MTA to save the ‘spirit’ of New York by cracking down on fare evasion

This is what the MTA is currently facing: Weekday subway ridership stagnating at around 3 million people a day, a little more than half of what is was before the pandemic; the most felony assaults in the subway system between January to March since the NYPD began keeping records in 1997; and a $2 billion operating deficit when federal funds run out in 2025.

This is what the MTA announced Tuesday: It’s creating a blue ribbon panel to examine ways to reduce fare and toll evasion, which MTA Chairman Janno Lieber said is now causing a $500 million shortfall.

By state law, the MTA must have a balanced budget every year. The 2022 budget assumes the MTA will bring in $18.5 billion and spend $18.5 billion, with half of that money coming from fares and tolls. A $500 million shortfall would account for 2.7% of the annual budget.

But Lieber said fare evasion is about more than the money.

“Pervasive fare evasion is a threat to the spirit that makes New York not just a great city, but a great community,” Lieber said Tuesday, addressing a group of business and civic leaders at a breakfast meeting. “The transit system is our most important public space. It may not remind you of a church, a mosque or a synagogue, but I kinda think the transit system is a sacred space.”

So, in an effort to protect that space, Lieber announced the creation of a blue-ribbon panel — called “Fareness” — to come up with suggestions to reduce fare evasion using education and design, and finding ways to ticket people that won’t result in a criminal charge.

“I’m especially not interested in targeting kids who need a second chance, kids make mistakes,” Lieber said. “I grew up in New  York in the 70s, there were a lot of us kids who made mistakes.”

To that end, the panel will include New York City Schools Chancellor David C. Banks, who was once a school safety officer, as well as the president and CEO of the Community Service Society David Jones. Jones, an MTA board member, has criticized previous MTA and NYPD efforts at cracking down on fare evasion in the past for targeting Black and brown New Yorkers. 

Other panel members include the vice president and general counsel of Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Michael Hardy; Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, chief operating officer of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy & Research at NYU; former NYPD deputy commissioner Zach Tumin; and Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation.

The MTA reports that one out of three bus riders doesn’t pay the fare, and that 12% of people taking the subway don’t pay. In 2018, the agency reported that 16.3% of bus riders didn’t pay and 3.4% of subway riders skipped fares, resulting in an annual loss of $225 million from non-paying subway and bus riders.

“MTA leaders should be focused on running the best service possible on our subways and buses,” Danny Pearlstein, policy and Communications Director with the advocacy group Riders Alliance, wrote in a statement, questioning the formation of the panel. “Governor Hochul needs to provide them the resources to compete with the world’s premier transit systems.” 

Lieber said the panel would look at ways to create a fare-gate system that isn’t as “porous” as the current system in which riders can easily come in and out through the emergency exit. He also wants to see if there’s a way to have a non-police entity issue tickets for fare evasion, the way the city issues parking violations. 

The Fair Fares program will also be reexamined as part of the panel’s duties. Only about 200,000 out of a likely eligible 800,000 people are participating in the half-price MetroCard program, which is funded and administered by the city.

The panel is expected to issue a report by the fall.

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