The Truth About Student Fares: MTA a Huge Bargain for State and City

School_Buses.jpgThe state and city spend about 58 times more per student on yellow school buses than what’s on the table for student MetroCards. Image: manyhighways via Flickr.

A new round of MTA Board hearings gets started this week, and the biggest flashpoint is sure to be the student MetroCard program. New York City school children depend on free and reduced fares, especially since education reforms have led more students to attend schools farther from home. Yet the state has withdrawn funding for the program and the city has allowed its contribution to remain flat since 1995.

Predictably, when the MTA said it could no longer afford to provide student transport at a big discount, legislators like Westchester’s Richard Brodsky were quick to deflect blame. Maybe they’ve never considered just how big a bargain they get by funding student fares.

Because the truth is, public spending on yellow school buses dwarfs what the state and city contribute to student MetroCards. School bus transportation is run by the city’s Department of Education, which gets about 30 percent of its funding from the state.
With a budget of a little more than $1 billion, the DOE’s Office of Pupil
Transportation moves around 140,000 students, according to a department rep.
On average, that’s more than $7,000 per student.

Then there’s the MTA, which transports about 585,000 students through its free and discounted fare program. With City Hall’s contribution to student MetroCards holding steady at $45 million and Albany offering to put in only $25 million, the city and state are collectively willing to spend less than $120 per student on transit to school.

The comparison is not quite apples-to-apples, since the two modes serve different populations of students. In particular, 40 percent of school bus transport serves special education students who receive door-to-door service. Even so, the disparity is enormous. The state and city spend 58 times more per pupil on yellow buses than they would spend under the current proposal to fund student MetroCards. Perhaps those politicians who consistently preface "MTA" with "wasteful and bloated" ought to find a new target.

Now contrast our current policy on student transport to Boston’s. The Boston public school system pays $3.2 million out of the city budget for the 13,000 high schoolers who take transit to school. That comes to $250 per student, more than twice what New York City students receive from the state and city.

It’s also a huge bargain compared to yellow buses. Boston pays $2,300 a head to transport kids on school buses. (About $74 million for 32,000 students,
according to a BPS spokesperson.) Again, while it’s not a perfect comparison, the difference is a factor of 10.

Where possible, it seems, a transit pass is far and away the best bang for your student transportation buck. So while the MTA likes to claim that it is New York’s yellow school bus, that’s only half true. The MTA is the yellow school bus that New York can afford. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    Another aspect of this is because NYC students have had access to the transit system, the city receives far less in state aid for transportation than other parts of the state. (Because the issue was publicized by Mayor Giuliani decades ago, specific data on school transportation aid is no longer provided by the state).

    In addition, the cost of student transportation for the city is huge — well above the national average per pupil, even with an adjustment for the higher cost of living here, even with a higher share of NYC students vs. other students who walk, even with that big subsidy from the MTA.

    The reason — the school bus companies are a poltically powerful monopoly. When Bloomberg tried to force some adjustments, they held it up in court for months and then dropped students off in the wrong places in a snowstorn in retaliation.

    Detailed data on comparative school spending is in the data attached to this post.

    Spending on pupil transportation per student jumped 40% from FY 2002 to FY 2007, even after adjustment for inflation.

  • Larry Littlefield

    By the way, the school bus companies have traditionally been among the largest campaign contributors to the City Council, and have traditionally received automatically renewed “no bid” contracts. And the City Council is trying to organize protest against the “unaccountable MTA” at its service cut hearings.

  • MTA, City & State to Students: Drop Dead

    Public Hearings Begin Monday, Students and Families Fight for What’s Fare

    Today, the Metropolitan Transit Authority launches a whirlwind tour of public hearings citywide. These hearings, though they may be for show, will be the first of their kind since December, when 585,000 student straphangers and their families got the following bit of good news from the MTA (it’s always good news from the MTA):

    Student fare discounts are proposed to be phased out. Beginning September 2010, the full-fare student discount would be discontinued…Beginning September 2011, students would be charged full fare for all trips.

    The subtext reads something like this: We’re the MTA. We’re $733 million in the red. Yes, again. Therefore, we have no choice but to make the kids pay the difference.

    I used to carry that precious plastic passport in my own back pocket, and never did I think that mine could be one of the last classes of public schoolers to be able to afford a ride on the old subway. The city’s students have relied on subsidized fares since the 1940s, back when a ride cost you a nickel.

    Now that it’s $2.25 and rising, there’s a pretty penny to be made (saved) from 585,000 new fares, not to mention planned cuts to Access-A-Rides for the disabled, at least 1,100 layoffs of MTA workers, and maybe another fare hike for good measure.

    It’s all about “gap closing,” as the MTA’s 2010 Budget coins its program of deficit reduction via service reduction.

    Yet there are other gaps, other deficits that recent events have brought to the attention of the public (and they implicate the City and the State as much as the MTA).
    Mind the Accountability Gap

    Who is to be held accountable? Not us, says the MTA, though the Authority’s Board is the body that brought you the student fare rollback in December. Not us, says the City, though funding has “flatlined” under Mayor-for-Life Mike Bloomberg. Not us, says the State legislature, although it reduced MTA funding by $143 million and student fare funding from $45 million to $6 million this year for its own “gap closing.”
    Mind the Affordability Gap

    Full-fare MetroCards would cost families $89 a month, or $1,068 a year. Of the students affected, an estimated 67% qualify for subsidized school lunches, which for a family of four means an annual income of $28,000 a year or less. For a single-parent family, fughetaboutit. For a parent who has lost a job to this crisis, fuhgetaboutit. And if students can’t get to class, they may have to walk themselves to the unemployment office, joining the ranks of the more than 200,000 New Yorkers age 16 to 24 who are neither working nor in school.
    Mind the Class Gap

    If you read up on the official bios of the MTA Board, 11 of 16 come to the Board from executive positions in the finance and corporate worlds–and most of them never left, racking up the bonuses with the best of them. 14 out of the 16 Board members also happen to be white. Compare and contrast to the city’s population at large.
    Mind the Stimulus Spending Gap

    The MTA received $1.075 billion in federal stimulus funds. By January, the MTA had spent just $14 million of that, but already doled out $886 million in contracts for its “capital campaign” (think pet projects like the Fulton Street Terminal). Yet the MTA has ruled out spending any stimulus money to save the student fare, although 6 of the 10 biggest agencies in other cities have already done so.
    Mind the Security Spending Gap

    For a glimpse at how the Authority handles its spending, take a look at January’s report from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli:

    The MTA announced in August 2005 that it had awarded a $212 million contract to Lockheed Martin to build a state-of-the-art integrated electronic security program… As of December 2009 the cost had grown to $743 million, or $152 million more than planned.

    Compare that to the $170 million the MTA actually spends on the Student MetroCard each year. (The MTA is now locked in a multimillion-dollar legal battle with Lockheed Martin.)
    Emergency Switch

    Yet New York City’s students are mounting a forceful response that may yet pull the emergency switch on the MTA’s gravy train:

    Do not implement any actions without a meeting with NYC students to hear our concerns specifically about Student MetroCards. The proposed budget cuts are a burden on the poor…We ask the media to join us in covering the many voices responding to MTA budget cuts. WE ARE STANDING UP AND SAYING WE WON’T TAKE IT ANY MORE!

    So reads a recent call to action from youth in Sunset Park. We’ve already seen rumblings of a public school student uprising. Walkouts of thousands. ‘Book groups 104,000 strong. Near-weekly demonstrations at the MTA HQ.

    Next up: The public hearings are expected to attract raucous protests from students, parents, teachers, and allies alike–including a college walkout and march on the MTA hearings this Thursday, part of a National Day of Action to Defend Education.

    The kids hope to see you there. And if you’re taking public transit, remember to mind the gap.

  • Boris

    I guess we are invited to a point-by-point refutation of this article? I’ll start – it makes the erroneous assumption that it is easily possible (and a good idea) to plug operating cuts with money earmarked for capital spending.

    Lockheed Martin’s security systems to guard goats in Afghanistan probably cost more to the American taxpayer than the MTA project. But I don’t see many articles about that, for some reason.

  • Michael:

    I saw that piece you wrote at Huff Post today, and I think you’ve completely missed the mark. I wrote yet another post on Student MetroCards at SAS today that I published while Noah was working on this one. Your assumptions about the MTA Board and the proper funding body for student travel are incompatible with concepts of government and its role in providing education. I’ve yet to hear a reason, good or bad, why the MTA should continue to fund student transit, and saying “because they’ve done it for 15 years” isn’t a very good justification.

    The city and state should be held accountable for their myriad failures on public transit. This student issue is just another example of that.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Michael may be a mouthpiece.

    Consider how likely that it that teachers will be organizaing students to protest cuts in education, even as “education” spending and taxes go up but more and more is diverted to the 25/55 pension deal that took place just two years ago. No one involved is going to want to have someone ask who decided, and on what basis, that allowing teachers to collect pensions at 62 instead of 55 is more important than whatever is being cut. They’re counting on the suckers and the shills to find someone else to point at.

    We have our own equivalents of Fox News.

  • vnm

    Michael’s piece also appeared on HuffPo this morning.

  • Does it make sense to cut the 60% of yellow bus funding that doesn’t serve special needs kids? That would save more than enough to give the MTA what they need for free student transit, right?

  • The subsidization of Suburbia surrounding NYC and the single detached housing in NYC is at the core of the gov’t budget issues on multiple fronts. Until the urban core’s elected officials recognize this and fight it, all of this will continue.

  • These school buses are much more dangerous and cause a lot more pollution.

    On any given school day, early morning at about 5-6 AM the air is extremely difficult on Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231.

  • Excellent point, Gecko. School buses seem to be exempt from the emissions testing that other, less politically-connected vehicles have to undergo.

  • John

    I plan to read this speech at the MTA Board Meeting when they vote on whether or not to keep the Student MetroCards:

    Children need to at least have the chance to go to school and receive an education. Cutting the student MetroCards takes away options for many students who live far from school and cuts down on the chance for us to go to a school that offers a program that we like, or is simply better than the school near us. This plan will drastically cut down on the productivity of the next generation of New Yorkers.
    The MTA’s proposal will not raise as much money as they project because:
    a) We will walk (causing us to either wake up early or show up late to class)
    b) We won’t pay, which will case delays if the driver forces us off of the bus
    c) We will be driven (most of us, including myself don’t have that option, but the families that are fortunate enough to have a car available may use it, causing additional unnecessary traffic around schools)
    d) We won’t show up causing an huge increase in the crime rate from children who would otherwise be in school.
    I go to my zoned high school, which takes me over a half hour to walk to (I currently receive a student MetroCard, but there were times when I have missed the bus, etc), and I would imagine would be unbearable in the ice and snow. Back in February, there was a day when schools were open, but as it had snowed the previous day, many children couldn’t make it to school. It was my Student MetroCard that allowed me to go to school on that day. There were about 10-15 kids in all of my classes. If our MetroCards were taken away, that number would drop down to 5-10 students.
    I calculated the cost for an average school year and the total comes to about $700 per year per student. Public school is supposed to be free and open to all children, regardless of whether or not they could afford the cost of a MetroCard. I passed the test for the Specialized High Schools in NYC and had a score high enough to attend any of the schools. However, because they were far from home, I declined because I didn’t want to face a long commute every day, and went to my zoned school, Port Richmond High School.
    If my Student MetroCard were to be cut, I wouldn’t be able to go to any of the Specialized High Schools, even if I were willing to put up with the long commute. Getting to school shouldn’t be a hinderance to receiving a good reputation.
    I understand that the MTA is falling on hard financial times, and that the city and state haven’t been paying their fair share (they paid only $70 million of the $214 million in lost fares as a result of the Student MetroCard program, leaving the MTA with the other $144 million in lost fares). I’m asking you to go after them, asking for the extra money. I encourage you to use this testimony to encourage city and state leaders to put more money towards the program.
    However, in the event that the city and state can’t pay, consider this: all of the agencies in the city work together to keep this city healthy. Many of these agencies operate with a net loss. The MTA comes out in the red at the end of the day. However, they have moved over 7 million people on their buses and subways. The NYC Department of Education comes out in the red. However, they have educated 1.1 million students, keeping many of them off of the streets, causing trouble.
    In a perfect world, all agencies would cover their own costs. The Department of Education would pay the MTA the full cost of the Student MetroCards, and everybody would be happy. However, since all of the agencies working together keep this city strong, sometimes it is necessary for one agency to step in and help with another agency’s expenses.
    Picture this: If it costs the MTA $214 million to fund the program, and the city and state together pay $70 million, that means that it is $144 million that the MTA has in lost fares. If the Student MetroCards were cut, how much of that $144 million would the MTA actually get, between kids who transfer schools, kids who farebeat, kids who walk to school, kids who drive/carpool, and kids who cut/dropout of school? I would say that at least half of the $214 million would be lost. Now $107 million – $70 million is $37 million.
    For $37 million, you have kids dropping out, living on welfare because they can’t afford to go to school, kids cutting school, hanging out on the street, and causing crime to go up, extra congestion around schools as a result of parents who have several kids in a school driving them to school (this would be a minority of parents as very few, including myself, have the option of being driven), overcrowded schools in certain neighborhoods from the influx of students transferring back to schools in their neighborhood, and an increase in the number of domestic disputes with kids fighting their parents over money for a MetroCard (in this case, the cost could be measured in lives).
    Now, would it be nice of the DOE or the city prevented all of these problems by giving the MTA the extra money? Yes. But if those problems could be avoided for $37 million, which is dwarfed by the massive $383 million budget gap (less than 10%), then the MTA has to step in, for the sake of the city.
    Also, how much extra does it cost to have the students on the buses and subways? Except for the ”special” buses, where the MTA pays the drivers, there is no extra cost for the MTA carrying the extra passengers. As far as the subway goes, the extra cost truly is close to $0, as the trains are already running and have a lot of additional capacity (a train can easily carry 1,400 passengers). As far as the buses go, since the number of buses is based on demand, there is some extra cost in carrying the students. However, this can be reduced by purchasing articulated buses for routes that have a lot of students during peak hours, and shifting them to other lines during off-peak hours. I know that routes such as the S46/S96, which serve Port Richmond High School can often be crowded with
    students mixing in with commuters to the Staten Island Ferry. The additional operating cost of running an articulated bus as opposed to a regular bus isn’t that much.
    The point that I am trying to make is that the Student MetroCard is a necessity for our city. Try to find the extra money for the program in one way or another. Cut down on the number of school ‘’specials’’. I wouldn’t mind being packed into a bus as long as I have my MetroCard. Try offering more space for advertising. Do whatever you must to raise the funds, but don’t cut our Student MetroCards and don’t bill the children of NYC.

  • John, who are your State Senator and Assemblymember? Did they vote to take $118 million from the MTA? Have you read a similar statement to their staff?

  • John

    They are Andrew Lanza and Michael Cusick. I don’t know what they voted for, but I only read a shorter version of this speech to the MTA board at the public hearing for Staten Island on March 2nd.

  • dpsister

    As we live “too close” (15 blocks away) to my sister’s school, she does not get a full fare metrocard, she gets a half fare. The half-fare metrocard can only be used on buses, so she walks 4 blocks to the bus, and takes the bus (+$2.25) for 15 blocks, and then walks back five blocks to her school, with her book bag and her track bag. After school she goes to track practice, which during outdoor training is in Prospect Park, so she has to take another bus (+$2.25), after walking 4 blocks, and then after track practice, she takes another bus home (+2.25), resulting with her paying a total of $6.75 extra everyday!! By the time she reaches home, she has barely any energy to do her homework, and then she goes to sleep!! If they continue with the logic of the half-fare, then, won’t the people from the further regions be getting double fare or something then??? 

  • Andrew

    Half fare is $1.10, not $2.25. Your sister pays $3.30 for three bus rides – an absolute bargain.

    if she’s too tired to do her homework, I’d suggest that her track practice probably has more to do with that than having to walk 13 blocks to and from various buses.


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