Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Metro Card Debacle: How the breakdown of public transit hurts working families and our planet

Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer stood in front of the MTA board on Wednesday, December 16th, as it prepared to vote on a “doomsday budget” to fix a $400 million deficit. The cuts will eliminate the W and Z lines along with two dozen bus routes, mostly in the outer boroughs.

Service will be scaled back on off peek hours and weekends, meaning longer waits and more crowded trains. Most contentiously of all – free and reduced fare Metro Cards for school children, seniors, and people with disabilities.

“The fact that you would jeopardize free Metro Cards for children to go to school, and put their parents in harm’s way,” he said, “is something so inexcusable, I had to come here today and tell you, just stop,”

The panel voted unanimously to cut service. The draconian cut backs were blamed on the recession, lost revenue from capitol expenditures and Albany’s refusal to bail them out.

They were also quick to blame a recent arbitration between the agency and the Transit Workers Union.

In the past eight years the subway fare his risen twice. With each increase, service only got worse. This new round of cuts is different, though.

Though the fare itself will not increase, the fact that people who historically have had reduced fare or free transit are losing it at the very moment where they are hurting most. Working families are facing an extra $2,000 per child per year in transportation costs just to go to school.

"Those Metro Cards not only pay to go back and forth to school,” said councilwoman Gail Brewer addressing protestors against the new budget, “but they pay for the tutoring, they pay for the karate, they pay for the soccer. They actually enhance that students' education," When a majority of public school children in the city qualify for free lunch programs, its unthinkable that they should be forced to pay for their way to and from school.

At the meeting, city councilman Charles Barron asked the board about the kids who can’t afford the costs of getting to school without student cards. “What do you want them to do? Jump the turnstiles and turn them into criminals?”

The breakdown of public transportation in New York isn’t just a social justice issue, it’s a climate issue.

On the MTA’s website, the agency boasts that “the energy consumption and CO2 output of New Yorkers is approximately a quarter of the national average. By improving, and expanding these efficiencies, the MTA can serve as a national model and regional platform for sustainable growth in the 21st century.” If they cut service and access that means more New Yorkers will be forced to use cars, meaning more emissions and a larger carbon footprint.

It’s ironic that while the agency voted to reduce service and limit access to public transit, across the Atlantic world leaders are debating a climate change treaty in Copenhagen. The outlook of the talks are just as grim as the MTA’s future. December was a bad month for climate justice.

The cuts in student Metro Cards will be incremental. The value of student cards will be halved in 2010 and all together phased out in 2011. Observers suggest that this is to buy time for Albany or the federal government to throw out a lifeline. “This is the start of a process, not the end of the process,” said MTA chairman Jay Wilder.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggested the federal government may step in, “we're willing to work with the State of New York,” he said in an interview on NY1, “with the governor, with the mayor and others, the Legislature to make sure that New York has a first-rate transit system and transportation system

Right now, little is certain, but what we do know is that the days of New York’s first class mass transit system seem to be ending.

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