Student MetroCards: Albany Offers Nothing, MTA Folds, Riders Lose

kids_metro_cards__300x300.jpgStudent straphangers got a reprieve today, but without a real commitment from Albany to shore up MTA finances, their victory comes at others’ expense. Photo: New York Post

"Deal Saves Student Metrocards" proclaims the New York Times. "Ride on!" blares the Post. There’s just one catch: There isn’t really a deal.

Despite the sunny headlines trumpeting the likely end of this year’s student straphanger saga, in reality Albany didn’t give a dollar in new funding to transit, and while student MetroCards are safe for now, the money to fund them will come at the cost of another hundred million in service cuts, fare hikes, or both, for other transit riders. 

Here’s the so-called deal, as first reported in the Post. New York State will contribute $25 million towards student transit, the city will chip in $45 million, and the MTA is on the hook for the remaining $144 million. The passage of the bus cam bill, it turns out, was another chit in the negotiation. Finally, the state permitted the MTA to raise its debt ceiling, allowing the agency’s plans for construction and repair to move forward, funded by bonds on fares and tolls. 

Recall that Governor Paterson had already offered $25 million for student transit in January. Back then, such a measly sum was considered the first step in the elimination of student passes and spurred widespread protests. The city has been chipping in the same $45 million since 1995, the time of the original student MetroCard arrangement — and with the total cost of the program steadily increasing, that equates to a smaller city contribution each year. Today’s "deal" is the same offer that’s been on the table for months.

What changed is that the MTA caved, accepting bus cams as a consolation prize. Cutting student MetroCards, the agency’s strongest bargaining chip, was exposed as empty threat. The fight over student fares was a game of brinkmanship between Albany and the MTA, and the MTA blinked.

And if student MetroCards are preserved without a new dime from either the state or the city, the money can only come from one place: riders. That’s another $144 million in service cuts, $144 million in increased fares, or some combination of the two.

For today, students scored a hard-fought win. But a real victory would have the state and city pick up more than a fraction of the cost of transit to school; after all, they pay the full tab for bloated school bus costs. A real victory would have the state stop stealing dedicated funds from the MTA (any bets on how much goes missing in the coming budget?).

But rather than actually investing in transit, the state and city have again simply shuffled the remaining scraps of public funding among different groups of riders.

  • JamesR

    I’m amazed at how Machiavallian this is. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. So basically Gantt used bus cams as a bargaining chip to get the state off the hook from having to chip in more for student metrocards? And that Assembly video in which bus cams were given a rubber stamp approval was just a front for the real maneuvering that had taken place behind the scenes? Correct me if I’m wrong here.

  • J. Mork

    “the city will chip in $45”

    What the hell, I’ll match that.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “So basically Gantt used bus cams as a bargaining chip to get the state off the hook from having to chip in more for student metrocards?”

    No that’s what Silver did and forced Gantt to swallow it.

    I don’t see how borrowing more is a “benefit” to the MTA. They shouldn’t be borrowing another dime. And having the legislature agree for the MTA to borrow more is a concession? Please.

    Well, I know how the MTA can recoup more money. Here are some Federal Transit Administration regulations:

    “Urbanized Area Formula Program (Section 5307) grantees must allow 1) elderly persons, 2) persons with disabilities, and 3) Medicare cardholders to ride fixed route services during the off-peak hours for a fare that is not more than one-half the base fare charged other persons during the peak hours.”

    “The fares charged elderly persons, persons with disabilities, and Medicare cardholders cannot exceed one-half the fare that is charged for the same trip during the peak hours.”

    That’s right, in exchange for federal money, the federal government requires that seniors get a half fare discount during off peak hours. Not all hours. Not rush hours. That was a gift from Pataki, with the cost charged to — now. Now that people who were not a party to the transaction are paying the cost — the interest on the borrowed money — it’s time to take back the gift.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Link for the above explanation:

    http://www.fta.dot.gov/FY2007TriReview/14halffare.htm#Q1

    The half fare for seniors at rush hour is the equivalent of an early bird special for the retired at the height of the dinner rush.

  • momos

    Excellent analysis, Noah. I wish this could be printed in all the major dailies for the wider public to understand.

  • In the spirit of the Fare Hike Four campaign, the incremental $144 million in service cuts and fare hikes should be labeled for what they are: the Free Student Metrocard Service Cuts and the Free Student Metrocard Fare Hikes.

  • Car Free Nation

    I don’t know. I’m as big a transit nut as anyone, but really, I’d rather have the state use the money for education than transit (if given a choice).

    I think this idea that everything should stay in the system – that transportation fees should only go to transit and roads, just strikes me as a bit naive. All money goes to the general fund and then it’s split up (with most of it going to pensions, according to Larry).

    I think we might be able to craft a better message if we changed this. How about we raise on-street parking fees to the market rate and call it “Parking for Schools”? It worked for the lottery.

  • Glenn

    I mean really Albany, just let us have congestion pricing if you aren’t going to even be able to pay your fair share.

  • Higher debt ceiling? Nice.

  • JK

    Riders lose. Poor riders, especially without kids with transit passes, lose most. If you are concerned about social equity, you should oppose the MTA paying for student passes. This is about cost shifting: from the rich to the poor, and from teachers and hospital workers to transit riders. Albany wants to shift costs out of the state budget to avoid cuts to powerful interest groups. This is why the teachers union, and allies at the Working Families Party pressured the MTA on student passes, and not Albany.

    The MTA is depicted as magically wealthy. But the MTA budget is 38% transit fares. And transit riders are a lot poorer than NY State income tax payers. At least a third of state tax revenues are paid by households earning more than $200/year, probably more.

  • JK

    Should add its also about preserving the insanity of yellow busing which costs $7k per NYC student/yr. for a total of over a billion. So, it’s shifting costs from the beneficiaries of that busing to transit riders.

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2010/03/04/to-save-student-metrocards-trim-the-fat-from-bloated-bus-costs/

  • Jason A

    What’s up with the need to travel 90 minutes on the subway to get to a “good” school? Why is *that* even a problem? Why aren’t neighborhood schools good enough for students in the neighborhoods they serve? Why have we created a system where kids *have* to use transit to get to a “ok” school?

    How is this situation any different than the absurdity of rural-suburban kids getting bused 45+ minutes for school?

    No one has asked this question. I suspect bigger problems are at work here…

  • Jason: some parents are hypersensitive about what good schools are. The 90-minute travel times aren’t even the worst of it. I read an article a few years ago about how in a gentrifying Queens neighborhood, the white parents asked to organize a separate school in the same building as the current, majority-minority school.

  • Bolwerk

    I’m as big a transit nut as anyone, but really, I’d rather have the state use the money for education than transit (if given a choice).

    What the hell? The state should be cutting waste in education as much as it should be cutting waste in transit. NYS spends more per student than any state. You can’t even blame the alleged high costs of the city, since it’s below the state average. Somewhere in that $14,000/year is plenty of money to spend on student MetroCards and offer a tax cut – or infrastructure investment or debt reduction, if you prefer to be a (smart) liberal big spender.

  • The really high spending is in the suburbs, which clock in about $25,000 per student in the favored quarters. The city is now up to about $17,000.

    While there’s plenty of room to cut spending there, it has to be done on the federal level by change in regulations. On the state and local level there’s competition for teachers, curricula are constrained by the textbooks that Texas and California approve, etc. The state just isn’t powerful enough to tell Westchester and the North Shore that whatever spending level is good enough for the city and for Upstate is good enough for them.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The really high spending is in the suburbs, which clock in about $25,000 per student in the favored quarters.”

    If you adjust for the cost of living, Upstate is even higher. Even NYC is now high by U.S. standards, even with such an adjustment, but only on retirement.

  • Yes, NYC has above-average spending. It also has one of the best inner-city districts in the country.

    Anecdotally, the teachers’ perception of living costs seems to be different from the general numbers. While on average the suburbs are more expensive than the city, for the middle class, from which teachers are drawn, the opposite is often true. So at equal salary, teachers would by default go to the suburbs. In reality, salaries are not equal; they’re much higher in the suburbs.

  • Bolwerk

    The really high spending is in the suburbs, which clock in about $25,000 per student in the favored quarters. The city is now up to about $17,000.

    It went up $3k in three years? What’s your source? (I believe you; just curious.)

    While there’s plenty of room to cut spending there, it has to be done on the federal level by change in regulations.

    I rather doubt this. Look at some other states, including states with a diversity of rural, urban, and suburban populations. There are vast differences in the costs per year of a child’s education. California keeps them much lower than similarly dysfunctional New York State.

    On the state and local level there’s competition for teachers, curricula are constrained by the textbooks that Texas and California approve, etc.

    They are, but barely. And California doesn’t demand the Christian supremacist bent of Texas.

    The textbook industry is largely located in the New York metropolitan region, and NYC alone is a large enough market that many publishers would probably be happy to meet its needs.

    The state just isn’t powerful enough to tell Westchester and the North Shore that whatever spending level is good enough for the city and for Upstate is good enough for them.

    That might be the crux of it. Of course, there’s pretty much an unspoken (hell, maybe it’s spoken) agreement that nobody ever loses any funding no matter what demographic direction the district is moving in.

  • Bolwerk:

    My source on spending is School Matters. New York’s spending went up tremendously in the last decade, as part of Bloomberg’s reforms – only Bloomberg’s selling the improved results as a management success. While favored-quarter suburbs such as Manhasset and Scarsdale have plateaued, the city still has a long way to go to catch up.

    States vary a lot in spending, but I wouldn’t use California as a good model. Its public school system is among the worst in the country, and has been deteriorating since the passage of Prop 13. Even conservatives acknowledge the relative decline of California’s education, only they blame multiculturalism, Hispanic immigration, and bilingual education – in other words, national trends that do not distinguish California from states that did not post similar declines.

    While the textbook industry is based in New York, its textbooks tend to be national lowest-common-denominator products, geared for the diametrically opposed political correctness textbook adoption standards in Texas and California.

    But textbooks are a national quality of education problem. The cost issue comes from the facts that districts compete for teachers, and that the richest districts also hire many more teachers than they need. This ensures that many of the inner city and rural teachers are marginal.

  • Larry Littlefield

    My source is the Census Bureau. The big increase in NYC spending was for retirement benefits.

  • Bolwerk

    Education is almost a good parallel to transit. Most of the cost is labor, and labor’s ability to make the jobs sacrosanct has gone a long way towards making the system hard to reform. Anyway, take your pick (using the outdated map) from the states. Many that have “good” (well, I prefer the term above-average, since I’m not sure any are especially good) education systems do it by spending a lot less than NYC or NYS.

    As for teachers, NYC certainly has its share of marginal and unneeded ones. That rubber room tactic is BS. And top-heavy administration doesn’t help either – it often simply takes experienced teachers out of the classroom.

  • New York City already has very large class sizes. This is why I said federal action is needed. The suburbs have small classes, so a 50% increase in class size would not be too bad, compared to the resulting increase in teacher quality. They have room to cut teachers. New York doesn’t. All it can hope for is to get better teachers who’re currently paid more elsewhere, and, let’s face it, Dobbs Ferry is not going to volunteer to spend less.

    The states that have good education systems have about the same spending as New York or even more, adjusting for purchasing power. The top performers are high-spending Northeastern states other than New York, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, plus the Nordic states, Minnesota and North Dakota, which both benefit from more social cohesion and spend relatively high amounts of money for their middle-class living costs.

  • Stefanie

    Like by everything the problem somes from the leadership and the corruption . I do not think that mta should pay for metrocard just out of the reason that i think education is the problem of the board of education, but the real problem is, that no one what to take responsebility for what their messed up in the past and for sure did not learnd anything. Did you all heard that MTA just approved for themselfe $30000.00 in homedelivery of magazins? That there hired someone to help to save them money but she has the worst record for this (you can find this information on mockerpix). Than Nancy Shevells (she is a boardmember in MTA) father got investigated 1988 from the us supreem court for connection to the mafja and bribing the teamster? He by the way is vice president in NJ transit which just raised the fares %25 and laid employees of. Who appointed those people? How you say, smells like corruption, looks like corruption mostlikly it is corruption

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