Advocates: MTA Using Money It Doesn’t Have to Hire Cops It Doesn’t Need

Fare evasion enforcement is a sideshow to what should be the main MTA event: Better service.
Fare evasion enforcement is a sideshow to what should be the main MTA event: Better service.

The MTA has to focus on actually providing reliable transit to riders instead of sinking more money into a police hiring spree that will disproportionately affect low-income riders and riders of color, transit advocates told Streetsblog on Monday.

In June, Gov. Cuomo announced that an additional 500 police officers, drawn from the NYPD, the MTA Police and TBTA police , would be assigned to patrol the subways and buses in order to respond to an increase in assaults on transit employees and to deter fare evasion. That anti-fare evasion effort will be bankrolled in part by $40 million from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. The MTA then announced in September that it would hire 500 new MTA police as part of its focus on quality of life crimes.

But it’s a wrong priority, experts say.

“It’s the MTA’s fiduciary responsibility to have a transit system that’s best-serving riders and you can’t possibly do that when you’re not spending on core transit service,” Rachael Fauss, a senior analyst at Reinvent Albany said.

The decision to hire additional police was made as service cuts appear to be on the table, leading to the incongruous idea that the MTA doesn’t have the money to effectively run trains and buses, but somehow can hire police officers, who will cost an additional $260 million over the life of the 2020-2023 fiscal plan, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. That additional spending would push the projected MTA operating deficit to just a hair under $1 billion.

Activists and elected officials have also slammed the proposal because it can’t even do the job it’s supposed to do.

The MTA has suggested that fare evasion is an enormous problem that will cost the agency $300 million by the end of the year. However, a 2018 report on fare evasion found that the rate of turnstile jumping wasn’t significantly higher than comparable systems around the world. Additionally, the MTA’s fare evasion data are unreliable, according to the agency’s Inspector General.

“When you’re talking about how much they’re losing, that’s their own number, which the IG has not said is credible and you’re assuming that all that is cost is recoverable,” Fauss said. Beyond that, she added, the math justifying hiring the additional cops doesn’t work.

The governor and the MTA “have to show that the cost of one officer being stationed is going to recoup that police officer’s salary, and they can’t,” she said.

Assaults on transit workers rose from 61 to 85 — a 39-percent increase — between August, 2018 and August, 2019, but overall subway crime has remained flat this year, which outgoing NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill was quick to remind the governor recently.

The current arguments over fare evasion in the city’s transit systems were kicked off last year when Larry Schwartz, a Cuomo appointee to the MTA Board, refused to believe that ridership was down because riders were tired of poor “Summer of Hell”-type service. Schwartz’s relentlessness on fare evasion is a sideshow, according to Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance.

“It’s a distortion, a distraction, a red herring to have these board meeting focusing on fare evasion when core levels of service are jeopardized by the MTA’s high levels of debt and growing budget deficit that needs to be plugged,” Pearlstein said.

MTA spokesperson Abbey Collins said that there are no plans to cut service, and insisted that the transit agency had to provide a “safe and secure” space in addition to providing reliable transit.

“The safety and security of all eight million MTA daily riders and employees is priority one. We are focused on increasing the reliability of our system as well as providing a safe and secure environment for everyone. We must do both and that’s what the MTA is focused on achieving.”

Enforcement has historically fallen hardest on New Yorkers of color: almost 90 percent of arrests and 70 percent of summonses for fare-beating in the first three months of 2019 were levied against black and Latino riders, according to NYPD, numbers that are dramatically disproportionate to ridership numbers. In the second quarter of  2019, the trend continued: 87 percent of arrests and 71 percent summonses were to blacks and Latinos.

A pair of high profile and brutal arrests — one in which police pointed their guns at a train full of straphangers at Franklin Avenue before tackling a suspected fare beater who had his hands up in surrender and another in which a police officer punched a teenager in the face during a melee at the Jay Street-MetroTech stop — led to a police brutality protest that featured mass fare evasion this past weekend. In the face of continuing unrest due to the new focus on fare evasion and quality of life as the biggest problems facing the system, Pearlstein urged Cuomo to change course.

“What we know is that riders are frustrated with poor levels of service,” Pearlstein said. “What the governor needs to deliver on is fast, frequent reliable transit service, the core criterion by which riders judge the subway.”

This story has been updated with a comment from the MTA.

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