Free subway rides? Brooklyn pol wants to scrap transit fares

BOROUGHWIDE — New Yorkers would be able to toss their Metrocards into the trash and ride the city’s subways and buses for free under a new proposal by a Brooklyn lawmaker.

Councilmember Mark Treyger introduced a resolution during the City Council’s stated meeting on Feb. 11 calling on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to institute a Free Fares for All program that would essentially eliminate transit fares.

The resolution is non-binding, meaning that the Council doesn’t have the power to implement free rides.

But Treyger said he’s serious about his proposal.

The plan would help poverty-stricken residents gain a foothold in the economy by allowing them to avoid having to pay for bus and subway rides, according to Treyger, a Democrat representing Coney Island, Gravesend and parts of Bensonhurst.

Treyger also contended that getting rid of fares would help reduce racial inequities in the transit system. He pointed to troubling statistics from the NYPD which found that in 2018, 90 percent of the suspects who were arrested for fare evasion were people of color. The data also showed that 65 percent of riders who were issued summonses for not paying the fare were people of color.

“There is a real opportunity to reimagine mass transit in New York. In a state budget approaching $180 billion, why isn’t mass transit free? In a budget of $180 billion, no one should go to jail over $2.75 just like no one goes to jail for skipping an EZ Pass toll. Let’s help people get where they deserve to be,” Treyger said in a statement after he introduced his resolution on  Tuesday.

Treyger’s proposal comes at a time when the New York Police Department is stepping up enforcement of fare beaters and turnstile jumpers.

In November, nearly 1,000 protesters demonstrated against the NYPD outside the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center stop and then entered the Hoyt–Schermerhorn Street stop, charging that cops were engaging in selective enforcement and targeting people of color. Hundreds of demonstrators jumped the turnstiles during the protest, Gothamist reported.

Treyger, whose Council district is served by the D, F and N subway lines, said there are many reasons the MTA should consider a fare-free transit system.

“With a single measure, we can take a big bite out of poverty, income inequality, mass incarceration and our impact on climate change. It would force state leaders to budget more responsibly around priorities such as transportation rather than raid transportation funds,” he said.

Brooklyn residents riding a Manhattan-bound D train in Bensonhurst on Wednesday morning were a bit skeptical of the idea of free rides.

“I like it. I do. But will the MTA go for it? No way,” said Nancy, who asked that her last name not be published.

Another passenger, who was riding the train with his daughter, said a fare-free system would be good for working people but expressed concern that some would take advantage.

“If you’re going to your job, that’s fine. But I think some people will use it as an excuse to ride the trains all day long for nothing,” the man, who spoke no English, said through his daughter, who served as his interpreter.

Free transit is an idea that is catching on in cities around the world, according to Treyger, who pointed to research by TransitCenter, a foundation that works on the improvement of public transit, which showed that 97 cities provide free public transit to their passengers.

Paris is considering it as a way of dealing with growing traffic congestion and encouraging residents to use mass transportation and leave their cars at home to reduce their carbon footprint, Treyger said.

Treyger’s idea isn’t workable, according to MTA Communications Director Tim Minton.

Bus and subway fares are needed to help keep the transit system up and running, Minton said.

“Farebox revenue from subways and buses yields more than $4.8 billion annually and accounts for a significant portion of the MTA’s operating budget, which is already strained to the bone. Any serious proposal on this matter would have identified alternate sources of funding for the system that serves as the lifeblood of New York city’s economy,” he told the Home Reporter in an email.

Besides, said MTA officials, New York City already provides assistance to low-income New Yorkers through the highly-touted Fair Fares program in which poverty-stricken riders pay half the fare.

“The ‘Fair Fares’ program provides access to half-price Metrocards for New Yorkers who cannot afford to pay the fare, and we encourage a faster enrollment process from the city.” Minton said.

Danny Pearlstein, spokesperson for the Riders Alliance, a group advocating for better transit services, called Treyger’s proposal “bold and ambitious,” but said it isn’t likely to be adopted.

“The Riders Alliance holds political leaders accountable to provide reliable, accessible, affordable public transit. That’s why we’ve campaigned for Fair Fares, congestion pricing, better buses and more. The MTA is already staring down a budget gap of several hundred million dollars. The governor, who controls the agency, needs to find the money to close that gap. Councilmember Treyger’s proposal is bold and ambitious and would be extremely difficult to win. In New York, free transit would cost upwards of 10 times what the MTA already needs, at least several billion dollars,” Pearlstein told the Home Reporter.

“With Albany facing its own budget gap, even with major new taxes, free transit would be a very, very heavy lift,” he added.

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