The Fair Fares Program Is Staying – for a Few

Mayor Eric Adams’ budget is baselining and expanding the Fair Fares Program, but advocates are calling for wider eligibility.

The Fair Fares Program will reduce fares by 50 percent for New York transit riders. Credit: Niamh Rowe for NY City Lens (February 17 2022).

New York Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed funding of a subsidized fare program for the poor is under criticism as inadequate by mass transit policy and rider groups.

The budget proposal would allocate $75 million to the Fair Fares Program for the fiscal year ending September 2023. The plan would cut train and bus fares by half for New Yorkers with incomes at or below the federal poverty level who are not eligible for other transit subsidies or benefits such as those for people with disabilities. 

“The program needs more funding from the city so that it can be expanded to cover more New Yorkers who live just above the federal poverty line,” Liam Blank, policy and communications manager at Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The federal poverty line – at $13,950 for a one-person household or $27,750 for a family of four only applies to 260,000 New Yorkers. 

Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director of the Riders Alliance, said eligibility for the program should broaden to cover all low-income families. “Two hundred percent of poverty is probably the sweet spot,” said in a telephone interview. “Roughly $50,000 a year.”

Alleviating transportation costs “helps people make ends meet and helps them survive in a very expensive city,” Pearlstein said. “If it’s not a MetroCard, it’s a meal, it’s rent, it’s health care costs.”

The mayor’s plan would also bring spending in the current fiscal year to $68.5 million, up from $48.9 million in fiscal 2021, but down from $106 million in FY 2019, when the program began.

“The path to an equitable recovery runs through our public transit system,” Adams said Feb. 14 in a written statement. 

Eric Adams is baselining and expanding the Fair Fares Program, but advocates are worried about eligbility. Credit: Niamh Rowe for NY City Lens (February 17 2022).

Previously, the program was funded on a year-to-year basis through negotiations with the City Council in connection with the Adopted Budget, according to a release from City Council.

The increased investment restores funding to the program after cuts by the previous administration due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The mayor’s overall proposed budget of $98.5 billion would be the biggest in the city’s history. “Fiscal discipline will be the key to my administration,” Adams said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.  

“This discount program has some of the strictest eligibility requirements in the country,” Blank said.

Pearlstein said the program suffers from a lack of public awareness about it. “City leaders should kick off promotion with a high-profile public event,” he said. Some of the funding should go to banner ads on buses and bus shelters in all five boroughs, he said.

Rana Abdelhamid, a community organizer who is challenging Representative Carolyn Maloney for the 12th congressional district seat, criticized the Fair Fares budget proposal in a tweet. “It can’t be called public transit unless it’s fully accessible to the public,” she said.

But another criticism amongst advocates has been the low uptake. Due to lack of awareness about the scheme, only one-third of those eligible have been using it.