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That's not fare! Debate over reduced-fare MTA rides for the poor rages on

Reducing fares for poorer New Yorkers isn't a reality yet, but advocates say reform is badly needed.
(MTA via Flickr)

In one of the next big steps in combatting income inequality around New York, more and more advocates are calling for low-income New Yorkers to be entitled to a low-fare, half-price MetroCard.

The idea, which for now is just a proposal, is the sort that makes Bernie Sanders-style socialists joyful and sets fiscally conservative types' teeth on edge.

Transit expert and Metro columnist Larry Penner said reduced fares would lead to serious overcrowding on an already overburdened system, and he added that the public can afford $2.75 per ride.

"It is a terrible stereotype by elite liberals who don't believe poorer New Yorkers know how to budget," Penner said. "Who knows how much it would cost in coming years?"

Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed to fund discounted fares for the poor through a new "millionaires' tax" that would also fund repairs to the MTA. There's also pending legislation to assign money out of the city's general fund for the program, although it was cut from the latest city budget in June

Supporters and researchers say a $2.75 fare can be a serious obstacle preventing some 800,000 people from using the MTA, the circulatory system of New York City. There's a ripple effect: Lack of transit access can limit people from easily getting to work to earn money, affecting their lives and restricting the city's economic growth.

"The public transit system is supposed to be public," said Rebecca Bailin, a Riders' Alliance project manager who is leading the push for "Fair Fares."

"It is getting to work, but it's also getting around the city," she said. "People are jumping turnstiles at times, and they're not doing it for fun."

The discussion is based largely on the research of Alexis Perotta, a lecturer at Baruch College's Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, who wrote her dissertation on fare policy. Perotta interviewed 32 low-income people about how they scrimped, saved and skipped essentials like laundry and food to pay for subway fare.

Ironically, many of her low-income interview subjects said everyone should have to pay the same fare.

But the MTA already gives discounted rides to senior citizens and the disabled, she noted. She believes broader access to transit would be "vital" for low-income New Yorkers.

"We already have a fare system where not everybody is paying the same," she said. "Basing it on income, that next step in a direction toward socialism that makes people uncomfortable, is not that different from the categorical groups that we're already using."

For now, reduced fares remain just a proposal. But the other side of the fare debate, handling turnstile jumpers, is changing as Manhattan and Brooklyn prosecutors make moves toward diverting such cases from criminal prosecution, as many consider them a "poverty crime, and instead class it as a 'civil violation.'"

Surprisingly, Mayor de Blasio questioned slackening rules for turnstile jumpers during a recent radio interview. He said it might not be "good for the social fabric" to make it a civil violation instead of a crime. The typical person caught doing it "has money on them," he said.

"I would challenge the mayor to really rethink that," said Tina Luongo, an attorney in charge of criminal practice for the Legal Aid Society. "Even if they have three dollars in their pocket, that three dollars may, in fact, be going to food for them or their family or rent. You can't take a look at it from just that tidbit."

In 2016, the NYPD reported 25,000 arrests of turnstile jumpers for "theft of services," according to the Legal Aid Society. More than 8,000 people have been arrested for it so far in 2017.

Luongo asserted that reduced fares would cut down on such crimes, which are already a waste of resources.

"You'd be hard-pressed to say the New Yorker who is well-off wants to have their taxpayer dollars going to arresting and prosecuting the turnstile jumper."