Op Ed Transportation

Want better service?

Raise the fare: It would be a mistake to link price increases to improved performance

January 24, 2019

Read the original oped here.

Exasperated straphangers are expressing frustration with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plans to raise fares — the latest in a series of biennial hikes that have bolstered the MTA’s fiscal condition following the Great Recession — when, they say, service shows little sign of improvement.

Yet even these regular, predictable price adjustments have failed to keep pace with growth in the MTA’s costs. The fare and toll increases are necessary to build momentum in restoring the quality of public transit.

The MTA’s fiscal health and service quality is critical to the region. It operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, delivering service to billions of rides annually from as far north as Wassaic to as far east as Montauk.

Few riders likely realize that their fares cover only 44% of the cost to run the transit system; that’s a lower share than in London and San Francisco. The real revenue per ride today is lower than it was in 1997, adjusted for inflation.

Most transit riders will not pay the full increased fare. While the base fare could rise to $3, most riders pay on average $1.93 per trip — a one-third discount — due to unlimited MetroCards, pay-per-ride volume discounts, and free transfers between subways and buses.

Moreover, the burden for low-income New Yorkers will be reduced significantly by a city program, launched this month, to provide half-price 30-day and 7-day MetroCards.

Of course, even if a fare increase is reasonable, riders deserve better service and management improvements. The MTA’s fiscal and performance system should incentivize good management.

One proposal, reported by the Daily News, would tie fare increases to improvements in subway, bus and rail service, reflecting a reluctance to ask straphangers to pay more when service is subpar. Indeed, the MTA must be leaner and must right-size service as it restores the transit system from the depths of its state of emergency.

But tying planned fare increases to meeting board-mandated performance standards is extremely problematic; it would jeopardize the MTA’s improvement efforts, which have started to show modest success. Better service will require greater — not fewer — resources.

Actions taken by New York City Transit have begun to yield results: after steady declines in on-time performance and car subway car reliability from 2010 to 2017, both have improved since the beginning of last year. Major disruptive incidents, particularly those related to track problems, have also decreased in recent months.

Without the resources from fare and toll increases, the MTA will have to cut $250 million from its 2019 budget, hampering its improvement efforts.

Even delaying the increase would compound the MTA woes. Cash deficits are expected to grow to nearly $1 billion in 2022, and that’s without the effect an economic slowdown might have on tax revenues dedicated to the MTA. Nor does this include spending needed to ramp up the Fast Forward program, a $40 billion, 10-year program to restore and modernize the transit system.

The MTA board should ensure both that the authority is adequately funded and that management is pursuing — and achieving — adequate standards of service. Conflating the two undermines both goals.

A renewed board effort for stricter oversight of MTA performance could benefit the system and its users. However, the board must also should approve this planned fare and toll increase since without it, New Yorkers risk more performance declines and a return to a fare policy often characterized by larger, sporadic and politically fraught jolts.