As if the New York City subway wasn’t already a portal into Hades, the MTA has descended into a new circle of hell this past summer by injecting the bus and subway system with 500 new cops at the jumbo price tag of $249M over the next four years. The MTA and Governor Cuomo stan for this paramilitary fare evasion campaign, claiming that the MTA will recuperate $200M in losses due to fare evasion. The additional 500 cops are a 64% increase from the 773 cops in the MTA as of 2018. Oh, and MTA cops are paid an average of $131,959 per cop, including $34,936 in overtime per person. Hiking fares and constant delays caused by the subway’s ancient 1930’s signal system (re: pen and paper, I’m not kidding) were already enough reason to hate the MTA, but now this new small army of cops has turned New Yorkers’ commute into an especially violent circle of hell.
Does the MTA have to be like this though? The short answer is hell no. And many New Yorkers agree. Since the MTA’s fare evasion campaign kicked off, there has been public outcry calling the campaign racist and classist because it overwhelmingly targets Black and Latinx riders. Two incidents in particular have caused the most outcry — on November 8, when cops arrested churro vendor Elsa Morochoduchi and on October 25, when 12 cops drew their guns at 19 year-old Adrian Napier for hopping the turnstile. The MTA is militarizing and installing surveillance cameras in subways, some at every turnstile, over $1 churros and a $2.75 fare. Governor Cuomo claims this beefed up police presence is for “preventing crime and disorder from occurring in the first place,” even though he also pointed out that crimes committed in the subway were already at record lows.
This fare evasion campaign and $249M new cops have no guarantee of deterring fare evasion. In fact, I’d argue that this draconian punitive measure has caused fare evasion to go up. New Yorkers are pissed and they are protesting and fucking shit up thanks to people led campaigns like FTP by Decolonize This Place and Swipe It Forward. Many New Yorkers are demanding a $Free.99 MTA. But, how exactly can the broke ass MTA, North America’s largest public transit system, be made free?
MTA Budget Breakdown
In order to move towards the elusive dream of creating a free MTA, we must first look at the MTA’s budget and how it hemorrhages money. The MTA’s operating budget is $17B. However, the MTA’s net debt is $42.9B due to its budget reliance on municipal bonds from Wall Street. In 2019, the MTA had an operating deficit of $548.5M, which will grow to an astounding $1B in 2022. Basically, the MTA is financially fucked and continues to dig itself into a deeper and deeper hole. And get this, the MTA only gets 38% of its revenue from fares. The rest comes from taxes and subsidies, which the MTA could rely 100% on to make the subways and buses fare-free. More on this later, after I discuss how the MTA’s newest plan won’t work and makes no damn sense.
MTA’s Scapegoats: Black And Latinx Riders & MTA Employees
Instead of focusing on delivering better service and solving the budget deficit without literally calling 911, the MTA is scapegoating Black and Latinx riders and its own MTA employees. According to Riders Alliance, midday and weekend service could be improved by 15% for the same price of these 500 new cops. Additionally, the MTA plans to raise fares and tolls by 4% in 2021 and 2023, which may cause even more fare evasion due to the increasing cost of taking transit. The MTA is also targeting its own employees and plans to cut 2,700 jobs in order to save $1.6B as part of its Transformation Plan. Critics of the plan say the $1.6B in projected savings is dubious considering the Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 will fight tooth-and-nail to protect its union members against these job cuts.
The Transformation Plan is the MTA’s newest fuckshit solution to save its sinking ship. The Transformation Plan will dique save the MTA $230M in 2020 and $538M in 2023. Public transit experts and activists have roasted the plan, calling it highly optimistic and vague.
MTA’s Fare Evasion Campaign Has No Guarantee It Will Recoup $200M
The MTA has no guarantee that its fare evasion tactics will actually garner its self-predicted $200M in fare evasion losses. This $200M by the way might as well have been calculated by Oz, because the MTA has yet to reveal the math behind the $249M its spending on cops and the $200M it expects to recoup by employing these expensive ass cops.
The MTA claims fare evasion is up and crime is up, but crime is actually flat on the subway and buses for the past years and does not warrant a 64% increase in police presence. Fare evasion statistics may not even be accurate according to the Inspector General’s report, which questioned the MTA’s fare evasion survey’s methodology. Even still, the MTA’s officially reported subway fare evasion numbers are not higher than the fare evasion averages of other cities. This fare evasion campaign is a desperate money grab to create revenue by ticketing poor Black and Latinx riders.
MTA’s Fare Evasion Campaign Is an Extension of Stop-and-frisk
Stop-and-frisk has a detestable legacy in NYC policing. Shit, the whole nation has a detestable legacy of racialized policing. Earlier this month, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg came under intense heat for 2015 remarks he made at the Aspen Institute about targeting Black and Latinx young males. Journalist Benjamin Dixon exposed the audio where Bloomberg said, “Ninety-five percent of your murders and murderers and murdered victims fit one MO. You can just take the description, xerox it and pass it out to all the cops…They are male minorities, 15 to 25. That’s true in New York. It’s true in virtually every city.” Wow, tell us how you really feel, Bloomberg. Fucking hell.
This damning leaked audio has spurred the Twitter trending hashtag #BloombergIsRacist. Bloomberg has said he overused Stop-and-frisk and regrets it. Cue the eyerolls and boo-hoos. Bloomberg’s 2015 remarks are important because they are telling of how this new army of cops in the MTA will target potential fare evaders. Cuomo and the MTA claim that the 500 new cops will not racially target riders, but the NYC police’s track record with Stop-and-frisk do not give me any confidence in their historically unsupported, colorblind promise.
In fact, Black and Latinx riders made up nearly 90% of arrests and 70% of fare evasion summonses in the first quarter of 2019. In the second quarter of 2019, this racialized targeting continued and Black and Latinx riders made up 87% of arrests and 71% fare evasion summonses. These numbers are dramatically disproportionate when compared to ridership demographics. It doesn’t take much to see that the MTA is straight up lying when it says its policies aren’t racist. Cuomo and the MTA said the fare evasion campaign will focus on the 50 bus and 50 subway routes with the highest rates of fare evasion, though there is no definitive list I have come by listing the exact stations and routes. According to a recent study released by Community Service Society, fare evasion enforcement relative to ridership is more than 60% higher at the 109 stations in high-poverty black and Latinx neighborhoods that they studied than at the 21 stations in high-poverty white or Asian neighborhoods. Notably, the average poverty rate for these two groups of stations was almost identical at 32% and 33%, respectively.
Andy Byford, NYC Transit President, Resigned Last Month
Andy Byford resigned last month due to his ongoing beef with Cuomo, who tried to shrink Byford’s MTA responsibilities and influence over the past year. Byford had a lot of New Yorker support and was nicknamed “Train Daddy” after he increased the on-time rate of the subway from a pitiful 58% to a decent 80%. Byford also wanted to overhaul the subway’s archaic signal system and focused on the needs of disabled riders by making 50 more subway stations ADA accessible by 2024. Byford is a Brit who led Toronto, London and Sydney public transit systems and even won an award in 2017 for North America’s best public transit system for Toronto’s TCC, an award given annually by American Public Transportation Association. Although he is by no means a saint — he’s also the same guy who said he wanted cameras at every turnstile at every station — he was definitely instrumental in improving train service this past year. Byford claimed that the NYC subway would need at least $30B to overhaul the subway’s signaling system. Currently, only the L and 7 train lines have been upgraded with computerized signaling instead of the manual operating method used by the rest of the train lines. Without Byford’s leadership, the MTA’s future is even drearier.
A Free MTA, Rolled Out Piecemeal Using 10-Year and 20-Year Plans
I am not suggesting that the MTA roll out $Free.99 fares overnight. The MTA makes about $6.4B in farebox revenue and would need to identify alternative revenue streams to make up for this multi-billion dollar loss in revenue. Transforming into a fare-free system would require years, probably a decade or two. Andy Byford himself predicted it would take 20 years to fix the subway’s signaling system. Many other cities have rolled out free public transit, but NYC’s system is a mammoth one that in 2018 served 5.4 million people each weekday and 1.68B rides a year total. With 10-Year and 20-Year plans and piecemeal rollouts of fare-free initiatives, the MTA could pull off a free subway and bus system. The transformation would be inconvenient for NYC’s wealthiest residents, the real estate sector and Wall Street, which I will discuss further regarding taxing the wealthiest in the city and state. Yet it would be a much needed move for low-income New Yorkers who struggle to pay for the continually-rising fare.
Even if it’s not overnight, though, New York does have the money and economy to bankroll a $Free.99 MTA. In 2017, New York’s economic output was over $1.5 trillion, almost as much as Canada’s! If New York were a country, it’d have the 11th biggest economy worldwide, between Canada and South Korea. Not to mention that New York City has 105 billionaires, more than any other city. If much smaller cities like Tallinn, Estonia, Kansas City, USA, Dunkirk, France and Luxembourg have rolled out free public transit using taxes and subsidies, then NYC can too.
Below are 12 ways the MTA can make NYC’s subways and buses free of fares and violence:
1. Expand The Fair Fares Program
This year, the city expanded its Fair Fares program, offering half-fare discounted Metrocards to New Yorkers living at or below the federal poverty line. About 800,000 New Yorkers, which is almost 10% of the city’s population, meet the income guidelines — a max of $12,760 for a single person and $26,200 for a family of four. Over 126,000 people have already signed up for Fair Fares, a benefit that last year the city only offered to SNAP or cash assistance recipients, NYCHA residents, CUNY students and veterans with incomes at or below 100% of the federal poverty income level.
The MTA could start its crusade for free public transit by issuing fare-free Metrocards to the same neighborhoods it’s currently hyper-policing, like Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Brownsville, East New York, Cypress Hills and The Bronx, New York State’s poorest county. Not coincidentally, the heavily policed Brooklyn neighborhoods are high-poverty Black areas with high rates of fare evasion arrests and citations. Black males with the average age of 26 accounted for two-thirds of fare evasion arrests even though Black adults living in poverty make up less than one-third of poor adults in Brooklyn.
Cities like Seattle already offer 50% discounts to those with incomes no more than 200% of the federal poverty level — a max of $24,980 a year for a single person and $51,500 for a family of four. Seattle’s maximum income restrictions are much more inclusive and equitable than the MTA’s Fair Fares program. Moreover, this year Seattle is considering expanding its program to include unlimited fare-free travel for riders with incomes below 80% of the federal poverty level — a max of $9,992 a year for a single person and $20,600 for a family of four. New York should mimic Seattle transit’s goals to make public transit equitable for low-income riders and also roll out an unlimited fare-free program to those New Yorkers with the lowest incomes.
Cost of subsidizing 100% of subway and bus fares: $6.4B
2. Continue Congestion Pricing
Last year, the city implemented Cuomo’s approved congestion pricing, which is supposed to bring in $1B a year. Cars entering Manhattan’s notoriously congested areas below 96th street would be charged a congestion fee, though drivers who made $60,000 or less would be subsidized. The city plans to use this $1B in revenue to get $15B in bonds towards transit improvements. New York was the first city to implement congestion pricing. In addition to bringing in much needed money to fund public transit, it also helps fight climate change by leading to lower emissions and better air quality.
Revenue Income: $1B
3. A National Federal Grant Program to Subsidize Free Transit
Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) of Brooklyn has proposed the Transportation Equity Act that would establish a national $1 billion federal grant program each year to provide fare-free transit to those with incomes no more than 300 percent of the poverty line — about $37,000 a year for a single person, as well as the elderly, disabled and veterans. This bill is even more generous than Seattle’s and states that “the Secretary of Transportation would reimburse public transportation agencies that offer free unlimited transportation passes to eligible individuals.”
Revenue Income: Hard to know, but I’ll say $106M (the cost of the Fair Fares program)
4. A Millionaires Tax
A Millionaires Tax would help fund reduced-fare and fare-free programs. We have the most billionaires in the world, so let’s call on them to contribute and make a free MTA a reality. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed increasing the city’s highest income tax rate from 3.876% to 4.41% on New Yorkers who made $500,000 and for couples who made over $1 million. This tax would have only applied to 32,000 of the 8.6 million city residents, a miniscule 0.8% of tax filers. The tax would have raised an estimated $700 million for the MTA in 2018 and $820 million a year by 2022. However, the bill never passed. As we all know all too well, the rich don’t like paying their fair share. Or paying taxes at all (ahem, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos).
Revenue Income: about $800M
5. A Real Estate Tax
Real estate developers and landlords benefit immensely from their proximity to transit hubs. Property values are higher wherever the subway is. It’s about time we tax the real estate industry its fair share for the property value boost that the subway creates.
Specifically, a pied-à-terre tax would help bring in a minimum of $650 million a year for the transit system according to Comptroller Stringer. Currently, the wealthy are purchasing secondary, luxury homes in the city and avoiding city and state, as well as city sales tax! What the fuck. Last year, the pied-à-terre bill gained traction in the State Senate that would have levied a 0.5% to 4% annual tax on owners with second homes worth more than $5 million.
The pied-à-terre bill gained widespread media attention when hedge-fund magnate Ken Griffin bought a $238 million penthouse (the most expensive home ever bought, ever), yet was only expected to pay a measly $500,000 annually in property taxes. Unfortunately, the pied-à-terre tax bill was squashed when the Senate retreated due to pressure by real estate lobbyists. Instead, it was replaced by the mansion tax, a one-time fee on multimillion dollar homes. This mansion tax is expected to raise $365M a year, almost half of what the pied-à-terre tax would have raked in.
Sadly, pieds-à-terre secondary homes are only increasing in a city where the wealth gap is also growing. In 2017, there were 75,000 pieds-à-terre, a 36% increase from 55,000 in 2014. In a city with so much wealth, the MTA does not need to squeeze revenue from the poor and fire 2,700 of its own employees to balance its budget.
Revenue Income: $650M
6. A Wall Street Tax
One-sixth of the MTA’s operating budget goes to pay off past debts it owes to its Wall Street bondholders. Instead of giving 17% of its money to Wall Street, the MTA needs to force Wall Street to open its fat wallet and fork over some stacks.
One way Wall Street could pay its fair share is by cancelling the MTA’s debt. Since Wall Street probably won’t ever do this, legislators can alternatively tax the stock exchange. Currently, $11B of tax rebates a year is returned straight back to the wallets of traders. Since 1981, 100% of the stock trade tax has been rebated back to traders. However, it wasn’t always so. In 1906, all stock trades’ tax revenue was split between the state and city. Today, stock trades are taxed at $1.25 a share for low-value stocks to 5 cents for high-value stocks capped at $350 for any given trade. Councilman Rafael Espinal (D-NY) is a huge proponent of this Wall Street tax and says that the $11B tax revenue could be placed in an Infrastructure Trust that would go towards fixing the subway and NYCHA public housing.
Hard to say how the $11B would be split between MTA and NYCHA, but I’ll say a conservative $1B. If Wall Street banks cancelled the loans MTA owes it, then this would erase a $40B debt.
Revenue Income: $1B
7. Keep Corporate Payroll Tax
The MTA brings workers to their places of employment every day. Employers currently pay a payroll tax, where everyone is contributing 0.34% of their paycheck to the MTA. If we used a sliding scale, high earners would be required to pay more. In 2010, a 0.54% payroll tax going towards the MTA was squashed; it would have brought in about $200M. Low-income earners would also contribute, but their rides would also be subsidized by the government.
Revenue Income: $200M
8. Keep The Internet Sales Tax
This past June, an internet sales tax went into effect that requires retail websites like Amazon to implement a 4.5% share for purchases made by NYC consumers. This internet sales tax is expected to bring in $320 million a year towards MTA revenue.
Revenue Income: $320M
9. Fix the Archaic Subway Signal System
Upgrading to computerized signal systems on the subway would result in faster commutes and improved on-time rates. Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) state-of-the-art signal systems increase efficiency, allowing trains to run more closely together and also increase train capacity. The L train runs double the trains per hour as non-CBTC trains. This would take decades, some estimating anywhere from 10-40 years to modernize the signal system. It took seven years each to modernize the signal system of the L and 7 lines. However, this would be the most disruptive and most effective way to improve lagging subway service. And slow service isn’t just annoying; it’s expensive. A 2017 report by NYC’s Comptroller Scott Stringer estimated that MTA delays cause the city to lose $389M in productivity each year.
Cost of modernizing subway signaling system: about $30B
10. Put More Buses on the Street, Less Subway Lines
The city should expand its bus fleet and create more bus lanes, instead of more eye-popping OD expensive new subway lines.
The Second Avenue line from 63rd Street to 96th Street, a distance of less than two miles, has cost the MTA more than $4B. Yet, the MTA is planning to extend the line to 125th Street by 2029 which will cost another $6B. No; please, no. Just take the 4/5/6 trains or the M15, M101, M102 or M103 bus lines. There was never a dire need for a Second Avenue line, especially since the MTA is dique so broke, or whateva.
Savings: $6B by not continuing the superfluous, barely used Second Avenue line.
11. No More Cops
This one is easy. Get rid of the 500 new cops. Periodt.
Savings: about $62.3M ($249M over four years)
12. Community Voiceovers Instead of Celebrities
We must also demand that the MTA put an end to its new celebrity voiceover pilot program. Our listening is not for the MTA to sell. Last month, the MTA commodified New Yorkers’ hearing when it forced everyone on the 7 line to listen to Awkwafina voiceover every single stop — Awkwafina sold her voice to the MTA to promote her new show. Comedy Central paid the MTA to have Awkwafina voiceover the 7 line for a week, leading up to her show’s premiere date. I’m sure Awkwafina is well aware of the recent unrest and protests against the police in the subway. Yet she was mad chipper on her 7 train voiceover, sounding like a Care Bear who’s already had four shots of espresso. Meanwhile, my ears were injected with shots of capitalism. I see you and hear you annoyingly loud and clear, Awkwafina. I want to know how much Comedy Central paid the MTA.
As for new sources of revenue, the MTA could sell voiceover ad space to entities that actually make sense. It would make more sense if the Mets paid for a voiceover on the 7 train. I would also prefer announcements from regular New Yorkers who take the train everyday, like public school teachers, Queens borough spelling bee champs or Queens community leaders. Moreover, it is no secret that the 7 train is the immigrant and child-of-immigrants subway line. Riders would much better benefit from multilingual announcements about public services and resources in Queens rather than a television show ad in English.
Revenue: Ad sales from voiceovers that make sense, like from NYC sports teams
Three Other Ways To Make The MTA A Better Place
First, the MTA would also be a better place if all of its stations were ADA accessible. By 2024, the NYC Transit’s Fast Forward plan hopes to make at least 50 more subway stations accessible. This would mean that riders wouldn’t have to travel more than two stops to board an accessible station. At least the MTA is dedicating billions of dollars towards elevators and ramps. Now let’s hope these elevators actually work and are maintained well (newsflash: many aren’t).
Cost of making over 70 subway stations ADA accessible: $5.2B
Second, art! How beautiful would the subway be if schools and local artists created community murals in stations? How would every New Yorker’s quality of life improve by seeing art instead of cops in the subway? By taking out turnstiles, kiosks and MTA booths, every station would have way more space for musicians, performers and even free workshops and classes that could take place at subway stations. That sounds like a dream.
Cost: Unsure, but I’m sure some arts nonprofits and organizations, community fundraising and wealthy donors could help cover the costs of bringing community art to each station.
Third, The MTA needs to democratize its board. Currently, the MTA is governed by a 21-member Board. Interestingly, six members are rotating non-voting seats held by organized labor reps and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee (PCAC), which advocates for MTA transit riders. The majority of Board members are nominated by the Governor; the NYC mayor recommends another four; county executives from Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester each get one; and Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties make up one collective vote.
The MTA Board is made up of wealthy politicians likely very disconnected from the average New Yorker, and who probably don’t ride the subway or bus. The Board doesn’t give votes to those who actually represent the average New Yorker and use the train, the organized labor reps and PCAC. The Board should be democratized to ensure that diverse interests of New Yorkers and transit riders are being heard. Thus, the Board should be reorganized so that it is predominantly made up of voting members who are part of the public, transit workers, represent unions and community leaders.
What The Haters Are Saying: People Should Pay For Transit, Overcapacity And People Treat Free Services Like Trash
Some detractors of free public transit believe that people should pay their fare and it’s not the government’s role to provide this service as a public good. Yet, with talk of universal healthcare, free childcare and free public college education, why can’t public transit also be treated like a universal public good?
Some also say that free public transit has only really worked in small cities and college campuses. And that implementing free public transit in a huge city like NYC would result in increased ridership that outpaces service capacity. I agree with that, actually. But that just means we need a bigger bus fleet and more subway trains, something the MTA is already trying to implement. Some also say that free transit means people would overuse it for short, walkable distances. Whoever said this is probably not a New Yorker, because no New Yorker with working legs would actually willingly board a crowded train or bus if they could just save the stress and headache that is the MTA and just walk and make their steps for the day.
Finally, some say that people mistreat free services and that a free MTA would result in people treating subways and buses like trash. Umm, have you ridden the subway before? It’s not a garden of roses. Unless you count rats and litter as roses. People already treat it like shit, probably because they’re just mirroring the shitty service, or protesting it with FTP graffiti and smashing or covering OMNY scanners. If we made the subway prettier with community art and a space that actually looked and felt good to commute in, then we would probably respect it more.
As you can see, there are many revenue streams the MTA can pursue to make the NYC subways and buses $Free.99. The impact of a fare-free system would impact low-income New Yorkers the most. A Harvard study showed that transit access is the single most important factor in breaking the cycle of poverty — more directly correlated to improving socioeconomic status than crime rates, family structure or school quality. If we combined transit access with free transit in NYC, imagine how many New Yorkers would be lifted out of poverty? Imagine the boost to local economies that this combination would create?
As a native New Yawker, I would love to take the subway with my fellow New Yawkers free of charge without stressing about the cost of travel, whether I was going to be late because of delays or whether I would encounter or witness violence at the hands of lurking cops. New York City and the MTA have ways to fund this transit utopia. It’ll be a long and hard road to get there, but by no means impossible. And if we can successfully pull it off, then other major cities around the world could follow suit and lift millions of people out of poverty. Free public transit is not only progressive, it’s radical and worth imagining.🔮
Edited by rachel
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