December 15, 2004

Little Outcry as M.T.A. Prepares to Raise Fares
The New York Times
By Sewell Chan and Andy Newman

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The last two times the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to raise fares, in 1995 and 2003, it faced denunciations from angry commuters and lawsuits from riders' groups.

But as the board prepares to vote tomorrow on another increase in fares for subways, buses and commuter railroads, it faces only scattered resistance and subdued emotions. The fare increases are widely expected to pass.

"Most people feel the same way I do - that there's nothing to be done," said Edwin Evans, 34, a video store worker who lives in Harlem. "No one is talking about it, but it's affecting us all."

There are several possible explanations for the muted reaction. On the subways and local buses, the proposed increase applies only to unlimited-ride MetroCards, making its effect harder for riders to measure than last year's increase, which raised the base fare to $2 from $1.50.

There is still some fatigue among riders' advocates from the fare struggle last year. And with the authority facing a well-publicized multibillion-dollar deficit, few people seem to think there is an alternative.

The increases, to be phased in beginning in January, are projected to raise $234 million next year. Under the proposal, the price of a 7-day MetroCard would rise to $24 from $21, and that of a 30-day card to $76 from $70. Fares on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad would rise about 5 percent and express bus fares would go to $5 from $4. Most bridge and tunnel tolls would increase by 25 or 50 cents.

The loudest critics of the increase have been elected officials. These include Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is running for re-election next year and whose four appointees to the board voted against the fare increase at yesterday's meeting of the transit committee of the authority.

The mayor's appointees have only those four of the 14 votes on the board, and riders' advocates have complained that the mayor in particular has not taken more action than he has to prevent the increase.

Neysa C. Pranger, an organizer for the Straphangers Campaign, a rider organization that opposes the fare increase but favors restoration of state and city transit subsidies to previous levels, called the nay votes "an empty political gesture if it's not backed up with a real conversation with the governor with real ideas and real plans."

Mr. Bloomberg has conceded that he has yet to even speak to Gov. George E. Pataki, the elected official with the most power over the authority, about the proposed increase. Nor has Mr. Bloomberg offered to restore any of the hundreds of millions in city subsidies to the authority that were withdrawn under the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations.

Yesterday a protest outside the governor's Midtown office drew support from several mayoral hopefuls including Gifford Miller, the City Council speaker, and Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn.

"We aren't paying a higher fare. I don't care what the M.T.A. does," Mr. Barron shouted over a chorus of approving honks from bus drivers heading up Third Avenue just behind him. "A fare hike is a tax on the poor, and we are not accepting it."

The protest drew about 125 people, most of them from the coalition of rider advocates and union workers who are trying to stop the increase. Mr. Pataki had no official reaction to the protest, but he said earlier yesterday that while he opposed fare increases, he was not going to tell his appointees to vote against them.

The coalition has distributed more than 60,000 leaflets asking riders to call Mr. Pataki's office and has collected 1,500 signatures on an online petition.

But even the most fervent opponents of the fare raise concede that it is all but certain. "We don't have any illusions that we'll meet with success," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an group representing riders, bicyclists and pedestrians that is part of the coalition.

One observer of transit politics, Robert E. Paaswell, said many people were "just sort of worn out" from the last fare fight.

"They've come to expect that not only the M.T.A., but government in general, is just not going to respond to civic needs," said Professor Paaswell, a civil engineer who directs the Urban Transportation Research Center at City College of New York.

More than a dozen riders interviewed this week were either only vaguely aware of the imminent fare increase or resigned to it.

Steve Joblin, 53, a construction worker who takes the Long Island Rail Road daily from his home in New Hyde Park, said his neighbors and co-workers viewed the board's decision as a certainty. "It's not a topic of conversation anymore," he said. "We just assume they are going to do it."

Raising the price of unlimited-use fare cards, which are used by only about half of subway and bus riders, makes the economic effects on city residents harder to discern, said Steven M. Polan, who was the transportation authority's general counsel from 1984 until 1990, when the MetroCard was being planned.

"Part of the conscious strategy of that whole program - as a collateral benefit, not the primary benefit - was to get the focus away from the price of a single ride," Mr. Polan said.

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