Good morning. It’s Monday. We’ll look at what’s behind a plan to raise bus and subway fares twice by 2025. We’ll also see why a project to expand and repair 8.1 miles of the New Jersey Turnpike will cost more than $1 billion a mile.
Credit…Yuvraj Khanna for The New York Times
Prices are rising, and not just in stores. Tolls at the bridges and tunnels run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will jump $1 on Jan. 8, to $14.75 during peak hours and $12.75 at other times. Con Edison is seeking an 11.2 percent rate increase for electricity and 18.2 percent for natural gas. And the state-run agency that operates the transit system is considering raising the base fare on subways and buses twice by 2025 as a way of heading off a budget disaster.
I asked Ana Ley, who covers transit in New York, to explain the transit situation.
How much is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority looking to raise fares, and why?
The base fare for a subway or bus ride could rise from $2.75 to $2.90 next year, and then to $3.02 in 2025.
The M.T.A. has typically raised fares by about 4 percent every two years to keep up with inflation, but it put off a planned round in 2021 because it didn’t want to drive even more riders away during the pandemic.
At the time, it had received $14 billion in federal coronavirus aid to help prop up its budget (which is in really bad shape), but that money is going to run out in the next few years. The M.T.A. depends on fare revenue more than most other mass transit systems in the country, and it badly needs more money from riders. It would be the first time the base fare has gone up since 2015, although the M.T.A. raised the price of unlimited weekly and monthly MetroCards in 2019, shortly before the pandemic.
The M.T.A. board would have to hold public hearings before approving any price increases, and it is possible the authority could get another bailout. But for now, transit leaders don’t have many options other than raising costs for riders. They could also lay off workers and cut service, but they really don’t want to do that.
Wait — $3.02 in 2025? I’m guessing that most people now pay with a credit card. What if you leave home without it? Does charging $3.02 mean they won’t take cash at the token booths?
You can still use cash at MetroCard vending machines, and the $3.02 could be rounded down or up to make it easier for riders to carry cash to pay it.
But the yellow-and-blue floppy cards are being phased out as the M.T.A. switches to OMNY, which is a “tap-and-go” payment system in which riders can tap a credit card or smartphone on an electronic reader while crossing the turnstile.
But these increases won’t be enough to put the M.T.A. in the black, will they? What would it take to wipe out the M.T.A.’s deficit?
Even with the proposed fare hikes, the M.T.A. is still looking at a $600 million deficit next year.
It is asking the city, state or federal government — or some combination of the three — to cover that budget gap. The M.T.A. is a state agency, so the authority and rider advocacy groups are putting the most pressure on Gov. Kathy Hochul to stave off the fiscal deficit and prevent fare hikes again.
How will a higher fare go over with riders?
A lot of riders are unhappy with subway service: A customer survey conducted by the authority this past spring showed more than half were unsatisfied with it. Others are not riding transit at all, with weekday passenger levels remaining stubbornly low at just over 60 percent of prepandemic levels. A lot of people have stayed away because of continuing fears over the coronavirus and a shift to remote work, and many have reported being afraid for their safety after a series of high-profile attacks on platforms and trains.
Fare hikes could also pose a hardship for people who rely most heavily on the system these days, who are low-wage workers, tend to have longer commutes and have no choice but to travel to their jobs.
Is the M.T.A. in danger of going into a transit death spiral? What is that, anyway?
This is a perennial fear for the M.T.A. and many transit experts in the city. The general idea is that if the M.T.A. makes any changes that make the subway less enticing — like service cuts or fare hikes — then the system could plunge into a so-called transit death spiral because fewer people would ride, which would mean less fare revenue for the system, which would mean even more changes that would make the system even less enticing.
The authority got a glimpse of that scenario in 2010, when officials cut their way out of a fiscal crisis touched off by the Great Recession, making the system less convenient for 15 percent of riders and driving some away entirely.
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A $1 billion-a-mile fix for the New Jersey Turnpike
The projected cost of a plan to widen 8.1 miles of the New Jersey Turnpike stood at $4.7 billion — until last month. Then the New Jersey Turnpike Authority disclosed, deep in a budget summary, that the estimate had climbed more than 125 percent, to $10.7 billion.
That works out to more than $1 billion for each traffic-choked mile from Newark Liberty International Airport through Jersey City toward Lower Manhattan.
It’s an essential artery for trucks carrying products to and from nearby ports and warehouses that have boomed in the pandemic economy. The project would add as many as four new lanes and cover repairs to a largely elevated highway built so long ago that if it were a person, it would be eligible for Social Security.
Critics say that widening the turnpike will invite additional traffic, which will mean longer backups and will send more drivers hunting for shortcuts on local roads in Jersey City, where poor air quality and poverty already figure in the city’s designation as a community overburdened by environmental stresses.
The person with clear power to stop or alter the turnpike project, Gov. Philip Murphy of New Jersey, says “it is quite ambitious and it’s needed.” Murphy has angered environmentalists because when he first ran for office in 2018, he promised to fix the state’s mass-transit system and to combat climate change. He has said he is confident that in the 15 years the widening is expected to take, electric vehicles will become more common, potentially reducing emissions from vehicles powered by fossil fuels.
Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City, who opposes the turnpike project, wants a substantive environmental impact study. “It’s a very, very complicated project that seems more relevant to 1970s urban planning than 2022,” he said.
It was 1986. I was a novice New Yorker and determined not to show it. On my first subway ride to work, I nonchalantly stashed my brand-new briefcase under the seat and pretended to read the newspaper, folding it in fourths like real New Yorkers do.
Of course, I left the briefcase under the seat. In a panic after realizing what I had done, I explained the situation to a token booth attendant.
Then I told a transit officer standing nearby.
He shrugged, too.
Despondent and embarrassed, I walked to work, where a message was waiting for me from someone at another company.
“We have your briefcase,” the message said. “Come get it. We won’t hold it forever.”
When I got to the receptionist’s desk there, I began to thank her and whoever had noticed me leaving the briefcase behind.
She cut me off.
“First,” she said, “it wasn’t me. Second, I’m very busy. Third, be more careful next time.”
— Dick Schwartz
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Melissa Guerrero, Morgan Malget and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team email@example.com.