program, an idea that was axed by the mayor before a budget deal was reached in June.

The trouble with the expense explanation is that the plan is backed by Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s top fiscal officer, as well as prominent non-partisan budget watchdog Citizens Budget Commission (CBC). Maria Doulis, vice president at CBC, addressed the cost argument bluntly: “If it was a priority for the mayor, it would be accommodated in the budget,” she said.

The question itself of state versus city funding isn’t relevant to constituents, said Rankin. “As a taxpayer, I pay city taxes and state taxes. So do you take it out of my left pocket or my right pocket?”

In an emailed statement, Stringer said the Fair Fares proposal “isn’t just the right thing to do morally – it makes economic sense,” and lamented that low-income New Yorkers had to “choose putting food on the table and traveling our city.” Access to transportation often provides individuals more opportunity to participate in job interviews and to get to and from work.

A key question for de Blasio and others around the transportation affordability dilemma is whether other planks of the mayor’s progressive agenda, and the New Yorkers that would participate in them, are suffering as a result of inaccessibility.

“Trains and buses are how you connect to your job, how you connect to services in other neighborhoods, it’s how people avail themselves of the benefits of being in the largest city in the United States,” said Doulis. In relation to the city’s poverty-reduction efforts, she said “a natural way to bolster those outcomes is to facilitate access to transportation.”

Being unable to access public services due to the cost of transportation was a reality for Robert Rush, now a member of the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance, as he was growing up in the Bronx. “I went to four different elementary schools in my first five years of education,” he said, in part because his mother couldn’t afford to get to some ofca the schools he attended.

“My mom had to enlist her co-workers, other people to come pick me up because she wasn’t able to. Sometimes I would be like the last person getting picked up at 6 p.m.,” said Rush, who nonetheless managed to do well enough in school to win a scholarship to Phillips Academy and begin studying at Harvard. He also raised the issue of access to city decision-makers, saying that “if you want to go down to city hall, raise some complaint, but you can’t afford the train there because you can’t even afford your bills, what does that say?”

At a time when the mayor has seemed frustrated by his lack of influence over the city’s vast transit system, a transit subsidy is an action the city could take unilaterally and with relative ease. “This is something he can do without Albany, without begging the state for funding, or permission. He was the power to help 800,000 New Yorkers,” said Rebecca Bailin, campaign manager for the Riders Alliance.

In fact, de Blasio has a larger goal of lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty by 2025, and several programs to accomplish it. Broader transit access could help accelerate those efforts and work in tandem with them. “The success of big, bold investments from the city – be it for job training, legal services, or otherwise – hinges on New Yorkers having the ability to get around,” said Stringer.

Doulis brought up the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (CUNY ASAP) system, which among other things provides participating students with free MetroCards, something she called “one of the key benefits” of the program. “People that enroll in these programs have far higher graduation rates than other community college students,” she said, in large part because they can get around.

Yet the mayor has seemed unwilling to acknowledge the necessities of New Yorkers who need to get around, lashing out at those who jump turnstiles to avoid paying fares they can’t afford. “There’s no way in hell anyone should be evading the fare, that would create chaos,” he said at a recent press conference, adding, “Everyone has to pay their fare.” He has not put forward any comprehensive proposal to address the inaccessibility of public transit.

Asked by Gotham Gazette what he would say to New Yorkers who can’t afford public transit but need to get around, de Blasio pointed to his larger efforts to create opportunity and lift New Yorkers out of poverty. He reiterated that no one should be evading the fare.

In an email, Ben Sarle, a spokesperson for the mayor, said “New Yorkers have a right to a transit system that works, obviously.” In an apparent reference to the recent attention on needed subway repairs, Sarle’s limited response was a reply to several questions from Gotham Gazette, including whether Mayor de Blasio believes in a right to public transportation for all New Yorkers. Sarle also did not respond to questions asking what the administration’s transit affordability plans are and did not elaborate on how the “right” he cited would be guaranteed.

The city already funds various MetroCard subsidy programs, including reduced-fare cards for seniors and people with disabilities and half-fare or free limited-use cards for students based on their distance from school. As part of the mayor’s recent deal to have his control over city schools extended for two years, the city will provide MetroCards to charter school students whose classes begin before school busing starts for the year.

It also wouldn’t be the first large city to develop a program that helps its poorer citizens get on the available public transit. King County in Washington state, which includes Seattle, was one of the first and largest areas to launch a discounted transit program, in early 2015. The ORCA (one regional card for all, the name of the system’s transit card) Lift program provides subsidized fares to residents under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. A survey conducted by the county executive one year into the program’s operations found that 42 percent of users had taken the bus and light rail more frequently since they’d received the cards. Other cities with transit affordability programs include San Francisco and London.

An obstacle may be the mayor’s focus on a separate transportation agenda. “The two big transportation proposals from the de Blasio administration have been ferries and BQX, and it’s not clear how much those programs will benefit low-income NYers,” said Doulis, referring to newly opened city ferries and the planned Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a streetcar that would run between Astoria and Sunset Park.

The BQX, which would charge the same amount as an MTA bus or subway fare, is estimated to cost $2.5 billion to develop, or about 13 times what it would cost to run the Fair Fares subsidy program for a year at full take-up. The BQX’s daily ridership by 2035 is projected to be 48,900. While the proponents of that project insist that it’ll pay for itself with increases in area productivity and taxes – an idea critics have disputed – proponents of Fair Fares say the program will also spur the economy.

“I think that the city should be looking at funding at least a part of it, because it directly helps city residents, but then will indirectly help the city's economy by keeping more money in the pockets of riders,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Stephen Levin of Fair Fares.

For low-income New Yorkers like Rush’s family, the advantage is much more clear and immediate. “It’s hard to even go outside, because there’s nowhere to go except around your block. You can’t go anywhere else,” he said.

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio’s Progressivism Doesn’t Include Right to Public Transit Sun, 16 Jul 2017 23:39:26 +0000
'Fair Fares' Proposal Dominates Transportation Hearing CM Ydanis Rodriguez

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez (Photo: William Alatriste)

A campaign to provide discounted MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers took center stage at a City Council hearing on Monday, with council members and transit advocates calling for greater equity in the public transportation system.

The City Council’s Committee on Transportation conducted oversight of the Department of Transportation’s citywide initiatives to examine how they can better serve New York City residents. Central to the proceedings was the issue of transportation equity, the concept that transportation should be used as an equalizer and a conduit between low-income communities and the job-laden business centers of the city. Council members and transit advocacy groups expressed concern that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has failed to prioritize fairness in the system, even as it moves forward on a number of transit projects including the citywide ferry service and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector.

The issue that dominated the debate was the 'Fair Fares' campaign to lower public transportation fares for low-income New Yorkers, launched last year by the Community Service Society, a nonprofit that fights poverty, and transit advocacy group Riders Alliance. The campaign is anchored in a 2016 report by CSS that found that 1-in-4 low-income city residents cannot afford the cost of MetroCards. As previously reported by Gotham Gazette, the mayor has been staunch in his refusal to put up the estimated $200 million to implement the cost reductions proposed by Fair Fares, which would provide half-price MetroCards for the roughly 800,000 New Yorkers living below the poverty line.

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the committee, said in his opening remarks that MetroCard costs were “preventative” for many New Yorkers, forcing them to “forego job opportunities, education, cultural experiences, doctor appointments, and more.” Rodriguez found support in other council members, including David Greenfield, Antonio Reynoso, and Donovan Richards. Just prior to the hearing, many of the council members rallied with colleagues, transit advocates and union representatives on the steps of City Hall, calling on the mayor to fund the Fair Fares proposal.

At the hearing, the council members asked DOT representative Eric Beaton to explain the mayor’s refusal to provide the required funding in the city budget. Beaton fell back on the mayor’s argument that the city could not afford the proposal and that the state-run MTA should fund it instead. He also pointed out that the city recently committed to a historically-high $2.5 billion contribution to the MTA’s capital plan and that there was simply no room in the budget for an extra $200 million.

Councilmembers Reynoso and Greenfield weren’t satisfied with the response, and Greenfield cited the $13 billion increase in the city budget under de Blasio as proof that the administration has the ability to cover “everything under the sun.” Reynoso echoed his sentiment, telling Beaton that the budget “is not a legitimate excuse” for failing to provide low-income New Yorkers with affordable public transportation.

The committee also touched on issues of transit access for residents of Far Rockaway and Southeast Queens, two areas notorious for their status as “transportation deserts.” Council members Richards and I. Daneek Miller, who represent those two neighborhoods respectively, stressed that their constituents are burdened with commutes of up to two hours, arguing that bus services in areas lacking subway stops must be made a priority so that residents are able to make the commute to Manhattan. Though Beaton agreed that bus efficiency must be improved, he again deferred to the MTA, saying that bus routing was the MTA’s responsibility.

David Jones, president of the Community Service Society and a mayoral appointee to the MTA board, pressed his organization’s push for Fair Fares, noting that unaffordable transit fares also create ancillary problems such as an increase in fare evasion, placing an added burden on the transit police and criminal justice system. These arrests lead to more criminal records for young people, Jones contended, simply because subway and bus fares are too expensive. Jones and Veronica Vanterpool, another MTA board member, have both called on the mayor to fund Fair Fares.

Jones was joined on the panel by Bronx resident Norma Ridez, who testified on behalf of Riders Alliance. Ridez, an unemployed single mother of three, said that between the cost of getting her children to daycare and grocery shopping, she “can’t afford a metrocard to get to [job] interviews.”

Though DOT’s Beaton and the committee members were frequently at odds, the two sides were momentarily allied in admonishing the MTA for failing to send a representative to the hearing. Public Advocate Letitia James was particularly critical, in both her opening and closing statements, expressing her “deep disappointment” that MTA representatives were not present to discuss their “unreliable system.”

Monday’s hearing and the preceding rally demonstrate wide-ranging support for transit affordability reform, but the fate of Fair Fares remains uncertain since neither the city nor the MTA are willing to be held responsible for the bill. MTA communications director Beth DeFalco noted in an email that the MTA already spends significant amounts on low-income riders, including $625 million specifically for seniors, schoolchildren and people with disabilities in New York City. “The MTA always tries to keep fares as low as possible and still provide safe, reliable service,” DeFalco said.

With no end in sight to the Fair Fares gridlock, low-income New Yorkers are left holding their breath on lower transportation costs. Attempting to underscore the impact of this funding stalemate, Councilmember Greenfield reminded those at the hearing, “You can’t get out of poverty if you can’t get to your job.”


by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

With reporting by Samar Khurshid

'Fair Fares' Proposal Dominates Transportation Hearing Tue, 14 Feb 2017 00:00:00 +0000