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EXCLUSIVE: OMNY Debuts on Fair Fares After Delays

The long-awaited Fair Fares expansion will launch as a three-month pilot for a few dozen riders.

Marc A. Hermann/MTA|

The MTA’s new fare payment system still excludes huge swaths of riders.

New Yorkers who participate in the city's half-priced transit program Fair Fares will finally be able to use OMNY, the MTA's tap-and-go payment system — starting with a 90-day pilot for 50 riders, city and MTA officials said.

Expanding the next generation payment system help will curb fare evasion and get the agency a step closer to allowing all-door boarding on its buses, officials told Streetsblog.

"We’re happy to embark on this 90-day pilot with these 50 participants to see what we can learn in an effort to roll this out more broadly so everyone can benefit from the simple tapping and riding that everyday customers are accustomed to right now," the MTA Chief Customer Officer Shanifah Rieara said in an exclusive interview with Streetsblog on Tuesday.

Fair Fares — run by the city's Department of Social Services — provides working-age New Yorkers who earn up to 120 percent of the federal poverty line 50 percent discounted MetroCards for subway, bus, and Access-A-Ride trips.

Officials had planned to integrate the program OMNY last year, but wanted to ensure there were enough vending machines for the new tap-payment cards in the system, they said.

Most OMNY uses pay with bank cards or smart devices linked to a bank accounts, but Fair Fares users largely don't have contactless cards. The MTA began deploying silver vending machines for OMNY cards last fall, and has since activated 39 kiosks at 25 stations, according to officials.

"Most of the participants are people who already participate in the cash assistance and SNAP programs, they have EBT cards. Those don’t have contactless capability," DSS First Deputy Commissioner Jill Berry said. "Since we know that most people are refilling their Fair Fares MetroCards in the vending machines, one of the biggest pieces that we needed to sync up with the MTA on is rolling out OMNY as those vending machines are being launched into the system."

The MTA and city hope to expand the pilot to all Fair Fares participants by the end of the year, New York City Transit President Richard Davey said.

Fare Fares joining OMNY will help close existing gaps in the service's coverage. About 800,000 New Yorkers are eligible for the program, though currently enrollment sits at just 331,000, according the latest figures on its website.

While riders used OMNY for 70 percent of regular fare subway trips, which make up 65 percent of total trips, usage is lower among bus riders. Key constituencies, such as kids commuting to school and riders who used pre-taxed fare cards, are also still excluded from the program. Only 45 percent of bus trips are full-fare trips; of those, riders paid for 56 percent with OMNY in 2023, according to MTA figures. Fair Fares trips make up just over five percent of bus riders, according to the MTA's previous analysis of OMNY trips.

Grade school students could get OMNY as soon as this fall too, said Davey, who hopes their inclusion will address the large number of pupils who don’t swipe into the system when they ride.

“Fare evasion is its highest right after school gets out around three o’clock,” Davey said. “One of our hypotheses is actually fares aren’t being evaded, students aren’t swiping.”

The MTA's Reduced Fare program, which provides half fares for people over 65-years-old or who have a disability, has been available on OMNY for smart devices since 2022, but is not yet available for OMNY cards. Reduced Fare MetroCard holders make up another 10.5 percent of total monthly bus trips.

Mayor Adams and the City Council last year increased the threshold from 100 percent of the federal poverty level to 120 percent, but advocates and politicians at the state and city level have called on the mayor to raise the bar to double the poverty line. Doing so would bring the program in line with other low income transit benefits around the country.

Riders who make minimum wage or slightly above are ineligible for Fair Fares, but still struggle to afford commuting costs, according to a recent report from the Community Service Society.

MTA already selected the 50 participants for the MTA's initial Fair Fares OMNY pilot. The group participated in an in-person orientation in March.

Can OMNY help rein in bus fare evasion?

Bus fare evasion eats into the MTA's budget, according to transit officials.

Paid ridership on the subway, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North have all come in around the mid-point of the revenue and ridership projections that McKinsey and Co. conducted for the agency two years ago. But paid bus ridership is down almost 20 percent from the expected ridership, even as total bus ridership has rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels.

Paid bus ridership has detached itself from projections over the past 15 months.Graphic: MTA

The reduced amount of paid ridership on the bus means that bus revenue has come in $29 million under what the MTA expected for the first quarter of 2024, which the agency has mostly attributed to fare evasion. In contrast, the MTA says it's only down about $7 million from its expected revenue on the subway. The MTA included $100 million in its budget to deal with potential shortfalls in ridership, but the shortfall on the bus has eaten up over a quarter of that backstop by itself, according to officials.

MTA Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber admitted in December that the agency ability to tackle bus fare evasion — which accounts to over one-third of trips — depended on the expansion of the tap-and-go system to enable effective fare enforcement on buses.

"The quicker we can get the OMNY system in place, I believe that we're going to have more ability to do European-style checking where you send somebody out on a bus and check everybody for proof of payment," Lieber said at a Dec. 13 event hosted by the Citizens Budget Commission. He echoed that point on Tuesday.

"One of the big milestones that we're pushing towards is the specialty fares," Lieber told reporters at a press conference following the agency's April board meeting. "It's getting kids who ride buses disproportionately to school on to OMNY and off of the wacky system of many different types of MetroCards. It's getting reduced fare customers on to OMNY. It's getting the benefits providers to accept OMNY [and] stop sending people monthly MetroCards."

"I believe that, when we get there, that the usage of OMNY on buses is going to significantly increase. Bus fare evasion is a real challenge that we are we are struggling with, it is a significant threat to the economics of of the MTA."

Community Service Society CEO and MTA Board member David Jones — a critic of the agency's focus on fare evasion as a crime fighting tool on the subway — welcomed half-price subway fares finally coming to OMNY. Jones agreed with Lieber that fare enforcement on buses could be more effective and once all riders are able to use OMNY.

"It's a good idea, I fully support it," said David Jones, a city appointee to the MTA Board and the president and CEO of the Community Service Society.

"I think this notion of using armed or extraordinarily expensive police personnel to do this work is a waste. [Have] somebody able to check people's tickets, and looking at their OMNY readers, and then asking them to pay the fare. And if they don't, calling in assistance if necessary, or providing a summons. The bus driver can focus on driving and the individual with the reader can focus on fare collection."

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