Whatever the method, nearly every single current subway and bus rider would save money on transportation if mass transit were funded through taxes rather than fares. And riders would benefit from the most well-funded MTA since its inception. New York subways and buses are inherent to our identity as they’re the vital circulatory force that gives our city life — but their success has been hindered by debt and under-funding. A fare-free system is a safer and more efficient system, one that can combat classism and racism by empowering people through its equity.
Prior to Friday’s fare strike at Grand Central Terminal, I had the opportunity to speak with Mayor de Blasio in a call-in to “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC. In addition to asking a question regarding the cause of the strike — the hiring of 500 additional MTA officers at a cost of $250 million over the next four years — I pressed him if he would support a fare-free system. The mayor provided a politically pat answer, claiming it was an interesting idea but he struggles to understand the logistics.
I find that laughable. The subway system is already largely funded by state and federal taxes, and propped up by mountains of debt. Nearly $2.9 billion in MTA spending each year, the equivalent of over 1 billion swipes, 17% of the budget — is devoted to debt service. Outgoing Transit Authority President Andy Byford’s budget plan requires additional issuance of municipal bonds and increases the deficit.
For those who don’t know what municipal bonds are, they’re investment tools used by banks and wealthy individuals to financially profit off sending public agencies further into debt, stymieing property- and income-tax increases that could enable a balanced budget.
Unlike the mayor, I fail to see how a system that relies on pay-per-ride farebox recovery for 38% of its budget works — because so far in the history of the MTA it hasn’t. A budget dependent on fare projections and not funded in advance by taxes will never function efficiently.
In order to increase fare revenue, the MTA needs to increase either ridership or fare prices. The MTA is limiting service on many of its lines for much-needed repairs; it is unlikely the system will see an increase in ridership until these repairs are completed. As for a fare increase, that is always expected to be met with blowback, as it forces more of a burden onto the needy and inadvertently promotes the use of personal vehicles and cabs which contribute to congestion, traffic and pollution.
The Gross Metropolitan Product of the NYC metropolitan area is roughly $1.5 trillion. If we want to be simplistic about a tax approach to replacing the current farebox funding, a 0.5% tax increase on all income earned in the city could generate $7.5 billion a year — which is $1 billion more than what’s generated by NYC Transit, LIRR and Metro-North fares, of which less than 60% go to fund city subways and buses.
This tax increase would end up costing a family whose combined income is $100,000 per year only $500 per year, or roughly the cost of four unlimited MetroCards.
If we wish to tax businesses rather than individuals, I would suggest we burden the institutions who benefit most from New Yorkers having the ability to travel easily. These are the banking institutions and Real Estate Investment Trusts that have spent decades profiting off city debt and ballooning residential/commercial rental prices.
In 2019, the state passed a law enabling congestion pricing on drivers entering the Central Business District, a welcome measure to provide necessary additional funding to the MTA. The MTA has yet to announce a schedule to implement the toll.
Whatever the method, nearly every single current subway and bus rider would save money on transportation if mass transit were funded through taxes rather than fares. And riders would benefit from the most well-funded MTA since its inception.
A fare-free system may seem somewhat confusing when all New Yorkers have ever experienced is the fare, but it’s hardly a radical idea. Smaller cities have ditched pay-to-ride, and as a result have experienced an increase in ridership, a decrease in personal-vehicle traffic and better funding overall.
New York subways and buses are inherent to our identity as they’re the vital circulatory force that gives our city life — but their success has been hindered by debt and under-funding. A fare-free system is a safer and more efficient system, one that can combat classism and racism by empowering people through its equity.[More Opinion] The inconvenient truth about charter ‘success’: They weed out students; traditional public schools must teach all »
Eisenberg is an artist and activist living in Brooklyn.