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The Two Dollar Fare


 

Transit officials approved an increase in subway and bus fares for the same reason that Jesse James once visited banks: they needed the money. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects the fare increase to generate over $350 million a year, helping to close a billion dollar budget shortfall.

Prior to the fare increase, the MTA faced sharp criticism from newspaper editorial boards, transit advocates and even the city and state comptrollers for not fully disclosing its finances and demonstrating the need for the fare increase. But there was no broad public uprising against the fare increase, which upped the cost of a single ride by 33 percent, from $1.50 to $2.00. The new fare takes effect on May 1.

One reason for the relative public quiescence is a widespread view that avoiding cuts in transit services is more important than avoiding a fare increase. Riders would rather have their pocketbooks squeezed than be any more squeezed while riding subways and buses. This preference partly reflects how crowded the transit system has become with rapid ridership growth over the past half-dozen years. It also reflects memories of cutbacks three decades ago that led to a downward spiral in both service and ridership. In fact, the public complained far more extensively about the proposed closing of 177 token booths and cutbacks in their staffing, and the authority backed off of that proposal; it now plans to close just 62 token booths instead, the biggest change from the MTA's initial proposals.

Another factor in the public receptivity to a fare increase is the MetroCard fare incentives. Riders have saved millions of dollars as a result of the various fare discounts implemented in the mid to late-90s. The MTA points out that even with this fare increase, the average fare will still be lower than it was after the last fare increase -- $1.30 per ride after this increase compared with $1.38 in 1995.

A third factor is the passage of time. With almost eight years since the last fare increase, many riders figured that their time has come.

Since this was the first fare increase since the fare discounts were put in place, transit officials faced important decisions about the structure of the new fare. They chose to make incremental extensions to the fare innovations begun in the mid-1990s. Most notably, the 30-day unlimited ride pass will be more attractive. At a price of $70, the 30-day pass will be 42 times the cost of a bonus per-ride MetroCard, down from 46 times under current fares. Riders will save money with the 30-day pass if they use transit in order to commute and an occasional additional trip.

The new fare also increases the discount for bonus MetroCards. Currently, riders get 11 trips for the price of 10, making the effective cost per trip $1.36 instead of $1.50. The new fare introduces a 6-for-5 bonus (or 12 for 10), making the per-trip cost $1.66 instead of $2.00. The threshold for getting the bonus is also reduced from $15 to $10.

The one area where transit officials backed away from MetroCard discounts came with the one-day pass. This so-called "Fun Pass" is becoming a more expensive lark, rising from $4 to $7. Some officials considered the $4 Fun Pass to be underpriced when it was first introduced. It is also used fraudulently by enterprising folks who buy several passes and re-sell trips to people at subway turnstiles. The new $7 price makes that fraud a little less profitable.

The new fare also incrementally addresses issues raised by transit advocates who sought to make the MetroCard discounts more accessible to a wider range of riders. Reducing the threshold for getting the bonus to $10 is one step in this area. Another step is the MTA's plan to begin offering this fall to replace lost or stolen 30-day passes for an unspecified "insurance" fee.

Another innovative step is a pilot "City fare" on the commuter railroads for off-peak travel in the city. Riders will be able to travel within the five boroughs on the railroads for $2.50, thus opening additional opportunities for rail travel.

Even with these steps forward, the effects of the new fare are likely to be regressive across income groups. Low-income riders are the group most likely to pay the base fare, which will cost 33 percent more. High-income riders are the group most likely to buy the 30-day pass, the cost of which increases by only 11 percent.

The overall fare increase for transit riders is 25 percent, the same as for the commuter railroads. Drivers will be less affected by the MTA actions since bridge and tunnel tolls are increasing by only 15 percent.

The new fare is likely to affect individual riders in several ways. First, a fare increase always reduces ridership - the MTA estimates by more than 70 million annually for this increase. The subways and buses are likely to be a little less crowded as a result.

Second, riders will be recalculating what they want to purchase. It may make sense to buy a 30-day card instead of a 7-day card. The $70 is a large up-front cost but the savings will be larger. For those not buying a pass, it will make even more sense to take advantage of the bonus, which will be twice as large and available for smaller purchases.

A RECAP OF THE KEY NUMBERS

Base fare: $2.00 instead of $1.50

Bonus MetroCards: 6 rides for $10 instead of 11 rides for $15 (or $1.67 per trip instead of $1.36)

7-day pass: $21 instead of $17 (you save money with the 7-day pass compared with the bonus MetroCard if you make 13 trips a week - no change from the current situation)

30-day pass: $70 instead of $63 (you save money with the 30-day pass compared with the bonus MetroCard if you make 43 trips a month, down from 47 trips currently)

One-day pass: $7 instead of $4 (you save money with the one-day pass compared with the bonus MetroCard if you make 5 trips a day, up from 3 trips currently)

Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

Token Booth Closings


Two years ago, a Brooklyn graduate student was raped on a platform at the Canal Street subway station. Police caught the assailant quickly, thanks to a token booth clerk who witnessed the attack and called for help.

Because of her gratitude to the quick-thinking clerk, the student, then 25, took the courageous step of speaking publicly about her ordeal just a few months after the attack, at a City Council hearing on a plan to close token booths. Removing clerks, she testified, would be a dangerous mistake.

"If not for the help of the token booth clerk," the student said at the July 2001 hearing, "my perpetrator would still be on the streets today."

Subway crime is down sharply in recent years but many New Yorkers still fear underground violence. That is one reason why there was a sharp outcry when New York City Transit recently announced another plan to shut down a number of token booths, this time an unprecedented number — 177, which is almost a quarter of the total — and replace them with MetroCard vending machines and high entrance/exit turnstiles. As part of the plan, some 450 clerk positions will be eliminated through attrition. In demonstrations and in a series of hearings that ended last week, residents, political leaders and community groups argued that safety and service are being sacrificed for the sake of the bottom line.

"The subways are a service industry and there's a combination of both safety and convenience that a station agent serves that cannot be duplicated by a vending machine," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney with the Straphangers Campaign, a riders' advocacy group that has been working to preserve the booths. The proposed change, he said, "is about saving money, not serving the customers."

But transit officials say the agency's plan makes sense from almost every point of view. Yes, shutting the token booths will save $8 million for the remainder of this year and more than $20 million in 2004. But the plan, they say, could actually help deter crime in the subway while providing riders with better service. By taking clerks out of sealed, bulletproof booths and training them to help customers face-to-face, officials say that transit employees will become more responsive, whether they need to summon help or simply give directions.

What's more, replacing part-time booths with MetroCard vending machines and high entrance/exit turnstiles increases convenience by allowing more entrances to be accessible 24 hours a day.

"What we're doing is just what's done almost everywhere else in the world," Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit, told The New York Times recently.

PAYING MORE FOR LESS SERVICE?

The controversy over token booths has erupted at what is already a contentious time for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit's parent agency. After bitter contract talks that narrowly averted a strike by the Transport Workers Union last fall, the transit agency says it faces a $1 billion deficit and must raise fares to help close it. The bus and subway fare might go up to $2.

In December, several Democratic state senators announced they would try to force the authority to open its books and threatened to establish a state oversight board to audit the MTA's finances every year. The authority, the senators said, has been unable to satisfactorily explain how it went from a surplus of $300 million to a projected deficit next year of $1 billion. Governor George Pataki has called the senators' demand partisan grandstanding.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority released seven options for higher subway and bus fares and conducted ten public hearings in New York City and the suburbs. It calls these options "several examples indicating the range of possibilities" for fare pricing structures. The "possibilities" include raising the average fare paid by riders by 10 percent, 20 percent and 33 percent. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects that a 33 percent fare hike would produce $574 million more in revenue annually while reducing ridership by 110 million. On the other side of the spectrum, the 10 percent fare hikes would raise about $190 million in revenue while reducing ridership by 25 million.

Local public officials have also been quick to condemn both the fare hike and the token booth proposal, saying that people will end up paying more for less service. Several local leaders have seized on planned closings in their neighborhoods to rally constituents and to assert that the transit authority is planning on removing personnel from stations at time of heightened concern about terrorism in the subway system.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, for one, recently joined members of the Straphangers Campaign in handing out leaflets protesting the closings. He has issued statements castigating the transit authority.

"MetroCard vending machines, which often malfunction, can't call the police or an ambulance or help you with directions," Markowitz said. "We all realize the severity of our fiscal problems, but we should never do anything that will sacrifice the safety of our subway riders."

The current booth closing plan revives an idea floated more than a year ago, even before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that it expects a deficit. The plan ended up being put on hold after a judge ruled that transit officials could not change the hours of booths without first holding hearings and putting the matter to a vote of the MTA board.

The hearings held around the city this month were part of the effort to comply with the court's wishes.

24-HOUR ENTRANCES, EMPTY STATIONS

Although every station would still have at least one 24-hour booth after the proposed closings, critics argue that the plan would diminish safety by forcing passengers who need assistance, especially the elderly and disabled, to venture through empty station corridors or along dark streets in search of an attended entrance. The blind, the elderly, the disabled and people with baby strollers or large packages would be especially affected.

The Utica Avenue station on the Brooklyn IRT (3, 4) line in Crown Heights is a case in point. At this station, New York City Transit wants to close a part-time booth at Schenectady Avenue and Eastern Parkway. By replacing the booth with vending machines and high-entrance/exit turnstiles, an entrance that now closes at 9 p.m. will be accessible around-the-clock.

But it also means that riders looking for help from a token clerk will have to walk 550 feet to Utica Avenue, almost the length of two football fields. Early this month, Brooklyn Democratic Councilmember James Davis brought a crowd to the intersection to protest the closing. Davis, a member of the council's public safety committee, complained that the closure would create both an inconvenience and a hazard.

A TOKEN CHANGE

"Token booths" underground actually predate the subway token by almost half a century. When the first IRT subway line opened, the station clerks, positioned inside ornate oak-and-brass booths, sold tickets that passengers then presented to a guard, who chopped it in half and let them enter the platform.

With the advent of the nickel-in-the-slot turnstile around World War I, the choppers disappeared and the ticket booths became simply a place to get change. The first tokens were introduced in 1953, when a fare increase to 15 cents made it impossible to pay with a single coin.

Ever since MetroCard debuted in 1994, New York City Transit has been working on ways to wean people off tokens, although officials insist that they have no plan to leave the stations completely unstaffed.

"We appreciate the significance of some token booth presence in our various stations, which is why each affected station will maintain a full-time booth in the complex," Katherine N. Lapp, the executive director and chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority told the City Council Transportation Committee in January. "It is also important to keep in mind, however, that the MTA's significant investment in the MetroCard and its enormously successful transition to the MetroCard as the primary fare instrument was intended to move NYC Transit into a state-of-the-art system and reduce reliance on token booths as the primary means of purchasing fare instruments."

Machines, the transit authority points out, give riders choices: they can accept ATM cards and credit cards in addition to cash and they can be programmed to operate in many languages. And by drawing riders away from tokens, they shorten lines at booths.

There are now 2,226 vending machines in the subway. According to the transit agency, almost 85 percent of riders now use MetroCard and 56 percent of them buy their cards from vending machines. Since 1999, sales at vending machines have grown 168 percent. In addition, the installation of new high entrance/exit turnstiles in tandem with the vending machines has made 93 part-time subway entrances accessible at all times.

And although some people complain about the vending machines, transit officials contend that most passengers like them. The authority says its own recent surveys indicate that 67 percent of the people who use the machines, which are designed to resemble ATMs, rate them either "excellent" or "very good."

VENDING MACHINES COMMON ELSEWHERE

Transit users in other cities might be surprised at New Yorkers' fear of booth closings. On other systems in both the U.S. and abroad, automatic fare systems and even unattended stations are common.

From day one, riders of the Washington, D.C. Metro and San Francisco's BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), both of which opened in the 1970s, have required riders to use fare cards purchased from vending machines to enter stations. Even Calcutta's subway has relied on an automated fare system since 1994. Closer to home, the Newark City Subway (yes, Newark has a subway), which is basically an underground trolley line, has no booths either. Riders pay when they board the cars, using either cash or a ticket purchased from a machine.

And while many subway riders don't realize it, there are already five rapid transit stations in Manhattan that are completely unstaffed. Riders of the PATH system, which serves New York and the New Jersey communities of Hoboken, Jersey City, Harrison and Newark, buy fare cards from vending machines or put cash directly into the turnstiles.

There are no booths or station attendants. Closed-circuit cameras watch the platforms and stairwells and passengers can get help or information by picking up hotline phones located near entrances and exits.

NEW YORK IS 'DIFFERENT'

What other cities do, however, may not be applicable in New York, critics of the transit authority's plans say.

New York's subway, with 468 stations and six million riders a day, is among the largest in the world and it dwarfs other systems in the U.S., making it hard to patrol. Even PATH, which has unstaffed stations in Manhattan, is comparatively tiny, serving less than 300,000 riders a day.

What's more, the New York system is an old one. While subways like Washington's were designed to have bright lighting, clear sight lines and other safety features, New York's subway is a warren of twisting passageways and dark corridors, a legacy of both its age and the fact that it was cobbled together from three competing systems.

Nevertheless, even some critics believe that change is inevitable and replacing token booths could work — if it is not done hastily.

"We agree that we are probably coming to the end of the era of humans vending transit," the Straphangers Campaign's Russianoff says. "But this plan is just about budget numbers. There is no evidence that they are training people to become station agents, to handle the changeover to dealing directly with the public instead of working in a bulletproof, climate-controlled booth. So far, it's just rhetoric."

But transit officials believe that, eventually, riders and employees will find that automation actually makes their trips faster and easier. As NYC Transit President Reuter told the Times, though, it will take time to persuade people: "The skeptics are there initially, but I think they will be converted."

 

Options For The Fare Increase; Bridge And Tunnel Tolls; Transportation Plans In Lower Manhattan


 

Governor George Pataki and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) made separate announcements in the last several weeks about the future of Lower Manhattan and increases in subway and bus fares and bridge and tunnel tolls. These announcements begin, but only begin, to show what New Yorkers can expect in these critical areas.

SUBWAY AND BUS FARES

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority released seven options for higher subway and bus fares and is now conducting ten public hearings in New York City and the suburbs. It calls these options "several examples indicating the range of possibilities" for fare pricing structures. The "possibilities" include raising the average fare paid by riders by 10 percent, 20 percent and 33 percent. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects that a 33 percent fare hike would produce $574 million more in revenue annually while reducing ridership by 110 million. On the other side of the spectrum, the 10 percent fare hikes would raise about $190 million in revenue while reducing ridership by 25 million.

The MTA presents variations for the first two options, most of which would encourage use of unlimited ride passes, because pass prices would increase less than the base fare. Under several options, it would make sense for workers who know they will commute to work every day to buy an unlimited ride pass -- not currently the case except for riders who make several other trips a week.

By asking the public to comment on seven different options the agency has given the public much to chew on. But it also leaves open a number of questions. It is not clear whether the authority is considering adopting any specific option, much less which one that might be. It is not even clear how much revenue the authority aims to raise through this fare increase. Finally, officials have not said whether they will give the public time to comment on a final proposed fare. It is possible that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will both announce and approve a fare increase at the same meeting, most likely in March.

The agency's presentation also mentions several other fare innovations such as insurance against losing the 30-day card,  a new bi-weekly pass (they call it a "forthnightly") and  a new five-day pass that could be used on nonconsecutive days. These are proposals advocated by the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign and other pro-transit groups. These proposals hold the potential to continue MetroCard fare innovations and attract more riders, thus offsetting some of the ridership loss that inevitably occurs after a fare increase. (See my report on this topic.) It is not clear whether the MTA is seriously considering these ideas, however.

BRIDGE AND TUNNEL TOLLS

While much of the focus has been on the subway and bus fare, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority  also proposed higher commuter rail fares and bridge and tunnel tolls. Under the authority's proposals, tolls for the major bridges and tunnels connecting the five boroughs would rise from $3.50 to either $3.75 or $4.00. Tolls on the smaller crossings, such as the Henry Hudson Bridge, would increase from $1.75 to $1.90 or $2.00. In both cases, the 50 cent discount for EZ-Pass users would continue.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign countered with a report (available as a pdf file) advocating a peak-period pricing scheme in which rush hour tolls would rise to $5.00 and non-rush tolls would stay at $3.50. The peak-period tolls would follow the example of the Port Authority, which charges more during rush periods on its Hudson River crossings. The idea is that drivers should pay more when demand for crossing the bridge is highest, hopefully causing some drivers to switch to off-peak periods and relieve peak hour congestion. Tri-State's report concluded that peak-period pricing would slightly increase traffic speeds during the rush hour.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is unlikely to adopt peak-period tolls, however, fearing that if it did so many rush hour drivers would divert to the free city-owned bridges instead of pay the toll. This idea may have to await tolling of the free bridges, which Mayor Bloomberg has proposed to help plug the city's budget gap.

Finally, the MTA proposed to close 128 part-time and 49 full-time token booths. The token booth closings, originally floated just before the Sept. 11 attacks put this and numerous other transportation issues on hold, have received particularly sharp resistance from subway riders who fear greater crime without the watchful eyes of token clerks, and who need the clerk's assistance to buy fare media and enter or exit through the turnstiles.

LOWER MANHATTAN PLANS

Meanwhile, on February 7 Governor Pataki released his long-awaited priorities for spending $4.55 billion in federal aid to rebuild Lower Manhattan transportation facilities. (See New York Times article). Topping the governor's list are a new PATH terminal at the World Trade Center site, revamping the Fulton Street complex and its maze of subway lines, and connecting both transit terminals with an underground pedestrian concourse. These proposals would rationalize and unite the Trade Center and Fulton Street transportation hubs and create a transportation terminal with a strong identity, similar to Grand Central.

The governor's plan will also rebuild the subway terminal at South Ferry and connect the station with the Whitehall Street subway station and a new Staten Island Ferry Terminal. In the South Ferry station, the obsolete single-track 5-car station would be replaced with a 10-car, three-track, two-platform terminal. These improvements would cut down on delays on the 1/9 line and thus speed commuter access between Lower Manhattan and Penn Station, a key goal for Lower Manhattan.

These three proposals would be completed later in this decade at a cost close to $3 billion.

Several other high profile projects were mentioned on the governor's list. Some appear likely to move forward, such as work on West Street and World Trade Center site infrastructure work that is necessary to support surface transportation. On the other hand, prospects are murkier for new rail links to the region's airports and new ferry terminals around Lower Manhattan. The total cost of these projects far exceeds the funding that is currently available. A rail link to Kennedy Airport, which is strongly desired by Lower Manhattan property owners and Mayor Bloomberg, would cost $3.7 billion by itself, according to the mayor, an uphill climb in the current fiscal climate.

Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.



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