A passenger waits for the 6 train at the 138th/3rd Ave. station.

The program, which could offer 50% reduction for those who qualify, failed to reach all those eligible

More than 270,000 New York City residents have registered for the MTA’s ‘Fair Fares’ program that offers 50% off regular Metrocard fares.  While it’s a number that transit advocates celebrate, they are calling for expanding eligibility requirements so more low income city residents can qualify.

“To expand enrollment, we need to expand eligibility,” says Danny Pearlstein, communications director of the Riders Alliance.

Eligibility in the program is currently based on the federal definition of poverty. But that definition reflects living costs across the country, and a family living at the poverty line in Mississippi may be much better off than a family making the same amount in New York City.

The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity tracks both the federal poverty measurement and one calculated by the city, known as the NYCgov poverty measure, in a yearly report.  In 2019, the federal measurement place the poverty level for a family of four at $25,926, while the poverty line calculated by the city for a family of four was $36,262. Housing costs make up a large portion of the difference, according to the report.

“Maybe [Fair Fares] should be free,” says Pearlstein.

Other transit advocacy groups are pushing for different eligibility requirements. “We need to increase the poverty threshold to 200%,” says Emerita Torres, vice president of policy at the Community Service Society.

Whatever the eligibility requirements, most advocates agree that this program is vital, especially as the number of people taking public transit inches closer to pre-pandemic levels.

As described on the program’s website, Fair Fares covers public transportation on the city’s subway, buses and Access-A-Ride paratransit trips. It applies to residents receiving cash assistance or SNAP benefits from the city, and are employed.

The Bronx is the borough with the highest need for the program. Though it has the fourth highest population of all five boroughs, The Bronx has the highest number of families living in poverty. According to the latest census data taken in July 2021, 24% of Bronx residents live below the federal poverty level, with Black and Hispanic people making up the majority of that percentage.

About 60% percent of Bronx residents have reported that they rely on public transit as their main means of travel, according to this 2020 MTA report.

Earlier this year, the City Council boosted funding for Fair Fares from $53 million to $75 million after several Bronx lawmakers and CSS pushed to expand the program. But action to make more individuals eligible by changing the income eligibility standards has not yet been taken.

Residents who wish to enroll for the program can do so by creating an account by accessing this link: nyc.gov/accessfairfares.

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