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Un-Fare: Council Members Demand More Funding for Fair Fares

A majority of the City Council is demanding that the Adams administration add funding to the Fair Fares program so that more people below the federal poverty limit can qualify.

4:05 PM EDT on June 27, 2023

Graphic: Streetsblog Photoshop Desk

The pressure is building on Mayor Adams to help poor transit users.

Late on Monday, a majority of the City Council sent a letter to City Hall demanding that the Adams administration add funding to the Fair Fares program to not only ensure that it reach all the currently eligible low-income New Yorkers, but also be expanded so that people further below the federal poverty limit can qualify for half-priced transit rides.

"It is time that we raise eligibility for Fair Fares to 200 percent of the federal poverty line ... to accommodate families earning up to $60,000 annually (for a family of four). We have a moral responsibility to make this essential program available to hundreds of thousands of low-income working families who badly need the savings," Council Member Carmen De La Rosa (D-Upper Manhattan) wrote in the letter, which was co-signed by 28 colleagues (see the bottom of this post).

De la Rosa estimated that expanding Fair Fares from 100 percent of the federal poverty line to 200 percent below, which would at least accommodate families of four earning up to $60,000 annually.

Currently, Fair Fares offers the reduced transit to people only at or below the federal poverty line, which for this year is just $14,580 a year for a single person — less than half the city minimum wage.

De La Rosa alluded to the low threshold in her letter.

"We have a moral responsibility to make this essential program available to hundreds of thousands of low-income working families who badly need the savings," she said.

She acknowledged that Fair Fares has never exhausted the existing funding, but she attributed that to the fact that "such a low eligibility threshold limits utilization."

"Even half of the fare is often too much to bear for families earning significantly less than $30,000 each year," she wrote.

The issue is coming to a head because the Council and the mayor are in the midst of budget negotiations. The mayor's preliminary budget earlier this year did not add any funding for Fair Fares, keeping it at the $75 million, the same amount as the mayor and the City Council agreed to last year. That amount is far below pre-pandemic levels.

In its response to the mayor's $103-billion budget proposal [PDF], the Council demanded a near-doubling of Fair Fares funding, estimating its cost at $61.5 million, which would raise the total reduced fair program's budget to $136.5 million and reach far more than the current 280,000 people.

Inflation has eaten into the already limited buying power of the city's lowest-income residents — even as the fair is about to be hiked to $2.90. That's only 15 cents above the current fair, but a significant amount to people making below federal poverty minimums.

"Unlike office workers, many with much higher salaries, they do not have the option to work from home and must commute," the letter reads. "With a fare hike on the horizon, the transit affordability problem is growing dire for a vast share of riders."

Riders Alliance spokesman Danny Pearlstein said the "news" of De La Rosa's letter was its timing.

"In the final hours of budget negotiations, when everyone is focusing on how deep the mayor wants to cut [the budget], 29 Council members, led by Carmen De La Rosa, are demanding the expansion of Fair Fares, a proven program that has yet to reach its full potential because of a harshly restrictive eligibility threshold."

We reached out to City Hall for a statement:

“Mayor Adams is always mindful of the financial burden fares have on riders, which is why we baselined the fair fares program to a higher amount than what New York City has ever spent and are actively working on more outreach and increasing enrollment," said a spokesperson for City Hall, who declined to be identified. "We want as many New Yorkers as possible to take advantage of Fair Fares and – well before this letter was sent – have been working with City Council to evaluate if adjustments, like expanded eligibility, can be made through the budget process.”

Riders Alliance will rally to expand Fair Fares at the City Hall R train station at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 28. Here is De La Rosa's letter:

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